HL Deb 25 February 1998 vol 586 cc685-723

3.8 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee rose

to call attention to the case for the introduction of proportional representation for local government elections; and to move for Papers.

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, this debate concerns the case for proportional representation for local government. There is a quite notable move towards more co-operative and less confrontational politics, and we welcome that very warmly. That move means that there has been talk of and now plans for democratic renewal (to use the current buzzword). It is in that spirit, and because we believe that proportional representation tends to engender cooperation, that this debate is intended to put the case for proportional representation in local government. I hope that noble Lords will forgive me if in this debate I tend to use the acronym "PR" which is perhaps not very elegant. It is also in that spirit that in particular we seek assurances from the Government—I hope that they can be given today—that yet on their agenda, it is not although this topic is not off it.

I am not today arguing for a particular electoral system. Examples may well be given during the course of the debate to demonstrate that objections to the first-past-the-post system, or defences of it, can be met by the different systems. My objective is to keep the door open. PR for local government should be on the Government's agenda for a number of reasons, the very least of those being its fairness to politicians.

I asked the Electoral Reform Society for recent examples of the effects of the first-past-the-post system. Inevitably my own borough, the London Borough of Richmond-upon-Thames, figured in that list. In the last election the Liberal Democrats polled some 46 per cent. of the vote and won 83 per cent. of the seats. That follows eight years when, on less then 50 per cent. we won more than 90 per cent. of the seats. So we are either moving in the right or the wrong direction depending upon your criteria. In Newham the Labour Party polled 57 per cent. and won 99 per cent. In Westminster the Conservatives' 53 per cent. won 75 per cent.

Perhaps the most perverse of the results in the last London borough elections—which I am sure would have been endorsed by the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, were he able to take part in this debate—occurred in the London Borough of Croydon. There the Conservative Party polled 42.5 per cent. of the vote and won 30 seats; the Labour Party polled 39 per cent. and won 40 seats and took control of the council.

In the county elections in 1997 there were similarly odd—or wrong—outcomes in a number of counties. In Buckinghamshire the Conservatives polled 46 per cent. of the vote and won over 70 per cent. of the seats. In Devon the Liberal Democrats' 39 per cent. winning 57 per cent. of the seats; the Conservatives' 34 per cent. won only 24 per cent. These are very considerable discrepancies, and other counties produced similar results.

Since then the political context has changed. The elections to the European Parliament next year will be on the basis of regional lists. The Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly will see elections using a form of additional member system. The word is that the Government will use a proportional system for the Greater London Authority. At the same time the commission under the chairmanship of my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead is considering proportional alternatives to first-past-the-post for Westminster.

This House, ironically, has been traditionally less anxious about keeping to the old ways than another place has often shown itself to be. In 1983 my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich presented a Bill dealing with proportional systems at local level. That failed to proceed by only eight votes. Two years later the noble Lord, Lord Blake, successfully piloted through this House a Bill dealing with the same subject which was blocked in another place.

There are quite often discussions about the effects of first-past-the-post on elections to the House of Commons. I do not defend that system for that House but the effects there are not as bad as they can be at local level. The very numbers make a difference. In local government, where local authorities are much smaller than the total membership of another place, it can mean that the minority, the opposition, disappears.

Local government is part of the political scene. I do not subscribe to the view that local government should not he political, but it should not be driven by central proscription of whatever party. For example, competitive tendering may be the right approach in borough A; it may not be the right approach in district B.

Other noble Lords will mention low standards and even corruption, of which there are striking examples—certainly too many examples—and almost all of those are in authorities where one-party rule has been the norm.

Central government intervenes too much in local government. One of the benefits of a new electoral system which produces a more proportional outcome is that it would have less excuse and less reason to do so.

