HL Deb 25 June 1997 vol 580 cc1591-636

4.22 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank rose to call attention to the case for electoral reform, taking account of the 1999 elections to the European Parliament, and to the need for the early appointment of an independent commission to recommend an alternative to the first-past-the-post system for elections to the House of Commons; and to move for Papers.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, the time has long passed since electoral reform was guaranteed to provoke a yawn as a subject for serious political discussion. But never has a debate been so sharply focused as today's debate in your Lordships' House. The Motion refers to the 1999 elections to the European Parliament, and … to an independent commission to recommend an alternative to the first-past-the-post system for elections to the House of Commons". It does so because these were matters in the manifesto that gave a Labour Government an overall majority of 179 less than two months ago. Electoral reform is now practical politics and it is inescapably on the agenda of this Parliament.

So the main purpose of this debate is to provide Ministers with an opportunity to give a progress report to the House and indicate a timetable, even if a provisional timetable, on which its commitments will be honoured. From these Benches we shall probe gently, believing as we do in the Government's good faith. But in return—and I need to make this plain at the beginning of what I have to say—we shall expect a positive, unqualified restatement of the Government's position, together with clear evidence that progress is being made.

To the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, I say with respect that it will not be sufficient simply to repeat the sometimes elliptical and rather muddling messages that have come from the Government in both Houses during and since the debate on the Address.

Let me remind your Lordships of the Labour Party's commitment to elections to the European Parliament on the basis of proportional representation. First, there was the endorsement by the then Labour leader, John Smith, in May 1993, which is over four years ago, of the recommendation of the Plant report for a regional list system for such elections. Then, shortly afterwards, at the Labour Party conference in 1993 came the statement of Tony Blair, the then Shadow Home Secretary. He said, We will reform the voting system for the European Parliament". Moving to earlier this year, there was the report of the Joint Consultative Committee set up by the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats and signed, among others, by both the new Home Secretary and the new Foreign Secretary. In paragraph 62 that said: Both parties are therefore agreed that elections in Britain to the European Parliament should be on a regional list system". Finally, I shall quote from the Labour Party manifesto, which said that Labour would make, a fresh start in Europe and referred to, a detailed agenda for reform". and, leading from the front during the UK Presidency in the first half of 1998". Under this heading was the statement, We have long supported a proportional voting system for election to the European Parliament".

In these circumstances it was surprising that the gracious Speech contained no reference to European elections and no provision for legislation. But those of us who have served in government know that accidents do happen. It may well be that, in the excitement of the hour and with no clear departmental responsibility for the matter, it simply slipped through the net. But there have been plenty of opportunities since then to remedy the omission. The Prime Minister could have referred to it in the margins of Amsterdam—even perhaps when he was riding his bicycle—or yet another unattributable briefing might have emerged from the office of the Minister without Portfolio.

But I ask—and I hope that I shall receive a reply—into whose portfolio do the matters we are discussing today now fit? Is it the Home Secretary, as the presence of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, today suggests, but who is cool, to say the least, about proportional representation in any shape or form? Is it the Foreign Secretary, who has the most direct interest in European elections and the most consistent record of support for proportional representation? Or could it be the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, whose authority, distinction and presence in this House is a great reassurance to us all? I ask the simple question: who is in charge and who is going to drive things forward and make this issue his own?

Perhaps I may remind your Lordships what has been said by Ministers in this House and in another place since the general election. I do not claim that it is an exclusive list, but it seems to me to be at least a representative one. In the course of the debate on the Address, I said: These Benches would have welcomed legislation to provide for elections to the European Parliament". I asked the noble Baroness, Lady Hollis, who was winding up, if she will assure the House that, whenever this legislation comes, it will not be too late for implementation in the next European elections".— [Official Report, 19/5/97; col. 161.] She made this reply: I can tell the noble Lord that elections of MEPs to the European Parliament will eventually be subject to proportional representation". There was a slight pause and then she continued, but we cannot yet confirm the timing of those changes". There was another slight pause—not shown, I should say, in the Official Report—before the noble Baroness continued, They will need some consideration and I doubt that such electoral changes will be in place in time. Of course they may be, but I rather doubt it".—[col. 250.]

I thought that was pretty thumbs down. The word used was "eventually" which is a very indefinite description and doubly doubtful.

Then in another place on 9th June, the Home Secretary was asked a question by Mr. Richard Allan, referring to the voting system for the European elections and asking whether the changes would be brought forward with the necessary urgency to get there by 1999. Mr. Jack Straw snapped back, No, I would not agree with the hon. Gentleman. There was no manifesto commitment to introduce proportional representation or the regional list system by the 1999 European elections. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made clear, we will take final decisions on the appropriate electoral system, which we will recommend to this House and the other place, in the next few months".—[Official Report, Commons, 9/6/97; col. 790.]

Perhaps that was not a put-down, but it certainly ignored the agreement which had been reached on the regional list system and, to say the least, it was discouraging.

However, on the following day, 10th June, the Foreign Secretary replied to a similar question about the Government's intentions and said at col. 941 of Commons Hansard: It is our wish and intention to introduce a new electoral system based on lists and proportional representation for the next European elections. I said at the time that the timetable is very tight and legislation will need to be carried through this winter if it is to happen. We are still examining whether that is possible, but we have certainly not ruled it out".

That was cautious but not dismissive. Indeed, it was an improvement on what the Home Secretary had said.

Then—the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will recall this—on 11th June in a Written Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, the Minister said: In order to give time for proper consultation and preparation it would be preferable for the necessary legislation to have been enacted some 9–12 months before the elections took place under a new system. We have no present plans to introduce legislation on proportional representation for European elections this session but if an opportunity to legislate arose we would consider taking it".— [Official Report, 11/6/97; col. WA84.]

If I may so say, that was a very hit-and-miss approach. It was dismissive and was certainly much less of a partial commitment than that given by the Foreign Secretary in his answer on 10th June.

I said earlier that we have been given elliptical and muddling messages. On reflection, I should have said that, to a greater or lesser extent, they have all been discouraging messages. The wish and intention is repeated and there is a reference to a firm commitment, but there is no fresh start and no leading from the front. That is why—and I have given the Minister advance notice of what I am to say—we need a positive, unqualified restatement of the Government's position of the kind to which I have already referred. I make the obvious point that we shall assume that any such statement has been cleared with the Foreign Office and No. 10.

Let me turn now to that part of the Motion that refers to an independent commission to recommend an alternative to the first-past-the-post system for elections to the House of Commons".

Here I take as my text the following words in the Labour Party Manifesto: We are committed to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system".

The key relevant point here is the "early" appointment of a commission and that its role is to propose an "alternative". This is not another long inquiry into the virtues of proportional representation: its task is to recommend which system should be put to the voters in a referendum.

As your Lordships know, over the years a great deal of work has been done on electoral systems, not least by the Hansard Society. Then we had, in 1991 and 1993, valuable reports prepared for the Labour Party under the leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Plant of Highfield, who is sorry not to be present. For a useful summary of systems, I would recommend a House of Commons Research Paper Voting Systems—The Alternatives, published in February this year. The commission will need to initiate very little new work. At this moment, officials should be preparing bundles of papers for the commissioners to read. Then, if the right chairman has been appointed, it should be a matter of prompt discussion and an early decision.

The constitution unit attached to University College, London, which did some admirable work during the short two years of its existence, set out three possible options for the timetable for the referendum. Option A, described as a pre-legislative referendum, two Bills and a tight timetable, envisaged the establishment of what it called an advisory committee—that is, the Government's independent commission—in July (next month), reporting in January next year. Options B and C put the appointment in September. I believe they are the right parameters. I hope that the commission can be appointed before the Recess. But if the Minister says that it may slip a month or two, I think we should be content. As for reporting, I see no reason why it should not do so within six months. I hope that in announcing the appointment, Ministers will announce that timetable as well.

On the further timetable for the referendum itself, we on these Benches believe that it should and can be held within this Parliament. If it was held no later than the spring of the year 2000, there would be time for boundary reviews and, if this Parliament runs its full length, for the next general election to be held by proportional representation.

I recognise that such a timetable is tight. Once the Government have made their choice of an alternative to first-past-the-post there must be time for adequate public discussion before the referendum is held. There will be difficult political judgments, taking account of opinions in the House of Commons, about precisely when this should be; but there is no excuse for delaying the appointment of the independent commission. The whole complicated constitutional process must at least get off on time.

I turn briefly to substance of the matter and to opinion in the country. The latest figures that I have seen come from a MORI poll conducted in April of this year—two months ago. Perhaps I may quote the answers to two questions. The first concerned changes that a government might propose in the future and whether they should, hold a referendum on changing the voting system we use to elect MP's".

Support for that proposal was 50 per cent., while 24 per cent. of those who replied opposed it. In other words, there was a majority of just over 2:1 in favour of holding a referendum on changing the voting system. The second question referred directly to electoral reform. The proposition was put in this way: This country should adopt a new voting system that would give parties seats in Parliament in proportion to their share of the votes".

In response to that statement, 65 per cent. agreed (of whom 27 per cent. strongly agreed), while 17 per cent. disagreed (of whom 6 per cent. strongly disagreed). That gives a proportion of roughly 4:1 in favour of change.

On these Benches, we believe that proportional representation is an idea whose time has come, but we are now ready to pass on to the Government the torch which so many of my colleagues have carried for so long. Constitutional reform is not about turning our backs on history, but about building on what is good in our parliamentary system and traditions and on changing what is not. That is surely the proper theme for the closing years of this millennium.

My Lords, I beg to move for Papers.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, not for the first time, I find myself in substantial agreement with a great deal of what was said by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. I believe, with him, that there is an urgency about the subject if a new electoral system is to be in place for the Euro-elections in 1999. I confess to not knowing what is the margin of time available to us or whether it will be possible. I look forward to hearing what my noble friend has to say about that.

I agree also with the noble Lord that the present system is less than fair, and that it discourages people from participating in the democratic process. Many believe that, by reason of the place where they live, they are condemned to a life time of frustration.

Indeed, a few years ago my own son, then in his 30s, commented that he had never voted for a winning candidate. Happily, he no longer holds that record, but that situation cannot be conducive to a healthy democracy. Even Walter Bagehot, who argued strongly for the simple majority system, confessed that for 20 years, living as he did in an agricultural county, he had always voted for losing candidates, and he understood why people felt that their vote was wasted.

In principle, I wholly support what was said by the noble Lord. I hope that he will forgive me—we have known each other for many years—if I now go on to spoil it by venturing one comment and two admonitions.

The comment is that one might have thought from the noble Lord's speech that some form of proportional representation was something which had always been urged by the Liberal Democratic Party and supported at best half-heartedly by the Labour Party. History does not bear that out. Keir Hardie himself argued for proportional representation, admittedly at a time when the positions were somewhat reversed, when he was concerned that there should continue to be a separate Labour Party which should not be submerged within the Liberal Party.

But there have from time to time been those in my party who have argued strongly for proportional representation and indeed from time to time they have been in the majority. In 1918, as the noble Lord will recollect—I still have a copy of his book The People into Parliament; I am always prepared to give a plug to my friends—the Labour Party conference voted for a resolution in favour of proportional representation, at a time, if he will forgive me for reminding him, when Lloyd George was declining to implement a proposal to the same effect from the Speaker's Conference.

We have all had views on this issue from time to time. Some of us, admittedly, have been political Hamlets about the subject, but that of course does not preclude us from considering it now on its merits.

I turn to my two admonitions. The first is that we all have our views as to what should be in the Government's legislative programme. The Government have a very heavy programme for this Session. Quite a lot of the legislative time is to be occupied by constitutional measures. Some of them certainly, like the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights, will receive the strong support of the Liberal Democratic Party. I should be the last to complain that we should be addressing constitutional reform.

