HL Deb 23 July 1993 vol 548 cc923-42

12.50 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

At last year's Edinburgh Summit, it was agreed that, following the reunification of Germany, the number of seats in the European Parliament which are allocated to the larger member states of the European Community should be increased. The United Kingdom, Italy and France each received an extra six seats. Germany has received an extra 18 seats. Some of the other smaller member states also received extra seats. The Government have decided that the six extra seats, which have been allocated to the United Kingdom, should, in line with our electoral traditions, be single member constituencies, as is provided for in the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978.

Your Lordships have debated the merits of other electoral systems on a number of previous occasions and the Government see no reason to change from the present system, which is well understood by the electorate and which provides close constituency representation. Next year's European parliamentary elections will, therefore, be contested in the traditional manner.

Some of your Lordships may question why the Government are taking no account in the Bill, which is before your Lordships, of the requirement under Article 138(3) of the Treaty of Rome for a uniform electoral procedure to be set up, following unanimous approval in the Council of proposals brought forward from the European Parliament.

The position is that a report, which was prepared by the Institutional Affairs Committee of the European Parliament, of which Mr. de Gucht was the rapporteur, is before the Council. It has not yet been discussed, and we are not aware of any plans to discuss it.

The Government will look at any proposals in a constructive manner, but we do not at present consider that we should change from our present system, which is well known to us and which also happens to be a system towards which some of our European partners are also, in fact, moving.

Clause 1 of the Bill will amend the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978, so that the total number of United Kingdom seats in the European Parliament will be 87 instead of 81. The number in England will be 71 instead of 66; the number in Wales will be five instead of four; the number in Scotland will remain at eight; and, the number in Northern Ireland will remain at three.

The system of election, which is provided for in the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978, will continue to apply. In Great Britain, there will be single-member seats, and elections will be by simple majority.

In Northern Ireland the three seats will be filled from one constituency by the single transferable vote system of proportional representation. That was the system which Parliament chose in 1978 so as best to represent the different communities which exist in Northern Ireland. We do not intend to change that, nor do we intend to change the way in which we choose MEPs in Great Britain.

Five of the six extra seats are given to England and one to Wales. That produces the fairest arithmetical split. The average electorate per seat in Scotland is 11 per cent. lower than it is in England, but the average in Wales is 1 per cent. higher than in England. The effect of the Bill will be that the Welsh average electorate present in Wales will become 13 per cent. lower—instead of 1 per cent. higher—than that of England and that of Scotland will remain at 4 per cent. lower. That gives the fairest split for average electorates, but it still provides slightly higher levels of representation in the smaller parts of the United Kingdom.

There was much debate in another place about the idea of giving an extra seat to Scotland on the basis that some Scottish constituencies, particularly the Highlands and Islands, cover very large areas. That is perfectly true. The Highlands and Islands constituency has about the same area as Belgium. But an increase in the number of Scottish seats would not change that situation. An extra seat would probably have gone to the more densely populated central areas of Scotland, and not to the Highlands and Islands. The distribution of seats in the Bill is on arithmetical grounds and, on that basis, no extra seat for Scotland can be justified.

Clause 2 and the Schedule to the Bill deal with the mechanisms which are to be used for redrawing the constituency boundaries.

The nature of the task of allocating the extra seats in the European Parliament has meant that special European parliamentary constituencies committees for England and Wales will need to be established. Under the Bill, they can be appointed before the Bill is passed. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has appointed them.

Those committees will be strictly impartial and apolitical. They will be required to draw up only the initial constituency boundaries for the 1994 European parliamentary election. They will only carry out that task, and then they will be disbanded. When the parliamentary boundary commissions—as opposed to those temporary committees—have completed their general review of Westminster constituency boundaries, which is likely to heat the end of the next year, the boundary commission will be required to carry out a consequential review of the European constituencies in the usual way.

There are three boundary commissioners in England; three in Scotland; three in Wales; and, three in Northern Ireland. I am glad to be able to tell your Lordships that five of the six existing boundary commissioners for England and Wales have agreed to sit on the committees. The additional member of the English committee will be Mr. Michael Lewer, who has been an assistant commissioner since 1965. The chairman of the committee for England will be Miss Sheila Cameron QC, together with Mr. David Macklin and Mr. Michael Lewer QC as members. The chairman of the committee for Wales will be Mr. Justice Pill, together with Mr. Peter Davey and Mr. Murray McLaggan as members. The membership of the committees is, as your Lordships will see, very similar to that of the boundary commissions.

The intention of the Bill is that the committees will function in a way which is as close as possible to that of the boundary commissions.

The Bill, unlike the existing legislation which governs the redrawing of constituencies, does not require the committees to hold local public inquiries simply because there is not sufficient time. It will not, in fact, be the first time that that has happened. In 1978–79, when there was also a very tight timetable, the Government of the day decided that it was necessary to forgo public inquiries in order that the constituency boundaries could be in place in good time for the election which was held in June 1979. Despite that, the new boundaries were not in place until March. This time we hope to improve on that date and to complete the review by Christmas.

The European parliamentary elections are to be held in June of next year, and it will be necessary to have the new constituency boundaries in place in good time so that the political parties and the electoral administrators can prepare themselves.