Those who have most knowledge of an involvement in local government affairs are rightly concerned about bringing government closer to the people. Sir Jeremy Beecham, the chairman of the Local Government Association, has said on a number of occasions, and recently in an article in The Municipal Journal, that ways need to be found of encouraging bringing government closer to the people. He said: We need to look at how councils are run in order to achieve this. It is unhealthy for a party with a significant share of the local vote to be unrepresented in the council chamber, as happens with all political parties. The examples I have given have deliberately covered all three of the major parties. He continued: We need to look at adding a minority of councillors elected by proportional representation for the area as a whole to the majority of councillors elected for wards through the current system—this is one way to encourage better electoral turn-out. The justification for local government is that it is a democratic, fair way of governing and delivering local services. It is widely said that democracy does not mean rule by the majority; it means rule by the majority with deference to the interests of the minority.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Simon of Glaisdale, in a debate on the Bill presented by the noble Lord, Lord Blake, said: council decisions, local government decisions, are taken collectively. Therefore, unless there is a proper, fair system of representation which can ensure that the citizen can affect those decisions, even if they are about drains, highway cleansing, and that kind of thing, then he is denied his democratic rights; he is denied his liberty; he is denied his influence over decisions which affect him".—[Official Report, 4/3/85; col. 1176.] That encapsulates the point perfectly for me. Fairness to the electors and confidence of electors in their local government, put another way, is about the reputation of government.

The Deputy Prime Minister, in his preface to the recently published consultation paper Modernising Local Government, wrote: Our agenda is the renewal of local democratic government leading local communities and serving local people. We want councils to gain a new democratic legitimacy. I agree with that and with much of what is in the paper, but the electoral system is a notable omission from it and the proposals for rejuvenating local government must be incomplete without it.

One of the aims of the paper is to increase local turn-out and that is very important. In December there was an example in Liverpool of a turn-out of less than 7 per cent. That hit a new low. Parties ought not to be able to take the outcome of elections for granted and make assumptions about turn-out. Michael Thrasher at Plymouth University has written that he believes that low turn-out levels would be improved by proportional representation. He writes: There is strong evidence that you increase turn-out immediately by at least 7 per cent. because people see that their votes are less likely to he wasted … people vote for candidates and not parties, which is particularly appropriate in local government. Having turned out, would people be faced with difficult systems as is often suggested? I believe not. In Northern Ireland there are different systems for different elections. In England, Scotland and Wales we will soon have parallel systems for different elections. As is often said, electors, wearing different hats, may also be fillers-in of pool coupons and lottery tickets.

To those who say that proportional systems lead to contrived boundaries, that our system is good because it allows for the direct geographical community link, I would say that that depends on the system which is chosen. Perhaps I may take an example close to home. The ward which I represent as a councillor is hardly perfect. If it has a centre it is the south circular road and I suggest that that is more of a barrier than the centre of a community.

We must not let the debate pass without pointing to the better representation that is achieved by a proportional system. By "better" I mean more representation by women and by members of different minorities. In other countries, that has been shown to be an outcome of proportional systems.

I return to what I see to be the insidious effects of the first-past-the-post system creating what I may describe as false majorities. Even if that does not lead to corruption, it means that the administration has too easy a relationship with the officers of local authorities. Things become too easy; the critical edge is lost. Without realising it, the officers can become more relaxed in testing the practicality of political directions. Neither the officers nor the politicians will necessarily think through all the answers to the questions which would be asked if there were an adequate active opposition.

Of course, if electors do not like what is happening they can, through the ballot box, get rid of an administration, but probably more effectively so if there is a proportional system. It is often said that if there had been PR it would have been the voters and not the Prime Minister who would or could have responded to the GLC. That would have saved a great deal of trouble.

It is not just a matter of overturning majorities. One can have the same administration but with a bigger opposition. There probably will be a bigger opposition. An increased minority means better scrutiny, the load better spread among opposition councillors and the opposition reaching a critical mass, which can be more effective.

