HL Deb 09 April 1998 vol 588 cc856-901

11.36 a.m.

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

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

The enactment of this Bill into law will represent the fulfilment of another of the Government's manifesto commitments. It is an important element of the package of measures that we are bringing forward which together amount to a fundamental reform of our constitution, bringing it up-to-date. I wish to pay tribute to the work done by my noble friend Lord Plant of Highfield together with his committee.

Direct elections to the European Parliament began in 1979. The legislation to provide for them dates from 1977. When that legislation was being debated in another place there was considerable discussion as to the most suitable electoral system. In a vote on the Floor in another place most members of the Government joined with the representatives of the Liberal Party, as it then was, to vote for a regional list system. However, the majority in another place favoured the traditional first-past-the-post system, which is what has been used to elect British MEPs ever since.

The effects of that are all too evident. The small number of MEPs to which Great Britain is entitled, and the huge constituencies that that has entailed, mean that the effects of any swings between the parties have been greatly magnified. Therefore the composition of the British delegation to the European Parliament has fluctuated dramatically, affecting not only the way in which voters have been represented but also the balance within the European Parliament itself.

In 1991 the late John Smith, as leader of the Labour Party, established the committee to which I earlier referred. Its remit was to look at the whole issue of electoral reform. It reported in 1993 and, for elections in Britain to the European Parliament, recommended the introduction of a regional list system. That was endorsed by the Labour Party Conference that year. It formed part of the pre-election joint agreement between the Labour and Liberal Democratic Parties and was reiterated in our election manifesto.

We take the view that there is no single perfect electoral system. Different elections require different systems and the key determining factor is the nature and functions of the body or legislature that is being elected. When we consider the most appropriate electoral system for selecting British Members of the European Parliament, we need to consider the nature of the body. We are entitled only to return 87 MEPs. As I said earlier, that means that MEPs must represent large numbers of electors and large geographical areas. This means inevitably that MEPs can never have the same close relationship with their constituents as MPs and local councillors enjoy and there is no sensible point in trying to replicate it. Furthermore, the European Parliament, unlike our own, is not one from which a government is drawn.

Those considerations have led us to conclude that for elections to the European Parliament the most important test that any electoral system has to meet is that it should produce MEPs who are broadly representative of the views of the electorate. Different considerations apply in relation to the Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and the Greater London assembly, where the electoral systems that we are proposing combine representativeness with individual constituency members.

I hope to say a little more about the contents of the Bill and how it aims to achieve the goal I have outlined. It will enable future European parliamentary elections in Britain to be conducted using a simple regional list system. It does not affect Northern Ireland, which has elected its MEPs since 1979 using the single transferable vote—a system that works well in the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland.

Under the system proposed in the Bill, Britain will be divided into regions. Scotland and Wales will each constitute a single region. England will be divided into nine regions. The composition of those regions is set out in Schedule 1 to the Bill. They will be familiar to your Lordships since they are the regions which were enshrined by the previous government and are currently used by the Government Offices for the Regions, with the exception that Merseyside and North West Regions will be combined. They are also the regions that are contained in the Bill to establish regional development agencies.

The Bill specifies how many MEPs each of them will return. MEPs have been allocated to regions in such a way as to ensure that the ratio of electors to MEPs is as nearly as possible the same in each region and the Bill contains provisions to allow for the allocation to be altered to cater for subsequent population shifts, as appropriate.

Each political party in each region will be able to submit a list of candidates containing as many names as there are MEPs to be elected in that region. Independent candidates will also be able to stand. Voters will cast a single vote for the party of their choice or for an independent candidate. The votes will be counted and the first seat will be allocated to the party or independent candidate with the most votes. This process is repeated until all the seats have been allocated, with the important proviso that at each stage parties' votes are divided by the number of seats that the party has already won, plus one.

I do not wish on Maundy Thursday to go into the higher mathematics of this but the effect of the system is to ensure that, in each region, parties will win shares of the seats that broadly accord with their shares of the vote in those regions. We believe that this is a fair and appropriate system.

There was considerable discussion in another place as to whether the Bill should be such as to introduce an electoral system of the kind that operates in Belgium. As the Bill is drafted, voters may vote either for the party list or for an individual independent candidate. The Belgian-style system would allow a third option: the voting for an individual candidate on a party list. We had requests from Charter 88 and the Liberal Democrats that the Home Secretary should consider the arguments for adopting the Belgian-style system. He listened closely to the debates and the representations to him from various quarters. He commissioned the research organisation, NOP, to undertake a study of voters' attitudes to the two different systems. So I think it is fair to say that the Home Secretary gave a good deal of careful consideration to the proposition.

In the end, the Home Secretary concluded that the simple regional list system was the most appropriate one for European parliamentary elections in Britain. The main reason was that he concluded that the Belgian system had a fundamental flaw. It allows voters to exercise choice between candidates on a party's list but does not translate those choices into electoral success. We believe that to be a blemish.

The candidates with the most personal votes are not necessarily those who are elected. Indeed, in a series of worked examples which officials of the Home Office produced at the Home Secretary's request, the majority of cases resulted in candidates other than those who had received the most personal votes being elected.

The NOP study showed that voters were concerned about that and in a sense felt cheated in that, having been asked to express a preference, the nature of the system was such that those preferences were not necessarily the determining factor when it came to deciding which candidates on a party list were to be elected. We believe that those views expressed in the survey would be typical of the electorate more generally. There would be a prospect of widespread dissatisfaction following an election in which candidates were elected ahead of their colleagues who had secured a better personal vote. We decided therefore that the Belgian system was not the one that we would opt for.

The system for which the Bill provides is used in European parliamentary elections in France, Germany, Greece, Spain and Portugal. When the Bill has been enacted, over 70 per cent. of voters in the European Union will elect their MEPs in this way.

There is a suggestion that the Bill will be the thin end of the wedge: that it is the precursor for the introduction of a proportional voting system for elections to another place. We take the view that electoral systems should be appropriate for the particular bodies being elected. Our Parliament has a very different function from that performed by the European Parliament and we believe that different considerations obtain.

Your Lordships know that an independent commission has been established to consider what the best system to employ would be if we were to move away from the first-past-the-post system for another place. Three of the five members of the commission are Members of your Lordships' House: the noble Lords, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and Lord Alexander of Weedon, and the noble Baroness, Lady Gould of Potternewton. So the commission certainly does not lack experience or wisdom. Once it has reported, the public will be able to choose in a referendum whether they wish to continue electing the Members of another place using the existing system or whether they wish to adopt any electoral system identified by the commission as a more suitable alternative.

That is for the future and for another Parliament. We are firmly of the view that the system proposed in the Bill is the most appropriate for us. From the electors' point of view, it is simple to use. The elector will be required only to place a single cross on the ballot paper. It mirrors the systems used by most of the rest of Europe to select MEPs; and, most of all, it is proportional and ensures that, in what is essentially a representative institution, the composition of the British delegation broadly represents the votes that have been cast by British electors.

We are committed to modernising and improving our constitutional arrangements. The Bill is an important element in that process. I commend it to your Lordships.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

11.47 a.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, we are all grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, for his explanation, although I suspect that some of us are not particularly grateful for the Bill. Unfortunately, this important debate is on the traditionally short Maundy Thursday and I have an unbreakable engagement in Glasgow this evening. If the debate continues too long, I may have to leave before the end. I apologise if that happens.

The history of debates on the electoral system is a long one, as Vernon Bogdanor in his book The People and the Party System makes clear. It all started in 1831 when the Member for the rotten borough of St. Germans in Cornwall tabled an amendment calling for the, introduction of a perfectly new principle into our representative system". He was very worried that if precautions were not taken the "mob" would overwhelm the civilised minority which had hitherto governed the country. To prevent that happening he advocated a system called the limited vote.

During the passage of the second Reform Bill, an amendment in favour of the cumulative vote, another form of proportional representation or fixed voting to avoid the domination of the mob as opposed to the values of a liberal society, was supported by an ancestor of my noble friend Lord Cranborne. However, I think that Disraeli got it right when he said that it was, alien to the customs manners and traditions of the people of this country". And later, in the Reform Bill of 1867, an ancestor of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, backed an amendment by Lord Cairns in your Lordships' House designed to offset the giving of the vote to the "large masses in our large towns" and ensure that the minority of "property and intelligence" would be able to provide a steadying check to Parliament. More fixed voting, my Lords. Gladstone failed to persuade the other place to overturn the Lords' amendments and limited voting came in. But the irony should not be lost upon us today; the limited vote failed to do what its advocates desired and it was abandoned.

Despite these and subsequent failures to change our system to one of the many varieties of proportional representation, all designed to fix the system in one way or another, the one thing that can be said about democracy down the decades—decades which have merged into centuries—is that it has been robust, has given us stable government and has, despite all the turmoils of this century, ensured an enduring democratic tradition, more enduring, dare I say, than that experienced by most of our continental neighbours who have put their faith in the myriad forms of proportional representation.

I wonder, why change? Why do we have this obsession that everything that we do in this country, everything that we have done down the years, is wrong and everything done by our European neighbours, even for a very short time, must be correct? Every country develops in its own way. I do not believe that there is one right way for everyone. I am not troubled by the fact that our friends in Europe elect their Members to the European Parliament and to their own individual parliaments in a different way from the way we do; I am not on a campaign to persuade them to join us in our system. We do not all use the same methods. Even on the continent they do not all use the same method, and some of them are constantly changing their systems. Italy, for example, would love to get into the first-past-the-post club, just as we seem determined to leave it.

What do we look for in a voting system? I believe we look for three broad principles: accountability, stable government and fairness. I believe that those are the hallmarks of a sensible and enduring voting system.

The case for stable government is not an argument one can make in this Bill. I noted carefully—and will read carefully in Hansard—the words that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, used when he developed this part of his argument. I agree with him that the stable-government case is not one for the European Parliament because that does not lead to government, stable or otherwise; but it is certainly a compelling argument—I would go further and say a very, very compelling argument—for not making any changes with regard to the other place. What disturbs me a little is that, as I understand it, the commission that is set up has not one single member who is on record as being a supporter of the first-past-the-post system.

There can be no doubt that the single-member constituency provides a high degree of accountability, not just to the party and to party members but also to the electors of all parties and of none. Constituency members in our system are members for all the people. Letters, telephone calls, faxes, e-mails and surgeries all bring each Member of Parliament, each Member of the European Parliament and each local councillor into direct contact with all constituents, regardless of where they come from in the political spectrum. It is interesting that one of the four criteria the Government have set down for the examination of the voting system for another place is a link between MPs and geographical constituencies.

In the Scotland and Wales Bills, which will shortly come to us, the Government have attempted to keep that link by the use of the additional-member system which builds on first-past-the-post members in order to maintain that link. Yet in this Bill they have virtually destroyed the link. I shall come to the big geographical groupings; I do not believe for a minute that they will lead to any real link between an individual member and his constituents. "Am I my brother's Member?" —if I may change an appropriate quotation for Maundy Thursday—will rapidly be answered by, "Not me, see one of the other Members. He is of your party/he lives near you/he knows about the issues which concern you—but of course he is not here".

I know that Members of the European Parliament represent large areas and very much larger numbers than do Members of the other place, but Members of the European Parliament, or at least some of them, have identified themselves with their area and are seen by their constituents to represent them in Brussels. She is not of my party, but Mrs. Winifred Ewing is an excellent example of that. I wager that she is a good deal better known throughout the length and breadth of her huge constituency than are many Members of the other place in their constituencies, which are pocket-handkerchief size by comparison.

Turning to fairness, there is more to fairness than just the arithmetic outcome. There is the obvious fairness that the person who gets most votes wins. Indeed, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, mentioned this issue when he dismissed the open system. There is the fairness of each elector having one vote. There is the fairness of not allowing some electors to exercise second, third and fourth choices when others have only their first choice considered.

I do not see any need for this Bill. I know that we have signed up to a uniform electoral procedure in all member states, but we are nowhere near that. The other member states do not have that uniform system. Anyway, is uniformity that important? Even if we look at European requirements, it seems to me that the Government could have chosen a system more akin to that used in the Scottish and Welsh Bills. It is not that I approve of them, but at least they keep that important constituency link. In the De Ducht Report in November 1992 the European Parliament, by a resolution, allowed for a similar system based on single-member constituencies, with no more than two-thirds of the seats assigned to the single-member seats and the remainder distributed by means of a list in order to ensure that the result corresponded to the proportionality of the vote. In Committee we shall probe as to the reason why the Government did not take the opportunity of using that report from the European Parliament and thereby maintain the constituency link.

