HL Deb 13 October 1993 vol 549 cc210-30

4.4 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Earl Ferrers.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The DEPUTY CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES (Lord Brougham and Vaux) in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Increase in number of representatives to the European Parliament]:

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove moved Amendment No. 1:

Page 1, line 10, after ("71") insert:

(" '(ba) in paragraph (b) (Scotland) for "8" there shall be substituted "9";").

The noble Lord said: Perhaps the Minister could advise us. It might be suitable for the Committee to consider Amendments Nos. 1, 2 and 3 together since they are virtually the same and are tied together. I am grateful to him for indicating assent and for his help.

We have been talking about the Commons and speakers there, but I am not sure that we should follow them too closely. When this amendment or group of amendments was discussed in the Commons, I believe that it took three-and-a-half or four hours. I shall try to be a little more brief. I am sure that the Committee will reach a decision in less time and, who knows, the Government may have had time to reflect on the case for Scotland getting one of the six new seats which will come to the United Kingdom, as agreed at the Edinburgh Summit last December.

The effect of this amendment would be to increase the Scottish representation to Europe by one seat and give Scotland nine seats. With Amendment No. 2, England would get four more seats, raising its representation to 70 instead of the present 66. Wales, as written in the Bill, would have five seats instead of its present four. When the Council of the European Communities made its decision of 1st February 1993 to increase the United Kingdom representation by six seats, there was an assumption in Scotland that our representation would be increased. We did not think that it would be by more than one but we assumed that of the six new seats Scotland would get one. After all, the Secretary of State for Scotland himself commented clearly in his introduction to Taking Stock (a document promised by the Prime Minister during the last election when he was campaigning in Scotland). The Secretary of State said in the foreword that the Government would: take steps to complement and add to Scotland's strong representation in Europe". To me "to complement and add" means that we would receive more representation at the parliamentary level.

There have been interesting exercises in semantics by the Scottish Office suggesting that the Secretary of State was really referring to the Committee of the Regions. Believe me, few people in Scotland took it that way. The mass of people were not even aware of the Committee of the Regions. They were aware of the European Members of Parliament and they assumed that they would get something from the increase. Few people in Scotland, therefore, believed that version. Certainly the Scottish press assumed that Scotland would receive increased representation. I understand that most of the civil servants at St. Andrew's House were of the same opinion. There have been no protests from St. Andrew's House about the rumours coming from there, from responsible civil servants, who assumed that Wales would receive one, England four and Scotland one. It was as simple as that.

The most likely explanation for the Secretary of State either not fighting for an extra Scottish seat or perhaps losing the argument for a special seat is that, when he tried to convince his colleagues in government of the justice of an extra seat, it was pointed out to him that his party had none of the present Euro seats. He then realised that it would he most unlikely that, if another Euro seat were given, his party would get it either. Possibly that was what made the Secretary of State "go canny" on the matter, as we would say in Scotland.

I do not want to dwell too much on the geographical and population arguments, but they have a fair amount of merit. The average size of a European seat in Scotland is about 3,000 square miles. In England it is about 700 square miles. In Scotland something like 171 people live per square mile, whereas in England the number is 955. That is for average European seats. The Highlands and Islands constituency has about the same land area as Belgium but is spread over a length of 350 miles from north to south.

I cite these statistics only to illustrate another point; namely, by having these great areas and having them on the outer fringe of the Community, the sheer quantity of area plus the inevitable low electoral density leads to a whole qualitative change in the nature of the work of a Euro-MP. Noble Lords living 400 or 500 miles from Westminster who return home every weekend will begin to appreciate this point. We are not going home each weekend to meet constituents and to carry out constituency work. We usually go home for a rest or for recreation of some sort. It was suggested in Committee in another place that modern travel and communications have greatly eased the problems. But life becomes more difficult for MPs the bigger the constituency and the sparser the population.

I have absolutely no objection to the additional seat for Wales. I welcome it. Like Scotland, it is an individual nation within the United Kingdom and also within Europe.

I understand that the Government's allocation of the extra seats reduces Scotland's share of the seats in the European Parliament (in terms of British seats) from 9.9 to 9.2 per cent. That is perhaps a very small percentage, but it is certainly felt in Scotland.

It is not possible to base representation wholly on either population alone or land area alone. But it has frequently been pointed out that Denmark and other countries are in the same position. Denmark and Scotland are roughly the same size in population terms. Denmark is far smaller, but Denmark has 16 seats.

I do not for one moment suggest that Scottish men and women spend sleepless nights worrying about the extra Euro-seat. But the Government should be in no doubt that never far from the surface of the Scottish psyche is the consciousness that once again this particular Government have let them down.

I shall be as charitable as I can. I have read the remarks of the Member for Lewes, a member of the Conservative Party, who spoke in the debate in another place—and I give the Government credit in the matter. He said that the Government may have made the incorrect political judgment in not allocating an additional seat to Scotland. Incidentally, that Member of the other place, Mr. Tim Rathbone, voted with the Opposition against the Government, so strongly did he feel about the issue, although he did not put it down to any sleight of practice. He merely said that he thought there had perhaps been a political error of judgment.