If public inquiries were to be required, they would take too long and, as a result, the new boundaries would probably not be decided upon in time for the elections. We could not afford to take that risk as we need to ensure that the seats are in place in time for next year's elections. With the exception of local inquiries, the criteria which the committees will follow will be as close as possible to those of the existing boundary commissions. There will be as much time as possible for open consultation. In order to allow for this, the committees will publish their proposals—I hope in early August—and they will allow several weeks for interested parties to make their representations to them. These will be considered and, where necessary, changes will be made, before the committees issue their final reports.

The criteria which the committees will follow will be the same as those which are laid down in the 1978 European Parliamentary Elections Act. This means that the constituencies will be made up of at least two Westminster constituencies, and no Westminster constituency will be able to be partly in one European constituency and partly in another. Each constituency should be as close as possible to the electoral quota for that part of Great Britain, although special geographical considerations may he taken into account. Once the committees' final reports have been submitted to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, he will be required to lay the reports before Parliament together with the draft of Orders in Council giving effect to their recommendations.

Both your Lordships' House and another place will be given the opportunity of debating the contents of the reports, and the approval of both Houses will be required before the constituencies can be put in place. The Bill, I think, provides a fair distribution of seats and machinery for redrawing the boundaries for these additional seats. The mechanism is as similar as possible to that which has been used in the past. I commend the Bill to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time. —(Earl Ferrers.)

1.2 p.m.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, for his, as always, clear exposition of this Bill. It will come as no secret to him or to the rest of the House that we have grave reservations about it, and indeed my colleagues in another place voted against the Third Reading. We considered the possibility of putting down a reasoned amendment at this stage of the Bill, not surprisingly on the subject of the system of elections to be used, but we decided that it would be better to wait until there were more people around in the overspill period, and to give noble Lords on the Labour Benches time to discuss the outcomes of the Plant Report in relation to the European Elections. However, the House may rest assured that we shall return in the overspill period with appropriate amendments as regards the method of voting.

That brings us to an interesting point; namely, that we are told by the noble Earl that the first draft of the new constituencies that we have been talking about will be out in August before your Lordships' House has had a chance to deal with either Committee, Report or Third Reading of this Bill. My noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich will deal with that matter in more detail later, but it seems something of an offence for a Minister of the Crown to say, "We are really not worried what the Upper House of Parliament says about this. We have started the process; we have appointed the people and they will produce their draft results before the Upper House reaches the Committee stage of the Bill". We will see what happens at the Committee stage. The Government may be disappointed.

The reasons that my colleagues in another place voted against the Third Reading of the Bill were threefold. First, there was no additional seat for Scotland. When one considers that we have a significant number of Members of another place from Scotland, I suppose it is not to be wondered at that they gave that matter some priority. Secondly, they voted against the Third Reading because of the failure to carry out the obligations under the Treaty of Rome as regards a uniform voting system and, thirdly, because the Government have got themselves into a time warp which means they cannot—they say—use the normal boundary commission system to do a proper job.

As we have heard, the Government's proposals give England five seats, Wales one and Scotland nil. Therefore England will have 71 seats, Scotland eight and Wales five. One would have thought that England could have managed with 70 seats and that Scotland could have nine, but obviously the Government do not see it that way. We understand that the size of the electorate is as important in determining the size of Euro-seats, as of Westminster seats. But of course there is a considerable disparity, even as regards Westminster seats in Scotland. It was always a proud boast of mine that on the occasions that I fought elections I obtained more votes than my noble friend Lord Grimond, sitting as he did for Orkney and Shetland with a small electorate. It is possible to vary the size of the electorate to deal with geography.

Questions have been raised in connection with the Highlands and Islands seat. That is a huge seat. One would have thought that some method could have been found—if one were to go down this road of single Member seats—of reducing that size. It runs from a latitude north of the south of Greenland to a latitude south of Berwick-upon-Tweed. If we are talking about Members of the European Parliament having constituents with whom they are in touch, I would have thought that it would take quite a long time for a Member for that area to find his constituents, let alone talk to them. However, we well understand why there is this reluctance to give an extra seat to Scotland. It is, of course, because there are not many Tory votes in Scotland.

Noble Lords

There will be even fewer!

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, yes, there will be even fewer after this week, and perhaps even fewer still after next Thursday. As regards the uniform electoral procedure, again my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich will say more about the systems of voting in Europe. That point always confuses the noble Earl. He has confused us again today by saying that the Europeans are moving towards our system. Presumably he is referring to the recent changes in Italy. Of course they are not moving towards our system: they are moving towards the German system.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, they are moving towards the Plant Committee recommendations to the Labour Party—a regional list.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, I hope that we can argue about that at a later stage because it is not quite as simple as that. But what is true is that they are certainly not moving to a first past the post, single Member constituency.