If it is not a question of overall control, if there is not a hung council or, as I would prefer to call it, a balanced council, is that a bad thing? I think not. It often means that there must be real discussion and real arguments which must be won. If that is inconvenient to the administration and to the officers, without wishing to minimise the effort involved, I would say, "Too bad".

It used to be said that PR for local government would he the thin end of the wedge; that if the wedge were jammed in further there would be all kinds of national horrors in our electoral system. We are seeing changes, not horrors, to the electoral systems nationally. It would be odd if the Government ruled out the prospect of change at local level. I hope that they will indicate that they will not do so.

John Stuart Mill argued for proportional representation of the minority as well as the majority. He said: Unless they are [fully represented as a minority] there is not equal government, but a government of inequality or privilege, contrary to all just government, but also, above all, contrary to the principle of democracy which professes equality as its very root and foundation". I beg to move for Papers.

3.23 p.m.

Lord Watson of Invergowrie

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, on introducing this debate. It is a timely and important subject. Proportional representation is on the agenda in many other fora. I agree that it is inappropriate that local government should be passed to one side and not considered when such changes to electoral systems are proposed.

Local government appears to be held in disdain by many electors who see that in many cases there is no purpose in voting either because one party has such an overwhelming majority that voting makes little difference; or because there is a belief that local government services are not being delivered in the most effective fashion and that many committees are staffed by councillors who have been elected—and I use the word advisedly—by local parties rather than by the electorate.

It is only a matter of time before local government comes firmly within the frame for a change to the electoral system. When the Scottish parliament and the Welsh assembly have been set up and the 1999 elections have taken place the electorate will have a greater understanding of what is involved in the different electoral systems. There has been a conservatism in voting systems within this country. We have been slow to move in the direction that many other countries have taken. As a result, we have not had such an effective form of government. That is particularly true at local government level where electors often feel alienated from the process and therefore from the services which the process provides.

It is important to consider not only the electoral system but the state of local government. It is largely in need of overhaul. Although it is true that a change in the electoral system would not be a panacea for the ills of local government, it would make an important contribution to bringing local government closer to local people, to making it more accountable and, most important, to be seen to be more accountable.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, quoted some frightening statistics and I should like to give a few more. It is unfortunate, at best, that the 1997 figures for local elections in the London boroughs show that in 14 of the 32 boroughs one party has 70 per cent. of the seats. People might say that that gives firm local government. Yes, it does, but in Scotland, where I come from, many local authorities have firm local government. The question is: what does that firmness produce? In what way is it channelled and in whose interest? I shall name no names, but in many local authorities where a party committee selects the candidate members know that they are effectively electing a councillor. The electors are shut out from the process; they have no say. Yes, they have the opportunity to go to the polling booth on election day and place their X on the ballot paper. However, realistically, they have no real say in the choice of candidate because the tradition in many local authorities is to vote for the party rather than the candidate. With few exceptions, that party is regularly returned to power.

That does not mean that the party in power in a local town hall or city chambers is responsive to the views of local people. However, people within that group tend to respond to the stresses and strains of the leadership. They follow certain personalities and give all their attention to which camp they should follow rather than to the best means of delivering local services. Of course, that is a generalisation; of course many dedicated councillors do a good job and do the best job they are permitted to do in the circumstances. But I say that that is not good enough in local government. We need a system which makes it less likely that one party will have an overwhelming number of seats and therefore have such a firm grip on power that the local electorate have virtually no say in what it does.

I was interested to read a quotation from the Minister without Portfolio printed in the Local Government Chronicle in December 1997. He stated that much of what government want to do can be delivered only through local authorities. He continued: But when they become out of touch with the communities which they represent—and certainly when they become victims of political infighting—they become worse than useless". I wholeheartedly accord with those sentiments. The question then is: what do we do about changing that situation? Fundamentally, we address the system by which those representatives are elected.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, also referred to voter turn-out. I believe that in local elections people vote with their feet. There is a low turn-out, it being unusual for more than 50 per cent. of voters to vote in elections for the whole council, and far less in by-elections. That seriously undermines the legitimacy with which local representatives claim to represent their local community. It is important that people from those communities should represent people whom they know, whose problems they know and among whom they live, if at all possible. But it seriously affects the legitimacy if there is such a poor turn-out, if people have very little interest in even going to the polls to record their vote.