We hope that the noble Earl the Minister agrees with that observation and that he has the political clout in government to be able to announce that the Government will rectify the misjudgment and give Scotland the extra seat. We feel that out of six, it is not a bad ratio that England gets four, Wales gets four and Scotland gets four. I beg to move.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

I support the amendment. The Bill departs from the principle that we in this country have accepted for a considerable number of years—that the size of a territory and the difficulty of representing it should be taken into account. I represented Caithness and Sutherland with an electorate of 30,000. The area extended 120 miles from one corner to another and the roads were bad. Obviously, it was infinitely more difficult to represent than a tightly knit urban constituency. That has been accepted by our various governments in this country for a long time. It appears to me very logical that we should apply that principle to the European constituencies in exactly the same way. One knows the vast areas that have to be covered, especially as an MEP. That makes the case absolutely watertight for an extra seat in Scotland as a matter of justice and in accord with the tradition of this country.

4.15 p.m.

Earl Ferrers

I can understand the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, wishing to see an extra seat for his own country. He made a very persuasive argument for it. However, the noble Lord refrained, I gather, from saying what he would prefer to have said in more glorious and robust terms. The noble Lord was very courteous in the way he put the case.

The noble Lord referred to the speech of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. He said that everyone in Scotland took it from that speech that Scotland was to get an extra seat. What my right honourable friend actually said was: Representation within Europe of all parts of Europe must keep pace with developments elsewhere. This is particularly important for Scotland. We are already strongly represented through the United Kingdom. We must have every opportunity to develop our representation within Europe if our voice is to be heard loud and clear, as it must Some noble Lords, and indeed some people in Scotland, took that as an indication that my right honourable friend thought or was suggesting that one of the seats should go to Scotland. As noble Lords will be aware, the distribution of the six extra seats was done purely on the basis of arithmetical fairness. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary said in another place: The strength of the Union depends on all its parts being treated fairly". The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, said that he did not wish to dwell too much upon the numbers argument. I am not surprised. It would not suit his case too well. At the moment, the scales of the arithmetic are weighted in favour of Scotland as there are on average fewer electors for a European parliamentary seat in Scotland than there are in England. For some curious reason—it may be due to the more copious breeding habits of the English compared with the Scots, or merely to the inclination of the Scots, for an equally curious reason, to wish to leave their country—the fact is that the relative imbalance is getting worse. The population of England is growing while that of Scotland is in decline, albeit only slight decline. I can understand the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, saying that he thinks it would be a good idea if Scotland had the extra seat.

If Scotland were to be granted an extra seat, that country's present unfair advantage, namely, that it has on average 10 per cent. fewer electors per seat than have the English, would be such that it would have in future 16 per cent. fewer electors. In other words, England's electorate per seat would be on average 16 per cent. higher than Scotland's should Scotland get the extra seat. That would clearly place England at a disadvantage.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, referred to Denmark. He said that Denmark has a population similar to that of Scotland. Yet it has 16 seats compared with Scotland's eight. That is perfectly true. But it is the United Kingdom as a whole which is a member of the European Community; the individual component parts of the United Kingdom are not. That does not mean that England, or indeed any other part of the United Kingdom, should be seen to dominate. But it does seem that, for the purposes of elections, the principle of one person one vote should be adhered to as closely as possible. Each person's vote should be worth as near as possible the same as that of every other person. I understand that Scotland is big and some of the European constituencies' boundaries are vast. But it is quite likely that, were Scotland to be granted an extra seat, the massive constituencies in the north would remain largely unchanged because an extra seat there would mean that the electorate per seat would then become even lower. If the northern seats remained unchanged, the extra seat in Scotland would be likely to be fitted into the central and southern belt. That would do nothing to redress the difficulties imposed by the sparsely populated areas of Scotland, which I recognise are difficult for those who are Members of the European Parliament.

We have considered very carefully how best the additional seats should be distributed. Having looked at all the possible alternatives for allocating the six extra seats, we have concluded that a split in the ratio of 5:1:0 as per England, Wales and Scotland, is the fairest one that could be chosen.

I simply say to the noble Lords, Lord Carmichael and Lord Mackie of Benshie, that, from the point of view of numbers—I know that the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, does not wish to dwell too much on numbers—there are at present in round figures per seat 551,000 electors in England, 555,000 electors in Wales and 491,000 electors in Scotland. After the readjustments suggested, there will be 512,000 electors in England, 444,000 in Wales and 491,000 in Scotland. So Scotland will still have fewer members per constituency than will England. That is the reason why the suggestion has been put forward that the seats should be allocated in that way.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

The Minister is ignoring another argument which I thought that he would have taken into account; namely, that, when there is a concentration of power anywhere, people are drawn towards it and the periphery always suffers. That is why the small nations which are on the outside of the Union, such as Denmark, have a proportionately larger representation than the big nations. The same is true of the periphery. That is an argument, and the falling population shows it in Scotland, for a better representation in the parliament. The Minister has built purely on numbers.

Earl Ferrers

The noble Lord has a point. If there are large areas which are basically unpopulated, it is inevitable that the people there will suffer from the point of view of influence and so forth more than those in the congested areas. That is a fact of life. But to say that therefore they should have more representatives per 100 of the population than people in the more congested areas does not stand up to diagnosis or reasonable argument.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

The Minister will not be surprised to learn that I, and I am sure most of the people in Scotland who are concerned about this matter, are disappointed in his reply.

Perhaps I may take up one point that the Minister picked up from my speech. I said that I did not want to go into the issue of numbers. That was not because there were not lots of numbers to go into. I thought that they would bore people and that the Minister himself would be aware of many of the ratios and distances involved. Comparing Edinburgh with Luxembourg, although Edinburgh has a bigger population than Luxembourg, it does not have its own MEP. It has to take in a fair part of the Lothians as well. The point could be discussed for a long time.