Turning to the areas, I wonder how the Government can possibly defend their choice of areas. There is certainly no logical electoral or parliamentary reason for using the regions drawn up for a quite different purpose; namely, for the Government Offices for the Regions. These regions were not drawn up with any idea that they might be used as electoral areas. They vary enormously in size. Without boring the House with mathematics, I can tell your Lordships that the Government will be very lucky indeed if, for example, the North-East Region, with only four Members, comes up with anything near proportionality. It is almost impossible, because four Members are not enough to reflect the proportionality that is likely to be needed.

Turning to counting systems, why the d'Hondt system? Why not any of a number of the various sleight-of-hand formulas which are each designed to rig the outcome of an election in one direction or another? There is Hare; I suppose that he gave rise to the phrase "a hare-brained scheme". There is Hare-Niemeyer; there is Hagenbach Bischoff. Then there is Sainte Lague; I do not know how one pronounces that, but I decided that, since it is spelt like "Hague", I had better do my bit for sycophancy and pronounce it that way. Then there is the single transferable vote and then the AV. And then there is the simplicity of the first-past-the-post system. I cynically wondered whether the next proposal from this Government would be that only those who could understand these complicated systems would be allowed to vote. That would certainly, as the noble Earl's forebears wanted, keep the mob at bay and ensure that the gentlemen who devised these various systems in the last century got their way.

I turn to the point raised by the noble Lord about closed and open lists. I think I know the reason why the Government have chosen a closed list. As they are control freaks, the last thing they will want is for anyone other than Blair or Mandelson trusties to be in this Parliament. Anyone who shows a whiff of independence or, dare I say, a whiff of socialism will be Tippexed out of the script, just as Ken Coates, Hugh Kerr, Alex Falconer and Michael Hindley have already discovered.

Perhaps we can tease this out at Committee stage, but I look in vain in the Bill to see what happens to a number of our electoral rules which are devised for single-member constituencies—for example, our rules on expenditure. I presume that all of this will be dealt with by secondary legislation, and I shall want to know whether that will be by affirmative or negative procedure. I suggest also to the Minister that we ought to know the answers in the first instance before we pass the legislation.

I am particularly intrigued about by-elections. I understand that the returning officer will contact the next person on the list. What if that person has left his party, or in the case of the Labour Party been put into the sinbin for his views? And thinking a little more on this, what happens if an MEP leaves his party? He cannot stay in the Parliament. After all, he was not elected as an individual but as simply a rank on the party list.

And it is to the party I wish to address my last point. This Bill introduces the concept of a registered party for the very first time in this country. Currently anyone can stand if he can within reason find the requisite number of assentors and the necessary deposit. Not in future. Parties will need to be registered and that means that someone, some body will need to do that registering. And that implies non-registration. I can envisage a party with some pretty dreadful ideas wanting to stand, asking for registration. I can envisage the politically correct being so horrified that we have campaigns outside here, with their banners demanding non-registration of that party.

A free country ought to mean what that says. Anyone should be free to stand, just as anyone should be free to vote. And if we are to move to a system which reduces the role of the individual, which is what it does, and makes the party the basis of democratic action, we cannot have some "Big Brother" deciding who is or is not a party. My fears may be totally groundless. Registration may be simple, and may not imply a refusal to register. But I want to know. And I submit that we all should know before this Bill passes through this House. If a revising Chamber means anything, it must mean holding the Executive to account, acting as a check on their use of power where it is not clear how that power is to be used. Hence your Lordships' absolutely correct distrust of too much secondary legislation, of skeletal Bills and above all of Henry VIII clauses.

So we should not allow this Bill to pass from this House until we see the Bill on party registration and have the chance to study it and to discuss how it impacts on this current Bill. I cannot believe the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, eminent lawyer that he is, would accept for a moment a request to pass an important piece of legislation without knowing what one of the most important building blocks looks like. I hope he will ensure that we see the Registration of Parties Bill before we start our detailed discussions. Frankly it would be far better if we had passed the Registration of Parties Bill before either House was asked to consider this Bill.

I do not disguise the fact: I think this is a sad day for Britain and for our parliamentary democracy, based as it has been down the ages on the Westminster pattern of constituency representation. But I should not be surprised. The Minister without Portfolio, but with everything else, Mr. Peter Mandelson, in a speech on March 3rd said: It may he that the era of pure representative democracy is coming slowly to an end". We have been warned.

12.2 p.m.

Lord Steel of Aikwood

My Lords, it is always a delight to follow the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. His eloquence remains undimmed from the days when he campaigned for me to be elected as the Member of Parliament for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles. His arguments are entirely the opposite of those he used so effectively on that occasion. But it is always a delight to follow him.

I begin by saying on behalf of my Liberal Democrat colleagues that we are interested in this Bill not just because of the principle of proportional representation but because we want to see the powers and effectiveness of the European Parliament increased. It is important that that institution should be able to gather to itself increasing democratic authority over the workings both of the European Council of Ministers and the European Commission.

There are problems which the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament will have to address as the Community enlarges. Are we to have an ever-expanding size of European Parliament? I hope not. The largest popular assembly of which I know in the world is the People's Assembly in China which has, I think, 2,978 members. That is hardly an advertisement for effective democracy.

Equally, it would be good to see the parliament develop more powers over co-decision making powers and the budget. I was appalled, during the time of the previous government, when the European Parliament established a committee of inquiry into the BSE problem but our Minister of Agriculture would not appear before it. I am glad to say that the current Minister has, so that is an improvement.

I should like the European Parliament to have more power over the appointment of the Commission. At the moment, I understand, it has the power to sack the entire Commission. That is rather like capital punishment—a somewhat drastic solution. There is, however, no refined method of securing democratic approval for the appointment or removal of individual commissioners. So a great deal can be done to improve democratic accountability within the European Union as we know it today.

One step which we are taking today in this House is to improve the electoral system. I was struck by the fact that neither the Minister nor the Opposition spokesman made any reference to our international obligation to introduce a proportional system. Article 138 of the Treaty of Rome states quite specifically: The European Parliament shall draw up proposals for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States. The Council shall, acting unanimously", after obtaining the assent of the European Parliament which shall act by a majority of its component members, lay down the appropriate provisions, which it shall recommend to Member States for adoption in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements". That provision of the Treaty of Rome, to which we signed up when we joined the European Community, has been steadfastly ignored by successive governments. As a result—the Minister referred to it in passing—we alone, of all the member states, have a disproportionate system of election to the European Parliament. I admit that not all the other member states have yet reached agreement on a common agreed system. But they have in common the principle of proportionality, and we do not.

What has been the result? First, we not only distort our own representation of the 87 Members of the European Parliament but we distort the political grouping in the parliament itself. Let us be frank that what happens in European elections in this country is that they are a snapshot, an opinion poll, of what happens to be the political temperature at the time when the European election takes place. So, in 1984, the Conservative Party, because it was riding high at that time and the Labour Party was on its back, won an overwhelming majority of members at the European Parliament. It was nothing to do with European issues or the balance of political argument in Europe. It was simply a passing opinion poll of political standing at the time.

In the 1989 elections, very surprisingly, the Green Party won 15 per cent. of the vote. Admittedly, the party has virtually disappeared since, but 15 per cent. is not something to be overlooked. The Greens have a group in the European Parliament which plays an active role. The British made no contribution to that because, with 15 per cent. of the vote, the Greens were denied even one of the then 84 British seats in the parliament.

Coming up to date, in 1994, because on that occasion the Labour Party was riding high in the political temperature and the Conservative Party was not, the Labour Party won three-quarters of the seats on 44 per cent. of the vote. One would imagine that the Conservative Party might feel rather aggrieved about that but not at all. It operates on the basis of Buggins's turn, estimating that at some future date the tables will be turned and that it will once again win three-quarters of the seats on less than half the vote.

It is a highly unacceptable principle that we have denied ourselves the obligation into which we entered when signing up to the Treaty of Rome and have created a totally exclusive British distortion of the political forces in the European Parliament. That is quite indefensible and this Bill will bring an end to it.

The second effect of the first-past-the-post system in the European Parliament has been to create wholly intolerable single-member constituencies. I frankly disagree with the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, on that point. Of course one can make out a strong and convincing case for first-past-the-post and single-member representation in Westminster. I do not agree with it but a good case can be made. That is not true of the European Parliament.

The noble Lord quoted Mrs. Winifred Ewing. I say with respect to him that Mrs. Ewing is more noted because she is the only Scottish nationalist MEP—she is now president of the Scottish National Party—and is a colourful figure in her own right. It is more to do with that than with her work in the European Parliament. In any case, as the noble Lord knows from having been a Member of Parliament in that area, the Highlands and Islands, although a vast area, has a certain homogeneity. That is not true of the south of Scotland where I live. I challenge the noble Lord to come to any part of the south of Scotland, wander up and down the street and ask people if they know the name of their Member of the European Parliament. I think he would be lucky to find 5 per cent. who do. I intend no disrespect to the present Member or indeed to the previous Member. There is no commonality of interest whatever between Stranraer and the west of Scotland or the south Ayrshire or south Lanarkshire towns and North Berwick on the east coast outside Edinburgh. It is a wholly artificial unit and the first-past-the-post system simply does not stand up to scrutiny or examination.

Whatever flaws there may be in the regional list, it is surely much more sensible that Scotland in future will have eight members. My response to the noble Lord is that I think that the experience of other countries which have regional list systems is that members tend to gravitate towards those members of the European Parliament with whom they identify. In other words, they tend to gravitate towards those of their own party or those who live in their own areas, as he rightly said. I do not think that the exclusive representation of one person of one area can stand up to the artificial constituencies created under the present system.

The Minister referred to the history of the matter. I must admit that I was actively involved in the previous round of discussions in 1977 on this very issue. The wish to secure a proportional system when direct elections were first introduced in the legislation at the tail end of 1977 was a requirement of the Liberal Party in the days of the Lib-Lab agreement. The noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, is not with us today but I remember many robust conversations that I had with him at that time. The eventual agreement was that two systems were written into the Bill that came before the other place—the first-past-the-post system and the regional list. I find it rather ironic that I stand here today as the deputy to the leader of my party, the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, because it was he who, inside the Cabinet on that occasion on the other side of the fence, was busy conducting tutorials with his fellow Cabinet members as to what a regional list system was. He did so to great effect and persuaded them that really it was quite a good idea. Therefore, I am very glad to be representing him on this occasion and arguing precisely the same thing.

When it came to a free vote the Labour Members in the other place voted 146 to 115 in favour of a regional list system. The Conservative Party, for reasons of its own, decided to put on a strong three-line Whip against it. I suspect that it was nothing so much to do with the system as with the fact that it saw this as an evil part of the Lib-Lab agreement at that time. Certainly, about 100 Conservative Members had voted for PR for the Scotland Bill as it then was.

I remember well the argument at that time. I recall Mr. Michael Foot, who was Leader of the House, saying to me, "But look here David, we in the Labour Party are anti-Europe and we are anti-PR, and you are expecting us to vote for both at the same time." I said, "Indeed, I am." I suspect that if we had a conversation with the leader of the Conservative Party today, he would say, "We are anti-Europe and we are anti-PR. You cannot really be expecting us to vote for this Bill." I suspect that that is the real reason for the speech to which we have just listened.

Coming up to date, I welcome the Bill. There is a great deal of argument that can be advanced for party lists for improving internal party democracy. Here, I have had some experience. I was present on one occasion at a German party conference. I watched the delegates, in a way that has never been done in this country, voting for their representatives and the order in which they should stand on the list for the European elections. There was considerable power in the hands of the conference delegates. I think I am the only Member of your Lordships' House, or indeed of the other place, who has stood for election under a party list system. It was in Italy where I stood in the 1989 election. The then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, was unkind enough in the other place to say that she had heard of spaghetti westerns but never of a spaghetti Scotsman. That was her attitude to this sally. I can confess to your Lordships' House that I undertook to stand only on the clear undertaking that there was no risk of my being elected, but the experience was interesting. It was under the open-list system—here I come to the question of the open or closed list—and I came fourth out of a party list of 16, which, considering I did not even speak Italian, was not bad going. I can assure your Lordships that the system does work.