The de Gucht proposals have been passed overwhelmingly by the European Parliament. There is an obligation on the Council to make progress on that. I have no doubt that the British Government will seek to block that. But of course there is a possibility that the European Parliament will take the Council to the European Court at some stage. The European Liberal Democrat Reformist Group has already taken the Parliament to court. I believe that the score is 15 all at the moment. At least the court on this occasion was prepared to listen to the argument. At a later stage it may well be prepared to listen to the argument from the European Parliament when it is put. I accept that the matter rests with the Council, but it is quite clear that at the moment this country is in breach of the Treaty of Rome. That not only reduces the ability of minority parties in this country to obtain proper representation—something which the Conservative Party may in its turn live to regret as it shortly becomes a minority party—but also distorts the parliament itself in Europe. There is no doubt that at the previous election the majority in the European Parliament was changed by the imbalance of the system in this country.

A further reason that my honourable and right honourable friends in another place voted against a Third Reading was because of the boundary commission farce. The Government complain about urgency but that is entirely of their own making. If the Government had wished to go down this road, they could have started the procedure certainly as early as last December. As they probably had knowledge of the fact that it was going to take place, they could have started the procedure even earlier than that. We shall have a procedure which is totally unsatisfactory. There will be no opportunity for proper consultation or for proper appeals. It is my understanding that the boundary commission proposals are frequently changed on appeal. As much as 70 per cent. of the seats are affected by appeals.

It is an astonishing piece of legislation. It is undemocratic; it is loaded. I would not accuse the noble Earl of being involved in gerrymandering; but if I were in another place, I might accuse some of his right honourable and honourable friends of gerrymandering. However, we do not use that sort of word in this place.

We deeply regret that once again the Government have not taken the opportunity of fulfilling their obligations under the Treaty of Rome. Undoubtedly in this case the six seats should have been used on an additional Member basis—that is the way in which the Germans use them and in which eventually the Italians may use them—in order that there should be proper and fair representation not of the parties but of the electorate of this country. Why should they be deprived by this constant, dogmatic refusal to have a fair electoral system? The Bill is yet another step on that long trail on which the Government are fighting a rearguard action to stop fairness coming into our electoral system.

1.11 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, I rise to support the Government, somewhat unusually. Speaking personally, they have my assurance that I shall do my utmost to ensure its satisfactory establishment in the statute book.

European parliamentary elections now have an importance which was not always accorded them. During the proceedings of the Maastricht Bill—your Lordships will expect that I shall naturally refer to it —much was made of the argument that the satisfactory establishment of the European Parliament and the possible extension of its powers was one way in which the democratic deficit could be tackled. The democratic deficit exists because of the tremendous powers possessed by the European Commission which is not accountable to anyone, and the somewhat diffuse and ambiguous powers that were retained by the Council of Ministers. It was correctly apprehended that one way of curbing those non-accountable powers and many non-accountable acts lay in the hands of the European Parliament. It is therefore of the utmost importance that we should consider how the European Parliament is composed.

I first went to the European Parliament as a delegate from your Lordships' House. That meant that there was a dual mandate. On the one hand, those of us who were chosen from your Lordships to attend the European Parliament had certain responsibilities at Westminster; and at the same time we were given new obligations, admittedly not onerous, but of a certain shade of supervisory character in the European Parliament. I had not been there for more than two years before I became aware that there was a move, in particular by the Dutch, to adopt direct elections to the European Parliament, in terms similar to those that were put forward in Article 137 of the Maastricht Treaty. The article states: The European Parliament, which shall consist of representatives of the peoples of the States brought together in the Community, shall exercise the advisory and supervisory powers which are conferred upon it by this Treaty". Article 138.3 states: The European Parliament shall draw up proposals for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States". I venture to suggest to your Lordships that the last sentence was the identical phraseology that was brought forward in the year 1977. In those days, I was an innocent. I assumed that when direct elections were talked about, it meant direct elections in the way that we have them in the United Kingdom: that the country would be divided up into constituencies; that the constituencies themselves would hold elections within their own boundaries on a given date; that the various party forces would be deployed; that the usual arguments would take place; and that each constituency would elect a member representing it. In the case of the Westminster Parliament, the constituency would he between 60,000 and 70,000. There is a very close identity between the Member and the comparatively small constituency. The disadvantage about having direct elections to the European Parliament and at the same time to have a parliament of a reasonable size was that each Member of the European Parliament would be responsible for between 600,000 and 700,000 people.

That size is somewhat diffuse. I would not argue its effects in this Chamber. But at least there was some identity with the proposed Member of Parliament and a defined constituency. I was only to learn later that the proposal was agreed to by the then Prime Minister, my noble friend Lord Callaghan, on the basis of a deal with the Liberal Party to have direct elections, among other things, as a reward for maintaining its co-operation in a loose coalition which ensured the Labour Government's survival at that time.

I make no complaint about that; but in the event direct elections were held. However, to my astonishment, the only two countries that changed their position with regard to the European Parliament were our own country and the Republic of Eire which maintains to this day an identity of the Member of Parliament to a specific constituency. The remainder of Europe did not change. It carried on exactly as before. It has a series of regional lists which are not identified to any specific constituency. Those lists are highly convenient for the party machine in that a number of people are put on the list without local intervention or local responsibility. They then become European Members of Parliament and sit in plenary in Strasbourg and Luxembourg.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, if the noble Lord will forgive my intervention, his reference to the Lib-Lab Alliance—it was never called a pact; it was firmly called an alliance—is slightly in error. If the noble, Lord, Lord Callaghan, were present, he would agree that there was never a promise on European Parliamentary elections save only that there would be a free vote. That was a significant difference. It is one which perhaps my right honourable and honourable friends might have regretted later. However, there was a free vote, and unfortunately a number of his colleagues did not honour the understanding that we had.