But there are other demands on legislative time—some of them for measures of great importance. The House debated one such measure yesterday. Even the noble Lord and I must beware of overstating the importance of constitutional reform in that scale. For those of us who are concerned with constitutional reform, there is a temptation to believe that constitutional changes will be the answer to all our problems. I speak as one who is as addicted to them as the noble Lord. It was ever thus.

I speak with some deference in the hearing of the noble Earl, Lord Russell. During the struggle which led to the Reform Act 1832, supporters of the campaign spoke as though, if once it could be achieved, the people of Britain would regain all the liberties which, as many of them believed, they had enjoyed in the golden age before the Norman Conquest. Those who opposed the Bill predicted anarchy. The old ways would be trampled underfoot and Britain would become ungovernable. Neither of those vicissitudes took place.

I believe that it was a good measure, but within 20 years of its passing virtually everyone felt that it had not made all that difference. Wellington and Peel, who had opposed the measure, were regarded as benign popular champions. Those who predicted Götterdämmerung found that they flourished under the new system. The debate was replaced by arguments for the 1867 Act and again for the 1885 Act. Neither of those measures brought about Shangri-La or Domesday.

I do not believe that constitutional reform will ensure jobs for those who are unemployed, a more effective health service, shelter for the homeless, or a better education system. I do not believe that my former constituents, if asked what they most wanted to see from the new Government, would reply, "A different electoral system".

I am not even sure that proportional representation is all we need to restore public confidence in Parliament, and to motivate the 2 million potential electors who do not even trouble to register. There is a whole range of procedural reforms, as regards which I am sure the noble Lord would join me, which call to be addressed before people feel that we are in the course of repairing the democratic process. I support what the noble Lord said about proportional representation, but it is not the only important measure for which time has to be found.

My second admonition is that I agree with the noble Lord that it is often difficult to change an electoral system when once it is in place. So we had better get this one right. There are many options, as the noble Lord reminded us. I share his regret that we are not today to benefit from the wisdom of my noble friend Lord Plant whose commission explored them all so carefully. A system which is appropriate for European elections is not necessarily the system that we want for elections to a national parliament.

Today I make just two brief contributions to that debate. I would be troubled by any system which led to multi-Member constituencies. I was privileged for 26 years to represent a constituency which, subject to some changes, remained essentially the same constituency. I came to know virtually all the social activities in the area. I visited most of the churches and learned their various concerns and needs. I was familiar with most of the area's sporting activities and despite my insistence that I was not going to breathe down the necks of my successors, I remain president of a local football club. I came to know the historical societies, the choirs, the music societies, the operatic societies, the mentally and physically handicapped groups, and the various ethnic minority groups.

I believe that that was healthy for the area. It was certainly good for me. A system which presented a Member with a much larger constituency, as, for example, the constituencies of American senators, would not have permitted that. I suspect that a constituency shared by more than one Member, especially if they happen to be from different parties, would be tempted to play off one Member against another, and the Members would be tempted to indulge in a Dutch auction which might bear little relation to the merits of a proposal.

Secondly, I believe that we shall lose something of the relationship between Members and constituencies if we introduce national party lists. There may be individual occasions when a constituency party has behaved so irresponsibly that the whole national party is in danger of disrepute and when a local choice should be overruled. Furthermore, there may be occasions when efforts should be made to introduce a particular candidate with a special contribution to make. But I believe that the lifeblood of our system is the right of localities to make their own choice. I agree with the noble Lord that in European elections different arguments apply, but I would agree with the regional lists.

I believe that there is a whole spectrum of choices still to make and we will understand if my noble friend tells us that the Government may need more time to consult. But if I seem to have diluted my initial support for the noble Lord perhaps I may reassure him that I suspect that when the time comes he and I will be substantially on the same side.

4.50 p.m.

Lord Bethell

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, for introducing the debate. I wish to say a few words entirely on the issue of elections to the European Parliament and at the outset I should declare my interest. I was elected three times to the European Parliament by the first-past-the-post system and I have been selected as the prospective candidate for London North West in the June 1999 European elections; that is, if those elections take place on the present basis.

I hope that I shall not be accused of too much bias in this matter because I also stood unsuccessfully for the European Parliament in 1994 under the present system. Afterwards, I was told by the Electoral Reform Society that if there had been a regional list in 1994 I would have won. Be that as it may, I hope that I have a lack of bias in this matter.

Many people believe that the present system of election to Strasbourg, as well as to Westminster, is unfair—and the word "unfair" is underlined. I suppose that that is particularly true about the Strasbourg elections. In 1979, the Conservatives held 77 per cent. of the seats in the European Parliament, having gained only 50 per cent. of the votes cast. Presently, as a result of the 1994 elections, Labour holds 74 per cent. of the seats, having polled only 44 per cent. of the votes. In 1984, the Liberal/SDP Alliance polled nearly 20 per cent. and did not receive a single seat. In 1989, the Greens polled 15 per cent. and were likewise unrewarded in any single case. It is argued that in simple justice the system ought to be changed. Of course, we are bound by certain treaty obligations eventually to introduce a uniform electoral system in elections to the European Parliament. I trust that that treaty obligation will be fulfilled in due course.

On the other hand, there are many continental colleagues in the European Parliament who are extremely envious of the British system and who tell British colleagues how much they wish they could have been elected on the same basis. It is useful for a constituent to have a Member of the European Parliament who is his or her's alone. It makes sense for each voter to have a representative in Strasbourg who belongs to him or her; to have a constituency office; to have an address to which letters can be written; and to have someone to whom he or she can refer. If one had a list system, particularly a national list system, that would be difficult to achieve.

Of course, we know how comparatively few members of the public know the names of their Member of the European Parliament. In France, Spain and Greece, members of the public do not know the name of their Member of the European Parliament because they do not have one. They are simply presented with a list of Members for whom they may or may not have voted. Whatever the Government decide in this matter, I beg them not to introduce into Parliament a national list system because it is pernicious. I have seen it and it does not work. It would be as bad as though, heaven forbid, your Lordships' House were to consist entirely of nominated Members. It is not good to have co-opted members; I believe that they should be elected.

The Member who is in Strasbourg on the national list is remote from the voters, much more than is the case in this country. The national list becomes a dumping ground for those who are owed a favour and it ensures discipline. It is very difficult to be an elected person in Strasbourg from France, Greece or Spain and in the slightest degree to diverge from the policy of the leader of the party. If they do the sanctions are immediate and drastic. The great leader, Joseph Stalin, said that members of the Politburo should be changed frequently. That is the attitude of many party leaders in Strasbourg to their Members of the European Parliament who stray slightly from the policies of the party on whose list they have been included.

Frequently I have sought support from French, Greek and Spanish colleagues in Strasbourg only to be told, "I would support you, but if I did I would be biffé de la list". In other words, they would be struck off the list, and it could be done without any why or wherefore. Mr. Papandreou and M. Mitterrand were great exponents of that particular art. Therefore, let us have Members of the European Parliament who are elected rather than co-opted and who are not given five years in Strasbourg like a parent gives a piece of chocolate to a child.

If the Government are to embark upon this enterprise—and I suppose that they will eventually—there are several versions of the system for them to take into account. I suppose that the favourite is the regional list system. It was, after all, the basis of the Bill put forward in the late 1970s under the Lib/Lab pact. The problem is that a candidate has to compete for votes against other candidates from his own party. From conversing with colleagues from Ireland and the Netherlands who have a regional list system, I know that great bitterness ensues when one has to fight an election more against one's own party colleague than against the party to which one is opposed. There is the famous anecdote along the lines, "Noble Lords opposite may be my adversaries, but noble friends can be my enemies". I am afraid that it works in that way, particularly during elections on a regional list system.

One must look carefully at how that would be worked out. For instance, if one has in London a 10-Member constituency there will not be 10 votes per elector because if there were the party with the slight majority would scoop the pool and there would be no change from the first-past-the-post system.

I suggest that a fair result in a 10-member London regional election would be four Members if a party achieves 40 per cent. of the votes cast. In a normal year, that would probably apply to both the Conservative and Labour parties. That would mean that the 20 per cent. of votes cast for the Liberal Democrats would result in two Members being elected. I take that as a possibility.

However, it means that candidates will have to be chosen and will have to put themselves up for election, if they are numbers five to 10, on the understanding that they are extremely unlikely, almost definitely unlikely, to be elected. By the same token, numbers one to three are almost certain to be elected and there may perhaps be some argument over number four. But the election is, as it were, cooked up in advance. Unless one is very careful, one will find that the result of the election is not decided by the electors but is decided in the smoke-filled room where the party list is put together. Again, I beg the Government not to allow a regional list system where the order of the members on the list is decided by the party leadership. That is the way of Stalinism, which we all reject.

Another possibility would be for the list and its order to be put together by party activists. But perhaps the best way would be for the electorate to have an opportunity to choose which candidates out of those on the regional lists it would most like to see representing it.

It has been mentioned that the Government are intending in due course to bring in that measure and to have proportional representation in elections to the European Parliament. I dare say that will come. We are treaty bound to bring that about. On the other hand, the Government may have more important matters to deal with in the next few months than changing the system in time for 1999.

Let us bear in mind the fact that, in the early years of the new millennium, there will have to be a substantial upheaval in the composition of the European Parliament as a result of enlargement. Several countries will join in the early years after the year 2000 and many dozens of new MEPs will be added to that assembly. I suspect that the members of the EU will find it impossible to keep on enlarging the assembly. It already contains 626 Members. It is a large House. Perhaps it should be capped at a figure of 700 Members. If that happens, the existing large members of the EU will lose part of their representation. I suggest that that will mean that the constituencies will have to be redrawn and become unacceptably large. As a result of enlargement, the changes will be considerable and it may be preferable to tackle those issues in the year 2000 or 2001, after enlargement, rather than this year or next year.

I have declared my interest in this matter and noble Lords will have to make a judgment. However, I believe that something must be done and a decision should be made by the Government. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, that there has been equivocation on this matter in rather conflicting statements made about it by Mr. Cook and Mr. Straw in another place. The European Parliament has, up to now, been the sick man of the British electoral system. Whatever the changes are, I look forward to seeing the European Parliament playing a significant role, co-operating with national parliaments and not competing with them, each one bearing in mind the national interest.

5.5 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I listened with great pleasure to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, who used to represent me in the European Parliament and, if I may say so, did so extremely well. I never actually voted for the noble Lord but the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, once tempted me very sorely to do so.

I listened also with very great pleasure to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell. The noble and learned Lord is quite right to say that there are many other issues—jobs, poverty and homelessness—to which we need to pay attention. But he knows that for my part, he is preaching to the converted. But I should also like any measures that are brought in in that respect to last, if possible. That is a relevant consideration.

It is well understood that gratitude is one of the weakest of political emotions. That is perfectly right and proper because after all, gratitude by definition must relate to the past. But the activity of politics is a jostling for right of way in that very narrow gateway which leads from the present to the future. Therefore, the relevance of anything from the past must be extremely limited. For that reason, I shall not rehearse the arguments used by Mr. Peter Kellner in the Evening Standard today. Any decision taken by the Prime Minister on this subject will not be taken because of anything done on these or any other parliamentary Benches. It will be taken on grounds of sheer hard-headed self-interest. It is in those terms that I wish to address arguments to the question; to argue that it would be in his interests not only to go ahead but also to make a positive recommendation in the referendum.

We are told that the Prime Minister holds the view that the objection to proportional representation is that it gives too much power to small parties, though I will say only that that view is attributed to him. I go no further. There may be some truth in it. But it is a necessary part of democracy that the last brick which builds the majority has a very considerable weight. We have all taken part in votes with a majority of one; we have all claimed to be that one; and we all know the power that that confers.