For our party—I do not know what is going to happen in the other parties for the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, is perhaps right when he chastises the Labour Party on the way in which the lists will be made up—I say there is a real chance here to enhance internal party democracy in our country. We all like to try to recruit members to our parties. Once we have them in, unless they are very active—and only a small proportion are—they have very few rights, although we hear of the development of votes for party leaders. But one system that we are certainly introducing—I commend it to the other parties—is that the lists for the European elections will be drawn up by the party members themselves, not in smoke-filled rooms but in open ballots following hustings meetings. I believe that will greatly enhance the workings of democracy in our country.

The voting is simple. It is easy for the noble Lord to scoff at the various counting systems—the counting is complicated—but the voting is simple. When we come to the Committee stage of the Bill we shall be pressing from these Benches for an amendment to create the open-list system. It is right that the voter himself or herself should not just be handed on a plate the lists which the party members offer; he or she should be able to discriminate between Mr. Bloggs, Mrs. Bloggs, or whoever, on the party list. The system can be made to work and we shall certainly seek to introduce an amendment to that effect.

I conclude by saying that we wish the Bill Godspeed. It is a long overdue reform. It has great advantages. It is a great opportunity to enhance democracy in our country. I give it a warm welcome.

12.17 p.m.

Lord Hurd of Westwell

My Lords, it is always a pleasure to follow the thoughtfulness of the noble Lord, Lord Steel. I approach the Bill with the same sadness as my noble friend Lord Mackay. Perhaps I might explain briefly why that is.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Steel, I recall quite vividly the original legislation 20 years ago when I was a junior Front-Bench spokesman for the Opposition in the other place. I do not remember so much the turmoil which he recalled about the electoral system. I remember having great difficulty in persuading my noble friend Lady Thatcher, the Leader of the Opposition, that it was right at all to accept direct elections to the European Parliament, and I am not entirely sure that her views will have budged over the intervening time. But I hoped, and I think we all hoped at that time, that the newly directly elected MEPs, whatever the electoral system, would quickly establish themselves alongside the Members of Parliament at Westminster as a valid and well recognised part of our political community. That has taken much longer than I supposed.

That is true not just here. It is also true on the Continent, as many noble Lords will know. It is also true among those countries that follow the electoral system which the Minister is proposing. So it is not a matter of the local electoral system. It is more a matter of the character and perhaps the powers of the European Parliament.

It has been a very slow process. However, I am quite sure that in this country the only way the process can make progress and the only way the MEPs can establish themselves is by showing the people who elect them that what they do is relevant to the practical concerns—and that means in many cases the local concerns—of those people. It is a question of how the local factory is managing in the single market; how the local farming community is faring under the common agricultural policy and how the standards of the local environment, whether the beaches, the power stations or whatever else are working out.

As both noble Lords supporting this Bill have said, it is perfectly true that the European constituencies under the present system are bigger than the Westminster constituencies. It is perfectly true that that adds to the difficulty of putting down local roots. But it is not an argument for making these constituencies even bigger and more remote so that the possibility of making local contacts and roots becomes much more difficult.

The Members of the European Parliament—to coin a phrase which should appeal to the Minister—should be people's MEPs and they should be responsible to all those who live in the area which they represent. This Bill will turn them into party MEPs. They will listen only to those who voted for them. That is what happens under this system. Others who come to them but who did not vote for them will be shunted somewhere else. They will become, as it were, shallower and imperfect representatives, whether it is of their region or their area.

So I believe that this Bill is a sad step in the wrong direction. I am not quite sure why the Home Secretary and the noble Lord, Lord Williams, were tempted, or forced, to go in that direction because, on the whole, although we do not always agree with them, we find them shrewd and sensible in their arguments. I do not know whether it was some obscure calculation of party advantage—I am past the stage where I can get those things right—or whether they felt the need to make some concessions to the party machine.

It is ominous that the voter is not even going to be allowed to express a preference for an individual within a list. I agree with what the noble Lord, Lord Steel, said, and I take this opportunity for a little bit of progress on that point. The Home Secretary said in the other place on 25th November: Voters cannot … be expected to make an informed choice between individual candidates from the same party".—[official Report, Commons 25/11/97; col. 813.] Well—or rather, wow! That is the language of people's democracy in the old sense. Even in the villages of the People's Republic of China they are beginning to get away from the doctrine that the party machine knows best who should represent the people. So, sadly, I have to conclude that this system is going to be a system for the subservient; a safe haven, if one likes, for the party hacks.

Perhaps I might go into this matter for just one moment. I used to agree with some of the general arguments which the noble Lord, Lord Steel, made, but I have changed my mind. I have become more devoted to the principle of the single-member constituency which I never actually abandoned. The noble Lord should look at what has been happening in Italy since he formed his first views. He should look at what has happened in New Zealand in the past few years, where they made the change and bitterly regret it. People should study these things before we go further down these roads. I am sure that his fair-mindedness will lead him to change his opinions.

Sadly, this is all of a piece with the Government's approach to these constitutional matters. The electorate was promised a coherent and even perhaps a noble dream of reform. What is coming out is a rag-bag of piecemeal measures. In each of them the central question is dodged. We have assemblies for Scotland and Wales. So far, all of us in Parliament have dodged the central question of what happens to the votes of Scottish and Welsh Members in another place when English matters are discussed there. There is a proposal as regards this Chamber to remove the hereditary element, avoiding and dodging the central question of what this Chamber is for and how it can be effective as part of our political community.

Finally, we have this proposal. We have one electoral system for Scotland and Wales; we have a different system proposed in this Bill, and we have a distinguished, but I must say unrepresentative, body mulling over perhaps yet another model for Westminster without in this case also tackling the central question.

As noble Lords will know, in some of our churches the windows are not like the windows in this Chamber. They reflect our violent history. The regional medieval windows were smashed by the Puritans. Later, the parishioners managed to put them together, but they could find only fragments. So they put together fragments such as a leg, an arm, a bit of a head, the bridle of a horse, a sword and a halo without a saint. That is what the windows are like now. We have that in our own village church at home. I am afraid that that is what the Government's constitutional proposals are increasingly becoming. The original radiant vision with the sun shining through has gone. What we have is a lot of bits and pieces without any coherent design or sensible pattern. This bit and piece before us today, on the whole and on balance, does damage to our democracy.

12.25 p.m.

Baroness Ludford

My Lords, on the whole this Bill is very good news. For the first time in 20 years of elections to the European Parliament, we will have an electoral system in Britain in which voters will see their preferences translated in a broadly proportional manner into seats won. This will also be the first time that the British electoral system for the European Parliament meets the test in the Treaty of Rome for an electoral system based on common principles. I say "British" because, of course, the citizens of Northern Ireland have been allowed a fair European voting system which the English, the Scots and the Welsh have been denied.

Therefore, like my colleagues, the noble Lord, Lord Steel, and those in the other place, I welcome this Bill. I can admit that I was almost as surprised when it was announced, after having been omitted from the Queen's Speech, as I was last Monday when the Government suddenly withdrew a clause from the Social Security Bill.

I am very glad that the Government moved faster than we once expected to implement this element of the agreement on constitutional matters reached between our two parties before the general election. The fact that they are determined to get it on the statute book in time for next year's Euro-elections is to be applauded. It is indeed crucial to do so because, if there is one context in which pluralism is important, it is Europe. It is no coincidence that those who tend to be anti-Europe are anti-PR. The noble Lord, Lord Hurd, may be the exception that proves the rule.

Fair voting for the European Parliament will put right the distorting effects that first-past-the-post has had on that body and indeed on the whole politics of the European Union. Misrepresentation of the votes cast in Britain has had a significant effect, as my noble friend said, on the composition of the groups in the European Parliament—in 1984 by over-representing the Tories and in 1994 grossly over-representing Labour. In 1984, with almost one in five of the votes cast, the Liberals and Social Democrats won not a single seat, and in 1989, with over one in seven of the votes cast, the Greens, or rather their voters, were denied representation.

I believe that I can confidently assert that the absence of PR and until 1994 of any representation from the Liberal Democrats has affected the profile of Britain in Europe. Proportional representation signals a new start to British European policy.

European elections are different to general elections and the arguments for first-past-the-post in a single-member constituency are not just weaker, they simply do not apply. Sadly, very few people have even heard of their Member of the European Parliament. The increasing development of a regional dimension to Europe makes it logical to conduct these elections on a multi-member regional basis. Anything would be better than the current closed list of one, but a regional basis happens to be the right one for Europe. As regards London, it will mean that MEPs will co-operate on a regional basis. I believe that that will increase the profile of London in Europe. The regional list system maintains the link between the voter and the constituency. It gives every voter a chance of having at least one MEP who represents their views. The first-past-the-post system does not do that.

I turn to the not-so-good news. It is true that the major flaw in the Bill is the Government's refusal so far to agree to a system of so-called openness, in which voters can vote for an individual candidate as well as a party list. Although the Home Secretary has at various times since the Bill was published indicated an open mind on the subject, disappointingly that has not so far translated into any concrete concession. It is worth reminding ourselves that in nine member states of the European Union a voter can change the order of names on the list by casting his personal vote for a particular candidate.

In his statement on 9th March, the Home Secretary said that the open list system, as used in Belgium, had "some superficial attractions". I suggest that those attractions are not superficial to the roughly 50 per cent. of voters likely to take advantage of the choice of candidate order, according to Charter 88. It cited an ICM poll for the Joseph Rowntree Trust which showed considerable support for open lists, with about half of all voters saying that they would take up such an opportunity.

However, at least the Home Secretary still conceded that there were attractions, even if "superficial", in open lists. He then went on to claim that that system had a "fundamental and incurable weakness" in that voters' preferences for individual candidates are not necessarily translated into electoral success, and that those receiving the fewest individual votes could be elected while those receiving the most individual votes are not. That is simply the way in which the party list and individual choice elements interact.

Under systems such as that in Belgium, parties have a greater incentive to encourage the placing of candidates likely to be popular with voters at the top of the list. The fact that few MEPs are elected out of rank order is not an argument against adopting the element of choice. Voters vote for candidates at the top of the list because parties have already ensured that the candidates popular with the voters have been put at the top of the list. It is a useful democratic feature which helps to allay fears about party central control of the list. The fact that open lists are not, on the whole, effective in changing the ranking is not an argument against them.

The Home Secretary claims that there could be substantial disillusionment among the electorate due to the effects that he described. Surely, however, that would be much less than the voters' likely disillusionment if, the first time that they have the opportunity to cast a proportional vote, they are presented with a system that deprives them of any choice between the candidates of a party. An open list, which is seen to increase choice, is more likely to increase the turnout from the appallingly low 35 per cent. that we have achieved so far because it would be seen as a more legitimate system.

I shall restrict my remarks to those points, otherwise I fear that I may become tediously repetitive. My noble friend warned me against that. The Bill is welcome, if imperfect. We would prefer a counting system with a divisor which is fairer to smaller parties and more proportional than is the d'Hondt system. The Bill would be greatly improved if the Government accepted the flexibility of open lists. Blocking the Bill will not be in the interests of fairness or democracy. It would not help us to play a positive role in Europe. I disagree fundamentally with those on the Conservative Benches.

The Amsterdam Treaty strengthens the powers of the European Parliament. It is, therefore, entirely right that this Bill will make Britain's MEPs more accountable to the citizens by more fairly representing their views.

12.33 p.m.

Lord Dean of Harptree

My Lords, as the Minister said in opening the debate, this is one of a series of major constitutional and electoral reform Bills which the Government have presented to Parliament. I make no complaint about that. They said that they would do it—and they have done it. However, I regret the fact that the Bills are being pushed through in great haste. I regret, too, that important points are left unanswered and, as a consequence, that it is that much more difficult for Parliament to come to a balanced judgment.

The British constitution is a delicate plant. It has grown over the centuries to meet changing needs. It embodies the accumulated wisdom of many generations. It should be handled with care—and when it is changed, it should, if at all possible, be changed with maximum agreement and consensus. The changes would then be much more likely to endure. One of the lessons that I have learnt in over 30 years in Parliament is that governments who legislate in haste usually repent at leisure. I have seen governments of both parties do just that. It is a great pity that this Government appear intent on following that bad example.