We have a situation in which the greatest disinterest in local authorities tends to be shown in areas where there are safe Labour seats. Recent research from Plymouth University showed that where there are safe Labour seats in London, people are less likely to vote at all; where the Labour share of the vote exceeded 50 per cent, the average voter turn-out was just 40 per cent.; where Labour's share exceeded 70 per cent. the turn-out dropped to 36 per cent. That shows that people are aware of the necessity of voting. Where there is a real chance of influencing the outcome, people generally do exercise their right to vote, and understandably. But without that, we should not be surprised when people show less interest. That affects their view of local government and the services which are provided.

I am not at all convinced by the view that to change the electoral system would be unwelcome because it would be confusing. Apparently, it would be confusing on two levels. First, there could be different voting levels. For example, in my country of Scotland voting would take place at local government level, Scottish parliament level, at Westminster level and at European Parliament level. It is not necessary for all those systems to be identical. They deliver different services, involve different people and are elected at different times. It is quite possible for people to differentiate, understand what and who they are voting for and understand that there is an importance in those differences.

I am not persuaded by the second argument; that is, the patronising view that the electors will find the system too complex. Our European cousins do not find other systems too complex. They have managed to handle the issue quite effectively. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, gave the example of lottery tickets. I refer anyone who says that we should not be introducing any means of involving the public which is too complicated to the recent Inland Revenue income tax forms. They have been distributed widely throughout the country and have not been withdrawn or even modified because they are too complex. It is insulting to people to say that we cannot change the system because it is beyond their ability to understand what they are voting for or how to vote. That is not the case.

There is a debate going on in Scotland at present because when the parliament is elected in 1999 it will have a system whereby people will be asked to vote for the candidate and also for the party. Incidentally, on the same day they will be asked to vote for local government candidates. Nobody suggests that that will be too confusing for people. The media in Scotland are already starting to explain what will be involved and how people should approach it. It is a new system. It is a new way of electing representatives; and I say that it is all the better for that. The sooner we embrace change in the electoral system, the sooner we shall begin to modernise our democracy and, I believe, bring it closer to people and connect with more of the people for whom local representatives should be providing services and active and proper representation.

I believe that the system of local government in this country—I mean the UK as a whole—needs an overhaul. The first step in that process could very usefully be the electoral system, because that is the main reason for the level of disrespect with which people view local government these days. When I was a Member in another place I used to pick up many complaints, most of which had nothing to do with the Member of Parliament because they referred to services delivered by local authorities. I would ask why the local councillor had not been approached and I would be told, "It is a waste of time. He is never there". In many cases, that was untrue. But the perception of the people was that the locally elected member was there for his personal gain. That is manifestly untrue in the vast majority of cases.

I represented a part of Glasgow and I do not mean to characterise in any way the individuals who represented that part of the city in Glasgow City Council. But people felt that it made very little difference who they voted for and that therefore the councillors, or the candidates who wanted to be councillors, had very little reason to go to the electorate to explain what they were doing, to connect with them regularly and to report to them on a regular basis. That applies in many cases throughout the country where there is overwhelming control by one political party or another. It is a system which really must end.

When the electors on the outside are looking in at in-fighting within a local authority, they feel that they have no control over that. They feel that they have elected their representatives but they have no control over what they do. There is little point in saying, "Well, when the election comes round, we can always vote for somebody else". In theory, that is the case but we all know that in practice it is extremely unlikely to take place.

I welcome the debate today which opens up the discussion on what kind of electoral system we should have in local government. For many people the door seems to be closed. I say that the door for most people is closed in terms of those people who are electors. Those doors must be opened. We do that by reviewing the system by which we represent our local representative. In so doing, not very far down the road, if we modernise our system we shall improve the effectiveness of local authorities and the services which we provide and we shall improve immeasurably the regard in which our local representatives are held.