My argument is that first-past-the-post confers power on even smaller parties. First-past-the-post does not always, as we remember, deliver an overwhelming majority to one party, although it often does. Somebody has to make up the majority. That person may not be a member of a party accountable to a substantial number of voters, but may be a member of a small regional or splinter group. I will not speculate on how much power the Ulster Unionists did or did not enjoy in the last months of the last Parliament. But I will say that in circumstances where we have had two Prime Ministers so admirably determined to continue a hi-partisan tradition in Northern Irish politics, it would be unfortunate if the balance of power were held by a Northern Irish party. It would make the task more difficult.

I remember the Parliament of 1964 when Mr. Wilson, as he then was, enjoyed a majority of four of whom two—Mr. Woodrow Wyatt and Mr. Desmond Donnelly—did not always vote with the majority. Therefore, in that Parliament those two people enjoyed a very large measure of power indeed. You cannot get much smaller than that; but you can get a bit smaller than that.

In 1979, as we all know, the Government fell because Mr. Frank Maguire, Member for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, attended the House and abstained in person. I shall not speculate on what might happen in the Parliament after next. However, it is not absolutely impossible that, after a string of unsuccessful by-elections in the Parliament after this one, the Prime Minister might find his majority reduced from one to minus one. Let us imagine that he then received a private approach from Mr. Gerry Adams offering to take his seat and support the Government in return for God knows what concession. I am sure that the Prime Minister is perfectly capable of saying, "Get thee behind me, Satan", but there is no need for him to be led into temptation. Let us have no more of the argument about the power of small parties, when the alternative system which has been recommended only gives the power to even smaller parties. I believe that that argument is overblown.

The Prime Minister might also reflect during the course of this Parliament on the proof of the remark made by the noble Lord, Lord Pym, in 1983, that, "It is not good for a party to have too big a majority". I read in a newspaper report yesterday of a plan, first floated just after the election, for Labour MPs, in turn, to be sent out into the country, as it were, on progress, to keep them away from Westminster and out of mischief. That plan is ascribed to the Minister without Portfolio, but there is force in the archaeologists' rule that earth works of unknown origin are regularly ascribed either to the Devil or Julius Caesar. I make no speculation on which it might be.

As the noble Lord, Lord Bethel], just reminded us, we also know that the first-past-the-post system produces massive overswings. I am reminded of the Punch cartoon featuring my great grandfather and Sir Robert Peel on a see-saw. It shows my great grandfather up in the air saying triumphantly, "Hey, we go up; we go up", while Mr. Peel is saying, "Yes, and down again soon enough with a nasty bump I shouldn't wonder". So there are roundabouts that go with the swings on first-past-the-post, and they can be quite violent. Moreover, it does not always deliver victory to the party with the most votes.

Many noble Lords will remember the general election of 1951 when the Labour Party won far more votes than the Conservatives, yet won fewer seats and lost the election because those votes were concentrated in particular areas—like South Wales and County Durham—where they did not translate into seats. Those who study their information should reflect on the point made by Mr. Tony Crosland; namely, that all the governments that were in power in 1952 when the post-Korean war boom began were still in power in the middle 1960s.

The Labour Party may have lost out very heavily indeed through not having proportional representation in 1951, but I believe that it also suffers from the effect of not having PR in local government. The Prime Minister knows perfectly well that Islington Council is worth far more to his enemies than to his friends. The same has been said of Sheffield Council. After discovering itself for practically the first time in its history facing serious opposition from my party in 1994, its leader made a most ill-judged remark when talking to the Daily Telegraph. He said, "Liberal Democrats are like fascists; they exploit discontent". I thought that that was called democracy, and one should not have had to wait so long after becoming leader of a council before having a first encounter with it. I believe that these local authority fiefdoms do not always do good to the party in whose name they sit. Making them susceptible to challenge could be in the interests of any governing party.

I also believe that the first-past-the-post system gives a great advantage to some, but not all, regionally based parties. I have with me a note of the number of votes that it took to elect a Member from each of the main parties in the present Parliament: Labour 32,420—a high rate of striking upon which I congratulate the party; Conservative 58,125; Liberal-Democrat 113,985—four times as high a rate of striking as 1983; SNP—and that party was one of the big losers of first-past-the-post—103,526; and Plaid Cymru 15,641. I have great respect for the party for which the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, used to sit. Indeed, I once lived in the constituency that he used to represent, but I do not think that he is about to tell the House that he deserved to find it six times as easy to return a Member of Parliament as the Scottish Nationalists. I should add that that point is made in the friendliest of spirits.

We should also think about the question of legitimacy in the eyes of the voters. That is vital. It has been a nightmare of parliaments in all centuries that, as one Member put it in 1628, "They will not pay in the country what we give". So the belief that Parliament represents the people is vital to the strength of the government of any party, but that belief is now ebbing.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, spoke movingly about the frustration felt by his son at never voting for a winning candidate. When I took my seat in this House in 1987, I lost the vote and was quite dismayed to find how little I missed it. I had voted in every election since 1959, save one when I was out of the country. I only once voted in a seat which changed hands and only once voted in a seat which might have changed hands. It is a basic principle of legitimacy that all votes ought to count equally, whereas now we have heard it said that the 1992 election was decided by 100,000 votes. It makes it more important to chase Sun readers in Basildon or in Hayes and Harlington than it does to chase the many thousands of voters who happen to live somewhere else.

I agree with what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, said about not turning our backs on history. However, the point about the first-past-the-post system is that it pre-dates party. It is a system devised by King Edward I for the Model Parliament of 1295 when party had not been so much as thought of. Of course it does not represent party; indeed, it was never designed to do so. That is why people in this country who want to choose a government can do nothing except vote for an individual MP and, in many constituencies, that can leave them very frustrated indeed.

The first move towards proportional representation was brought in by my great grandfather in the 1832 Reform Bill when he produced what appeared to be the absolutely revolutionary measure of linking the size of constituencies with the number of voters. Because that was an assault on electoral property, it caused a great deal more anger in 1832 than the enlargement of the franchise. It was the beginning of a process which I hope will now continue.

If we want all votes to count equally and if we want everyone to be able to have a say in his or her choice of government, we need a system which would make that possible. On 15th August last, Mr. Nick Brown was the Labour Deputy Whip in Opposition. He is now Government Chief Whip. I believe that he might legitimately be described as "sources close to the Government". He said then that, the Election is fought by national political parties, and the role of the individual, although important, is subservient to the role of the party". We on these Benches might take the view that that was a slightly exaggerated view, but one of the legitimate things that people may want to do in a general election is to choose a government. If you hold the view held by Mr. Nick Brown, it passes imagination to hold that view without supporting an electoral system which is capable of representing parties.

5.20 p.m.

Lord Elis-Thomas

My Lords, I am, as always, delighted to follow the noble Earl, Lord Russell. He has kindly made my first point for me as in a sense I had a vested interest in the present electoral system for a long time when I was in another place. I voted for myself continually until I was disenfranchised, and won every time except once—that was the first time. However, I shall discuss the serious point that he made. I am grateful to him for his historical, learned and witty contributions to all our debates. I was relieved to hear it confirmed that it was indeed Edward I who established the present system, so clearly I must be against it!

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, for introducing the debate and for giving this House the opportunity to support the principle of reforming the electoral system and to press the Minister in the gentlest possible way on where the Government are in their thinking on the issue.

The question of electoral reform is not just a constitutional issue. It has an implication for the whole conduct of politics and for our entire political culture in that the nature of the system determines the form of the representation, and that in its turn determines the attitude that potential representatives adopt to being elected. I suggest that the lack of proportional representation has had an effect on the nature of campaigns. The whole issue of so-called tactical voting has created a tendency towards negative campaigning. It has tended to create a campaign which concentrates not on the positive putting forward of programmes but on rubbishing others. The sooner we move to the more creative political debate that PR will bring about the better.

The other obvious weakness of the present system is that it reflects a form of majoritarianism. It is true to say that occasionally smaller parties can hold more than their fair share of the balance of power. I remember with great affection the evening when Mr. Maguire abstained in person. I remember the activities of my dear friend Mr. Walter Harrison in trying to persuade him to change his mind on that evening. However, it is generally the case that minority interests suffer from not being seen as equally valid in the representative process, in that if there is an overall majority, especially a large one—this again is a gentle warning to the present Government—it may result in the feeling among electors that those who have not supported that particular party may be disenfranchised, or may not be as effective in terms of lobbying or influencing that government. That may become an issue sooner rather than later when we debate the referendums Bill next week. Therefore I shall not discuss that in detail now.

It appears there will be proportional representation for the Welsh assembly and for the Scottish assembly although obviously we shall have to wait for the White Papers to confirm that. In announcing a referendum for both assemblies, the decision of the Government to consult the people is an important precedent for what they could and should be doing in the case of proportional representation. I believe that the two issues are closely linked because if the Government want a sure and certain victory both in Scotland and in Wales, and the sure and certain support of people who are not necessarily Labour voters—of which there are still some 40 per cent. of us on a good day, even in Wales—it is important that the Government should indicate their genuine adherence to the principle of real plurality. By that I do not mean plurality and the first-past-the-post system; I mean genuine political plurality in terms of the role of each party and each representative.

I am able, as always, to bring to my noble friend Lord Williams of Mostyn good news from Anglesey where last night there was a mass meeting of the Yes for Wales campaign. There were nearly 200 souls at Oriel Ynys Mon. I promised the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, that I would relay that news as soon as I could. I do so now. At that meeting the concern was raised—as it always is in such discussions—that a Welsh assembly would be Labour dominated. If the majority of the Welsh people vote for the Labour Party, clearly it should be the majority party in any assembly. However, it is equally important for the north and for mid-Wales and for other parties to feel that their voice is clearly heard and that their representatives standing for election are, as it were, of equal value to those of the main party. For that reason, if the Labour Party is seen to espouse PR in other levels of election, that will strengthen its position as regards the referendum on devolution.

I do not want to go into the detail of alternative systems—that can come later—but I support the principle that there should be a commission to look into this matter. It seems to me that all the options which are on offer and which are practised in other states of the European Union and indeed in New Zealand and elsewhere are ones that we can easily study and reach conclusions on. I am not so much concerned about the loss of the direct link between the member and his or her constituents, as was my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell, because I think there is an argument for a multi-member constituency, not on the basis that constituents with problems can be shunted from one member to another—that is not the argument—but that members can specialise in different aspects of a constituency and in different problems and different issues. I can imagine a constituency comprising a mixed membership from different parties, or indeed from the same party, where one could have specialists in different aspects of policy who would complement each other. I know there is a feeling—this may exist in parts of the Labour Party—that it is invidious to have competition between members of the same party. Those of us who have worked for many years in smaller parties are familiar with competition among members of smaller parties and do not find it a problem. There is a case for the multi-member constituency. There can be a rewarding role for more than one member in a constituency in terms of providing complementary skills, team working and all the rest of it.