I cannot agree with the Minister when he says that any additional seat would probably be absorbed in the central area. Perhaps we could have cut off the islands and given them less than the whole of the islands. We could have looked at the lines of communication, as in fact was done during the arguments on the Wheatley Report. Areas like Fort William seemed a long way from Glasgow but, according to all the surveys that were carried out, Fort William was closer to Glasgow in terms of communication and connecting routes than to Inverness, which theoretically is the capital of the Highlands. A lot of other ways could have been found to get the spread. I do not believe that anyone in the central belt can be sufficiently greedy to feel that any new seats should come into the central belt.

I thank the Minister for his reply. It was important for it to have been read out fully, although he did leave it for part of the time. It is a reply which almost certainly will be quoted, not to his detriment but as part of the argument that will go on for a long time in Scotland about this issue. In the meantime I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Initial drawing up of the new constituencies]:

[Amendment No. 3 not moved]

Lord McIntosh of Haringey moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 2, line 24, at end insert:

("(7) The Committees shall have regard to paragraph 5A of Schedule 2 to the 1978 Act before determining their final report to the Secretary of State.").

The noble Lord said: This amendment is not self-explanatory unless one looks up the 1978 European Assembly Elections Act. Amendment No. 4 is concerned with public inquiries.

Let me start by recognising that the way in which the amendment has had to be drafted, because the Bill is drafted in that way, does not force public inquiries on the committees which will be investigating the parliamentary boundaries. Paragraph 5A of Schedule 2 is concerned with optional provision for public inquiries, with mandatory provision when 500 or more electors demand one and with the possibility of further public inquiries following local inquiries. In this amendment—we cannot do any more, given the terms of the Bill—we are drawing the attention of the Government and the committees to the paramount need for public inquiries if democratic control of the representation of the people is to be obtained. This point was covered at some length in Second Reading and I shall try not to be too repetitive. But the issue is so important that it deserves to be aired again.

As the Committee will know, the decision about the extra six seats was taken on 14th December last. Immediately, my honourable friend Tony Blair wrote to the Home Secretary asking what timetable he proposed for implementing the decision which gave the United Kingdom the extra seats. He received no reply for well over a month and the replies that he received at that time were evasive and inconclusive. Indeed, as is well known, the Government took until June this year to come forward with even this little Bill of three clauses and one schedule.

My point is that, if it is claimed that the timetable for implementation of the change in the constituencies precludes setting up public inquiries, the fault for past delays lies entirely in the hands of the Government. They could perfectly well have brought forward this Bill four, five or even six months earlier than they have done. If that had been the case there would not have been the ghost of an argument against democratic public inquiries on Boundary Commission reports.

The second point to be made is the historical one, because Ministers in another place have claimed that there is an adequate precedent in 1978, when no public inquiries were set up. They seem to neglect the fact that the decision about how many seats should be allocated to the United Kingdom was made very much later than it was on this occasion and that indeed there was dispute right up to the last minute as to whether there should be direct elections at all to the European Parliament. Therefore the analogy with 1978 is a very poor one.

The other precedent which has to be drawn to the attention of the Committee is that of 1984, when there was a relatively short period of time but, with elections in June, public inquiries were held as late as March.

It cannot be claimed by any Minister that it would not be possible, given Royal Assent to the Bill within the next few weeks, to secure that the committees reach their conclusions in time for public inquiries to be held well before March 1994. That date was thoroughly inconvenient for the political parties. But perhaps inconvenience for political parties is not the most important consideration. I suggest that the much more important aspect is the democratic right of local people to be consulted on the constituencies of which they will form a part and on how they will be represented. Looking at the debate on the matter in Committee in another place, we find that the difference between the Opposition and the Government on the timetable was as little as seven weeks. That is riot a significant difference and is certainly not an adequate reason for the denial of the right for public inquiries.

Having said that the fault for past sins of omission lies entirely in the hands of the Government, I say now that the remedy also lies within the hands of the Government. It is still possible for them to instruct the committees to have regard to the need for public inquiries. It is still possible for public inquiries to be held. After all, since 1978 and 1984 there have been vast strides in the ability of a committee or of a boundary commission to reach rapid conclusions or recommendations on the alternatives before them.

European parliamentary constituencies are made up of building blocks of Westminster parliamentary constituencies. There are no decisions to be made in regard to moving wards from one place to another. None of those issues occurs. As I said at Second Reading, advances in computer graphics make it relatively easy to run through the options for boundaries which will produce as equal as possible electorate sizes. That could be done in a matter of days if the software available were actually used by the committees. I have no idea whether or not they are using such software; they certainly should be.

We must bear in mind that the Government have already brought the committees into existence without parliamentary approval. The names of the members of the committees were announced in the summer and I understand that they are already at work even though Parliament has not agreed the basis on which they should work. From the point of view of past errors of judgment in the timing of the Bill, past incompetence on the part of the Government in not bringing the Bill forward earlier and in terms of what is possible with goodwill now, there is a chance to hold public inquiries. Democracy requires that there should be public inquiries. The least the Government can do is to accept the amendment and ensure that the committees have regard to the need for public inquiries. I beg to move.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

I support everything said by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey. The Government will acknowledge that this is not the ideal way to determine boundaries. The absence of inquiries is a serious matter and an undesirable precedent. The simple question I should like to ask the noble Earl is, whether or not the Government intend to accept the amendment, will they accept that it is not a desirable way to proceed and say that they will avoid that route in the future?

Earl Ferrers

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, for giving me the opportunity to explain the problem. I see the matter as a problem and I understand that the noble Lord would have preferred, as would the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, there to have been an opportunity for what can loosely be described as "public consultation".