Lord Bruce of Donington

I am obliged to the noble Lord for the correction. My information comes from properly accredited biographies. They must be accurate in material respects. I accept unhesitatingly the words of the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, in the matter.

However, in the event, out of the 12 countries in the Community, the United Kingdom has direct elections and Eire has direct elections with a limited form of proportional representation. There are seven other countries that operate on national lists, two on regional lists and one—Germany—on a mixed national and regional list.

There may be other views, but my hope is that the day will come when the remainder of the Community, 10 countries in all, will adopt a form of direct elections which identifies the Members of Parliament with specific parts of the country and specific responsibilities. However, that is for the future.

In the meantime, the redistribution of seats, as proposed at the Edinburgh conference and faithfully reflected in the Bill before us, puzzles me. On the new basis, the United Kingdom. with a population of 56.9 million, will have 87 seats. That is less than some other member states combined. The United Kingdom will have less representation under the new arrangements than a combination of Belgium, Denmark, Ireland, Greece, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Portugal who, together, will have 143 seats. I am afraid that our position is that we have a bigger population but the number of seats we are given is less than that of others. Already, even though we have a greater population than the countries I mentioned, we shall have far less representation.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord one question? Is he worried about the under-representation of Germany?

Lord Bruce of Donington

No, my Lords, I am not. Under the new arrangements, Germany will—in my view, quite properly—have many more seats. She will have 99, whereas on the basis of her population she should have 131. I have no objection to that at all. On the basis of population, the United Kingdom would have 94 instead of 87. Italy would have 95 instead of 87, and France 94 instead of 87. Spain, uniquely, would remain exactly the same. Luxembourg, with a population the size of Bristol, instead of having six seats, would have only one; Belgium, instead of having 25, would have 17; Denmark, instead of having 16, would have eight; Ireland, instead of having 15, would have six; and Greece, instead of having 25, would have 16. The Netherlands would have 24 instead of 31 and Portugal 17 instead of 25.

On the basis of population, the position remains distorted. In my view, sooner or later it will have to be corrected. It is all very well having 12 stars on the European flag, when one star represents Luxembourg with a population of 400,000, the size of Bristol. Yet that is equivalent to Germany which ought, on any population basis, to have 131 seats. I do not believe that that is entirely defensible. Ultimately the situation will have to change.

What will have to change even more is the whole system of elections. Whatever the results which may ultimately come from a whole series of independent commissions—including one of my own—I do not believe in lists. I do not believe in parties drawing up lists of people for mass approval as a substitute for direct representation such as we have had until now. One of the defects of the projected system in Europe will be that 600,000 to 700,000 people will be too many for one person to represent. In a parliament which remains advisory and which has no particular powers, that may be all right. However, in a parliament which may even remotely make up the democratic deficit, I am afraid that it will not be acceptable.

I do not propose to move any amendments to the Bill at the Committee stage. I reiterate my support for the Government and for the Second Reading of the Bill.

1.26 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, on any matters concerning Europe. He can claim to have been wholly consistent in his position on Europe for many years. He took the same view during the debate on what became the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978 as he did today. So there was nothing unduly surprising in what he said.

I have only two points to make about the noble Lord's speech. First, I have a piece of bad news for him. if and when the Conservative Party finds itself sitting where the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, now sits, he will find that the enthusiasm for the cause of proportional representation starts to grow at a remarkable rate. He has only to look at some of the debates between 1974 and 1979 to realise that the Conservative Party was finding it increasingly difficult to get hold of anyone who was prepared to stand up from the Front Bench and speak out against proportional representation. That is the first point.

Secondly, I come to the size of constituencies. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, was worried about the size of European constituencies or the average number of electors per member. I wonder whether there is anything at all in that argument. Is it suggested that the quality of representation in the United States House of Representatives is inferior to that of the House of Commons? In my personal experience, the answer is no. Yet the number of constituents per member of the House of Representatives is infinitely larger than in this country. So I do not think that there is much in that point. Quite apart from anything else, if the European Community increases the number of member states, I find it hard to believe that we shall not have to look again at the number of seats in the European Parliament to prevent it becoming an unwieldy organisation.

Having said that by way of introduction, I should like to raise two issues in relation to the Bill first, the system by which the boundaries of European constituencies are to be determined; and, secondly, the system of election, to which my noble friend Lord Tordoff referred.

I find it surprising that the Government have come forward with the truly remarkable system of determining the boundaries of European constituencies. As the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, said, there are to be two special ad hoc European parliamentary constituency committees. They will determine the boundaries. As the noble Earl said, there is to be no question of a public inquiry; yet, in terms of the alteration of boundaries of Westminster constituencies, there is a requirement, in appropriate circumstances, for a public inquiry to take place. Of course, in many cases, as a result of those public inquiries, the boundary commission reviews its original decision and comes forward with a modification. Why is that not being done in the case of the European constituencies for next year's elections?