I wish to mention one more detailed point in relation to the European Parliament. This, again, is a point of history because we seem to come back to these matters in cycles of 20 years. I have not checked Hansard but I must have been present in 1977 when we had our free vote in another place on the question of proportional representation and election to the European Parliament. I certainly have had an opportunity both to study the political memoirs of the great Irish statesman, Dr. Garret Fitzgerald, and indeed to discuss with him the way in which the allocation of seats for the European Parliament was carved up between member states in the late 1970s. I mention that because the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, quite rightly mentioned the whole question of enlargement. At the time of the previous enlargement and the accession of Greece, Spain and Portugal, there was serious discussion within the Council of Ministers during the Irish presidency and later during the French presidency on the question of allocation. It involved members of the then Labour government. In his memoirs All in a Life, Dr. Fitzgerald said, Further wrangling followed. Then Callaghan and Crosland came to us to say that they were going to propose 82 seats for the larger countries, which would enable them to give an extra seat to Northern Ireland, as well as extra seats to Scotland and Wales, bringing these to 10 and 5 seats respectively. In the end, at Giscard d'Estaing's urging in a top-of-the-table 'huddle', Callaghan said he would settle for 81 seats by dropping an extra seat claimed for England. So it was agreed. But in the event, interestingly enough, Scotland and Wales never got their extra seats. Although the need to make greater provision for Scotland and Wales had been the basis of the British argument for more seats, it was to England that the additional seats were allocated. Scotland's proposed 10 was reduced to 8, and Wales's five became 4". I raise that point because Wales again has five. If we have electoral reform, and regional or national lists for the European Parliament, we must ensure that the allocation of numbers of seats is not drawn up in huddles in the Council of Ministers in a way which leaves member states at that level imposing their will upon constituent regions or nationalities. This is not an issue simply for the United Kingdom; it applies throughout the European Union and in the countries and states of eastern Europe.

In that context I turn to my final quotation; it is hot off the press. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, will have had his copy already, being an active member no doubt of the Institute of Welsh Affairs. A report was published yesterday by Sir John Gray, a distinguished ambassador of the United Kingdom, at one time in Brussels, and Mr. John Osmond. They refer to the European Parliament and representation. The group which produced the report includes a distinguished list of academics and experts. In relation to the European Parliament and Wales's representation, the report states: The status of the MEPs as representatives of Wales generally would be enhanced by some form of proportional representation with Wales as a single constituency. This would give a better reflection of political views across Wales and would increase the pressure on Welsh MEPs to put Welsh interests in the European Parliament high up their list of priorities". As one who stood for the European Parliament—I say that before the noble Lord, Lord Williams, makes the point to me—it is not for me to suggest that the fact that Wales is represented by five Labour members does a disservice to the country. I do not believe that it does. There are some effective members of the parliament within that team. However, when we consider European Union policy, and the result of the last Westminster election, it is important that we recognise the plurality of representation within Wales, within Scotland, as has been mentioned by the noble Earl, and within the rest of the European Union. If the Government are serious, as I believe they are, in their European vocation, then surely the time has come for us to join the remainder of Europe on this issue.

5.33 p.m.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank for introducing the debate and to the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, for reminding us of the negotiations in 1979 to which Garret Fitzgerald referred in his book. As the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, pointed out, those discussions referred to an extra seat for Northern Ireland. Unless I missed something major in the Prime Minister's Statement earlier, I believe that we still remain a part of the United Kingdom. That means that proportional representation has been an operative system in the United Kingdom for a very long time.

Since 1979, all direct elections in Northern Ireland to the European Parliament have been fought under a system of proportional representation. Indeed, that third seat was introduced in order to ensure that nationalists were represented in the European Parliament, as they have been with such distinction by John Hume, now the leader of the SDLP, although not at that time. Proportional representation was introduced for the European Parliament for precisely the same reason: to ensure that there was fairness and that as many sections of the population as possible were represented.

That was not the first time that proportional representation had been introduced in Northern Ireland. When Northern Ireland was established, proportional representation was used precisely because it was understood that the only way one could ensure that all sections of the community were represented, and felt represented was to have a proportional system. Matters continued that way until 1929 when the Ulster Unionist Party decided that it did not want too many people to be represented apart from Ulster Unionists and sent it to the side. When everything went to pieces at the end of the 1960s, one of the first things that Parliament did was to reintroduce proportional representation precisely because it was appreciated that the lack of a proportionate system over those years had contributed to instability in Northern Ireland.

While I understand that there can be times when matters of constitutional import are of particular interest to those who have a bent in that direction—the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, mentioned that it can be almost an addiction—from my part of the world it is not so much a mere addiction as a matter of life and death. Unless there are opportunities for people to feel represented, they turn away from politics.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, said that as a constituency MP he felt at that time involved with everything that went on; he felt that he had his finger on the pulse. I have no doubt that that was the case. But let us consider it from the other point of view. Sometimes a Member of Parliament is elected with an overwhelming majority. But often he does not have even 50 per cent. of the votes. Do all those who did not vote for that Member of Parliament feel a similar identification with him? They certainly do not, as I can testify in Northern Ireland. Despite the fact that my party has consistently achieved between 8 per cent. and 10 per cent., it has never had a Member in the House of Commons. Instead we find ourselves represented by people like Mr. Peter Robinson, the MP for my constituency. I can tell noble Lords that not a single person who votes for my party in that constituency feels the slightest bit represented by, or identifies with, their Member of Parliament. With a multi-member system one is more likely to find at least one member with whom one can identify.

It is said that it is important to maintain the present system because if one has multi-members people will take their problems from one to another member. I fear that the governing party has not thought things through very well. With Scottish devolution, constituents will have the choice of whether to take matters to their member in the Scottish Parliament or the Westminster Parliament. That will create a novelty of competition which has not been much thought through.

I return to our experience in Northern Ireland. For a long time we had a Northern Ireland Parliament. Members addressed issues there, and at the same time, as part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland had Members in the House of Commons and in this House. There was a tendency, a convention, to move towards a division of labour. But without a proportionate system many people did not feel represented. All local councils are elected on a proportionate system in Northern Ireland and have been since the early 1970s. Various bodies—the noble Lord, Lord Fitt, participated in some—were elected on a proportionate basis. No one in Northern Ireland believes that it would now be appropriate for any new bodies in Northern Ireland to be elected by any system other than a proportionate system.

Everyone has begun to realise that, without a proportionate system, the identification of those not voting for the successful candidate is very slim indeed. Furthermore, it tends to promote deep splits in the community. It tends to promote tactical voting, sometimes of a most unsavoury kind.

For example, in the recent Westminster election in the Mid-Ulster seat, because of the odium in which the Member at that time, the Reverend William McCrea, was held, and because of the first-past-the-post system, many nationalist people deserted the relatively responsible party of Mr. John Hume and voted instead for Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein. Why? Because only by such a tactical vote could they represent their antipathy towards Mr. McCrea. Had there been a proportionate system, that forced choice would never have happened. People could have voted for the SDLP, and subsequently for others. Instead, they were forced into an entirely invidious choice. Not only my own party, but now the SDLP and the Unionist Party, are looking very much to proportionality to get us out of this appalling forced choice that many responsible people have found themselves pressed to make. I should be rather surprised if the Conservative Party in Scotland, and indeed elsewhere, did not feel that it was in its interest. It is now a party that stands in all four jurisdictions of the United Kingdom but can get itself elected in only one. That is unkind, but it is the truth. It is unfair that Conservative voters in considerable numbers in Scotland do not have representatives with whom they can identify.

The situation is even more serious than that, not only at individual and constituency level, but at the national level. We can find governments repeatedly composed of minority support in the community as a whole—governments, regularly, even with large majorities on occasion, with much less than 50 per cent. of the vote. Sometimes that produces disastrous consequences. Let us take, for example, the situation in South Africa in 1948. The National Party took fewer votes than the United Party and yet, as a result of the first-past-the-post system, won the election and introduced apartheid. I rather think that the majority of people in South Africa at that time who had the opportunity to vote—that was in itself of course only a minority—might well not at all have supported what happened. A government with a minority of support in the community, because of the first-past-the-post system, had a majority of seats and were able to force through measures that had disastrous historical consequences. We have the experience in this country of governments with much less than majority support making extremely foolish decisions that would not have been made if the majority of the people had had a majority say in what happened.

It is true that colleagues on the Liberal Benches have a particular interest in such matters. The under-representation of Liberals, particularly at the European level, has been extraordinary. This is not just a party question; it is a national issue. Let us take, for example, the situation in the last European election. The Liberal Democrats in Britain took more votes than any other Liberal party in the whole of Europe—and ended up with two seats out of 43 and 26 per cent. of the votes cast for Liberals in Europe as a whole. At least there were two seats; at least there were two voices. Before that, there was not a single English-speaking voice for that third largest political family in the European Parliament, save one independent from the Republic of Ireland. Is it not in the national interest that in the third major political family in Europe, and in the European Parliament, English-speaking voices should be coming from this jurisdiction, and in proportion to their strength and their support as a whole?

This is not merely a party matter, not merely a matter of propriety and fairness, not merely a matter of stability. It is a matter of national interest. I trust that the Government will therefore treat it with the urgency that a matter of national interest demands.

5.45 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, other noble Lords spoke forcefully of the importance of a fair voting system. Like the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, my arguments are not on behalf of the third political family, as he calls my colleagues—indeed, one might say the second political family in terms of local government. They are directed particularly to a matter which is as important as those put forward by previous speakers, and at least as urgent, perhaps more so, than the examples they chose. I refer to the forthcoming consultation, referendum and, I hope, elections for an authority for London.

The Minister says—and we agree with him—that a new London authority should be inclusive; it should be co-operative and consensual. We on these Benches very much hope that that is what it will turn out to be. We recognise the value of a body that can work in that way. We heard that the Government want the members of that body to work on pan-London issues. That may be possible only with a system of proportional representation—at any rate, it will be considerably facilitated by such a system, one which will perhaps avoid the constraints of constituency ties.

We have heard that the authority is likely to be quite small. If it is less than 32 in number, by definition that will mean that there is less than one member for each London borough. That, too, argues for some form of proportional representation. And there are many more parliamentary constituencies; to use those numbers would only reinforce my point.

We on these Benches very much want the new London authority to succeed. We are aware of the need for a proper voice for London. We are especially aware of the need for that voice to be democratic and properly accountable. Those who watched even five minutes' coverage of the last election could not fail to see how far into disrepute our political system has fallen. The London elections present a major opportunity to reverse the process, to be part of the re-invigoration of democracy.

Consensual, not adversarial, politics are much to be commended. Having chaired a London-wide committee for a period of eight years following the abolition of the GLC, I have experienced the value and success of the work of a group of people where there is no overall political majority but where those people feel a commonality of purpose, an identity of interest. I have no concern at all as to the likely success of a body that produces whatever political mix there may be, but one which can work on a consensual basis.

I shall not be the first—though perhaps the first today—to comment that we might not be in the position of having to elect a new London authority had the GLC not been abolished. It need not have been abolished if, at the time, there had been a different voting system. It rather seems that the then Prime Minister was concerned to get rid of the prevailing administration. That could have happened through a different voting system. She need not have abolished the GLC in order to get rid of its leader.

I believe that not simply to suggest but actively to promote proportional representation as the voting system for the new London authority is a key test of the bona fides of the Government. London's population is about a million. If one compares that to the populations of Scotland and Wales, one can readily understand the importance of the new authority and its system of election.

I have spoken of London, but PR is well suited to local government generally. Among other things, it would bring about the end of single-party states, like my own in the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames—not the only borough where under 50 per cent. of the votes has consistently produced more than 90 per cent. of the seats. I feel particularly comfortable in using that example since in doing so I am speaking against my own party.

Having a different voting system would, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, said, re-enfranchise those who vote for the parties which come second and third. As a member of a local authority where the voting system has produced what I am tempted to call an idiosyncratic result but which, sadly, is not idiosyncratic, or at least not unusual, I am distinctly uncomfortable about the small voice that the other parties have on my council. I had wondered if the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, might speak in this debate. I suspect that he may share my feelings in that in his borough, the Borough of Croydon, in 1974 the Conservatives lost despite having something like a 4 per cent. lead in the popular vote.

In local government we already have multi-member constituencies, or at least multi-member wards. I hope that the Government will promote a new form of electoral system at levels of government which are already so well adapted for them.