The committees which will look at the boundaries of the European constituencies are following as closely as possible the procedures used by the boundary commissions. The short timescale which is available for committees means that there will not be sufficient time for public inquiries to be held as part of the consultation process. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, says that that is all the Government's fault and that if we had brought in the Bill earlier, that would have been possible. The noble Lord has a point. If the Bill had been brought in earlier, obviously there would have been greater time. But he will be the first to recognise that the parliamentary timetable has been highly congested and that is the reason the Bill was not brought in earlier.

That being so, we must address the position as it stands. There will be a full opportunity for individuals, political parties and local authorities to make their views known to the committees. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that my right honourable friend's reply was late and unclear. However, the committees have now published their initial reports and invited comments upon them. The closing dates for receiving those comments are today for Wales and 22nd October for England. The comments received will be placed on public deposit in town halls for public inspection by 1st November for Wales and 8th November for England. Anyone can comment upon those comments. The closing date for those comments to be submitted will be 19th November for Wales and 24th November for England.

The committees will then consider both the original comments and the comments upon the comments before making their reports, which they will place before my right honourable friend the Home Secretary before the end of the year. My right honourable friend will then lay the report and an order giving effect to the recommendations before Parliament for both Houses to discuss. There is therefore plenty of opportunity for public discussion, public comment, anxieties to be aired and for all those to be taken into account.

The Committee will be aware that my right honourable friend was able to appoint all three of the Welsh boundary commissioners to serve on the committee for Wales and two of the three English commissioners to serve on the committee for England. That ensures that the reviews will be carried out in as similar a way as possible to those of the boundary commissions.

The amendment of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, suggests that there should be an opportunity to hold further inquiries should the commissions wish to do so. I do not believe that it is the intention of the noble Lord to invoke the possibility of two inquiries. It is important that the Committee is aware of the difficulties involved with the amendment.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that the Government can instruct the committees to hold public consultations. In fact there is no time for public inquiries to be organised and held if the six extra seats are to be available in good time for next year's European parliamentary elections in June. Bearing in mind that public inquiries could not be held until after the closing date for representations—today for Wales and 22nd October for England—it is likely that at least nine weeks would be required for public inquiries to be organised and held. Even with the best of good fortune one does not always get that. It would mean that the reports from the inquiries would not be available until well into the new year.

Once the inquiry reports had been submitted to the committees there would have to follow a period of at least five weeks to allow the committee members to absorb fully the contents of the reports and to make their final recommendations. That would take us up to the end of February. The timetable which I have outlined makes no allowances for unexpected illness of committee members, inquiries being prolonged as a result of a deluge of oral representations, or other unforeseen circumstances.

I do not believe that it would be possible for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to lay draft Orders in Council before Parliament until the middle of March. Allowing two weeks for the orders to be debated would take us up to April. The European parliamentary elections are scheduled for 9th June 1994.

If public inquiries were to be held, political parties and electoral authorities simply would not have sufficient time to prepare themselves for the election. Were any unforeseen circumstances to arise, it is possible that we would not have the new seats available in time for the election at all.

There is an additional problem in that regard because all member states must have in place arrangements for their additional seats for them to become operative throughout the European Community. If one member state does not have these arrangements in place, then none of them can have any additional seats at all. If we are not able to meet the timescale, then not one of our European partners would be able to take advantage of these additional seats.

That is the reasoning behind the fact that there will not be public inquiries as such. The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, asked whether I agreed that that was unsatisfactory and whether it would happen in future. I agree that, in a perfect world, it would have been better to hold public inquiries if it had been possible. We shall try to avoid this situation in future, but obviously I cannot give any guarantee. One does not know what the future holds.

I re-emphasise both to the noble Lord, Lord Holme, and to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, that there is in fact plenty of opportunity for public comment, for comments on those comments, for public consideration to be put to the members of the committees and for their views to be taken into account.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I believe that we can put out of the way the issues on which we are agreed. We have never complained about the membership of the committees. We have always welcomed the fact that five out of six were boundary commissioners and we are very happy with the appointment of the sixth—the third member for England. That has not been an issue for dispute between us. Let us be agreed on that.

I take comfort from the last words of the Minister when he said—as he did not say at the beginning—that he shared the concern which the noble Lord, Lord Holme, and I have expressed about the unsatisfactory procedure which omitted the public inquiry part of the formulation of the parliamentary constituencies. We are glad to have his assurance that he would have wished to have had public inquiries and that, although he could not give a guarantee, he hoped that that would always be the case in future. That is certainly a step forward.

The fact still remains that the failure to have public inquiries is entirely the responsibility of the Government. I also believe that it would be possible for the Government to ensure that public inquiries took place if they really had the will to do so. The procedure and the dates which the Minister has outlined allow for an iterative process of consultation for comments to be made and seen and for comments on comments to be seen. I suggest to the Minister that it would still be preferable to get rid of the second stage of comments being seen and commented on and to replace that by a public inquiry procedure. That would still allow plenty of time for the public inquiries to be completed and for decisions to be taken well before the election.

Although my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton is not in her place, as a former national agent of the Labour Party she would probably disagree with me. My view is that the convenience of the party apparatus is a good deal less important than the principle of real and open public consultation on the parliamentary constituencies. I remind the Minister of what his honourable friend Sir Teddy Taylor said when this matter was debated in another place. What is being proposed, even with the two stages of consultation, is comparable to saying that Parliament itself could be dispensed with. If we do what is proposed here and make written representations, they will be considered by people appointed by Ministers. Ministers would then make their decisions according to their own reasons. As far as Parliament is concerned we could all go home.