We are told that proportional representation in this Bill will be more democratic than our traditional first-past-the-post, single-member arrangement. I disagree. In Germany, a small party with a small proportion of the votes very often virtually dictates which of the big parties shall form the government. That is not democratic. In the Irish Republic, an election does not normally produce a majority, so a coalition has to be cobbled together which may not represent the views of the electors. That system does not make for democracy or stable government. New Zealand is the latest example. It now has a multitude of parties and it takes weeks—or sometimes months—to form a government. That is not good for democracy or stable government.

In introducing the Bill in another place, the Secretary of State for the Home Department, Mr. Jack Straw, was frank enough to tell the House that he was against PR for Westminster but in favour of it for Europe. His reason was that, in the case of Westminster, the Government are formed from elected Members for the most part, whereas the European Parliament is a representative assembly. I believe that that is a distinction without a difference.

The Government have set the PR bandwagon rolling, egged on by their junior partners, the Liberal Democrats. I do not believe for one moment that the bandwagon will suddenly stop when it reaches the venerable portals of Westminster Hall. The only thing that can stop it now is the good sense of the British people in the referendum that we have been promised.

As my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish said, one of the great strengths of our first-past-the-post system in single-member constituencies is that it develops a strong personal relationship first between the candidate and the voter and then between the Member of Parliament and his constituents. The Member of Parliament is responsible to, and responsible for, all his constituents as soon as he is elected, no matter how they voted. Furthermore, he cannot shirk the responsibility because he is the only representative in that constituency. I suggest strongly that those advantages far outweigh any disadvantages that there may be in the first-past-the-post system.

This Bill will destroy that link. No only are we not to have constituencies—in the case of Scotland and Wales, we shall have countries; in the case of England, we shall have regions and in the case of Northern Ireland, we shall have the existing system—but worse still, we shall be asked to vote mostly for parties, not for individuals. When I first stood for election, the only names on the ballot papers were the names of the candidates. It was only later that party labels were added.

We know exactly what will happen particularly under the closed list system. For the most part, party leaders will draw up lists of candidates. They will be dull, grey men and women who will toe the party line and conform. As a consequence, their first loyalty will be to the party line rather than the people whom they propose to represent. I want a system in which both Mr. Tony Blair and Mr. Ken Livingstone can be elected because they both represent important strands of opinion in this country. I am beginning to feel rather sorry for Mr. Ken Livingstone because I see the possibility of a promising parliamentary career being cut off before it reaches its prime. Under this system voters will feel cheated of the traditional choice that they have enjoyed over the years. Variety will be driven out. The whole process will appear remote and as a consequence people will lose interest in the voting system. If that happened it would be extremely bad for democracy.

My final point was also referred to by my noble friend Lord Mackay in his opening remarks. The Bill refers to registered parties but provides no definition of them. The Minister is a very distinguished lawyer. He knows far better than I that it will be no easy task to define registered parties. But we really should be told—if possible in the wind-up, but certainly before Committee stage—what the Government have in mind as a definition of registered parties.

In conclusion, it is fairly obvious that I believe this to be a bad and dangerous Bill which casts aside our traditional electoral system, is undemocratic and is not British.

12.42 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, in 1975, shortly after I had the honour of becoming a Member of your Lordships' House, I was invited to be one of the representatives of the United Kingdom in the European Parliament. Presumably we were elected either at random or with varying degrees of reliability, but particularly at a time when we were co-operating together to achieve what was then termed the European Common Market it seemed to me entirely appropriate to act in that capacity. I thoroughly enjoyed it and learned a great deal from it.

Shortly before my term of office was due to expire in 1979 and before the on-coming general election, a proposal was made that there should be direct elections in the United Kingdom, abandoning the ordinary method of appointment either from the other place or this place to the European Parliament. This seemed to be logical because at that time the European Parliament was gradually moving towards a more legislative role but still within the limitations of what was then conceived to be the function of the European Commission. In due course there was an election and constituency representation was established. That appeared to operate perfectly satisfactorily. So long as the European Members of Parliament had any legislative function to perform it appeared quite proper that direct elections from constituencies and by constituency vote should be carried out.

Our European colleagues, who had been vocal in advocating that this step be taken in the interests of uniform procedures throughout the European Community, very much supported the move. I recall that the Dutch were vocal in insisting that there should be what they termed direct elections and what we understood to mean direct elections from constituencies. To our astonishment, therefore, having performed this feat of electing and sending Members of the European Parliament to Strasbourg, Luxembourg and elsewhere, the remaining partners in Europe who had advocated that course retained their own method of election without any change whatsoever. The United Kingdom was the only one that changed its procedures; the others retained their systems, which proceeded on the basis of regional and/or national lists prepared by their constituency parties.

Where the current Bill appears to go a little astray is that it introduces a new ingredient into elections to the European Parliament. It has brought the party machine, or someone nominated by a party, into the Bill as a body to authorise candidates to stand. Speaking as a former Member of another place, normally nominations are made by five or more people. They sign the nomination papers to be submitted to the returning officer. One's name appears in the literature and so on. That is now to be abandoned because under the Bill an authorised official from individual political parties is to be given the right by law to nominate, in this particular instance by reference to a list.

I am constrained to agree with the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, in his comments about constituency representation. Where one's country sends a Member to a legislative assembly who takes full powers and all that goes with that membership, it is the constituents in whatever area it may be to whom that individual should be finally responsible. To put it no higher, I believe that the Bill diminishes the powers of constituents and various constituency parties to whom they belong. That is not a good thing. I do not believe that it encourages independence. Your Lordships may agree that in this place I have tried to be as independent as I can within the limitations of the general principles of my party. I am afraid that the Members who are now sent to the European Parliament may fall increasingly under the control of the party machine. A good argument has been made that that is likely to be the case.

The Government's response to all this—it is all on record, as I propose to show—is to try to deny the proposition that candidates are likely to be more amenable to the official machine and the official line by pretending that, in any event, the people to be sent to Strasbourg, Brussels or wherever will not be MPs at all but just representatives.

It is notable that, in trying to establish the assertion that the people have no power anyway, the European Parliament has very little legislative authority and therefore the MEPs who are sent there are quite harmless, they endeavour to prove how harmless the parliament is. Before the war when I stood for another place, we had a saying which has been passed on to those who have come afterwards. It is: Never believe a rumour until it has been officially denied". My right honourable friend the Home Secretary, if I may so suggest, went to this extreme in the course of the Second Reading of the Bill in another place. He said this: The European Parliament is a representative body; it is not a Parliament from which a Government are drawn". A couple of minutes or so later, he repeated: The European Parliament does not form the basis of a Government, but is simply a representative body". If that were not enough, another two minutes or so later he went back to the proposition: We are not dealing with the election of a Parliament which then sustains a Government, but with the election of a representative body in Europe". In the course of the same speech a little later, as indeed the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, has already noted, he said this in continuation: The electoral regions will be very large, and individual candidates are unlikely to he known by more than a small—not to say tiny—fraction of the electorate. Voters cannot, therefore, be expected to make an informed choice between individual candidates from the same party".— [Official Report, Commons, 25/11/97; cols. 804-13.] Some of us, particularly those of us with parliamentary experience, might be tempted to say, "Methinks he doth protest too much". Is that really true?

If it could be established that the European Parliament has no powers, or very few powers, and that the MEPs are merely representatives and have no status as Members of Parliament, that is one thing. It is something which I would have expected my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary to have dealt with when he introduced the Bill for the changes to be made in the ratification of the Treaty of Amsterdam. We would have expected him to have mentioned at least once in his Second Reading speech, among the many triumphs that were apparently achieved by our representation in the talks leading to the signature at Amsterdam, the European Parliament. He mentioned it not at all.

I am not accusing my right honourable friend of misleading the House, although it is possible to mislead by omission. But in the course of the winding-up speech on the same occasion, 12th November, there was a mention of the European Parliament. My honourable friend Mr. Henderson said: We have ensured that the European Parliament has an effective role in overseeing the work of the Commission, alongside the Council".—[Official Report, Commons, 12/11/97; co1.1003.] This, I am afraid, is not the case; because what did happen at Amsterdam is that considerable powers were given to the European Parliament, and anybody who has read the treaty knows that it now has the power of co-decision, with the Council itself in passing or refusing to pass all legislation. Nothing in certain fields—and they are important fields—can be enacted without the Council and the European Parliament being in complete accord. The procedures are laid down—and I could if necessary quote them to your Lordships—but undoubtedly the European Parliament has powers of co-decision over a wide field and its Members are therefore effective legislators in that field.

The European Parliament has obtained its powers by a continued collaboration with the Commission itself. It is only a few years ago that the leader of the European Socialist Party, speaking in plenary session in Strasbourg, indicated that his party, to which my party was then and still is affiliated, envisaged the day when the Commission would become the government of the whole of Europe and the Parliament would take, in relation to that government, the same role as the British Parliament exercises over the Government here. This is beyond denial: I repeat beyond denial.

The question is, is this the kind of situation which we wish to continue to tolerate? The Commission and Parliament have long since—it is all on record and I have the documents—collaborated in this field. Even the name "European Parliament" and the authority of that Parliament were established in the teeth of the treaty, under which until comparatively recently it was known as the European Assembly. Without any question, in 1975 it was issuing documents in the name of the European Parliament which it was not authorised to do such as its own passport; and I own a copy of that passport—with my own rather more flattering photograph in those days. Moreover, it was recognised by our Customs authorities and passport control in authorising the amount of currency that I was able to take out of the country at that time. There was an unofficial acknowledgement, without any Commission objection, of powers assumed by the European Parliament.

The same is happening all over again. Unless we retain some measure of independence for those people who are elected to represent our interests—the interests of their constituents and the United Kingdom—in the assemblies and the parliaments which take place in Strasbourg, Brussels and elsewhere, we shall be betraying the duty which history has laid upon us and which all of us ought to sustain.

12.58 p.m.

The Earl of Stockton

My Lords, I first thank the Minister both for his clear explanation and for his reluctance to indulge in higher mathematics on Maundy Thursday!

I must declare an interest for, notwithstanding my failure in 1994 to persuade the good voters of Bristol to vote in sufficient numbers to ensure me a place in the counsels of the European Parliament, it is my intention to seek selection as one of my party's candidates for the forthcoming election in the South West Region. However, I trust that I do not conform to the gloomy image portrayed by my noble friend Lord Dean.

Like a number of other candidates, including some from the political fringes, I have a slight ambivalence towards the prospect of proportional representation. As a democrat, I disapprove of the system chosen in principle. As a parliamentarian, albeit one beneath the Damocletian Sword, given the avowed intentions of the Government towards your Lordships' House, I deplore the inherent lack of accountability to the electorate in the system adopted by the Government.

The ambivalence arises from the anomaly that if a candidate is successful in the lottery of selection then, as long as he or she is at or very close to the top of the party list in question, then the rigours of the ballot box can be less severe. If however, he or she is less fortunate, and is at, or near the bottom of the said list, then the prospect of the rigours of campaigning would be worse and such persons would be forgiven for failing to cast themselves wholeheartedly into the electoral process. This cannot be good for the democratic process: nor, does the prospect of knocking on doors, and instead of saying: "Vote for Me!", saying: "Vote Tory for coherence on Europe," seem any more attractive than saying: "Vote Labour for independence of representation." I imagine that the Minister will be able to tell us if bleepers and buzzers work as well in Brussels and Strasbourg as they do in another place or perhaps in your Lordships' House.

My concerns about this Bill stem not only from the process, but the implications of the proposals. How will an individual with a problem know which of the regional MEPs should be addressed? I trust the Minister will not say: "one of the Labour MEPs of course." For were he to do so he would be embarking on a very dangerous constitutional course of suggesting that an elected member of any parliament, assembly or council has duty only to those who have voted for the member in question.

The terms of the Amsterdam treaty have increased the powers, obligations and participation of the European Parliament in the areas of both policy generation and implementation. Since the Treaty of Rome, each development in the European Union has in fact given the parliament a greater say and a stronger hand to play in the affairs and governance of the Union. It is not entirely the fault of successive Councils of Ministers or the Commission, that the parliament has not chosen to use those powers and play that hand.