The answer of the Home Secretary is this: Due to time constraints, it will not be possible to hold public inquiries".—[Official Report, Commons, 30/6/93; col. 988.1 His second line of defence was—as it was with the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers—that when the first direct elections for the European Parliament took place in 1979, the legislation made no provision for public inquiries. That is entirely true, and for the reason given by the noble Earl.

Let me take that latter point first. Undertakings were then given—indeed, they were given by me, speaking as a Home Office Minister both on the Floor of this House and outside it—that this procedure would not be adopted in the case of any future election. That was a commitment entered into, and it was pressed very vigorously upon us outside this Chamber by the representatives of the noble Earl's party. Yet that is precisely what we are being asked to agree to today.

I return now to the first excuse; namely, to quote Mr. Howard, time constraints. This really is a frayed and tattered thing. Let me remind the noble Earl of what the Prime Minister said last December following the Edinburgh Council. He said: The provision of six extra MEPs will mean that fresh boundaries are set across England, Scotland and Wales, which will be a matter for the Boundary Commission, not for the Government". That promise has of course been wholly dishonoured within a period of six months.

What we are being asked to agree to today are not decisions taken by the boundary commission but by these curious new parliamentary constituency committees, bodies which, as I have explained and as was explained at some length in the House of Commons, will not be able to organise public inquiries. I believe that to be wholly wrong; indeed, quite indefensible. I hope that the noble Earl will return to that point when he replies to the debate.

The noble Earl has another problem. He has to explain to us why the difficulty of "time constraints" arose in the first instance. As my noble friend Lord Tordoff reminded us, the British Government had the presidency of the Council of Ministers in the six months before the Edinburgh summit. They were therefore in a better position than any other nation state in the Community to know that as a result of German reunification the allocation of German seats in the European Parliament would be increased significantly and that there would be additional seats for France, Italy and the United Kingdom.

In those circumstances there should clearly have been work going on in the Home Office and among parliamentary draftsmen with a view to producing this Bill before the Christmas Recess last year. It was the result of a decision by Ministers that that Bill was not presented before the Christmas Recess.

It was presented for Second Reading only 23 days ago. The Government, preoccupied with their internal disputes over Maastricht, preferred to give absolute priority to such carefully considered measures as the Education Bill—I am not much of a statistician, but I believe that the number of amendments which had to be agreed was about 830 or thereabouts—and the railway privatisation Bill, which was also given absolute priority. I say to the noble Earl in the most amiable of ways that that particular measure is doing a tremendous amount of good to the Conservative candidate in the Christchurch by-election.

We are faced with a profoundly unsatisfactory situation, in which we are being invited to legislate and, without the Bill even having gone onto the Statute Book, we are told that these parliamentary committees are hard at work anticipating the decisions of both Houses of Parliament. My goodness, I wonder where all those people are who like to come here to tell us about the advantages of absolute parliamentary sovereignty. There is not much parliamentary sovereignty about this.

I turn now to the system of election, which was foreshadowed by my noble friend Lord Tordoff. As the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers, has indicated—as indeed did the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington— Article 138.3 of the Treaty of Rome, to which this country subscribed when we entered into the Community, requires the European Parliament, to draw up proposals for election by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform electoral procedure in all Member States". That could not be fairer—and we know what the current situation is. We were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, of the situation in the other member states: Belgium has proportional representation in two regional constituencies; Denmark has proportional representation in a single constituency; Germany; Ireland; Greece., Spain; France; Italy; Luxembourg; the Netherlands; and Portugal. All of those countries have a form of proportional representation.

Lord Bruce of Donington

And what about the list systems?

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I shall come to that in a moment. There is something in what the noble Lord says. If I were given a choice about a system so far as the European Parliament is concerned, I should like to move to something like the German system. I have made that clear in a number of previous debates.

It is interesting to note that at the same time as we are being asked to hang on to first-past-the-post for England, Wales and Scotland, the situation is to continue to be totally different when it comes to Northern Ireland. Strangely enough that point was not touched on in the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers. There STV is of course an absolutely wonderful idea. We have to have STV in Northern Ireland. Why do we have to have it in that country? We have to have it because in the situation in Northern Ireland the Government want a fair and balanced electoral system. But of course they do not want a fair and balanced electoral system in the rest of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland has to be treated wholly differently.

To its credit, this House has not accepted that situation. Indeed, in 1989–90 this House passed the European Parliament electoral reform Bill, introduced by my noble friend Lord Bonham-Carter, which provided for elections by the single transferable vote. But that was blocked when it reached the House of Commons by the Government Whips.

The argument against proportional representation for Westminster is that it creates weak and unstable Governments. Weak and unstable governments, my Lords! We are not doing terribly well down the corridor at the moment on the basis of this electoral system which the noble Earl champions today.