That in fact is what is being proposed. It is a secretive process, although written representations are being sought. It is nothing like the cut and thrust of a public inquiry at which there is the opportunity to cross-question those who put their views before it. It is a most unsatisfactory situation. The Government are entirely responsible for it. They are still being obdurate about the possibility of putting the matter right. This is not an amendment on which I could seek to divide the Committee because it is not an amendment which forces anything on the Government. I beg leave to withdraw it but with the greatest reluctance.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed to.

4.45 p.m.

Clause 3 [Short title, consequential amendment and commencement]:

On Question, Whether Clause 3 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

In opposing the Question that Clause 3 shall stand part of the Bill, it gives me the opportunity to raise the question of the electoral system by which the European elections will be conducted in this country. The noble Earl will not be surprised to find a speaker from these Benches wanting to address the basis of the European electoral system because we have done so before. I have had the honour of sparring with him on this question several times in the past two years.

As the Committee will be aware, Article 138 of the Treaty of Rome prescribes the uniform electoral procedure. In March this year the European Court of Justice ruled that the treaty should be upheld by the Council of Ministers. Therefore, sooner or later, there will be a situation in which the Government will find themselves on the spot on this issue, not least since our partners throughout the European Community do not like the British system, which is their privilege. They do not like the effect that it has on the balance of the European Parliament.

I believe that the Government could have used the European elections to move towards the system recommended by the de Gucht Committee of the European Parliament, which is that of regional lists. There has been some argument in your Lordships' House about whether regional lists are a system for proportional representation. They are such a system. There are some who believe, as my own party does, that if one has a regional list system, within that one should allow for preferential voting within the regional constituencies. But whether one does or not, regional lists are of course a form of PR. The de Gucht recommendations to the European Parliament were deliberately very modestly and broadly couched to make it possible for all European Community countries to adopt broadly comparable systems.

But the Government have chosen not to follow the committee. Instead they have introduced a rather curious procedure which is outlined in the Bill. I do not want to repeat the debate on the last amendment, but it is undoubtedly true that the Government have been laggardly—it did not start early enough. They have bypassed the normal procedures of inquiries which we have just been discussing. That has led to the proposals being fundamentally undemocratic which is probably rather serious when there are elections concerned. There is a feeling—I believe it came through when we discussed the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, concerning Scotland—that the proposals have been rather spatchcocked together. Therefore, I do not believe that the proposals for the European Parliament elections and the extra seats which we are considering, reflect very much credit on the Government.

I wonder why they did not take this opportunity to move, as this House has more than once resolved, towards a common proportional representation system. Those of us who want a more genuinely democratic Europe must want a European Parliament which is more representative and one where every vote cast counts towards the result. I believe there is a great deal of agreement that there is too much of a gap between the people of Europe and the institutions which we are trying to build.

Clearly, the Government do not share that aim because, if they did, through their dogmatic opposition to electoral reform, they would not have been led into these strange contortions which we are discussing this afternoon. I ask the noble Earl this question: do the Government positively want to distort the whole balance of the European Parliament? That will be the consequence of using the British first-past-the-post system in these elections. As the noble Lord, Lord Cockfield, pointed out on 23rd March 1990 in the debate on the European Parliament Electoral Reform Bill introduced by my noble friend Lord Bonham-Carter, the effect of our own British first-past-the-post system was, at the last European election, to give a majority to the socialist parties in the Parliament.

Do this Conservative Government want once again to distort Britain's representation in the next European elections which will be held in June next year? I wonder whether the Government are so distrustful of the excessive Euro-enthusiasm of their own MEPs that they want to reduce them in number, because that will be the effect of using the British first-past-the-post system in June next year. Now that they are not very popular in the country, the Government would do well to remember that the first-past-the-post system is a knife which cuts both ways; and a government who, next June, might get only 25 to 30 per cent. of the votes for their candidates at the European election—

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

If they are lucky.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

I hear the noble Lord saying, "If they are lucky". Such a government may find that they will lose many seats to the Labour Party, to the Liberal Democrats and possibly to other parties in Scotland and Wales. I raise that point because the Government often accuse these Benches of raising purely self-interested party matters, so I am simply pointing out that the party implications of the first-past-the-post system cut both ways.

In the end, this is not a party matter. It is a matter of the public interest, as are all electoral systems. It is a matter of trying to define what would produce the democratic representation that would increase people's sense of ownership of the European Parliament.

An argument that the Government often use in the context of electoral reform for Westminster is that a particular choice of electoral system will have an effect on the way in which governments are formed. I am sure that the noble Earl will acknowledge that that question does not arise here. There is no question of a government being formed as a result of the European elections, so the argument that this is the thin end of the wedge does not apply.

I welcome the fact that since the Labour Party conference two weeks ago—and due in no small measure to the sterling efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield—the Liberal Democrats and the Labour Party are now agreed that the European elections would best be conducted by a proportional representation regional list system. In fact, I go further. Everybody and all parties in Britain, save the Government, now agree that the current system is not the best system. Any government who find themselves as isolated on issues as this Government have a duty to explain in terms other than those of narrow party interest why they are resisting a reform that would bring us sensibly into line with the rest of Europe.