Mind you, it has to be admitted that nor have those Councils of Ministers, or the Commission, gone out of their way to encourage democratic accountability to the parliament, which is after all the only institution within the Union that has true democratic credibility. At least the advent of modern technology has ensured that the trunks of paper no longer have to be moved from Strasbourg to Brussels to Luxembourg and back again.

But surely should not the Government and the present and future representatives of the United Kingdom be pressing for the parliament to stay in Brussels? Members of your Lordships' House and in another place are aware of the problems of controlling the bureaucracy at 500 yards, let alone at 500 miles.

Other members of your Lordships' House have spoken eloquently on the constitutional issues implicit in this Bill, if it passes into law unamended, and it should be noticed both by the Minister, and the members of Her Majesty's Government in another place, that these reservations are shared in part or in whole by noble Lords from all sides of the House.

If, however, we are to have PR—given the tyranny of the elected majority in another place I suspect that we will have it—I would support the noble Lord, Lord Steel, if he moves an amendment to the Bill to introduce an open list system, although his success in coming fourth in an Italian system, unable to speak the language, makes me wonder whether the assertion he has made of its democratic validity is altogether sound.

I trust that when the Bill comes to be debated in Committee these reservations will be addressed and listened to by the Government. I would venture to say that in considering alterations to the constitution of the realm, your Lordships' House is a better focus group than any that could be put together elsewhere, and any spin that is put on the Bill in this House be accepted by the Government before that imposed by the doctors on another place.

1.3 p.m.

Lord Bethell

My Lords, I, too, must declare an interest in that a year ago I was selected as a prospective Conservative candidate for London North-West in the European elections to take place next year. If the Bill passes, which it presumably will, I shall be back to square one on the snakes and ladders board, but that is, I suppose, one of the problems that we all have to face if we stand for election.

I shall indicate why it is that I support the views put forward by my noble friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and others who say that there are great disadvantages in the Bill as drafted. With my noble friend Lord Kingsland, who will be speaking shortly, I spent 15 years as an elected Member of the Strasbourg Parliament. It was greatly noticed by colleagues that we had an advantage which other MEPs did not have: we had close links with our electorate, and they, especially those elected on national lists—in France, Greece, and elsewhere—had hardly any link.

It has been said in the debate that there is no close relationship between the MEP at the moment and the constituent. Well, in the sense that a Member of the other place is closely linked to his constituents—even more so a local councillor—that may very well be the case. But those who have seen how MEPs operate will, I think, concede that there are many relationships, friendships and links which are extremely valuable and which should, if possible, be maintained.

Business people in our constituencies were quick to take on board that MEPs could be useful to them for they were not just representatives who put forward the orders of their party, of their government, or of the parliament at home. While Ministers were negotiating the terms of some draft piece of legislation, MEPs were able to work in parallel directly with the Commission, something that Members of the British Parliament—of another place and of your Lordships' House—were not able to do easily.

MEPs could go to see Commissioners about some problem that was particular to their constituency without causing the raising of an eyebrow. Commissioners, however, are not particularly anxious, I understand, to receive members of national parliaments. There are just too many of them. So—dare I say?—MEPs fulfil an important and unique role and have unique privileges.

I remember with satisfaction the links that I built up—I am sure that my noble friend had the same experience—with educational bodies, local newspapers, radio stations and means of communication with my constituents under the present electoral system. I realise that we were all elected by half a million voters, although only one-third of them usually bothered to turn out on election day. It is hard to keep in close touch with three-quarters of a million constituents (half a million voters) but efforts were made and we had no lack of what might be called constituency mail.

Given that part of our function was educational and social, we had plenty to do. I have no doubt that that is reflected among a large number of people who remain in close touch with their MEPs today. I am afraid that a great deal of that will be lost under the new system proposed by the Government. I, too, am attracted by the idea, put forward by Mr. Straw at one stage, of having an open list system. That would be better than nothing. With other noble Lords, I shall think carefully about whether such an amendment can be supported. When I was at Strasbourg there was no doubt who my masters were: the people of London, North-West. They were not the Conservative Party or the Conservative government, although I hardly ever, it is fair to say, diverted from their advice. My employers were the people of London North-West, in particular the party at the grass roots. It was with them that I felt it essential to keep in close touch if I wanted to be re-elected. There is no such thing as complete guarantee of tenure but it is noticeable that those standing for the European Parliament have a very high turnover. The present Strasbourg Parliament contains only half the membership of the previous one. I am not sure that it is a very good thing for tenure to be so capricious as it is at present. It means that it is impossible for any person to contemplate entering the European Parliament other than for a single term, or two terms, and that therefore it must constitute work of a career gap nature rather than something embarked upon for a large part of a career.

There is no doubt that under the system proposed, the party will be paramount. I am not sure that the words of the individual candidates will even be quoted or mentioned on electoral addresses, whether their photographs will be on electoral addresses, or whether it will simply be a head-to-head battle between the party leaders. It is a party contest and the individual is very much down the line in what is to happen next year. I therefore feel that I cannot support this proposal. Were it not for the rules under which we operate, I would certainly vote against it.

However, we will, I hope, be able to pass certain amendments. There is one I wish to mention before I sit down, and that is the question of Gibraltar. The way things stand, the 12,000 voting British citizens of Gibraltar are not included in the Bill. This was, one might say, an ideal opportunity to give the people of Gibraltar a chance, which they have long been denied, to vote in European elections. They are British citizens and European Union citizens as much as we are. An amendment to this effect was proposed in another place and voted down. I trust that it will be approved at Committee stage by your Lordships. Various other amendments also have a very good chance of success. I realise that there are arguments in the opposite sense to the ones I have put forward. These have been ably deployed by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, and by noble Lords from the Liberal Democrat Benches. I welcome the support for our ideas put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, who is another former colleague.

It is with some trepidation that I offer a lukewarm welcome to the Bill. The elections, no doubt, will take place next year. My noble friend Lord Stockton and I may or may not be candidates. I believe that a large number of your Lordships from the Liberal Democrat Benches, having been elevated, will now be parachuted on to their lists and there are some to whom I wish the very best of luck. May the best men and women win this time next year.

1.14 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I must first declare a non-pecuniary interest. I speak as president of the Electoral Reform Society, by whom I am in part advised. I should also like to say that it is a pleasure to follow my former MEP into the debate. In spite of much that has been said, I knew who he was long before I arrived here. And, if I may say so, he did a very good job.

Last time we debated this subject, on 25th June, on a Motion introduced by my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, the Minister was left with the traditional and sorrowful lot of junior Ministers of standing on the burning deck whence all but he had fled. He will be rather relieved that today we are debating the matter on a day so wet that not any deck on earth would burn. He may be even more pleased to have an extremely good Bill under his belt, even though that Bill is in some respects capable of improvement.

I listened with great amusement to the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. We are old sparring partners, of course. When he was at the opposite Dispatch Box he showed so sound a defence that he became known as "Slasher Mackay." It is a great pleasure to see him beginning to go for his shots, but since he is a little out of practice the timing was occasionally awry and the ball sometimes went in the air.

I very much enjoyed his quotations from my great-grandfather. That view of an inherent opposition of classes is very like views that the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, had to listen to many times during the negotiation of a settlement in Rhodesia. But we have children to educate us, and my great-grandfather was later put right by my grandfather, who stood, to his father's considerable dismay, as Radical Working Men's candidate for Leeds in 1864. He was faced with precisely the arguments the noble Lord outlined, to which he replied, "Either the working class have an interest different from the rest of the population or they do not. If they do, the injustice of denying them the suffrage is greater than even Mr. Bright has ever maintained it to be and if not, why so much fuss? That line of argument has disappeared, so argument about proportional representation now rests on entirely different grounds.

The noble Lord also slightly mistook the purpose and terms of reference of the Jenkins Commission when he expressed the regret that it had no supporters of first-past-the-post. The decision between first-past-the-post and proportional representation is to be made, as the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, rightly said, by the voters. The purpose of the Jenkins Commission is to choose the runner to go in the race against first-past-the-post, which is a job in which defenders of first-past-the-post do not have a particular interest. So I think that that commission is well chosen for its terms of reference.

Both he and the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree, dwelt on the ages-old pattern of Westminster representation but that pattern is perhaps more ages-old than he realises. It goes back to Simon de Montfort and King Edward I. There were no parties in those days. It was not designed to represent parties and does not do it well. In fact, the first small injections of proportionality come in with the beginning of the development of organised parties.

The first proportional element in the system was introduced in 1832—the idea that constituency size ought to be proportionate to the number of voters. That horrified the noble Lord's party. Its distress was even greater than that brought about by the extension of the franchise. The party saw it as a threat to electoral property. Well, quite right too.

The case for PR, in my view, depends first and foremost on the proposition: let the winner win. Twice since the war first-past-the-post has failed to deliver victory at Westminster to the party which came first in the vote. I recall the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit when he was chairman of the Conservative Party in 1987, commenting on television on the local elections and being tempted, of course, into speculation about the forthcoming general election. He said: So long as our vote stays above 40 per cent., I don't care where the rest goes". I find that a shockingly undemocratic reflection.

It is also a particularly important principle that all the votes should count equally; everybody should have an equal chance of affecting the result. That is not just a question between parties. Until the last election in which I voted, that of 1987—and I have voted in more elections than I can count—only once did I vote in a seat which was even remotely capable of changing hands. Therefore, when I lost the right to vote in general elections I missed it a great deal less than I would have liked.

The case against, as developed by the party ostensibly on my left, is in terms of giving more power to parties. But that argument comes ill from defenders of first-past-the-post. They need to consider the steamroller power of a first-past-the-post majority. They might think back to the amendment moved in July 1990 for dog registration by my noble kinsman Lord Stanley of Alderley who was accused of socialism, no less.

We on these Benches consider that one of the central motives of proportional representation is the desire to control the executive. Although the Bill meets the objective of proportionality, it more or less meets the objective of all votes counting equally. However, it is not so good at controlling the executive. That is a completely non-party objective. It is something which Gladstone needed just as much as Thatcher did. It was one of Gladstone's personal friends, late in his second ministry, who described him as "impervious to argument and clad in triple steel." That is the time when a party needs to collide with another party because occasionally a collision opens closed minds. Therefore, I would regard the need to negotiate as a plus point.

It is on the front of controlling the executive that we seek to improve the Bill. Some systems give much more power to the voters than others. It will be taken for granted that as president of the Electoral Reform Society I am a supporter of the single transferable vote. For me, that grows slowly from a commitment into a passion. I understand that it is not a serious prospect in this Bill because it is a basic point of democracy that you cannot legislate without a parliamentary majority which we do not have. But were the Conservative Party to approach electoral reform with the finesse with which it is approaching Lords' reform it might set out to outflank the Government by bringing the voters back into the process by championing the single transferable vote. It could do a great deal worse.

What we need to ask for the moment is whether this Bill is better than the alternative. The answer is, "Yes, undoubtedly it is" and I welcome it very warmly. However, it needs amendment for the open list. Perhaps I may say to the noble Earl, Lord Stockton, that the success of my noble friend Lord Steel in Italy was surely because his reputation, which is Europe-wide, went before him—and what is wrong with that?

The closed lists break the voter/Member link. There is no special incentive to serve the voter better than the next MEP. The noble Earl, Lord Stockton, hit the nail on the head when he said that there is no accountability. I am aware that a survey has been conducted, but on 5th March a Written Answer to my honourable friend Mr. Russell, with whom I much enjoy being confused, stated that Ministers had received no representations whatever in favour of a closed list. That is a significant point.

I listened carefully to the Minister's reasons for abandoning the Belgian system. He said that there was not a strict proportion between the number of votes cast for the candidate and the candidate's chance of success. That is true. That is because the system is intended as a compromise between the desire to represent party strengths and the desire to allow voter choice.

Compromises are often illogical, but that does not mean they are a bad thing, as the Prime Minister may well be telling someone at this very moment. It is a compromise, but I would rather have a compromise—even with slight defects in logic, which are inevitable in compromises—than pure party control of the list.