All of us who have attended election counts will have seen ballot papers on which voters have attempted to rank the candidates in some sort of order, trying perhaps to use their own form of PR. They have been unsuccessful because, of course, they have failed to achieve a vote at all by perhaps writing the numbers one to nine against the candidates in a local election. I heard the tale of a ballot paper in the last election which was seen to have a note on it: "They think I'm voting but I'm not".

I hope that the Government will show in London and at local government level that they are keen to ensure that people are not tempted to make that kind of comment because of a lack of confidence in the electoral system to reflect the electorate's wishes.

5.53 p.m.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, like other contributors to the debate, I should like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for introducing this interesting topic this afternoon. Before I continue my remarks, I have to declare an interest in that I am a member and active supporter of Full Franchise.

An interesting contribution was made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, who suggested that decisions made on this kind of topic would be made on the basis of self-interest. I think that we can detect that self-interest arising from different parts of the House. I ought to say that I too shall be speaking on the basis of self-interest, but not a party interest—the interest of the country as a whole.

I am particularly concerned about those members of our population who do not have the opportunity to vote, even though they have every right to do so. We must recognise the need to modernise our system of registration for voting in elections. Too many people who have the right to vote are disenfranchised because of our out-of-date system whereby the register of electors is compiled in October and comes into operation in February and is thus always between four and sixteen months out of date. People move house much more frequently than they did a hundred years ago, when the system was probably reasonably sensible. There is also the problem that many disabled people in our community experience difficulties because of the inaccessibility of polling stations. We face a horrendous situation in the residue of the poll tax, which drove people off the electoral register in the mistaken belief that, if they were not on the electoral register, they would not be subjected to the enormous demands of the poll tax. That belief was fallacious but it affected an awful lot of people, who effectively deregistered. We still have that residue because we have a system of council tax rebates, which encourages people to take the same course of action. We need to tackle that situation and clear up the whole damaging residue of the poll tax.

Yes, we need electoral reform. I have touched on a few of the matters which make it necessary. I am not against proportional representation; I think it is probably quite a sensible thing to have. But I do not want to see the kind of proportional representation—that system of fixing elections—that promotes small parties. I have no objection to the small parties arguing from their point of view to improve their position and power; they have every justification for doing so. However, we need to be very careful when we listen to those arguments. It is the small parties which benefit from the kind of proportional representation that we have mainly heard talked about this afternoon. It is interesting that the Liberal Democrats and the Communist Party are the two strongest proponents of their forms of proportional representation.

I would argue that there is a need for what I would describe as real proportional representation, in which every United Kingdom Member of Parliament, every member of a local council and every Member of the European Parliament would represent the same number of electors as their fellow MPs, councillors or MEPs.

It would be very easy to make an argument against the kind of proportional representation about which we have heard this afternoon by pointing out that, if we had had that kind of PR on the 1st May, we would still have a Conservative government led by John Major. I believe the reality is that the country heaved a vast sigh of relief that there was a change of government.

I wish to argue the validity of single-member constituencies so eloquently described by my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell, not on the basis of being against the kind of PR we have heard about this afternoon but on the basis of being in favour of the merits. The system that we have had for many years in this country has the virtue of simplicity. It also has the virtue of coalition-building before the election rather than after so that voters know what they are going to get. Most importantly, it means that everyone has a Member of Parliament—I speak in terms of Members of Parliament rather than councillors or MEPs—and every Member of Parliament has the responsibility to represent the whole of his or her constituency.

Lord Howie of Troon

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt at this point—my noble friend and I have very good personal relations. Has he overlooked the fact that there were multi-member constituencies in this country in boroughs like Blackburn, Bolton, Norwich and so on up to 1950 and they worked perfectly well? They could work perfectly well again, I am sure.

Lord Monkswell

I take my noble friend's advice that they appeared to work well. My memory does not go back to those days. But I remember reading that one of my ancestors was the first MP for Plymouth, which had been totally unrepresented until that time in 1832. So there is an argument both ways.

I was concerned by the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who put forward a very powerful argument. He seemed to be suggesting that we should have PR because of institutionalising community divisions. I should hope that we could utilise the basis of our system—the system that we know very well—to try to ensure that a Member of Parliament genuinely represents all the people in that community and not just some parts of it. I suspect that the vast majority of Liberal Democrat councillors and Liberal Democrat Members of Parliament in fact do that job of representing all their constituents. Unfortunately, I know of several instances of Liberal Democrat councillors and Liberal Democrat MPs, who, unfortunately, did not espouse that glorious ideal to which I hope every Member of Parliament and every elected representative in this country could aspire.

6.2 p.m.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, the case for proportional representation can be expressed in terms of a very simple principle: it is a more democratic system than our current semi-democratic electoral system. That is the fundamental principle—on grounds of equity or fairness, on grounds of effective representation of the people of this country, on grounds, as others have commented, of increasing the legitimacy of our political institutions and, very importantly, on grounds of diversity. The electoral system that we now have in this country, which, as the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, pointed out is not the one with which we started 100 years or more ago, was designed to entrench the two-party system and to represent a country in which it was assumed that all forms of difference—political, social, gender and ethnic—could be squeezed into one grand either/or: the masses against the classes, as Gladstone once described it.

That was never entirely the case and it is less and less the case today. It has led to this Parliament being the one in the entire democratic world which has the fewest women in it, even after the absurd and in themselves questionably democratic methods adopted by the Labour Party as an alternative to proportional representation of enforcing all-women shortlists. It also continues to lead to the under-representation of this country's ethnic diversity in our elected Chamber and, indeed, still in local government.

Therefore, the principles at stake seem to me to be irrefutable. We have a questionably democratic electoral system. As my noble friend Lord Russell remarked to me, part of what is wrong with the education of this country is that the maths that we teach in school is so bad that people think that 42 per cent. represents the majority.

The second argument of principle in favour is that we face a substantial and growing problem of popular disillusionment with politics, particularly among the younger generation. One of the things which most disturbed me about the discussion among the experts and spin doctors before the last campaign was the general agreement that there was not much point in bothering about the opinions of those under 25 because one could guarantee that not many more than half of them would turn out to vote. If that is the direction in which British politics is going, we ought to be desperately worried about the disillusionment of the younger generation.

When I was a student, one went to meetings of students in universities to which hundreds of people would turn up. One now goes to political meetings with high quality people in universities at which, if you are lucky, one may get 40 or 50 people. In my term as president of the Cambridge University Liberal Club, I am happy to say that we had 1,200 members. Two terms ago the Cambridge University Liberal Club announced proudly that it was again the largest of the three political clubs in the university with just over 100 members—in a university which is now one third larger than it was when I was a student.

What we see among the young is a turning away towards direct action, indeed, even to what some people call ecological terrorism: animal welfare rights, stopping roads from being built and so on; the only answer is to go out and demonstrate because our current electoral system cannot provide a means whereby those who disagree fundamentally with the principles of the two major parties can feel that they are in any way represented. That is a weakness about which those of us who are represented should be concerned.

The third of my fundamental questions concerns the extent to which we still have selection rather than open election. In the last election, I am happy to say that tactical voting managed to unpin some safe seats. I was actively engaged for part of the campaign in Harrogate, where the Conservatives hoped to parachute a Conservative from one safe seat into another. The concerted efforts of the Liberal Democrats from a large number of surrounding constituencies helped to ensure that that did not take place.

But I am conscious from what I saw across Yorkshire and Lancashire during the election that in constituencies which were hard fought at that time there were massive efforts by the opposing parties; and in constituencies which were considered safe barely more than a couple of leaflets were put out and no canvassing was done. We ought to recognise the extent to which the success with which some of us—my own party very much included—used the tactical opportunities in that election has increased the potential disillusionment of many voters with the system that we have.

Small party selectorates still effectively nominate Members of Parliament, allowing, for example, Peter Mandelson to be parachuted into the north of England and Peter Hain to become a Welshman and so to find ways back into Parliament. The more the Labour Party manages to impose central control on the selection of Members of Parliament, so, those who decry regional lists should admit, we have a system in which regional lists operate within our current system in that people can be put fairly safely into Parliament after a show election which they are guaranteed to win.

I remember fighting a seat in Manchester in 1974, when it was a safe Labour seat. I discovered that our 250 members in the constituency numbered 50 more than the local membership of the Labour Party. Never mind, the trades unions and the local city Labour Party managed to get their man nominated and he got through. In a number of areas in Glasgow and South Shields there are problems within constituency parties whereby different groups try to pack the membership for their own groups, be they Catholics (well used to running local Labour parties in my part of the north of England) or Asians now coming in and wanting to take over. That causes all kinds of problems within the local parties. That is because selection and nomination virtually guarantee election. For that reason I and many others on these Benches are strongly opposed to any closed list system. If we find ourselves moving towards a list system, it must be an open one in which the voter is allowed to mark which of those upon the list he wishes to choose.

The arguments against proportional representation have not been rehearsed here today in great detail, but they can be easily noted. The first was always complexity; that is, that the average British voter would not understand it—the Irish could but we could not. The second argument was the need for a decisive result to choose a government and not a Parliament. That was an argument which undermined the whole doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty and turned the idea of British elections into a plebescite of a presidential nature. The third argument was the myth of strong government; that we needed a clear, decisive government so that we had a government which could take decisions.

I was thinking about that as I came back through the Channel Tunnel last night, moving from the decent and improved railway line in France to the 25 miles-an-hour at which we travelled through a great deal of Kent. When I move through Heathrow I think about the failure to build Maplin. The idea that we have a strong and decisive government system whereas the coalition governments on the Continent cannot take difficult decisions does not stand up to examination.

We are in favour of open coalitions between parties which represent different points of view rather than the closed coalition which we have in this country—Labour governments with their own internal divisions between right and left; Conservative governments with their own bitter internal divisions between Thatcherites, Heathites, and the like, all locked inside the Cabinet pretending that they all agree but not doing much to promote an open or constructive political dialogue.

There is, of course, the argument, about which we have heard much today, that it is unfair to give minorities undue influence. It was kind of the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, to compare the support for the Communists in this country with the support for the Liberal Democrats, as though both were equally small. Clearly, in parts of this country we have a four party system. I am not talking about only the interests of a third party. In Scotland we clearly have a four party system and there is not a small party among them; they are all substantial parties. It would be good for this country to recognise the extent to which we have moved towards a multi-party system and not try to suppress it.

There are some real myths underlying this debate. There is an old English myth that we are naturally democratic and that other countries are less so and therefore need formal constitutions and different electoral systems. There is a myth that the first-past-the-post system is part of Britain's ancient constitution and therefore ought not to be changed. As the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, noted, multiple constituencies were a normal part of 19th century democracy and disappeared only after the Second World War.

The first seat that I fought at Huddersfield West was part of the last group of double member constituencies. The Labour Party first came into Parliament because there were a number of multiple constituencies in which the Liberals were prepared to allow a Labour candidate to stand as one of the candidates alongside the Liberals. In the university constituencies—again not abolished until the Second World War—there was voting by the single transferable vote.

We heard from the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, the powerful myth of the single member constituency. He was honest enough to say—if I heard him correctly—"I am not sure if it was good for the voters; it was certainly good for me".

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. I must have been mumbling more incoherently than usual. I said that I thought it was healthy for the area, but it was certainly good for me.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that correction. The absence of competition among MPs also means the absence of choice for voters. A strong socialist may be represented by a right-wing Conservative throughout his entire political career, or vice versa. I often found in the other place that the individual Member falls in love with his or her constituency, not fully recognising that the MP is one of the few people who knows where the constituency is. I pride myself that I was one of the few people who knew the exact boundaries of the Shipley constituency. I used to spend a great deal of time before elections explaining to people that they were in that constituency and not, as they thought, in the one next door.