3.35 p.m.

Baroness Maddock

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend Lady Hamwee for giving me the opportunity to take part in this debate this afternoon. We have heard already there is little disagreement about the problems facing local government and local democracy in Britain today. But agreeing about what we must do about those problems is quite another matter, particularly when looking at the merits or otherwise of different voting systems. However, I hope that as views are shifting in Britain today, after this debate a few more people will see the value of having a system of proportional representation for local government and the value of that playing a part in what my noble friend has already referred to; that is, the democratic renewal of local government in Britain today.

The Government's latest paper on that entitled Modernising local government: Local Democracy and Community Leadership highlights some of the issues and problems already raised today. Indeed, the Minister for the Environment, Transport and the Regions expresses his wish that councils should gain a new democratic legitimacy.

Two of the problems about which the Government have expressed a desire to do something are voter apathy—and that has been demonstrated clearly by low turn-outs in our local elections—and the problems of one party domination of local councils. As we have heard from the eloquent speech of the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, that can lead to complacency. We read in our newspapers that it can lead also to corruption.

What is disappointing about the document that the Government have published is that it misses out some important facts. It explains graphically about poor turn-outs and how they compare with turn-outs in other European countries. It explains graphically that we have no standard system of local government elections in this country. But it fails to tell us what are the systems in those European countries where they have a better turn-out. It fails to point out also that if one compares Britain with the rest of Europe, there is a huge difference in the ratio of elected representatives to voters.

Those matters are an essential part of any investigation into improving democratic accountability and representation at local level. I shall expand a little on those areas. For example, if we look at turn-out, the Government give us the average turn-out in sub-national elections in the European Union and we see Great Britain right at the bottom with an average turn-out of 40 per cent. If we look at Ireland, we see a turn-out of 62 per cent. and for Denmark it is 80 per cent. I do not give as examples places like Luxembourg which has a 93 per cent. turn-out because there is compulsory voting. I am trying to compare countries where there is no compulsory voting.

But the document does not explain that in all those countries which have a higher turn-out, they nearly all have a system of proportional representation. That is the common theme. I recommend that noble Lords read the table I am discussing which explains the complexity of the different kinds of council that we now have in Britain. Those councils hold elections at different times. Some of them comprise single member wards while others are three member wards. Sometimes the elections take place every year and sometimes it is every four years. We need to consider having a rather better uniform electoral system. As regards elected representatives and the number of people who elect them, in this country every elected person has been elected by, on average, 1,800 electors. The average ratio in Europe is between 1:250 and 1:450.

We may hear, particularly from the Liberal Democrat Benches this afternoon, that we do not believe that proportional representation is the total panacea to problems in local government. Nevertheless we believe that it forms an essential part of measures needed to improve the democratic accountability and the breadth of representation of local government. We make no bones about the fact that our preferred system is the single transferable vote. We believe this has been shown to ensure a much wider cross-section of elected people in local government. I hope that the Government will take that to heart because the local government Minister, Hilary Armstrong, stated at a local government conference that there was poor representation in local government. She said that 35 per cent. of councillors are now above retirement age; only a quarter of them are women and that there is little representation of ethnic minorities in local government. She believed this meant that local democracy is not as healthy as it should be.

We certainly agree with that. That is one of the reasons we believe that the single transferable vote would achieve better representation across all areas. It also gives the best choice to voters. It gives them a choice not only of party but also of person. We believe that is important. It also maintains the geographical connection between elected representatives and those who elect them. It does not often result in—this almost never happens—"one party states" that remain in power year after year.