Even were the current political situation to he entirely different, that does not begin to answer the argument so far as proportional representation in Europe is concerned. There is no government in Strasbourg. Therefore, that line of defence so far as Ministers are concerned is a pretty unpersuasive one. However, there is at Strasbourg a settled determination to ensure that the Parliament is elected on the basis of common principles. The report adopted at Strasbourg by 207 votes to 80 said that Members of the Parliament should be elected, in accordance with the uniform electoral procedure based on the principles of proportional representation". The resolution added that if a member state—I come back to the point to which the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, referred—used a single member constituency system, not more than two-thirds of the seats should be distributed in that manner, with the balance being distributed to take account of the proportions of the total vote cast.

What could be fairer than that proposition so far as concerns the European Parliament itself? I should like to imagine that the Government would be persuaded by that argument. But of course they will not be persuaded. As I indicated earlier, they may be rather more attracted by the idea as and when they find themselves sitting on the Opposition Benches in both Houses of Parliament. But they will cling on to this tired, old, discredited system for as long as they can do so.

Speaking for myself and my colleagues, I do not have the slightest doubt that proportional representation is coming. I also have little doubt that when it arrives it will be welcomed by a clear majority of the British people. Until then, the Government will be ignoring the unambiguous requirements of the Treaty of Rome and the Government's professed desire to be at the heart of Europe will be mere empty rhetoric.

1.40 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, there can be no doubt that with or without Maastricht the European Parliament and the system of election to the European Parliament are of great importance to this country. It is shameful to this country that we have such a low participation in the European parliamentary elections. I shall spend a certain amount of time considering why that might be so and whether electoral systems have anything to do with it. Therefore it is particularly disgraceful that the Government should present this Bill at this time.

I remind the House that on 14th December last, the Prime Minister came back from Edinburgh and promised that there would be a European Parliamentary Elections Bill, and that specifically it would involve the boundary commissions. The implication of that, although it was not spelt out, was that there would be public inquiries, which is the normal way in which the boundary commissions proceed.

What happened? My honourable friend Tony Blair wrote to the Home Secretary on that same day, 14th December, asking for details of the legislation that would be introduced and when it would be brought forward. Despite considerable prompting there was not even a reply from the Home Secretary until 27th January. So that was the start of the delay. In practice, as the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, reminded us, the Bill was not given its First Reading in another place until 13th June and was not given its Second Reading until 30th June.

Why was that? It is hardly because it is a complicated Bill. There are only three clauses and one schedule. It is hardly because there is any new thinking in the Bill. The Bill simply provides for the work of the ad hoc commissions. No, of course not; it is for the same reason as we have been kept up night after night in the past few weeks. It is because the Conservative Party is in disarray. The Conservative Party has, both domestically in the form of the Education Bill and the Railways Bill and in other legislation, no legislative programme on which it can secure the command of its own party. Internationally it is grotesquely failing to maintain the unity of its party on Maastricht. So any talk about delay being for any reason other than the progressive demoralisation of the Conservative Government is nonsense.

What is the effect of the delay? That is much more serious. The effect of the delay will be that the ad hoc commissions will not observe normal boundary commission procedures. I have no reason not to welcome the announcement by the Minister today that five of the six commissioners will be boundary commissioners. I am sure that he is right in calling attention to the integrity of the sixth commissioner. So I have no problems at all about the membership.

My problem is the way in which this matter is being approached. First, the commissioners will start work without parliamentary approval. That cannot be a precedent that we should accept. Secondly, they will proceed without public inquiries. In fact I thought that Sir Teddy Taylor in another place had it right: if we in Parliament were to adopt the procedures which those commissioners are to adopt, we would cancel the debate, all go home, submit written representations to the Home Secretary or the Minister on the Front Bench opposite and await his conclusions. That is the way that they will operate. It is not the way that we operate and not the way that we should be operating in representing the people.

It is not as though these are matters which are so complicated. The building blocks for the constituencies are parliamentary constituencies—Westminster constituencies. Mapping by computer graphics has well advanced since 1978, the last time that such problems arose. Frankly, the whole thing could be done in 48 hours and all the options counted, costed and evaluated. Then there could be proper public inquiries as to a realistic set of options. So adequate attention is not being paid to what could be done with an up-to-date and efficient boundary commission procedure.

Let us look at the results. We are told that it is because of statistical equality that Scotland is to be denied an extra seat, whereas England is to receive five extra seats. Literally that is the case. It is literally true that under the Government's proposals England will still be slightly under-represented in comparison with Scotland and slightly more under-represented in comparison with Wales.

But if we were to give Scotland another seat, in view of the huge geographical areas which Scottish MEPs cover—not just the Highlands and Islands; it is true in large parts of Scotland—then the total electorate of the average English constituency would only go down by 7,000, which one might think is an insignificant amount, whereas the total electorate of the average Scottish constituency would go down by 55,000, very much more closely representing the need of Scottish constituencies to be workable from a representative point of view. We are certainly not satisfied that the allocation of seats between England, Wales and Scotland, as proposed in the Bill, is correct. We shall seek amendments to that effect.