I remember one evening walking through the park in Saltaire when I ran into Bob Cryer, who had just been defeated as MP for Keighley. I discovered while chatting to him that most of his family lived in the Shipley constituency. He was thereupon re-elected as Member for Bradford South, the next constituency but one to the south-east. The idea that Bob Cryer would have been any worse off representing a single five-member Bradford constituency is laughable. That city, which swung from four Conservative MPs and one Labour to now five Labour MPs on a small proportion of votes, seems to me to be a misrepresentation of the different and diverse parts of this country. Bradford has a population of which more than 25 per cent. is Asian yet has no Asian MP.

There is a great temptation for the parties to pack seats. When I was in Manchester it was clear to me that we built Manchester Moss Side as a 90 per cent. council house constituency because that made it into a safe Labour constituency. We bargained over redistribution so that there were safe Conservative seats in one part of the city and safe Labour seats in another—a highly undesirable development.

Therefore the arguments in favour of our current system all seem to me to be extremely weak. The only defence of our current system is that it is the one we have and it suits the two established parties. But perhaps it no longer suits the two established parties. It may suit our present Government to change the system in the hope of persuading the Conservatives to go their separate ways.

It is not my aim, as a supporter of proportional representation, to entrench three parties in this country. I hope that we will have a more diverse pattern of representation in Parliament. It is my aim to loosen the stranglehold of Britain's small two-party selectorate over Britain's semi-democracy; to improve the quality of Britain's democracy and political culture; and to bring the growing army of disillusioned back into democratic politics.

6.17 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Wallace of Saltaire. Though I cannot summarise his speech in one word, I shall try: fairness. I thank my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank for giving us the opportunity to discuss this important matter.

I declare an interest. When I left Her Majesty's land forces—the Army—in 1987 I decided to do so to protest against the then Prime Minister's obvious desire to salami-slice the Armed Forces and simultaneously to wrap herself around the Union Jack. I found that distasteful.

I was selected as the Social and Liberal Democrat candidate for Easington in the County of Durham. Until that moment I had taken no part, as a commissioned officer, in political life. Like any other parliamentary candidate, I did my homework. I had around two weeks. As I walked around I met the fine East Durham people; I talked with them; I explained who I was and what I was doing. They were surprised. They said, "There is no point standing here. Labour will win and you have no hope. We weigh votes; we do not count them".

I finally found myself in the Easington Colliery Library. I pay tribute to the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, who represented the Easington constituency with great skill and dedication for more than 17 years, as I do to my good friend the current Member of Parliament for Easington, Mr. John Cummings. I looked through documents, statistics and unemployment figures. Finally, I saw a dusty old book which was called Miss Crimdon Beauty Contest—The Crimdon Beauty Queen from 1935 to 1970. I turned over the photographs. I learnt that the judge of the contest was the late Lord Shinwell, who was greatly respected in your Lordships' House. I noticed one thing that surprised me, because I had learnt that the late Lord Shinwell had a fair eye for a pretty lady and a dram. Every single one of the Miss Crimdons, the Beauty Queen of the Year, was in fact rather ugly. Armed with all the material that I had collected I went to see the Nestor of the Liberal Party in Easington Colliery. I asked him questions. He answered them. I said, "There's one thing I don't understand. Why was Miss Crimdon less pretty than the other competitors?" He said, "Wei, marra. You don't understand; lass Miss Crimdon always had to be Labour councillor's daughter". I said, "What if Manny Shinwell did not like that and could not go along with it?" He said, "Weee'l then it had to be Labour councillor's wife". That was very old Labour. What is the difference, I ask, between very old Labour, old Labour and new Labour? The Labour Party in East Durham even gerrymandered the beauty contest. Noble Lords laugh. But if it gerrymandered the beauty contest, what else is it gerrymandering?

I shall not rehearse the disadvantages of our present system. No electoral system is perfect. But the one we have at the moment is the worst. I fear for my friends on the Benches opposite. Their majority is vast and it is going to crush them. I hope it will not crush us. What I propose—we are a constructive Opposition—is a single transferable vote system. We would have multi-Member constituencies. We could vote for the candidate in the party we support; we could vote across party lines; we could vote for an independent, as the people of Tatton did. I respect them. I salute them. When I came to your Lordships' House, having taken part in the election, I saw a great gentleman in a white suit, the newly-elected Member for Tatton. I had never met him before but I walked up and shook his hand. He went "Ahh!" His hand hurt because very many people from around the country had shaken his hand. They were saluting him. They were saying thank you for voting out one type of the corrupt system that I saw in Easington and that we saw in Tatton.

I suggest that if we had the single transferable vote the electorate would be allowed a greater choice. Its merits are that the constituency link is retained and there is accountability. I can give one example. When I fought my second election in Leeds, West, I learnt that the late Lord Joseph quite understandably decided that he could not deal with constituency matters which were anti-Jewish, anti-Israeli or anti-Zionist. And so it was my good friend, who was once in my party, Michael Meadowcroft, the neighbouring MP, who took on those matters for him. The electors had a choice as did the elected representative.

I live and I work in Eastern Europe. The people of Eastern Europe, particularly the people of the Baltic states—Estonia where I live—would be fascinated to listen to the speeches of noble Lords who are opposed to proportional representation. In 1990, after 55 years of oppression—during that 55 years the minority population had in some cases, as in Estonia, increased by 30 per cent.—they did not introduce a first-past-the-post system; they have a single transferable vote. As a result, 18 per cent. of the members of the Riigikogu—the state house or state assembly: their House of Commons—are from minorities. What would we say if they had introduced a first-past-the-post system and the minorities were not represented in their parliament? We must be careful not to talk about human and democratic rights in Eastern Europe before we have put our own houses in Europe in order.

Finally, I am grateful that the Government, to whom we offer a fair wind, have introduced about 80 per cent. of our manifesto into their first government programme. We thank them and wish them well. We shall constructively oppose. But if the noble Lord the Minister does not give us an assurance that before 1999, when the next European elections are held, a fairer voting system will be in place, I personally will quote at him the words of Alexander Pope: To promise, plan, propose, postpone, And end by letting things alone; In short, to earn the people's pay, By doing nothing all the day". I earnestly hope that I will not have to say those words.

6.27 p.m.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I shall jump into the gap in order to waggle the solution of these false dichotomies at you. I normally wear it around my neck and I am troubled by Black Rod if I do not. It is my identity card. It also enables me to open locked doors to which I have privileged access. It can perfectly well contain voting strengths.

First-past-the-post and proportional representation are not incompatible with one another. I beseech your Lordships to come into the electronic age of the 21st century. A parallel computer can record all this in the Division Lobby, assigning you your voting strength. If a party returns only 10 per cent. of the representatives with 20 per cent. of the vote, each one counts as two votes. If it is the other way round, they count as only half a vote. By this means you can align proportional representation with the first-past-the-post system and avoid all the embarrassments to which the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, referred. This has been a very brief intervention. But I beseech your Lordships to come into the 21st century.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, this is one of those perennial subjects which we discuss in this House. It is like a garden shrub which you go back to year after year but, rather disappointingly, it never flowers. You continue to tend it assiduously, particularly from these Benches. Over the years there have been other noble Lords who have put equal effort into the subject. It is difficult to believe that buds are now appearing on the old shrub; it is possible that we might even get some flowers. So what has been for a long time a subject which some people would say is as dry as dust is now coming alive politically as part of the potential programme of the new Government. I shall return to that in a moment.

When I say it is a dry as dust subject, the last two contributions from my noble friend Lord Carlisle and the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, have livened things up considerably. I do not believe that anyone could possibly describe the subject as being dry as dust after their respective extremely interesting contributions. I am not sure that I am capable at short notice of dealing with the full implications of electronic voting, but I recognise that it is an important subject.

We owe a great debt of thanks to my noble friend Lord Rodgers for introducing this subject. There have been many notable contributions from all sides of the House. Those of your Lordships who are of statistical bent, which seems appropriate on this subject, may care to note that a simple majority of those contributing are Liberal Democrats—seven out of 13 speakers. Thanks to the help of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer and the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, and the free spirit of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, probably those in favour of reform have had the best of the argument. Indeed, I am tempted to say that up to this point they have had the whole of the argument. For one intoxicating moment I thought that the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, intended to argue against proportional representation, but I have to admit that I got lost in his syntax. I do not know quite where he stands on the matter.

With that exception there seems to be quite a welcome in the House for electoral reform. It falls to the noble Viscount, in his usual doughty way, to make the arguments against with all the force of the massed Benches behind him. I am sure that he will do a grand job. It is slightly surprising that there are not more Conservatives here because this is an issue of the greatest possible relevance to the new, diminished Conservative Party. My noble friends referred to the absence of any Conservative representation in Scotland or Wales. If I were a far-sighted Conservative and did not believe in Winston Churchill's accusation of the Conservatives being the stupid party, I would say how curious it is that the Liberal Democrats have been allowed to get away with having 10 Members of Parliament in Scotland with a smaller share of the vote than the Conservative Party won. As that admirable body Conservative Action for Electoral Reform was 20 years ago, I should be a flame and a sword to change and improve the electoral system. It may be that that spirit will now revive in the Conservative Party.

I put the matter deliberately that way because I do not anticipate that when the noble Lord, Lord Williams, sums up he will be against electoral reform. How could he be since it is spoken highly of in the Labour Party manifesto and in the Cook and Maclennan Commission that preceded it. The greater interest will be what the Government are going to do about it.

One recurring question has been that of electoral systems. It is crucial. Anyone who simply says in a blanket way that proportional representation is a good thing has got it wrong. One has to recognise that there are good, better and poor systems. If the proposed commission which the Government are to establish is going to compare a new system with the existing system, there is a burden of proof in arriving at a system which represents an improvement on what we have.

Both the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, spoke strongly against national lists. I agree with them. I believe that the kind of system that went astray in the Weimar Republic in Germany and which today does no credit at all to the Israeli or Dutch democracies is not the kind of system we want in Britain. I do not believe that any serious advocate of electoral reform wants to have national lists.

In an extremely interesting speech, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, said that he was interested in historical societies. I am not surprised, because of the interest he took in Sandwell. He reminded us of the great Reform Bill which the great-grandfather of my noble friend Lord Russell introduced. Perhaps I may remind him of one thing. When that Bill was being campaigned for in the country, the slogan was not just "Votes"; it was "Bread and Votes". It made the connection between the right electoral system and the improvement of the quality of people's lives. There is an onus on those of us who want reform, which includes so large a part of the Labour Party, to make that connection between the bread-and-butter issues, the quality of our democracy, and, as my noble friend Lord Wallace said, the durability of the measures that are passed into law. So there is a connection between the product of our politics and the process by which we arrive at them.

When the commission is established—I certainly accept the Government's good faith that it will be established before too long—I hope that it will have a remit to try to find the good qualities we would all want in the electoral system which is to replace the first-past-the-post system.

Perhaps I may suggest several of the criteria. The first is to extend voter choice. Because they are thought to he safe seats, in many constituencies the voter has remarkably little practical choice because the party's electorate, as other noble Lords have said, have identified who they are to vote for if they want to support a particular party. Secondly, it is necessary to maintain a geographical link. Any system that does not have a close relationship with the locality is not going to work within the British political tradition. Thirdly, it is necessary to produce a more representative Parliament. By that I do not simply mean representative in terms of parties because if I said that the noble Lord, Lord Monkswell, would accuse me of simply making a Liberal Democrat point, although it is a fair one to make. I mean a Parliament which is more representative of the people in the House of Commons as well as the parties there. It is a notable change in the other place that there are now many new Labour and Liberal Democrat women MPs. But we still have women under-represented in the House of Commons. We still have far too few members of ethnic minorities and of a multi-cultural society. We certainly do not have party balance. Fourthly, I suggest that the commission should be asked to arrive at a system where preferably all votes—but, if that is not possible, where most votes—count. It is an extraordinary thing that in this country most people get neither the Member of Parliament nor the government that they want out of an election. That is a statistical fact.