European countries have shown that the system works. In the time that I have tried to promote proportional representation two main arguments have emerged against PR and the single transferable vote. We are told that it leads to weak government and that we want it only for our own political ends. One needs to consider the first-past-the-post system in this country and the way councils are run at the moment and who is running them. In nearly 40 councils three or more parties share the administration. In 29 councils the Liberal Democrats run a minority administration which involves support from others. There are 19 Labour minority administrations. There are only two Conservative minority administrations. There are five independent minority administrations and roughly 50 councils have joint administrations of every possible combination.

I do not believe it is those councils which give rise to the stories about poorly run councils and corruption. Studies have been undertaken to consider how hung councils are run. I believe that "hung" is a negative word; I prefer to call them balanced councils. It has been revealed that in the main they run efficiently and many local communities are satisfied with their councils. That is the case with the majority of local government in this country.

I was a local councillor on a balanced council—I shall use the more positive word. That was in the days of the Militant faction and the Labour Party. I believe that the Labour leader of that council at the time was extremely grateful that my group acted as a brake on the Militant people. Members of three parties on that council had to work together. The leader of that council was able to tell the Militants that they could not do such and such a thing because they had to work with others. That is a powerful consideration for seeking to impose a system which ensures that people must work together and extreme elements cannot take over.

We as a party have demonstrated that we can win in first-past-the-post elections in local government. Therefore it is not for that reason that we think proportional representation is a good idea. My noble friend Lady Hamwee has mentioned various councils in this respect. We have a huge majority on some councils but we did not gain the majority of the vote. We are now the second party of local government. We control outright about 50 councils. We have a minority administration in 29 councils. The Conservative Party now controls fewer than 21 councils outright. We are critical of a system which is unfair, whichever party is in control in local government if it has gained that control through having many seats but it has not gained the proportion of votes to match that situation. That has been clearly illustrated by figures. I am sure it will be illustrated again today.

Elections are the prime way that a community expresses its political will. Clearly in Britain today our people have been short-changed. I hope that the Government will not close their eyes and ears as regards introducing a new electoral system for local government. I believe that the debate today will demonstrate that there is evidence in support of adopting a new system. and that there are systems that will serve us better than the present one. We must adopt a new system if we are to have real democratic reform in local government in Britain as we go into the 21st century.

3.46 p.m.

Lord Tope

My Lords, I wish to speak a little longer than is customary as regards a declaration of interest, although in view of the comments that have been made by both my noble friends who have spoken so far it is probably more of a confession than a declaration of interest. I have been my party's leader on the council of the London Borough of Sutton for nearly 24 years. Virtually half of those years were spent in opposition, mostly as a small opposition, and nearly half have been spent in majority control.

Since 1994 my party has held 84 per cent. of the seats on Sutton Council. Unlike the case of my noble friend on the Front Bench, at least we gained a majority of the votes, but only 56 per cent. so we are substantially over-represented. I am grateful to be informed that we are over-represented by 16 seats. In my wilder moments of fantasy I have tried to determine which 16 seats those are. Perhaps other leaders do that from time to time.

I hope that we have not become a complacent council. Every two years we engage MORI to conduct a residents' attitude survey on a whole range of matters. However, the first question is always, "How satisfied are you with the way in which the council is running the borough?" The survey that was carried out last November indicated that 81 per cent. of our residents were either very or fairly satisfied, compared with only 7 per cent. who were dissatisfied. I hope, therefore, that we have not yet become one of the rotten boroughs that I read about which arise from huge majorities.

However, it has not always been like that. Back in 1982, at the time of the Falklands War, I remember vividly that we polled 35 per cent. of the vote in the borough as a whole and gained three seats; just 5 per cent. of the council. Some 21 of our candidates came within 150 votes of winning their seats. That is probably a record for the number of near misses on one evening. It was at that moment that I became convinced of the need for annual elections because for me it felt like a four year sentence even though ours was the only party able to claim a 50 per cent. increase in our representation on the council, from two to three.