Before the discussion goes any further, I should point out that I do not intend to press the matter this afternoon. But the Government should be warned that this issue will not go away. It is an argument about fairness and justice. It is an argument about the sort of representation that the European Parliament wants and deserves. When the noble Earl responds, I hope that it will be in a manner that is worthy of the seriousness of the subject and that he will not simply make a knee-jerk reflex defence of our existing system.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

I regret that it has been necessary to deal with the important matter of the electoral system of the European Parliament in the form of a clause stand part debate. Noble Lords who have frequented the Printed Paper Office will know that the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, sought to table one amendment and that I sought to table another. His would have given preference to proportional representation of a form unspecified while mine would have specified a regional list. However, the Clerks pointed out—correctly, I am sure—that the scope of the Bill did not make it possible for those amendments to stand for consideration by the Committee. Therefore, we are dealing with what is in effect a stalking horse of a Motion. I rise to speak to it very much as an amateur and I look forward to the contribution of the expert, my noble friend Lord Plant of Highfield, who knows far more about these matters than I do.

I should, however, like to speak from a personal point of view and say why I am so enthusiastic about the regional list procedure for the European parliamentary elections. When I said on Second Reading that that was a possibility, the Minister thought that he was taunting me when he said that the Labour Party could not make up its mind until it had taken a decision at conference. He described that as a failure of leadership. I do not accept that it is a failure of leadership. I do not think that this is a matter on which the leadership should dictate to a political party. The Labour Party did exactly the right thing in considering and discussing the matter at conference and corning to a democratic conclusion there. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Plant on the way in which the mailer was considered by the party and the party reached its conclusion.

As I have said, I want to explain why I, who am an unashamed supporter of the first-past-the-post system at Westminster, feel it possible to support a regional list system for the European Parliament. I believe that arguments of principle make Westminster different from the European Parliament. However, I recognise the force of the argument which my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington made on Second Reading when he argued that any list system puts excessive power into the hands of the party hierarchy. That is certainly an argument which deserves to be put into the balance.

The first reason why the regional list system seems to me to overpower that objection is, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, said, that it is the recommended procedure. Lists (either national or regional) are almost universal in other European countries, except for Ireland, and are referred to in the Maastricht Treaty which has now been ratified by all 12 countries and which will come into force, I understand, on 1st November. Therefore, if we were to change to a regional list procedure we would be adhering to the spirit as well as the letter of Maastricht.

Secondly, one argument that has always been made for the first-past-the-post system at Westminster is that single-member constituencies of a recognisable size enable the Member of Parliament to represent individuals in the constituency more effectively than could any multi-member or regional system of constituencies. That is true for Westminster, but I argue that it is very much less true for the European Parliament where constituencies are, frankly, far too large to enable the MEPs, however hardworking and however willing, actually to represent many of their constituents individually. Indeed, the whole nature of the European Parliament is that the representation of individuals is a matter for national parliaments and that it is the national parliaments which will make the voices of individuals known to the European Parliament.

The third argument for the first-past-the-post system at Westminster—and the most important of all—is the desirability of having a majority party that is able to form a government. Our representatives in the European Parliament are not able to form a government. They are not required to form a government; they are required to join the representatives of other European countries in providing a legislative function.

For all those reasons, I believe that the regional list system which the Labour Party supports for the European Parliament is rational and the right system, and it is fully consistent with the continuation of a first-past-the-post system at Westminster.

5 p.m.

Lord Plant of Highfield

I have put my name to this Motion because I regard the Bill and the political judgments which lie behind it as a missed opportunity to rethink the electoral system for the European Parliament and to develop and reform it in an incremental way.

This is the Committee stage of the Bill and is not the place for full-blown speeches about the merits and demerits of particular electoral systems. However, it seems to me that there is a strong case for the reform of Britain's electoral system for the European Parliament. The extra seats gained at the Edinburgh Summit would have allowed a reasonably painless start to have been made in that process if they had been used to create a top-up to produce a distribution of seats which would more accurately reflect the pattern of the votes cast in the election.

The case for a reformed electoral system for the European Parliament rests upon a number of factors, none of which is decisive in itself, but which, when taken together, provide a strong case for reform. First, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, said, there is the treaty obligation. Under the Treaty of Rome an obligation is laid upon the European Parliament to bring forward proposals for a uniform electoral procedure. Such proposals have now been developed by the institutional committee of the Parliament and they are embedded in the so-called de Gucht Report. The proposals were approved by the Parliament earlier this year.

The report allows for some diversity of procedure, but all the procedures endorsed in the proposals embody the principle of proportionality. So there is some pressure within the European Parliament, and those proposals will be coming to the Council of Ministers. Therefore the issue cannot be evaded. There is also the court case mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Holme.

Secondly, if the European Parliament is to act as one of the range of checks on the Commission so that the Commission can be made more and more accountable to a wide range of bodies within the Community, including the Parliament, then it is important that the Parliament is seen to act with legitimacy. But the legitimacy of the Parliament itself is not enhanced by the fact that it is elected by procedures which embody different principles—proportionality in the case of all other members of the EC, and relative plurality in the case of the United Kingdom. That difference of principle behind the notion of representation in the European Parliament can hardly add to its legitimate role within the institutions of the European Community.

It might be argued—indeed it has been argued—that the principle of subsidiarity should be applied to the electoral system for the European Parliament so that the British should decide whether to keep first-past-the-post as a system for electing Members of that Parliament. While I am strongly in favour of subsidiarity and decentralisation in general, there are good reasons of principle why subsidiarity should not apply to the electoral system. The exaggerated effects of first-past-the-post mean that the winning party receives an artificial boost under the so-called cube rule, which I do not wish to go into. That means that small swings in the vote can yield substantial differences in seats. That produces a reshaping of the power of parties in the European Parliament which is out of proportion to the role which British Members of that Parliament take.