If we can re-establish the strength of the connection between the voter and the ensuing Parliament, we would do a lot to deal with the problem of alienation which noble Lords have mentioned. Finally, we have to recognise that our present voting system is overwhelmingly negative. I myself got involved during the election with the question of tactical voting. What people were really saying about the British system was, "Let us see how we can vote in order to get out someone we do not like." There was a lot of that going on. Those of us who are honest know that that was the case. There may have been those who were worthy of dislike and who needed to be got out. But is that an adequate motive for voting? Is it not preferable for people to vote for policies and candidates in whom they believe positively and not simply to emphasise the negative at the expense of the positive?

In conclusion, the new Government have ushered in a new political era of great hope for many people. I include in that many Liberal Democrats who, after 18 Conservative years, look to the Government as a beacon of hope. We would like to see the Prime Minister and the Government living up to some of the hopes that the people of this country have in them to be positive rather than negative; to be pluralist, which the Prime Minister has often spoken about, rather than simply monolithic, replacing one elected dictatorship, in the words of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, with another; to be in favour of a more representative form of government rather than one which is distorted.

I was particularly interested in what my noble friend Lord Alderdice said about the national interest. I put the matter slightly differently: I put it as the public interest. The public interest is an extremely difficult creature in British politics. We are so inured to the partisan interest that the motives of anyone who even says "public interest" in Parliament are suspect. Part of the gap between people and Parliament is that the people do not sufficiently trust us to be speaking for the public interest. The public interest demands a change to a system in which the Government have nearly two-thirds of the seats in Parliament for 44 per cent. of the votes cast; where the Conservative Party received 31 or 32 per cent. of the vote but has only 25 per cent. of the seats in Parliament; and where my own party's relative deprivation is too well known to be rehearsed again.

However, the Liberal Democrats have learned not just to complain about the system—you all know that we are quite good at that!—but also how to beat it. Indeed, in some parts of the country, such as Scotland, the south west and other parts of Great Britain, the Conservative Party has suffered from that. I want us to get the strength to help the Government to reform the system to one which properly reflects people's views. The point has been made about electoral reform not stopping with elections to the European Parliament but embracing also local government elections and elections to the new regional level of government for London, about which my noble friend Lady Hamwee spoke. The same also applies to Scotland and to Wales—the Government are already committed to that—and to Europe.

Finally, perhaps I may ask the Minister to respond to a specific question: will we know before the Summer Recess definitively whether the Government are to proceed with legislation for the European elections in 1999 to be conducted on a fair system of proportional representation? From these Benches, I certainly hope that they are. If the Labour Party does that, it will be being faithful to its manifesto and, much more importantly, it will be reflecting the wishes of the great majority of the people of this country.

6.41 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for raising the subject of electoral reform. I should point out that I am at something of a disadvantage with regard to one part of the Motion. Almost all noble Lords have referred to how they have voted in the past and sometimes to being disappointed that their candidate was not elected. Indeed, many of your Lordships have stood as parliamentary candidates. I have never been able to stand as a candidate or to vote in a general election but, of course, I have been able to vote in your Lordships' House for the past 25 years.

Today's debate has been an interesting one, partly because for the first time we may have seen the honeymoon period between the Government and the Liberal Democrats creeping slowly to an end—

Noble Lords


Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is nice to see Members of the Liberal Democrat Benches joining the Opposition. After all, that is what they are. I wonder whether this is perhaps the beginning of the end of the love-in. I do not know; we must wait and see.

We have heard today from the Liberal Democrat Benches about the benefits of proportional representation: first, that it is fairer because every vote is of equal value; secondly, that it ensures that smaller parties are represented; and, thirdly, that it encourages continuity and consensus.

However, the evidence from abroad suggests otherwise. Proportional representation has not worked well in some other countries. Italy ditched PR in 1993 after years of unstable government. France reverted to its "second ballot" system after the National Front did so well under PR in the period 1986–88. New Zealand changed to PR last year, but it took two months to form a government. I was interested to read in The Times the other day that, After six months of the first coalition Government elected under proportional representation, most New Zealanders now say they wish they had never opted to change from the first-past-the-post system. Instead of the consensus politics envisaged under an electoral system modelled on Germany's, the new order has produced a government plagued by petty scandals and what observers believe is the most disorderly Parliament for decades". The first-past-the-post system may not be perfect, but it has served this country well over the years. It provides stable government and a strong link between individual constituencies and their MPs. It ensures that parties are elected to govern on a clear programme set out in a manifesto. Proportional representation weakens the link between MPs and their constituents. Indeed, some systems of PR cut that link almost completely; and PR does not give every voter (whether Left, Right or centre) an automatic representative of their views. We on these Benches attach great importance to having Members of Parliament closely connected to a geographical area—a single person responsible for dealing with local grievances and for representing the particular views of that region at Westminster.

Proportional representation does not automatically increase the number of women in Parliament, as has been suggested this afternoon. The only way it which one can increase the number of women in Parliament—a laudable ambition—is to get them selected as candidates for the party that they represent.

Proportional representation would create a series of hung parliaments, leading to instability and handing control to minority parties. Governments would not be determined by the votes of the electorate, but by deals struck behind closed doors between differing political factions. The horse-trading for office would mean that implementing crucial manifesto commitments would take second place to jockeying for positions of power and influence. The party that finishes last can become the one with the only real power.

As the Home Secretary has admitted—and I quote from The Times of October 1989: PR might ensure proportional voting, but it can give to a handful of representatives from the centre parties quite disproportional power which can then be used to block the manifesto of the party which won the most votes". The noble Earl, Lord Russell, whose speeches I always enjoy, cited the example of the Ulster Unionists in the last Parliament and in the Parliament of the previous Labour Government. I do not believe that PR prevents that; it actually makes it worse.

I was also interested in the argument for having PR for local elections. I am not sure whether introducing PR for local elections is part of the Labour Party's agenda. I make the same point about having PR for a new London authority, as was suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I wonder whether the Minister could deal with those points when he replies because I am sure that all noble Lords would be extremely interested.

The disproportional effect produced by PR is, of course, why the Liberal Democrats have always favoured it. Their principled rhetoric of national interest hides party advantage, as they have come close to admitting. Others have been slightly more honest. The Foreign Secretary, one of the Government's leading advocates of electoral change, once admitted: Labour cannot continue to defend a system that we know has made the Tories the biggest beneficiary in modern electoral history". The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, suggested that the Tories would have done better under PR at the last election. That may be true, but just because we have lost the game we do not believe that we automatically have to change the rules.

Of course, there are differing views, including within the Labour Party. Some Labour Members of Parliament are bitterly against PR because they feel that it would hand control to the Liberal Democrats for ever. The Labour Party is divided on this issue. Indeed, in an attempt to paper over the differences, the Prime Minister has promised a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. According to the Labour Party's Manifesto, An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system". When the Minister replies, I hope that he will give the House an indication of exactly what the word "early" means. I believe that all noble Lords have asked for that explanation. When will the commission be appointed? When do the Government intend to hold the referendum? Will the Minister also explain whether the Government are in principle in favour of some kind of proportional representation for election to the House of Commons?

Given their support for the additional Member system for elections to the proposed Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and the European Parliament, I presume that the Government are in favour of PR in principle. Will the Minister comment upon that? Where does that leave, for example, the Home Secretary? Will he be expected to vote for such legislation or will he be free to campaign against change in the run up to the referendum? Will it be a free vote in another place? I hope that the Minister will address some of those questions. Indeed I saw the other day that Mr. Mandelson, the Minister Without Portfolio, said that he remained unconvinced of the merits of a single transferable vote.

The Minister recently gave what I can only describe as an opaque reply to a Question on the Government's plans. He said: We have no present plans to introduce legislation on proportional representation for the European elections this session". He then added: but if an opportunity to legislate arose we would consider taking it".—[Official Report, 11/6/97; WA84.] I realise of course that the Minister is a distinguished lawyer and lawyers never wish to be opaque, so I am sure that he will take the opportunity this evening to clarify the issue. What is "an opportunity"? After all, it is the Government who set the legislative programme. It is up to them to create the opportunities. It is not up to the Opposition, whether it be the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. It is entirely within the Minister's power to do so. When he said that if an opportunity arose they would take it, it is an opportunity that only his government can make.

The Government have given a clear commitment to change the way in which Members of the European Parliament are elected. As the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank reminded us, it is in the Labour Party manifesto. Will that new voting system be introduced in time for the next European election in 1999? The House deserves a clear answer to that question.

It is a difficult subject. I recognise that the Government have not been in office long. If the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, is right—am not an expert on Labour Party policies going back to 1918—as I am sure he is, that his party has been in favour of PR since then, I am sure he has a clear view on this subject, and that the Minister will be able to give us that this evening.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Viscount for giving way. I did not say that the Labour Party had been in favour of PR since 1918. I said, like the Conservative Party, we change our minds about a number of matters from time to time, and the majorities differ.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that explanation. Under a Labour government one could have four different systems in this country. We could have the first-past-the-post for Westminster; an additional Member system for Scotland and Wales; a single transferable vote system in Northern Ireland; and a mixed Member proportion in Euro-elections. It could be even more bizarre, because the Scottish Nationalists favour a Scottish parliament with 200 members, 144 of whom would be drawn from existing constituencies—

Earl Russell

My Lords, the Minister may be familiar with Mr. David Willetts' book, Civic Conservatism. It is Mr. Willetts' view that one should not be afraid of defending anomalies. Does the Minister agree with that view?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, the noble Earl kindly called me the Minister. I have to remind him that I am sitting on this side of the House and not on that side. That is an anomaly indeed.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

A defensible anomaly!

Viscount Astor

My Lords, it is one that I am quite prepared to defend. I have not read the book. I shall obviously have to go and read it. Perhaps I may return to the Scottish Nationalists' proposal. They favour a Scottish parliament with 200 members of whom 144 would be drawn from existing constituencies, elected by alternative vote, and 56 drawn from party lists; that is, AMS. As I understand it Plaid Cymru—I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, will correct me if I am wrong—wants a 100-member lower chamber of a Welsh parliament, elected by a system of PR, which will ensure equal representation for men and women. So we could have a number of systems. I was confused. I wondered whether they wanted an upper chamber as well as a lower chamber. Are they going to have their Lordships' House sitting somewhere in the Principality? I do not know.

There are many questions that the Government need to answer.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, the question of anomalies in different voting systems has been raised. Is the noble Viscount aware that under the Conservative government, in Northern Ireland we have not only the first-past-the-post system for Westminster and the single transferable vote for Europe, local government and assemblies, but in the last Session of Parliament a further new voting system of a peculiar list form, known in no part of the civilised or uncivilised world, was introduced. That surely was an anomaly invented entirely by the previous Conservative Government.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I am aware of what happens. I alluded to what happens in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland is a very special case. It is difficult to argue that the changes there have made the political situation easier or more difficult. Views differ on that. It is not for me to go into that this evening. Northern Ireland is a special case. I am not sure that the case is proven either way. We did introduce a different system, as the noble Lord is well aware.

Although there is a degree of confusion on the Benches next to me, we on this side of the House—all of us—are clear as to where we stand. We do not support PR for Westminster. We believe that the advantages of our current electoral system far outweigh its disadvantages. The noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, gave the example of a beauty competition, proved by PR. I think that PR should be left for beauty competitions.

PR would produce coalition government, with minority parties in the driving seat. Policy would become confused as manifesto commitments were ditched to secure power. If the Government eventually hold a referendum on this issue, we will oppose it.

6.57 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for initiating this debate, and all noble Lords who have made contributions of quality. One of the most important tasks to which the Government have to attend is reforming and improving our constitution. We fought the general election on a manifesto which contained a firm commitment to modernise the constitution. We had a ringing endorsement. We intend to deliver.