Finally, I turn to the issue of the electoral system. To use the words of the noble Lord, Lord Harris, I have bad news for him. If he thinks that harmonisation of electoral systems in the European Community will lead to the kind of proportional representation that he wants, he has another think corning. By the way, I notice that the Liberals always talk about proportional representation as if there were only one form of proportional representation. The noble Lord, Lord Harris, constantly referred to proportional representation as if it were an electoral system.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, perhaps I may interrupt the noble Lord. I notice that the noble Earl, Lord Ferrers., at least agrees with what troubles the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. If he reads my speech, he will find that what he has said happens to be untrue.

Lord Tordoff

My Lords, perhaps I may also intervene. It is not true to say that we always confuse matters. I can think of a number of occasions on which I have held small teach-ins in your Lordships' House on the various systems. If the late lamented Lord Underhill could be with us and hear what is being said I think that he would agree with us.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I do not doubt that the Liberal Democrat party is very well versed in different forms of proportional representation and that its members make a number of lengthy speeches on the subject. What I said was that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, in his speech referred to proportional representation as if it were an electoral system which could be adopted for the European Parliament. What he failed to do—if I may be allowed to finish my sentence—was to refer to the fact that proportional representation is a family of electoral systems.

Lord Bonham-Carter

My Lords, perhaps I may also say that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, pointed out that of the systems he preferred the German one. That indicates that there are other systems.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Then again, I have bad news for the Liberal Democrat Party. The report says that there should be either national or regional lists. Ten members of the European Community have regional or national lists—regional in the case of Italy, Germany and Belgium; national in the case of seven other member states. Only Ireland, which has a single transferable vote (which for most purposes is the preferred system of the Liberal Democratic Party) and the United Kingdom, which has single member constituencies, are out of line.

It is fair to say that the Liberals have been—

Lord Harris of Greenwich


Lord McIntosh of Haringey

—I was not referring to consistency. I do not think the Liberals are being particularly consistent in changing from a single transferable vote to a regional list. They are taking advantage of the fact that we in the Labour Party will have the presentation of the Plant Report to our party conference before the Committee stage of the Bill. The Plant Report is well known. It recommends a regional list for European elections. I support that and hope that after the Labour Party conference it will be possible for us to be of one mind in the matter. It will be a change not only for the Labour Party but also for the Liberal Democratic Party.

I was slightly surprised, but not entirely surprised, by the speech of my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington. He expressed support for the Bill but proceeded to speak almost entirely about other matters. After Tuesday and yesterday I thought That we would not see again the blue document with the 12 stars on its front. That is not the case, arid I perhaps should have been warned by Second Reading in another place that those who are opposed to Maastricht are prepared to take any steps to express their disapproval, even if it means expressing approval for undemocratic procedures in the European Parliament.

My noble friend does not believe that the European Parliament should have its powers increased. That is legitimate. He does not think it is possible for the European Parliament to work with such large numbers of electors. I do not agree. If that were the case, it would not be possible for the. United States Senate and Congress, or for the Congress of the Russian Federation, to operate at all—though he may say that the latter does not operate very effectively, anyway. But clearly the European Parliament can be made to operate if its powers and composition are correct. That is what we should be looking to achieve.

It is important that justice should be seen to be done. Neither in the conclusions which the Government reached in regard to electoral systems, nor in the way that they propose to proceed in reaching conclusions about boundaries, is justice being seen to be done. The Bill will need significant amendment in Committee and we shall see that it gets it.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, as he was kind enough to mention my name, albeit somewhat critically, I should like to ask this question. Will he be kind enough to explain to the House how the list system is compatible with the democratic process whereby electors are represented by people who are known to them and are within a reasonably accessible distance from them?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, that question gives rise to a number of different answers, and I shall try to avoid putting all of them forward. The first is that in other European countries where they have regional or national lists, they have substantially higher participation in European elections than we do in Britain with single member constituencies.

Secondly, our single member constituencies are already too large for the kind of personal contact which my noble friend and I would wish to see. I agree with him in that regard. I happen to be well represented by Pauline Green who is the leader of the Labour MEPs. But I do not believe that even she would say that many of her constituents have access to or know her. The third and final point is that the regional list system achieves the adequate representation of minority as well as of major parties.

1.55 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, whenever there is a debate or Bill about electoral systems, one can guarantee that it will stimulate good argument, and it has done so this morning. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, cannot help it; he has to make a political speech. He started by saying that the delay was a progressive demoralisation of the Conservative Party. I have never heard such rubbish in my life! He knows that perfectly well. If ever a party was in a mess, it is the party opposite.

I shall not involve myself in the party politics which he stimulated. The Labour Party has always supported the system of first past the post. Now it has a committee which says that it should go to a different system. It does not know whether it is coming or going. Even the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, admitted that. He said he must wait for the Labour Party Conference to make up its mind first—so much for leadership.

We introduce a Bill to allow more seats for better democratic representation in Parliament and the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, acts as though the Government were doing something terrible. We are not doing anything of the kind. It was fun to see him bait the Liberal Democrats, and I agree with him on that. And because I happened to say, "Hear, hear" the noble Lord, Lord Harris, was stimulated to rise to his feet. It was interesting that the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, managed to stir to their feet every single member on the Liberal Democrat Benches bar one, so he did not do too badly.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I must respond. I never consider that I have been entirely successful unless I can persuade the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, to rise.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, will have to imagine that he did; he was not in his place this morning. Had he been so, I am sure that he would have been stimulated just as I have been.