In the context of the European Parliament, that means that first-past-the-post may have the effect of reshaping the political balance of the Parliament as a result of the domestic electoral system employed in this country. That is an argument for saying that subsidiarity should not apply here; that it is not just a matter for us to decide, irrespective of European views, what the electoral system should be, because it has a direct effect upon the political power and the form of representation in the European Parliament.

Those are the reasons that the electoral system for the European Parliament should be changed from first-past-the-post. It is argued by many supporters for first-past-the-post for the House of Commons—my noble friend Lord McIntosh of Haringey is one of those—that we want to keep that system for the House of Commons. I have now reached a contrary view, but even those who think that there should be first-past-the-post for the House of Commons believe that there are significant differences between the role of the House of Commons and that of the European Parliament. Those differences have been alluded to, and I shall not take up the Committee's time rehearsing them.

First, there is the fact that the Executive emerges from the House of Commons and depends upon the support of the House of Commons. That is not the case in the context of the European Parliament. There is that radical asymmetry between the two bodies which might lead one to think that that difference in function could be represented by different electoral systems, without getting into thin-end-of-the-wedge types of argument.

Secondly, there is the size of constituencies. There is the tradition in this country, jealously guarded, of constituency representation in the House of Commons. That obviously has to be taken fully into account when thinking about the British tradition of representation. That is weakened by the size of European constituencies. Euro-MPs cannot be accountable to the electorate in the same way as can a Member of the Westminster Parliament.

Thirdly—the evidence received by the working party I chaired for the Labour Party seemed to support this—on the whole Euro-MPs seemed to relate much more to institutions within their constituencies than to individuals. Members of the House of Commons see themselves as being accountable to individuals; Members of the European Parliament seem to relate far more to institutions and groups within their constituencies. Of course it is not either/or, but the balance seems to be that way rather than to individuals. For those reasons, one can resist the idea that the electoral reform of the European Parliament is the thin end of the wedge for the House of Commons, because I believe that there are fundamental differences which, as I say, could equally be reflected in the electoral system.

In finishing, perhaps I may try to allay one or two worries about proportional representation which have emerged over the past few months and which have been based on some misunderstanding. The first of course is that somehow it is becoming unpopular in Europe: the Italian referendum and all of that. It is false to suggest that the Italians have voted to abandon proportional representation. They have voted to adopt a substantial number of constituency MPs within their Parliament, but, at the same time, one-third of the membership of the Parliament will still be elected from party lists to ensure a proportional outcome. It is misleading to suggest that the Italians have abandoned proportional representation. Secondly, it is argued that proportional representation gives access to small parties, and, perhaps, to rather undesirable parties such as fascist parties. Obviously it all depends on issues such as thresholds, which would have to be subject to discussion and negotiation.

It is worth bearing in mind that the fascist elected in the East End of London recently was elected under the first-past-the-post system. It is also worth bearing in mind that in 1987 11 parties were represented in the House of Commons. Those two arguments (that proportional representation is becoming unpopular in Europe, for which I do not believe there is any evidence, and that about small parties) are not relevant even though they are frequently wheeled out in this debate, because they are about institutions like the House of Commons which support executives. The European Parliament does not do that. It is much more a deliberative than a legislative body. With a deliberative body, and one which needs to increase its democratic legitimacy to act as a sphere of accountability for the Commission, and one for which we have a treaty obligation to move towards uniform electoral procedures, this was a major opportunity missed in which at least one step down the road towards ensuring a more representative system for the European Parliament could have been taken. I regret that missed opportunity.

Lord Hylton

I support the case that has been well and clearly explained by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, and which has been further expanded with refinements by the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield.

I should like to refer to Northern Ireland. As I understand it, the situation there—I am sure that the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—is that, since the start of direct elections to the European Parliament, Northern Ireland has been treated as one large three-Member constituency, with proportional representation applying. That has presented no problems to the Northern Ireland electorate which is capable of coping with different electoral systems for different kinds of elections. It has led to a good relationship between the elected Members of the European Parliament from Northern Ireland who, although they come from three different parties, have been known to travel together to the United States to make the case for investment in Northern Ireland as a whole. All credit to them for that.

If that kind of experience were applied to Great Britain it would be perfectly possible to group the present European Parliament constituencies in multiples of three or four—or some small number—and everyone would understand the situation, which would produce a better result at the end of the day. I hope that the Government will take the matter seriously.

Earl Ferrers

The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, could not resist the opportunity of introducing the subject of proportional representation. I do not blame him. He takes every opportunity to do so and, so to speak, bully for him. He will not expect me necessarily to agree with him but I understand his point of view. He is entitled to put it forward and correctly so. This has been an opportunity to discuss the matter again and to hear the noble Lord, Lord Plant, who has made a study of the issue.

Whatever views we take about proportional representation, we are trying to find perfection. Of course, perfection does not exist. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, said that our partners in Europe do not like the British system. I do not know whether they do; they do not use it but that does not mean that we should not do so. With regard to the possibility of allocating the seats by proportional representation, the Government remain committed to the idea of elections in Britain by means of a simple majority; that is, the first-past-the-post system. The system is well understood by the electorate and it provides a well understood link between the electorate and the constituency member.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, said also that the first-past-the-post system can cut both ways and that the Government might be thrown out at the next general election. That is true but I do not believe that it will happen. It is possible and it does happen from time to time but we all understand it. We understand that the person who wins the most votes is elected. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, suggested that we should try to group the systems together because we all understand them. Of course, what will happen is that no one will understand that.

It is interesting to see that the first-past-the-post system is gaining some favour in the Community. As was said by the noble Lord, Lord Plant, the Italians have not abandoned proportional representation. That may be true but they have had a list system which has resulted in them having 52 governments in 48 years. Understandably, they have become frustrated and fed-up with that position. So, what have they done? They have moved towards a system under which 75 per cent. of their members will be elected by the first-past-the-post system.

