HL Deb 29 April 1998 vol 589 cc285-8
Lord Renton of Mount Harry

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why, with regard to the form of proportional representation to be used in European Parliament elections, they have decided on the closed list system, in which the preferential order of candidates is chosen by the party, as opposed to the open list system, in which preferences for individuals are expressed by the voters.

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

My Lords, we believe that the simple regional list system, for which the European Parliamentary Election Bill provides, is the most appropriate way for Great Britain to elect its MEPs. Following representations, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary considered the arguments for adopting a Belgium-style system which would allow electors to vote either for a party list or for an individual candidate on a list. However, after detailed consideration he concluded that that type of system had a fundamental flaw—that candidates with the most personal votes would not necessarily be elected—and that, on balance, it was right to keep to the system provided in the Bill.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. However, can he tell the House how he justifies the use of the word "appropriate"? Does he not agree that what is being proposed is the very antithesis of parliamentary democracy as we know it in this country? How can he defend the election of MEPs by region and not constituency, involving millions of voters but with the individual voter having no chance at all to vote for an individual? Does not the Minister come to the same conclusion as myself that that has only been done in order for the Government to get rid of a few splendidly difficult "Old Labour" MEPs? They may well end up in your Lordships' House, but that is hardly a basis for constitutional reform.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, most of the splendidly difficult ones are behind me at the moment! The European Parliament is quite different in concept and operation from our Parliament and therefore different considerations obtain. It is utterly different from the Westminster system. We believe that we ought to have a regional list because, significantly, European affairs are determined in the context of regions. We believe that being able to vote for a party list is a reasonable opportunity for the voter. The noble Lord indicated that some people may not be able to vote for the candidate of their choice. That may be why Mr. Winston Churchill and Mrs. Currie have been excluded from the Conservative parliamentary list of available candidates.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, does it not breach a fundamental constitutional principle to detach the party and the candidate and to preclude the opportunity for the voter to vote for a specifically named candidate? In turn, will not that cause confusion when different systems are introduced for the election of the London mayor and for elections in Wales and Scotland? Should not there have been a thoroughgoing debate in both Houses of Parliament and in the country at large before such a massive change is made to our constitutional system?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not agree. It is quite a different system. We already have a different system—which has worked well, most would say—in Northern Ireland for European parliamentary elections which is not the Westminster model. However, there has been every opportunity for consultation. The Home Secretary invited representations. He also commissioned public opinion research polls which indicated that people would feel discontented if the person with the largest number of votes was not elected. Perhaps I might point out that on "first-past-the-post" systems, the voter has no choice at all of choosing an alternative candidate.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, as none of the noble Lord's Back-Benchers seem to wish support him on this issue, perhaps I may ask if the Minister noticed the huge success for PR achieved in the Saxony-Anhalt elections on Sunday, where the minority extremist party, by the use of PR, gained a major foothold in the parliament there? And is not my noble friend Lord Renton of Mount Harry right that the closed list system is the tool of control freaks running the Labour Party who do not want anybody on the list whom they cannot control and with whom they are not in full agreement? I refer to people like Ken Coates, Hugh Kerr, Alex Falconer and Michael Hindley. They can be tippexed out by the party opposite. Will the Minister finally agree that, while that may be all right for the Labour Party, it is not a good enough reason for constitutional change of the kind being envisaged?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord mentioned Mr. Coates and others but did not seem willing or able to respond to my perfectly legitimate inquiry about the future wellbeing of Mr. Winston Churchill.

Of course PR looks after minority parties. We have specifically done that in the Government of Wales Bill. The Conservative Party—a minority party—gained 20 per cent. of the votes and no MPs. We believe that with 20 per cent. of the votes, they ought to have 20 per cent. of the representation in the Welsh assembly. We believe that is a fair system. After all, if we put candidates to voters, we must sometimes contemplate the voters having a different view from the one that we would necessarily have.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, the Minister clearly pointed out the special circumstances of the European Union elections. Would it be fair to assume from that that there is no possibility of contemplating a party list system for domestic elections in this country?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, as is well known, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, is presently engaged with the noble Lord, Lord Alexander, and my noble friend Lady Gould of Potternewton in reviewing possible alternatives. I am sure that your Lordships would not wish me to pre-empt any decision made on any recommendation which may come from them.

Lord Cockfield

My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord can help me on what I hope he will regard as a perfectly legitimate inquiry. Is he aware of the fact that reports have appeared in the continental press in the past few days that M. Jacques Chirac, the President of France, has stated that his government are contemplating abandoning the closed list system for the European parliamentary elections next year and substituting the Westminster model, subject only to the provision of a run-off in the event of no candidate achieving 50 per cent. of the poll? If these reports are accurate, is it not a grave discourtesy to the noble Lord that M. Jacques Chirac should not have told him of this before the noble Lord last week quoted France as one of the major reasons why this country should adopt the system that was abandoned in France for the presidential elections and which the French Government are now contemplating abandoning for the European elections?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I think that President Chirac wanted to get in touch with me last night but I had gone out; and he did not leave a number. I can only say that I was not aware of the foreign press. I never read the foreign press except the Western Mail.

The Earl of Halsbury

My Lords, not for the first time, may I recommend loaded lobby voting, which is the only way of producing a completely representative system?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, when one looks at the hereditary component in your Lordships' House, one has a perfectly loaded lobby.

Lord Renton of Mount Harry

My Lords, after we have seen how the first election turns out, and in the light of the comments made in your Lordships' House today, will the Government be prepared to reconsider the matter?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, there is no earthly reason why any system of representation or non-representation should not be reviewed if your Lordships wish to do that. If after three or four years the system was not working well, I am sure that one of your Lordships would put down a topic for debate and we could then address the issues as they had turned out to be.

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