Party patronage has always needed control. Again, that is not a party point. When a former Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole, who in a sense may be regarded as from my party, set up Queen Anne's bounty—pensions for clergymen's widows—a fellow member of the Government pointed out that there were not enough pensions to go around. Sir Robert said, "Yes, indeed, and the lady, in season and out of season, day and night, will not cease to urge upon him the virtues of conformity."

That is done often enough already. I really do not believe that we want any more of it. We are concerned with controlling the executive by an injection of democracy. That is one reason why we want this amendment. We cannot quite match Johnny Walker on that. We were only born in 1832, but we are still going strong.

1.26 p.m.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, I do not envy the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn. As I understand it, the Government's original aim was to take the Second Reading of the Government of Wales Bill today. But it was deemed inappropriate that such an important measure should be consigned to the last day before the Easter Recess. Given that, and the workload of the Minister and his officials in recent weeks, he could perhaps be forgiven for supposing that, deservedly, Easter had come to him a little earlier. No such luck. Along comes the Bill which we are discussing today.

The purpose of the Bill is straightforward enough. As stated in the Home Office press notice announcing the Bill: In June 1999, the electorate in Britain will, for the first time, have the opportunity to vote for their Member of the European Parliament through a system of PR". I am bound to say that I am not an adherent of PR. Like my noble friend Lord Dean of Harptree, I find its propensity to destabilise the important link between the representative Member and the voters in his constituency objectionable. As the 1977 White Paper, Direct Elections to the European Assembly, states: To abandon our traditional method would be a major constitutional innovation, the consequences of which are difficult to foresee. It would mean the absence of the sort of constituency link with which we are familiar and could lead to changes in Party organisations, including giving the central or regional party organisations a bigger role in nominating candidates". I further believe that the emasculation of that link, when combined with the dominance of party afforded by the list system, has the very undesirable effect of grossly weakening electoral legitimacy, accountability and democracy.

This exemplifies my major difficulty with this Bill. In what terms will the Bill, when enacted, address New Labour's contention in its manifesto that: There is unquestionably a national crisis of confidence in our political system, to which Labour will respond in a measured and sensible way". How is it that, for all the rhetoric about the iniquities of centralisation of power, for all the proud boasts about re-engaging the British people with the political process, the Government can justify this fundamental change to our electoral system which will have entirely contrary effects?

In seeking an answer to that, I was not exactly helped by the speech of the Home Secretary in introducing the Second Reading of the Bill in another place. Two of his comments struck me as being particularly relevant in this context. First: It is of the utmost importance that any voting system is appropriate for the nature and functions of the body that is being elected".—[Official Report, Commons, 25/11/97; col. 804.] Secondly, as the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, has already noted: The European Parliament does not form the basis of a Government. but is simply a representative body".—[0fficial Report, Commons, 25/11/97; col. 805.] The Minister reiterated those points today.

It may well be that the role and functions of MEPs are different from those of MPs. But I do not believe that it is a difference that is sufficient unto itself to justify the breaking of the constituency link. In fact, given the increasing importance of European legislation, especially in the context of devolution and the Government's stated desire to operate positively within Europe, an argument could well be sustained that it is a link that, in terms of proper representation, should be strengthened rather than weakened.

Clearly, after reading the Second Reading debate in the other place, my difficulty with the Bill remained. How can its terms—which will lead inevitably to the strengthening of party and weakening of the connection between elected representatives and their voters within our electoral process—be reconciled with what the Home Secretary defined as the Government's, firm commitments to improve the democratic process in this country"? At the beginning of last month we were afforded an invaluable insight into this paradox, thanks to a speech from the Minister without Portfolio. My noble friend Lord Mackay has already alluded to that. It is an exceptional piece of work. As Ian Traynor, writing in the Guardian suggested, it provides: a glimpse into the thinking underpinning the Blairite project in which the mother of all parliaments has outlived its usefulness". On that basis I make no apology for quoting at length from the speech of the Minister without Portfolio. In terms of Europe and the Bill the following extract is particularly relevant: I doubt if there are many people working in government—to be quite honest many ministers—who even barely understand the different procedures for involving the European Parliament in European decisions. Probably that does not matter much in itself. But it does matter that the general public have only the dimmest awareness of what the European Parliament does or who represents them in it; that many of them do not bother to vote, and that those who do vote probably see it as a way of making a point about national politics rather than contributing to the government of Europe". Quite apart from its implications with respect to the level of understanding of European matters within the Government, this represents an explicit admission that current representation of the UK electorate in Europe is deeply flawed on the basis that the link between MEPs and their constituencies, despite being of supreme importance, is not nearly as strong as it should be. And yet the regional PR system espoused by the Bill will have the effect of denying voters power in the European context by severing that already tenuous connection.

Then there is the extraordinary assertion in the speech of the Minister without Portfolio that: Democracy and legitimacy may be crucial concepts in political theory but they are not the common currency of the practising politician. They are not words that trip off the tongue as election slogans or TV soundbites". I am appalled that anyone should infer that concepts of "democracy and legitimacy" are an irrelevance to modern-day politicians. Clearly, when juxtaposed with the provisions in this Bill, the inference is that the Government believe that a representative system such as ours is no longer able to be considered as the legitimate voice of the people. The logic of this is but a step away from arguing that elections themselves are not worth a fig. This puts flesh on the bone of Peter Riddell's observation that: For Blairites, Parliament is no longer central. That has the adverse effect of breaking the chain of both democratic legitimacy and accountability of our duly-elected members of Parliament, whether in Europe or Westminster. And that in turn, in so far as it denies voters the concept of proper and adequate parliamentary representation, denudes people of power. And yet, in the same breath, the Minister without Portfolio, in the context of the Government's package of constitutional experiment, was content to maintain that: The point of these reforms is to bring government closer to the people—and, by so doing, to make it more legitimate. I have no argument with that aspiration. It is both worthy and commendable. But it is not one that will be achieved by enactment of this Bill which will have the wholly opposite effect of distancing people from the European Parliament and, thereby, from an increasingly important part of our national governance.

To compound matters, the closed list system provided for in the Bill vests power in the party political machine at the expense of both individual voters and individual representatives. This too is out of step with the concept of bringing government, "closer to the people". More than that, it is antagonistic towards the principle of decentralising power contained in new Labour's manifesto. In this context, it is curious to note the Minister without Portfolio's comment that: We entered the 20th century with a society of elites, with a very distinct class structure. In those days it seemed natural to delegate important decisions to members of the land-owning elite or the industrial elite or the educated elite … That age has passed away". I do not quibble with the analysis. Indeed, there is something of a fashion for criticism of "elitism" at the moment. What I find intensely ironic is that an ultimate effect of the primacy attached to party by the Bill will be the entrenchment of a political elite, a project which the cynical observer might choose to identify as a persistent thread in the Government's style since 1st May of last year.

My noble friends Lord Mackay and Lord Dean referred to the issue of the registration of political parties. I simply ask a few questions in that context. Does the Minister accept that it would be extremely difficult to implement this Bill until such time as the issue of party political registration has been enacted? Also, is it not the case that party registration legislation is intended to address funding of political parties and therefore it will be subject to, if not actually dependent upon, the outcome of the investigation of Sir Patrick Neill's committee on this matter? Like my noble friend Lord Mackay, I cannot agree that it is a case of putting the cart before the horse. If we are to be in a position to scrutinise the Bill's proposals properly and adequately, rather more detail on the matter of registration than has been forthcoming today is necessary.

All in all—in this regard I agree with my noble friend Lord Hurd—the Bill is indicative of how muddle-headed and meddlesome the Government's package of constitutional experiment actually is. So much of new Labour's rhetoric has circulated around the concept of re-engaging people with the political process. I repeat that I have no difficulty with that. And yet, within that agenda we have this Bill, the effect of which will undoubtedly be to alienate the UK electorate from its representatives in the European Parliament.

1.37 p.m.

Lord Chesham

My Lords, as with many other noble Lords, I have grave concerns about this Bill. I believe that it is a matter of significant constitutional import and I am amazed that this Government chose Maundy Thursday to produce the legislation for its Second Reading. We can see how fond the Government Benches are of this legislation by looking around the Chamber.

We are being asked to accept legislation on a closed list system. The Labour Party's election manifesto states unequivocally, Our system of government is centralised, inefficient and bureaucratic". and, Local decision making should be less constrained by central government and also more accountable to local people". Under this legislation, registered political parties—whatever they might be, and for which we have not seen a draft Bill, as has been frequently mentioned; we are just expected to trust the Government to introduce the Bill in time for the European elections in 1999 and be happy with it—will, within their own ranks, produce a list of candidates who will unquestioningly pursue their party's policies. Any political dissenter will not have a chance to get on the party list or to be on the party list for the next election if he or she makes themselves unpopular with the powers-that-be during the period for which they have been elected.

We may have just seen an example of this in an article which appeared in the Sunday Telegraph of last week under the headline, "Labour's NEC will get veto on mayor ballot", which reads: The MP Ken Livingstone may be blocked from taking part in the ballot to choose Labour's candidate to become mayor of London". The honourable Member for Islington, North said that, anything but a free and open ballot of all party members in London would be an attack on party democracy". He also said that he was certain Mr. Livingstone would easily win the nomination if a free vote were allowed.

It could be said that that has nothing to do with the matters under consideration today. However, I believe that it illustrates my point very well. If you show any independence or personal view other than that of the party line—that is to say, if you are not a yes-man to the party bosses—you will not have a chance of receiving party nomination or re-endorsement in a future election. I was always brought up on the principle that one voted for the candidate rather than the party, but that appears to be disappearing.

We are being asked to accept a different voting system to any other within the United Kingdom for these European elections. It is not the same system as that which is proposed for the Scottish parliament or the Welsh assembly, and it would be different again from that used in Westminster. Indeed, who knows what will be proposed for London? How many systems will we have? We will probably have different ones for local councils as well.

Mention has been made of the problem of low turn-outs in European parliamentary elections. I believe that we are bound to see even lower turn-outs under this system, where no voter has an affinity with any MEP because of the geographical nature of the regions. Are the concerns of a voter in, say, the Isle of Wight or Newbury going to be the same concerns as those of the voters in Ramsgate or Ashford? I do not believe so. Moreover, who will represent the voter from the Isle of Wight—perhaps an independent, or perhaps a nominated party apparatchik from Gatwick whose loyalty will be to those in the party head office who put him on the list and who are the only people who can take him off the list at any ensuing elections. The voter will have no ability to deselect a candidate from the list, even if he believes that the MEP has not even considered his constituency or region.

By my reckoning, this closed list versus a single candidate system is fatally flawed. An elector voting for a party list, once a seat has been allocated to a higher name on that list, may have his vote transferred to the next name on the list, whereas an elector casting his vote for an independent candidate will, if that candidate wins a seat, not have the opportunity of transferring that "excess" vote to another candidate. How is that democratic?

The final aspect that I should like to mention is that of Gibraltar, to which my noble friend Lord Bethell referred. There is a relatively small number of European citizens who have no vote at all. There was argument in the other place as to whether it would be legal for Gibraltarians to be enfranchised under this legislation and there were divided opinions on the question. I cannot believe that we can totally change the way in which we elect our European representatives without being able to incorporate the Gibraltarian vote within one of the new regions proposed by this legislation. Are this Government happy to exclude the value of any "excess" votes for an independent candidate, to exclude the people of Gibraltar from having a vote at all and yet maintain that they are the guardians of democracy?

1.44 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, it is a pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, with whom I agree on one point; namely, the closed versus the open list. I shall deal with that aspect later. The Labour Party manifesto stated that, if it became the party of government after 2nd May, it would introduce a proportional voting system for elections to the European Parliament. My party said the same. The Labour Party won the election and the Labour Government introduced this Bill into another place and now it is having its Second Reading in this House on Maundy Thursday.

I should say that I support the Bill. I declare an interest, in that I fought the European election in 1989 for Northumbria. Admittedly, my party did not do well. Indeed, if I recall correctly, I believe that I scored about 6 per cent. of the votes. In fact, 700,000 people voted for a Social and Liberal Democrat candidate, but we did not gain one seat. As we have been informed, the Green Party scored 15 per cent. of the votes but also did not gain one seat. Therefore, about 20 per cent. of the electorate who had voted were not represented in the European Parliament—or their candidate was not elected. That was a travesty of justice; it was unfair.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, explained to us that the three criteria involved are accountability, stability and fairness. The old system of first-past-the-post has failed on fairness; neither does it meet the accountability test. As for stability, we are electing a group of 84 Members for the European Parliament whose duty will be to press the Commission to reform that Parliament and also to represent their constituencies, which, in my opinion, are similar to "regions". I say that because, in Europe, we have since time immemorial been regions rather than small groups of constituencies consisting of 50,000 to 100,000 people.