My noble friend Lady Hamwee made reference to the borough next door to mine, the London Borough of Croydon. My friend—I say "friend" with a small "f"; I do not want to endanger his political career any more—the noble Lord, Lord Bowness, lost the leadership of Croydon council in the 1994 elections. It was a shame, because the Conservative Party actually polled 4 per cent. more votes in the borough than did the Labour Party, but ended up with 10 fewer seats. It is not the first time that has happened, although the other occasion is less well known or less well remembered. In 1986, in the London Borough of Wandsworth the Labour Party polled more votes than the Conservative Party. I leave noble Lords to ponder what might have happened to the politics of local government had there been a proportional system in place in Wandsworth at that time, and had Wandsworth been run by the Labour Party rather than the Conservative Party. Just how different things might have been. We should probably still have had the poll tax, but I suspect its effects in Wandsworth might have been rather different.

We have talked about a voting system that produces huge majorities for parties. That is bad enough. But a system that gives victory, and a clear majority, to a party that comes second in an election must be ludicrous and is not deserving of any respect, least of all from voters. Yet that is what has happened.

I share with a passion the Government's commitment to renewing local democracy, although I do not necessarily agree with all the ways in which they wish to do it. I believe passionately in local democracy and it has been much of my life's work. I am grateful to the Electoral Reform Society for sending me another copy of the Fabian Society publication of March 1997 (before the general election) on electoral systems. I wish to quote from the end of the introduction, which states: Democratic renewal is at the heart of Labour's programme for Britain. Renewing local democracy is a key element; and PR for local elections one vital means to that end". I agree with that wholeheartedly. I look now to the Government's recent consultation paper on modernising local government and, as a true Liberal Democrat, turn first to the paragraphs on voting systems. Paragraph 3.46 states: However, in some parts of the country there is virtually one-party rule with few, if any, opposition members on a council". I omitted to mention that on my council there are five Labour Members who now form the principal opposition, on the basis that they lost fewer seats than the Conservatives; and there are currently only three Conservatives. So perhaps the document refers to my own borough. The paragraph continues: Some argue that local democracy does not operate as effectively as it might in such situations, and that this can lead to councils becoming complacent and incompetent. Others say that the problem is not with the democratic system". I turn the page to the following paragraph (3.47) to see what the Government are proposing to do about that. It states: Reforms to the electoral. political and consultation arrangements discussed elsewhere in this document are of greater importance and urgency". Welcome though some of those reforms are, they will do nothing to address the democratic deficit that we have been discussing.

The Government's answer appears to be annual elections. I must say straight away that there are some in my party who favour annual elections. As I said, in the particular circumstances in which I found myself in 1982 I was then one of them. In the circumstances in which I find myself now, I am not. I want, however, to quote with more legitimacy again from the Fabian Society publication. It states: Annual elections are often advanced as a means of increasing local government's representativeness and accountability; our view is that reforming the electoral system would be a much more reliable way of achieving these goals". I entirely agree with that.

Paragraph 3.4 of the Government's consultation paper refers to the question of annual elections. I wish particularly to draw this to the attention of the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, who will reply to the debate. It states: The Government also believes that it is not always healthy for a single party to dominate a council, particularly where this position is not the result of an overwhelming advantage in votes cast. It may be that this situation is more likely under whole council elections every fourth year. than with more frequent elections". The noble Baroness was for some years a very distinguished chairman of the Association of County Councils. During that time she dealt much, and closely, with the Association of Metropolitan Authorities, of which my council was a member.

County councils are elected once every four years. As I am sure the noble Baroness will recall from her chairmanship, most of those county councils did not have a majority. Very few had large majorities. She dealt with the metropolitan authorities, where all the worst effects of very large majorities were seen—and yet they elect by thirds. In replying, will the noble Baroness explain whether she agrees, and how she can justify the statement in the Government's consultation document from her own experience?