I shall deal first with elections to the European Parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, said, our election manifesto stated: We have long supported a proportional voting system for election to the European Parliament". Our commitment to making such a change remains as strong as ever. The noble Lord asked which department and which Minister have responsibility for electoral matters. It is the Home Secretary, my right honourable friend Mr. Straw, which is why I am here today. The noble Lord asked also whether anything I said would be said on behalf of the Government, including all departments. I am speaking for the whole of the Government. Apart from that, my personal belief that our electoral arrangements need close scrutiny and improvement is deep.

It was, after all, as has been pointed out, one of the recommendations made by the committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Plant of Highfield. He apologies for his absence today. As a head of house, he has university duties to which he must attend, otherwise he would have been here. There is no doubt about our intention to change the electoral system for elections to the European Parliament.

The key question is one of timing, and one of choice. But the Government's decision—I believe it to be right—is that incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights has, and ought to have, a higher priority than the mechanism for election to the European Parliament. If one looks at both those options, if they become alternative options, I have no doubt that the Government's conclusion is right. Incorporation will affect many more of our citizens in the United Kingdom much more deeply and fundamentally than the mechanism for election to the European Parliament.

It has been remarked upon that I made an Answer to Written Questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, in which I set out plainly that this matter cannot be rushed. First, we must make decisions on precisely what electoral system we would want to introduce. Alternatives have been offered by almost every speaker.

Although we support, and have supported for a long time, the regional list system of proportional representation, the details would need to be decided. Even if they had already been decided, we would still have to attend to considerations of timing. Once the necessary legislation had been enacted, electoral boundaries for European elections would almost certainly need to be redrawn. A great deal of secondary legislation would be required dealing with matters such as nomination procedures, the wording of ballot papers and the conduct of the count. None of that is dealt with in primary legislation. Existing regulations would need to be revised to take account of the new methods of election.

Those responsible for conducting the elections would need time to get to grips with the new system. We would want there to be a publicity campaign—

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I wonder whether I misheard him. Did he say that constituency boundaries would need to be redrawn? I understand that the regional list system proposed by his party and mine would certainly involve drawing up regional boundaries, but there is no question of redrawing parliamentary constituency boundaries.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord. I said that electoral boundaries would have to be redrawn; I did not say constituency boundaries. There is nothing between the noble Lord and myself, but as always I am grateful to him for asking for my clarification.

There ought to be a publicity campaign to provide the electorate with as much detailed knowledge as possible about the new system and the new way to vote. That would take time; it would not take only a week or two. Political parties would wish to adjust to the new system. They would want to consider their methods of selecting candidates for larger areas than at present and, I dare say, change their techniques accordingly. Therefore, as I stated unambiguously in my Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, we have reached the conclusion that the relevant legislation would need to be in place some nine to 12 months before elections under a new system. It is an inescapable timetable.

Noble Lords have indicated that the next European elections will be in June 1999 and that is well known. I do not believe that it is at all realistic to think of conducting those elections with such a new system unless the necessary legislation is enacted in this Session of Parliament. We have not ruled out the possibility of taking any opportunity that might arise, as we have made clear. We have no present plans to introduce legislation this Session to change the electoral system for the European elections. Perhaps I may indicate why with just a small illustration.

We have a simple referendum Bill before your Lordships' House at present. It contains a handful of clauses and, as a number of noble Lords pointed out, it is simply an enabling mechanism for a referendum to be held. On Second Reading, we heard 37 speeches lasting from shortly after three o'clock to just before midnight. If we can, we must deliver the Bill for Royal Assent by the end of July. We have promised that a White Paper should be available for reasonable scrutiny and for debate in your Lordships' House. We are not sole masters of the timetable in your Lordships' House. I am told that there is a large majority for the Government in another place and I believe that they do things differently there. But we are not the dictators of your Lordships' House, nor do we choose to be. If opportunity arises—and that is in part within the gift, control and decision of the Conservative Opposition—we will give the matter the most careful attention.

I know that that will be disappointing to many of your Lordships, not least the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. The noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, quoted Pope at me in a rather threatening way. Well, I am a member of the Church in Wales and therefore what Pope says does not really have much effect!

We have had to decide our priorities and we have given them careful attention. I earlier indicated some of the reasons. As was said by my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell—pertinently, if I may say so—we must recognise that the margin of time available is very tight. We cannot do everything that we wish in the first Session. We have been elected for a five-year term and we want to balance our programme across the five years. No one can suggest that the gracious Speech did not set out a full and ambitious programme. Even doubters had their breath taken away. But it could not contain everything. The noble Lord inquired whether something had been left out in error. It is well known—axiomatic, I believe—that this Government are not capable of error—so far!

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thought that the noble Lord said that he gave no weight to Pope!

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, as the late and revered Mr. Morecambe said, "There is no answer to that!".

One of the urgent and serious reasons that we are in the position of balancing priorities is that we have given priority to what we believe to be of fundamental constitutional importance; namely, devolution to Scotland and Wales. I know that your Lordships will give that legislation very detailed scrutiny, but there is a limit to the number of important constitutional measures that can be considered in any one Session.

The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, says that he detects some inconsistencies between my Written Answer and what was stated by the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary. There is no inconsistency. We have all stressed that the Government remain committed to the introduction of proportional representation for European elections. We have all made it clear that the question of when the change to a new system should take place is still to be resolved. The Foreign Secretary said as recently as 10th June in the Answer referred to that the timetable is very tight. We look to see whether a suitable legislative opportunity may arise. As I said earlier, and I make no apology for repeating it, we are not entirely masters in this House.

I turn to the other important aspect of electoral reform; that is, the voting system for the House of Commons. We are committed to the creation of an independent commission to consider what would be the best alternative to the existing first-past-the-post electoral system. We propose to honour that commitment. It is said that now that the Government have a large majority their passionate interest in reform will be dissipated. That is wholly and completely wrong. The Government intend to use their majority prudently and decently to ensure that they fulfil all their manifesto commitments, including the one to create an independent commission on the voting system for the Westminster Parliament and the commitment to give the people of the United Kingdom the chance to make their decision between the existing system and the recommended alternative.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary, Mr. Straw, said recently in another place that work was in hand to establish the commission. It is. It is his intention to make an announcement about the commission this summer. We are currently considering matters such as the terms of reference and the composition. Careful attention is being given to the identity, for instance, of the chairman. It needs careful thought and there is the question of availability of suitable candidates, quite apart from the rest of the body. That is what the announcement will cover. I make a specific response to the question which was put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. We intend that the commission should start its work in the autumn. The noble Lord took the view that the work may take six months. We believe that it will take longer than that. We believe that it will take about one year for the commission to complete its deliberations. The intention is that having started this autumn, it will report, outlining what it believes to be the best system for Westminster elections if we are to move away from first-past-the-post.

The independent commission will not be asked to recommend whether a change to proportional representation would be a good thing. It will be asked to consider to what system we should move if there is to be a change. The decision as to whether any such change should be made will be left to the people of the United Kingdom. Specifically, I assure your Lordships that there will be a referendum in which the people will be asked to choose between the current system and the system identified by the independent commission as the best possible alternative. A variety of views has been expressed on that topic this evening.

There are many different views about different mechanisms. Indeed, they are contained within the individual political parties. At the risk of being unduly disagreeable and tendentious, I suggest that the difference between this Government and the official Opposition is that we are willing to let the people decide. We do not regard ourselves as the masters of anything. I hope that we are constantly aware of the cautionary note that was sounded earlier that the possession of a large majority for the present is not a mandate for dictatorship. We are quite content to let the people have their will. I believe and say on behalf of the Government that the more one does that, the better the conclusion that endures and the healthier democratic life is.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked a specific question, which was echoed subsequently, about London. No decision has been made about how elections to the strategic authority for London should be conducted. We intend to publish a Green Paper. We positively invite and welcome all contributions to that debate.

It was said by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that Mr. Willetts had written a book saying that sometimes anomalies should be defended. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said that he had not read that book. I am sure that when he said that, he was not dissembling because if he has not read the book, he would not need to dissemble. But at all events, it is quite plain, as a moment's reflection would have demonstrated—and in any event, if a moment's reflection were absent, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, pointed it out—our present electoral arrangements are full of anomalies, as is the absence of them in your Lordships' House. I am sometimes tempted, when one is asked what is the answer to the West Lothian question, to say that one of the answers is the West Belfast question and I suppose that the other one, although I have great personal regard for him and always like to see his happy face, is the West Cranborne question.

The noble Viscount said that the Labour Party is divided internally on its views about some of those matters. Of course, that may be so. The Labour Party in the House of Commons is fortunate to be big enough to be divided, which I suppose one cannot really say about the Conservative Party. The noble Viscount, that purist to the nth degree, said that first-past-the-post is the only reliable solution. I suppose that that is why the Conservative Party leadership election was conducted on first-past-the-post, or have I slightly misread the three-stage election in which it indulged recently?

Viscount Astor

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. He realises that in electing a leader of the Conservative Party, we were electing one leader not one plus two others to join him.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am sure that there is a point lurking there but I cannot quite put my finger on it.

The noble Viscount suggested also that as a lawyer, now retired, I should not wish to be opaque. I must say that I found that grossly offensive. I thought that the whole purpose of being a lawyer was to be opaque at other people's expense.

I was asked specifically about local authority elections. At present no consideration is being given to proportional representation for local authority elections.

I believe and hope that I have dealt with the specific questions raised. I thank your Lordships again for the different opinions that have been expressed. They are all taken into account, even if they are not all to be successful; and in the nature of things, they cannot be.

I am conscious of the fact, as are the Government, that the spirit of what has been said by many noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches is that this is an opportunity which will never recur in our political lifetime. We want to do our best to get it right. We do not wish to offer dictatorial prescriptions. We do not claim a monopoly of knowledge and, for our part, the more co-operation that we receive from colleagues and opponents on other Benches, the better the outcome will be for our country.

7.16 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank

My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in this debate. I find that I am slightly nonplussed about what to say at the end, having listened to the Minister at his most charming. It is a long time since I have heard a Minister in this House admit that he and his party are not entirely masters of it; and—and this is a freshness which has seeped through the noble Lord, very unusually in terms of Ministers of this Government—that his party is divided in the House of Commons because it can afford to be. The whole House will be extremely grateful for those charming, if slightly disturbing thoughts.

However, I had hoped to say that the next debate in your Lordships' House on electoral reform would be when discussing legislation for proportional representation in the European Parliament. The hard kernel of what the noble Lord told the House is that that is very unlikely. I express it in that way because if we do not have legislation in the current Session of Parliament, certainly from these Benches, we shall wish to return to that matter.

We shall play our full part in enabling the Government to get their business through this House and elsewhere on many of the constitutional matters with which we wholly agree. But it will prove difficult for us to give our undivided support, whatever may be our priorities, if we feel that this opportunity is lost by a failure to put through legislation in time for the 1999 elections to be carried out by proportional representation.

In my view, the noble Lord made it sound more difficult than it would really be to get through the necessary subsidiary steps, provided that legislation was first carried through this House and another place. I hope that the Government will try extremely hard because I believe that it can be done. They can fit in the necessary legislation before the end of this Session and most probably in the winter months ahead. It would be an extremely great disappointment to miss that opportunity.

In my opening remarks, I referred mainly to the matters to which the Minister has replied—the urgency of the European elections and the importance of setting up an independent commission, about which the noble Lord gave a much more satisfactory reply. I am very grateful to all noble Lords and in particular noble Lords on these Benches who spoke about the substance of the matter—the practical aspects of proportional representation, how it will work, and the principles which lie behind it. As I say, we shall return to those matters. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.