Like other speakers, I should like to draw the attention of the House to the problem of the closed and open system. Before 1832, some of your Lordships' forebears had great political power which was based on land ownership. My own forebear, the fifth Earl of Carlisle, had two-and-a-half pocket boroughs. He sent his delegates to the other place. I understand that the forebears of noble kinsman and my noble friend Lord Russell sent about nine Members of Parliament to the other place. They held a certain amount of power. That system was discredited, but the fifth Duke of Bedford and the fifth Earl of Carlisle, wherever they may be—whether they are looking up towards us or down upon us according to where they went—would be astonished at their own moderation if they could see the power that the party caucuses will hold and display if we have what are called "party closed lists".

I support plurality. I welcome independence and minority parties going to Brussels and Strasbourg because they will join like-minded people from other nations of the European Union. They will be able to work together to enhance democracy in Europe, which—and I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, for once—needs democratic reform.

So far much has been said, but I am concerned lest, once this Bill is enacted, the Government do not introduce measures very quickly to explain the new system to the electorate. I hope that the Minister will tell us in his response what proposed explanatory measures are being considered. I do not believe that it is complicated to understand, but I do believe that it should be explained as fully and widely as possible through the media.

I have read the reports of the debates in the other place. There is indeed concern about which areas the regions constitute. I think there may be a need for a boundary commission to have a look at certain anomalies. For example, should Merseyside be in the north west? Should Scotland not have a north and a south, a lowland and a highland region? I look forward to the Minister's reply on that point.

It is for me a great pleasure to support this Bill. It is something that I, at a lowly level, and my colleagues have fought for throughout their political lives. It is something which drove my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead and his colleagues out of the party opposite to try to create something fairer in our democratic system. I informed the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, that I would quote the words of Alexander Pope if this Bill is not an Act before June 1999. I am grateful not to have to quote those words of Alexander Pope today.

1.50 p.m.

Lord Kingsland

My Lords, this Bill has in my judgment at least three fundamental flaws. The first of these flaws is to confuse arithmetical fairness with the quality of representation.

If you take the system employed by the French for European elections, you will see that they have a national list. In arithmetical terms nothing could be fairer; but, in terms of the quality of representation for the individual citizen, nothing could be less fair. A British MEP seeking to find the whereabouts of a lorry driver ensnared by some French farmers would look in vain to find any one of the 87 French MEPs prepared to intervene, because none of them has any sense of territorial responsibility.

That, in qualified terms, is a legitimate criticism of the regional list system based on proportional representation. The voter has no one to sack if he is dissatisfied at the end of the day because no individual member has a unique relationship with a piece of territory. Equally, the MEPs who represent the region are in a good position to pass the political buck when they are asked to do something by a citizen.

I well remember my noble friend Lord Plumb telling me that many years ago, in his first term of office as an MEP, he returned one snowy night to a small village in his constituency in the Cotswolds. He arrived an hour and a half late and he was berated by a member of his own party for not being a keen supporter of proportional representation. He said in reply that proportional representation was not a desirable system for electing Members of the European Parliament, but so far as he himself was concerned, as a chap—at the time I do not think he was a noble Lord, so I suppose he could legitimately call himself a chap—he would warmly endorse proportional representation because he would not be at the meeting at all but would be at home enjoying his first gin and tonic!

My second criticism of this Bill is that it is the process of selection rather than the process of election which matters. If that is to be the case—and in particular if that is to he the case in the context of a closed list system—it seems to me that the Bill should legitimately interest itself in the nature of the party selection systems themselves. There is nothing in the Bill that requires parties to have properly established democratic systems of election.

We have found it necessary to legislate in this country in the past for democratic systems of election in trade unions—and for very good reason. If you apply the logic of that to this Bill, surely the case is strong for doing the same here. Many of those in your Lordships' House who are familiar with Continental systems of party selection will be keenly aware of the arbitrary way in which MEPs are chosen. Quite often, three weeks before a European election, the whole of the existing list will be dispatched and a completely new list drawn up. The European Parliament finds itself with representation from a political party or Continental country that is completely different from that of the preceding five years.

The third flaw in this Bill, in my submission, is the fact that the Government think that the representatives sent to Strasbourg are not controlling a government. It is true, of course, that, strictly speaking, they are not controlling a government, but they are controlling an executive, or at least they are supposed to control an executive. That executive is the European Commission.

Some Members of your Lordships' House believe that this executive is extremely powerful. Earlier this morning I heard the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, in a characteristically powerful speech, explain to us why the Commission was an excessively powerful European institution. The European Parliament can fire the Commission. Since the Maastricht Treaty became law in all the member states, it can also effectively hire the Commission, because the selected commissioners, before they take their position, are subjected to a vote of approval by the European Parliament. If the Parliament does not vote in favour of the proposed Commission, there is no Commission.

Of course, the European Parliament, although it has these great constitutional powers, has failed to use them effectively. One of the reasons for this—which has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with today's debate—is the failure of the Parliament to develop proper transnational political parties. But the other reason why the Parliament has failed to get to grips with the executive is because there is such a high turnover in its members. Characteristically there is a more than 50 per cent. turnover of Members of the European Parliament at each election, and consequently a high proportion of that institution has to learn the ropes all over again.

In turn, the main reason why there is such a high turnover is because of the centralisation of candidate choice in the context of changing party leadership. A party leader may resign, retire or be dismissed, and a new party leader arrives who has different political views, different friends and different notions about Europe. Therefore, at the next European election he will have a completely separate list.

The great merit of the single Member constituency system—I do not say the first-past-the-post system, for that is not the same thing—is that it avoids all three of these flaws. It gives genuine representation; it puts election before the process of selection; and it recognises that the primary task of the Parliament is to control the executive.

1.58 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, it is a particular pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, whose knowledge of these matters and whose longstanding reputation as a constructive pro-European means that we listen from these Benches with particular respect to what he has to say.

This has been a fascinating debate for a wet Maundy Thursday. There have been some notable contributions, some of which I have agreed with and others with which I have profoundly disagreed. I was struck by the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, who in a characteristically wise and interesting contribution mentioned his sadness at the Bill. I do not think it is a cause for sadness at all. I do not follow the logic of the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, who was almost apocalyptic in his warnings about what this Bill appears to mean for the prospects of democracy. He referred to the Minister without Portfolio in that regard. I do not agree with that either. I do not think that the party opposite is in some way anti-democratic. I certainly do not think that this Bill could possibly be adduced as evidence of anti-democracy. If anything, it is about the enhancement of democracy. So what is a sad day for the noble Lord is for me a glad day.

I am glad for these reasons. At last we shall join our European partners in using a fairer and more representative voting system which gives equal weight to every voter in the United Kingdom. It ends the distortion in British representation in the European Parliament; and therefore ends the unbalanced relationship between the party groupings in the European Parliament. I very much agree with one comment of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce. The role of the European Parliament post-Maastricht and co-decision means that it is increasingly influential, if not in any terms a government—a point to which I shall return. Finally, I am happy because it goes a long way to meeting our obligations under the Treaty of Rome for a uniform electoral procedure, to which several noble Lords, including my noble friend Lord Steel, referred.

Although this point does not compare as an argument with those I have just used, I should say that I welcome the Bill because it is an honourable implementation of what was agreed before the election between the Labour Party (now the Labour Government) and the Liberal Democrats.

To me the Bill is so self-evidently a good thing that the arguments made against it seem relatively negligible. However, they have been made, and made well, so I shall deal with them fairly briefly. Some of the arguments are intensely familiar. There is the keep it simple argument. What does that mean? Is it that the voters are not too clever; they might become confused by complicated voting systems? Is it all too difficult, too complicated for them—poor dear things, they will not be able to keep up with the systems? The jolly foreigner seems to be quite good at it, so foreigners can cope with it, but it is too difficult for the British.

The second argument is that foreigners are funny. I noted that, in his usual spirited way, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, made great play with the funny foreign names of voting systems. Goodness, what a laugh, my Lords! I wonder whether the noble Lord would find foreign names quite so hilarious if by some mischance—I devoutly hope that it does not happen—after consuming a bifteck béarnaise he found himself choking and needed a Heimlich manoeuvre. Would he find all these strange foreign names quite so hilarious?

Other arguments again have that familiar ring. There is the argument that one does not have strong or stable government if one has proportional representation. Even in the Westminster context, I have never accepted that strong government is preferable to good government. I would rather have good government which rests on the support of the people, where legislation persists over time because it has majority support. However, several noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, gracefully and fairly made the point that that is not an argument to be used in this context.

Then there is the argument against multi-member constituencies. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, that national lists, as used in France for European elections, or in Holland, or in Israel, say, for parliamentary elections, are deeply inimical to the British tradition. I cannot imagine that we could ever have voting reform in this country for any election which demanded national lists. Among the terms of reference for the commission chaired by my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, I am glad to see included the idea that territorial connection should be maintained in any proposed voting system reform. However, I think that it is wrong at the other extreme to say that only single member representation gives the voters a voice in the legislature. After all, not every Member of Parliament in his personality, views, or party affiliation represents the first and automatic port of call for someone who wishes to raise an issue of public policy. What about having the opportunity to choose between Members who are more likely faithfully to put forward one's views or who take care of the issues that concern one as an ordinary voter?

Those are general and familiar objections to proportional representation. A few more specific issues have been raised. On the issue of the regions, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay—I hope with synthetic outrage—said, as though he were scandalised, that regions vary in size. Is it not the point that regions should vary in size? I should hate to hear his arguments as to why Scotland should be the same size as Wales, or why London should be the same size as the north-east. Regions vary in size and they represent a geographical aggregation of interest, well established for a long time in British history. I believe that they represent a good basis for constituencies. My noble friend Lord Carlisle is right. Over time this has to be a matter for continuing review. But, by and large, regions are the natural constituency.

Two or three noble Lords from the Conservative Benches seemed particularly concerned by the issue of registration. We live in a country where every charity, business or school one way or another has to be registered. So why should parties, which have much loftier ambitions to run the country, not be susceptible to proper rules of accountability and conduct? What is the problem? Indeed, if we were to follow the precepts of the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, on the issue of party selection—I think that he is right about that—that, too, would imply that we would have to have some public cognisance of the status of parties. I believe that a straw man has been set up. I suspect that part of the dislike for the idea of party representation is that the Conservative Party has always been a rather mysterious entity and it would have to come out into the full light of day—I understand that that is in the spirit of the Hague reforms—and high time too. Then we could have accounts published and clear rules of conduct, as each body has in public society—and so it should.

Finally, on the issue of party voting, voting is primarily party led. Anyone who thinks otherwise is not a good observer of what actually happens in our democracy. Let us think back one year ago. What was going on? What were the strenuous efforts of the noble Lords, Lord Saatchi and Lord Chadlington, assisted by Sir Tim Bell all about? They were to tell people that the Conservative Party was a good thing and the Labour Party a less good thing. They were designed to get people to vote for the Conservative Party and not for the Labour Party.

It is a matter of plain observation that our democracy is very much influenced in its voting patterns by considerations of party. However, I imagine that every democrat would want to temper party with personality, so some combination of party and people figures in the decisions that people make. There must be some proper synthesis between the desire to vote for an individual and the desire to support the party which most closely corresponds to one's views, a point made by my noble friend Lord Carlisle.

I very much agree with the point made about the desirability of parties having their own selection systems for these elections which are as democratic as possible, a point made by my noble friend Lady Ludford and the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland.

That brings me to the matter of imperfection in the Bill, the issue of the open versus the closed list, to which many of your Lordships referred. Here is an excellent way of tempering party preference with voter choice on the candidates who will be offered. The mystery to me is why the Government are so resistant to an amendment which is obviously sensible. It is not as though they have been consistently resistant to it.