The noble Lord, Lord Holme, asked why the Government wish to distort the representation in Europe. We do not wish to distort it; we wish to use the system which we have in this country and which people understand. I am bound to repeat to the Committee the fact that proportional representation is not a system; it is an all-embracing expression which covers a number of different systems, each one of which will produce a different result. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, cannot say, therefore, that one must have proportional representation in order to have justice; the result is different depending on which system of proportional representation is used. The noble Lord said that only the Government like the first-past-the-post system. As I have explained, Italy is moving more towards that direction.

The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, said that he liked the regional list system. He said that I tweaked him on the last occasion by saying that the Labour Party at its conference would have to make up its mind what to do. It did make up its mind—it sat firmly on the fence with one foot on one side and one foot on the other. It endorsed a call for a national referendum on electoral reform for the House of Commons but also supported a Motion upholding the tried and tested system of first-past-the-post on the basis that it delivers strong, single-party government. I agree with the last part.

The noble Lord, Lord Plant, said that it is in the Treaty of Rome that the European Parliament should bring forward proposals for a uniform system of election to the European Parliament. He is right; the European Parliament must produce proposals. As yet we have received no indication of when a uniform electoral procedure will be discussed by the European Council. The European Parliament has agreed on proposals which have been prepared by the Institutional Affairs Committee, of which Mr. de Gucht is the rapporteur, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme, said. At present we do not know when the Council will hold those discussions. Of course the Government will examine the proposals when they are brought before the Council, and we are fully prepared to participate in the discussions. However, we see no reason to change our present system of elections. The Treaty of Rome requires unanimity in the Council and I can assure my noble friends that Her Majesty's Government will not be forced into adopting any system which we do not want. The possibility of proportional representation has been discussed many times in this Chamber. We believe that the system which we have is understood, is clear and is one which we have used. We do not wish to see that changed.

I say to the noble Lords, Lord Holme and Lord Hylton, that the one point about the first-past-the-post system is that people understand it. If Bloggs gets one more vote than Smith, Bloggs is elected. If one takes any proportional representation system the average person will have no idea how it works or what the result will be—

Lord Hylton

Will the noble Earl answer my point about the capacity of the Northern Ireland electorate to understand the different systems and to apply them on different occasions?

Earl Ferrers

Had the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, been kind enough to contain himself for half a moment longer I would have come to that point. It is true that the single transferable vote system is used in Northern Ireland. When direct elections to the European Parliament were first introduced in 1978 it was considered that that system should be used because otherwise it would be possible that all the representatives could be drawn from one section of the community and there only three seats were to be available. The noble Lord, Lord Hylton, knows as well as anyone the problems of Northern Ireland and of the different communities there. It was considered that, whatever the result, if all three members came under one party that would be undesirable. That might have happened under the original system and that is the reason why the single transferable vote system was used in Northern Ireland.

I know that I shall not have satisfied the noble Lord, Lord Holme—that would be too much to ask. However, I fancy that I might have satisfied the noble Baroness, Lady Jeger, which is good. I can assure your Lordships only that we believe that the first-past-the-post system is the right one.

5.15 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

Does the Minister not understand that we are throwing him a lifeline? Does he not recall that at the county council elections in May the Conservatives were able to achieve a majority only in Buckinghamshire? Does he not recognise that the Conservative Party has become progressively more unpopular since the elections? Is it is not highly possible that if the Government persist with the first-past-the-post system for the European elections they might have only one MEP, from Buckinghamshire? On reflection, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Holme, will withdraw his objection to Clause 3.

Earl Ferrers

Of course I understand all the possibilities which the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, puts forward. However, the Government are extremely upright. We are perfectly prepared to take what the electorate says. If it wants another party, it shall have another party. Oddly enough, for the past 14 years, it has not done so.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

I agree with one remark which the noble Lord made: that he has not satisfied me by his extremely courteous and full response. I fear that this is another opportunity missed. My tears for the Government, rather like those of the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh—and he may think that they are crocodile tears—are for a much more proximate event than the next general election. They are for the next European elections. I merely make the point that the first-past-the-post system (as my own party has reason to know because it is a party which obtains 25 per cent. of the vote) can be peculiarly onerous not in seeking the loss of seats but in seeking a disproportionate loss of seats. However, that is in the lap of the gods and we shall see what happens next June.

The noble Earl made the point about systems that are well understood. One of the points of the intervention made by the noble Lord, Lord Hylton, is that the system is well understood in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom and people there have had no trouble at all in using a different electoral system. Indeed, the noble Earl and I have exchanged words in this House about the national lottery. This is a country which does the football pools. To make the patronising assumption that the people will not understand—as they are able to do in Northern Ireland and the rest of the European Community—a different electoral system, seems to be entirely unjustified.

Finally, the noble Earl says, on the one hand, that the Government will participate when this matter comes before the Council of Ministers. However, he seems to be saying that the Government will participate with a closed mind. Those of the noble Earl's noble friends who agree with him that there should be no change need not fear that the Government, as a result of hearing counter arguments, could possibly change their mind. That does not seem to me to be a definition of participation but rather a definition of going into the discussions with a closed mind.

Because the Government appear to have a closed mind, we shall continue to harry them at every opportunity and to press them on this issue. However, this afternoon I shall withdraw my objection to Clause 3 and I do not intend to press the matter to a Division.

On Question, Clause 3 agreed to.

Schedule agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.