I was grateful also to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, for supporting the Government in the first-past-the-post system. He is absolutely right. The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, is a man of individual characteristics, as we have seen over the past six weeks. He does not like the European Community all that much, but he is good and sensible enough to say that when we are represented there we should be represented by the first-past-the-post system. On this occasion, he is wholly correct and I am grateful to him.

As the noble Lord read out all the different alterations in the numbers of seats in the different European countries, he made me realise how difficult it is ever to achieve perfection. It is difficult to achieve perfection in any form of parliamentary system. The great advantage of the first-past-the-post system is that everyone knows that it is a tried and workable system and everyone understands it. The fellow who obtains the most votes wins and that is a good old adage that everyone understands.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, perhaps I can ask the noble Earl one question. Is it his view that the people in Northern Ireland have a superior intelligence to those in England, Wales and Scotland, who are not able to understand the system now applied in Northern Ireland?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Harris, asks what he thinks is a difficult question; in fact, he knows the answer perfectly well. The single transferable vote system was used in Northern Ireland because of the peculiar circumstances whereby there are different communities and different loyalties within those communities. It is right to ensure that some other system should try to make them better represented.

In general, nobody understands the list system and how votes are transferred one to the other. I cannot understand how some people get into some parliaments by a transferable vote system when they have been rejected by the electorate. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, is quite right: proportional representation is not a system; it is a family of a variety of totally different systems.

I believe it was the noble Lord, Lord Tordoff, who said that we should have the additional member system; that that is the best system to use. I ask: why? Does he not realise that in order to introduce that kind of system into this country for those six seats would require a whole new parliamentary system? We would have to introduce legislation to allow it, which would involve discussions as to whether it should be that system or another system. That legislation would have to pass through another place. When the noble Lords say that we have hurried this, they have no idea of the delay that would have been involved had we gone to a different system.

The noble Lords, Lord Tordoff and Lord Harris of Greenwich, were worried about the committees starting work before the Bill has finished its parliamentary passage. It is essential that the committees start their work as soon as possible in order to give us as much time as possible for public consultation over the new boundaries. It is also important that they should complete their task by the end of this year so as to give the political parties and the administrators time to prepare for the elections next June. Waiting until the Bill receives Royal Assent would leave them with little more than a month for their task which would clearly be nothing like enough time. That is why it is necessary to start as early as we have done.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, made a great song and dance about the committees starting before Parliament had approved the Bill. How terrible it is, and so much for parliamentary democracy, said the noble Lord, Lord Harris.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

Parliamentary sovereignty.

Earl Ferrers

All right, so much for parliamentary sovereignty, said the noble Lord, Lord Harris. I should like to take his mind back a few years when he was a very distinguished member of the then government. They were putting through a certain Bill to devolve power. It was called the Scottish devolution Bill. I seem to remember his government having spent £2 million on building a Scottish Assembly before the Bill even got through Parliament. It never did get through Parliament. Therefore, that is a perfectly good example of how in that case that was an erroneous thing to have done. In this case it is a good thing to do because it is enabling the parliamentary systems to get into place in sufficient time so that people will be able to vote and to get their political organisations in train for the new seats and the new elections next year. It would have been quite impossible to have had six seats run under a totally different system from the one that we have at the moment. That is why we considered it appropriate to use the first-past-the-post system.

The noble Lords, Lord Tordoff and Lord Harris, seem to be like two birds singing together the same song. They asked why the Bill was not introduced earlier. The formal decision on the extra seats was not taken by the Council until February of this year. It was impossible, therefore, to have produced it before that. Your Lordships will be aware that there has been a certain amount of, shall we say, parliamentary congestion during that time. Therefore, it has not been possible to produce it earlier.

The noble Lord, Lord Harris, also said that the Prime Minister had pledged that this would be done by the boundary commission and that that pledge has been dishonoured. It is not the boundary commission that is doing this; it is the constituency committees that are doing it—two of them. They will consist of virtually the same people as are on the Boundary Commission—all except one. Five will be the same and there will be an additional one. They will be totally apolitical and will deal with their responsibilities in the way in which they would be expected to deal with them.

There is not a public inquiry as such because, as I have explained, there is simply not time for a public inquiry. But there is time for public consultation, and public consultation will take place. They will then he able to produce their views afterwards. The boundary commission will then be able to take over responsibility for all the European parliamentary constituency boundaries after the elections have taken place next year and so will be able to address anything that needs to be addressed then. The reason why this has. been done now is in order to get into place a system whereby the extra six seats can be used properly for the European parliamentary elections next year.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, for one very statesmanlike remark. He considered the Bill and said that he has no intention of putting down any amendments. I commend him for that thought and for that approach. I would also commend such an enlightened view to the noble Lords, Lord Harris of Greenwich and Lord Tordoff, because if they are concerned about getting the European parliamentary system through in a good democratic way, it ought to be done as quickly as possible in order to allow the correct mechanisms to be in place and the political parties to be able to get their organisations going so that the six seats can be used to the best of their ability next year. I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill read a second time, arid committed to a Committee of the Whole House.