At times in the past few months the Home Secretary and his colleagues have blown hot; at other times they have blown cold. They have ended up as cold as an Easter bank holiday on this issue. We in this House will have to try to warm them up at later stages of the Bill. There has been support from all quarters of the House— from those who do not very much like the system and from those, like ourselves, who find the system a great step in the right direction—for the view that open lists would be a great improvement on closed lists. The Government cannot say that they have not been warned on this issue. We on these Benches will seek to amend a good Bill in order to make it a better Bill. I believe that we shall succeed in that task; I hope that the Government are ready for that.

2.10 p.m.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I start by repeating the concern expressed by my noble friend Lord Mackay and many other noble friends that this debate should be taking place on Maundy Thursday. It is very sad that we have to debate this important matter on such a day. I understand that it was originally suggested that the Wales Bill should be debated today, so the noble Lord would not have escaped, whatever happened. I understand why it was felt that that Bill should not be taken today and it was with some sadness that we therefore had to agree to take this Bill on this wet afternoon as Easter approaches.

That decision has caused difficulties for many noble Lords. I shall certainly experience some problem in travelling home. I suspect that many noble friends of the noble Lord, who seem to be absent in their entirety, with the exception of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, have also experienced problems with travelling and that that is why they are not present to speak this afternoon. I am sure that their absence is not caused by any concerns about the Bill itself. However, it would have been useful to have heard from colleagues of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, as to exactly how they feel about it. In particular, since the noble Lord, Lord Williams, referred to him, it is to be noted that the noble Lord, Lord Plant, a noted expert in this field, is not able to be present on this occasion.

I believe that that indicates that we shall need a relatively long and detailed Committee stage on what is, I accept, a relatively brief Bill. A number of matters will have to be examined in some detail. I hope that the noble Lord will convey to the usual channels our desire to have a decent length Committee stage, held at times convenient to as many noble Lords as possible.

We see from the Long Title of the Bill that it is: An Act to amend the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978 so as to alter the method used in Great Britain for electing Members of the European Parliament". Since we are invited to alter the method used rather than stay with the status quo, it is beholden on us to look at a whole range of different voting and counting systems so that the House can examine all in some detail. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, himself accepted that there was no single, perfect electoral system, and, as a result, all will need some detailed consideration.

In passing, perhaps I may point out one rather strange anomaly which I fail to understand. The Long Title refers to the method used in Great Britain. Presumably it therefore excludes Northern Ireland and the system is not to be altered there. Therefore, I find it rather odd that the Bill then deals with Northern Ireland in Section 3A of Clause 1 which is concerned with the amendments to the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978. I should be very interested to know why Northern Ireland is included there when it is not a matter covered by the Long Title of the Bill.

The second point with which I wish to deal in relation to Committee and later stages of the Bill relates to the legislation which has been proposed as regards the registration of political parties. The noble Lord, Lord Holme, rather skated over that and said that it was not important. In fact, it seemed quite strange to him that parties did not already have to register. That may or may not be the case but the important point that we are making is that we cannot debate this Bill properly until we know exactly what will be in that legislation.

On this side of the House, we shall certainly resist the passage of the Bill until we see that legislation. I very much hope that when the noble Lord, Lord Williams, winds up, he will be able to offer us a commitment that we shall see that legislation before we take the Bill into Committee. The noble Lord should find relatively little difficulty in meeting that commitment because today we shall adjourn for 10 days or so. I know that in the first two weeks after the House returns, it will be engaged in other business and we shall not be dealing with this Bill again until early May, at the earliest. Therefore, I hope that even if the legislation has not come before the House, that Bill will at least have been published so that we can see how it will affect this Bill. I hope that the noble Lord will give me an assurance on that matter.

There are a number of provisions to which we shall wish to return in Committee and examine in some detail. I should like to refer to one or two of those in the course of my brief remarks.

The first picks up the point made by my noble friends Lord Bethell and Lord Chesham relating to Gibraltar. I have received—as I imagine have other noble Lords—a letter from the Chief Minister of Gibraltar pointing out the oddity of the position that even though Gibraltar is an integral part of Europe and the people there have such citizenship, they will not be allowed to vote. I have examined very carefully the Government's position as expressed in another place and I simply do not follow the arguments. I hope that we can return to that at a later stage and provide another place with the opportunity to at least think again about that matter.

Considerable concern has been expressed by all my noble friends about the dangers of breaking the constituency link. My noble friend Lord Hurd, who speaks with great experience as a former Member of another place, as does my noble friend Lord Mackay, referred to that. It is with some sadness that it is proposed that that constituency link shall be broken.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams, argued that the constituencies are already too big and that we are not electing a government but merely a representative assembly. As we have heard from the honourable Peter Mandelson, we are now living in the era of the end of representative democracy.

We have heard also that not many people know who are their MEPs. In the measures before us, there will be even fewer who know who are their MEPs when they are sitting in groups of constituencies, in regions, containing 10 or more MEPs.

In dealing with some of the arguments that have been put forward to justify the retention of the first-past-the-post system, the noble Lord, Lord Holme, made the claim that we put forward arguments on the basis that we desire to keep things simple. I do not believe that any of my noble friends have argued that that is the point of retaining that system. In fact, the only person who seems to be arguing in favour of keeping things simple is the Home Secretary himself. On Second Reading in another place, in justifying a closed rather than an open list—and I suspect that the noble Lord, Lord Holme, and I agree on this matter—he argued for a closed list on the basis that voters cannot be expected to make an informed choice. That is rather a depressing remark from the Home Secretary in moving the Second Reading of a Bill dealing with the election of candidates for the European Parliament. That is a matter on which we shall wish to return.

I have considerable concerns about the idea of a closed list and that people should be selected by the party machinery. I imagine that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, echoes that and that he recognises that he might have considerable difficulty in being so selected for such a list by his own party. Therefore, he may prefer to advocate the open list.

I come now to the size and composition of the regions. The arguments that my noble friend put forward when he complained about the variety and size of the regions were not merely on the grounds that they varied in size but related to the fact that some of them are simply too small to provide proper proportionality, if one is to have proportionality.

Perhaps I may turn to my own part of the world. The region that covers the north east has only four MEPs. It is very difficult, as the noble Lord will discover, because I am sure that we will go into this in considerable detail at the Committee stage, to obtain true proportionality with so small a number of MEPs. There might well be a case for certain amendments to some of the regions. I do not see why the regions should have to follow the regions that we created when we set up the government offices. Those regions were not set up for any electoral purpose. They were set up for other reasons. There might well be a case for—if I may put it this way—moving parts of the north west into the north east. For example, Cumbria sometimes finds itself in the north east for some reasons and some times finds itself in the north west for others. I certainly think that those matters need to be looked at.

There are other points to which we shall want to come back at the Committee stage. We shall need to explore the rules on expenditure by candidates and by parties. There are the rules on by-elections. There are the problems that my noble friend laid out about MEPs who leave their party. There are also the problems created for those MEPs who are made to leave their party. It is something with which the noble Lord will be familiar in that my noble friend referred to the Strasbourg four who are no longer members of that party. We shall want to know just how they will continue—or will not continue—to be MEPs.

There is much before us and much which we will want to discuss at some considerable length. I certainly look forward to a lively Committee stage. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, having now disposed of three Bills and with the prospect of only another three more to go, will also be looking forward to this Bill in Committee later in the year.

2.22 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, it has been an interesting debate. There was an ignoble sub-suggestion that some of your Lordships might have been happier elsewhere on a wet Maundy Thursday, but I repudiate that suggestion. It really has been an occasion for the connoisseur. For instance, we had the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, pointing to certain characteristics of parliamentary systems that ought to be looked for. He specified them as stability, accountability and fairness. I just looked around your Lordships' House and wondered where the accountability was and wondered where the fairness might be, since to the best of my present knowledge and understanding there has been an entrenched Conservative majority in this House for decades.

Then it was rather mortifying that virtually everyone who spoke was able to talk about someone else's ancestor who had made a useful contribution to this debate. I must say that the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, and I were equally downcast because neither of us could think of anything useful, pertinent or relevant that had been said by either Mr. Whitty or Mr. Williams in the middle of the 19th century.

The noble Earl, Lord Stockton, spoke about the virtues of parliamentary representative democracy in one breath and then in the immediately subsequent breath complained about the tyranny of the other place. My Lords, what is it that we want? Do we want an elected Parliament which occasionally might vote Labour, or do we not?

Many of the arguments left me distinctly underwhelmed, not only because I have heard them before in different contexts but because they have no real validity. When I hear in the House of Lords the passionate defence of "the legitimate voice of the people", it is difficult not to smile.

What is being proposed in this Bill is an attempt to improve the democratic arrangements for representation in the European Parliament. It is not, I repeat, a Parliament from which a government is chosen. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Kingsland, who points to its powers, but they are not the powers to which I referred when I opened this discussion.

A number of detailed questions have been asked. It seems to me that they depend on different bases of approach. Some of your Lordships want no alteration of any sort either on the basis that what is present ought always to remain—this is a useful tradition of the Conservative Party—or there is a real fear, as understandably expressed, that things might change for the worse. I do not believe that to be so. I believe that the case, as put by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, and the noble Lords, Lord Steel and Lord Holme, is a perfectly legitimate one. There is plenty of scope for improvement. After all, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, with his very significant experience, said that his employers were those in his constituency, particularly the party at the grassroots. But that did not go unnoticed because I said to myself, "Quite". So some of the arguments lack the purity of doctrinal approach that one might legitimately have expected on Maundy Thursday.

Particular questions were put by a number of noble Lords. Perhaps I may deal with them as issues rather than labelling them with the identity of any of your Lordships. The first was this: when can we look for the Registration of Parties Bill? The noble Lord, Lord Mackay, raised that and it was echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Harptree. It is a perfectly legitimate question, to which I give a response. It is hoped that we shall publish the Registration of Political Parties Bill shortly after Easter.

There was a linked, though slightly different question, as to whether that Bill will deal with party funding and expenses. That is being considered at present by the committee under the chairmanship of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Neill of Bladen. We intend—I believe, sensibly—to await the conclusions and recommendations of that committee before we go to the fine detail about which the noble Earl asked as regards funding and expenditure.

Questions were raised as to why we had regions. The answer is that they are perfectly familiar to those who live in them; they are familiar to business organisations and to the inhabitants. We believe that they have sufficient connection to those who live in them and sufficient diversity, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme, indicated, to justify our using them as units in the context of 87 MPs only for the whole of the United Kingdom.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, raised a point as to why Northern Ireland was referred to at all, bearing in mind the nature of the Long Title of the Bill. The Bill does not make any change to the Northern Ireland arrangements; it simply replicates what presently exists.

There were fundamental questions about Gibraltar. Perhaps your Lordships will forgive me, although I know that time is passing, if I spend a little time on that. It is obviously a matter of great concern, as a number of your Lordships have indicated. We recognise that the inability of Gibraltarians to vote in elections to the European Parliament is an area of legitimate concern, not least within Gibraltar itself. We have reviewed the position and taken the advice of leading counsel. The conclusion of the review was that this is not a matter capable of being resolved by domestic legislation. The Gibraltarians are unable to vote because of Annex II to the EC legislation of 1976 on direct elections to the European Parliament. That specifically restricts the application of the Act to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland only. It therefore excludes Gibraltar, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. There is no way in which our domestic legislature could, on its own, give the people of Gibraltar voting rights in the European parliamentary elections. Because of the form and structure of Annex II, it would require a proposal from the European Parliament, a unanimous decision in Council and then ratification by all member states. If we tried to amend it, it would not be within our domestic competence and it would be open to change at the European Court. I have spent a little time on that because deep concerns have been expressed and I did not want to answer them too briefly.

Lord Bethell

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for giving way, but has he considered the effect of what he has just said on the Government's position vis-à-vis the European Convention on Human Rights if those European citizens are not allowed to vote?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, of course one considers that. I am giving your Lordships a full account of the conclusion of the Government's review. Your Lordships may wish to return to this matter in Committee and I may then have to expand my answer, but I have given what I hope is sufficient for today's purposes.

I believe that those are the main questions that have been raised, with the single exception of how to deal with various matters if one has multi-Member constituencies. That is the present situation in Northern Ireland and in multi-member local government wards. We believe that the difficulties are more illusory than real.

The noble Lord, Lord Henley, kindly offered me an interesting Committee stage, to which I look forward enraptured. For the moment, I commend the Bill to the House.

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