There is no doubt that turn-out is the Achilles' heel of local government—although, incidentally, in London the turnout has risen steadily since the 1960s. In 1968, the turnout was only 36 per cent. By 1990 it had peaked at 48 per cent. —perhaps as a result of the poll tax and also because the election was held on a very sunny day—and it dropped back slightly to 46 per cent. in 1994. That is not good enough. I welcome the Government's proposals to review the electoral arrangements. I very much hope that we shall move from what is essentially a 19th century system of elections into a 21st century system.

We also need to address the question as to why local government elections have such a low turnout. It is due in part to a lack of interest on the part of the public and the media; it is due to the lack of esteem in which local government is held; it is because such elections are so often seen as a national referendum rather than about local issues; it is because local government is perceived, rightly in my view, as not having sufficient power; and it is also because votes are seen to be largely meaningless.

Many of those issues could be addressed with a proportional system. I do not for one moment argue that PR is the panacea for all that is wrong with local government; nor do I suggest that it is the whole answer. It most certainly is not. I do not wish today to argue for any particular system, although I share the views previously expressed that the single transferable vote system is probably the most suitable. However, I do argue strongly that, whatever system is in place, we should retain the link between councillor and voter. That is extremely important. I would strongly reject a system of party lists—even though they might be the purest form of proportionality.

I share the views already expressed on balanced councils. Some of us in this Chamber are party politicians and strive for a majority. That may be in our party's interests—though that is arguable—but it is not necessarily in the public interest. We cannot renew local democracy without examining the electoral system, which has produced so much of what is wrong with local government.

Without PR, the Government's reforms will be rather like a Polo mint—quite tasty round the edges, but with a whacking great hole in the middle. If the Government are not yet ready and able to rule PR in for local government, then I urge them not to rule it out.

3.58 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I must declare a non-pecuniary interest. I speak as the recently elected president of the Electoral Reform Society, by which I am in part advised. The society will not misunderstand me if I say that I regret that I am in that position, for I succeed Lady Seear whose shoes I shall never be able to fill, and which I wish she were still filling.

In 1986, on local election night, I remember listening to the results coming in from my own borough of Brent, where the Labour Party, with just over 40 per cent. of the vote, came in with an enormous majority. As those results came in, I forced open my second eye, and murmured, "That is a very had result for Neil Kinnock". So indeed it proved, for that was the council which was compared by Mr. Ken Livingstone—who used to be my representative in another place when I still needed one—to Pol Pot. To be dismissed as "loony Left" by Mr. Livingstone is a distinction of some standing.

In Lambeth in 1982, Mr. Ted Knight, the memorable "Red Knight", won control of the council with 33 per cent. of the vote, while the Conservatives, with almost 40 per cent. of the vote, lost control. Those two examples illustrate that first-past-the-post is capable of giving an advantage to, shall I say, somewhat unusual political outlooks. For if we take 40 per cent. of the majority and apply the principle of the majority within the governing party, then 21 per cent. may be taken as a majority of the whole. It is curious arithmetic and occasionally it leads to curious results.

The Prime Minister has objected in the past to PR on the grounds that it gives too much power to small parties. On 25th June, speaking at Westminster, I replied by saying that the disadvantage of first-past-the-post is that it gives power to even smaller parties.

That is also true in local government. In 1990, again in my own borough of Brent, there was for a brief while a balanced council, a brief stage of civilisation between loony Left and raving Right. The Conservatives then succeeded in securing a defection from a certain councillor Nkechi Amalu Johnson. When she joined the Conservative party she announced that she admired Margaret Thatcher for the same reasons for which she admired Winnie Mandela and Idi Amin. This was in the only borough in the country with a greater concentration of Uganda Asians than the city of Leicester. And she knew perfectly well what she was doing. Thus first-past-the-post can give the power to extremely small groups. To my mind, that is one of its disadvantages.

I am interested in a speech made by Mr. William Hague at the Centre for Policy Studies. I have here, I confess, only the press reports and the PA summary; I have not yet succeeded in getting a text. But it seems to me to show some slightly unexpected thinking. He says that one of his objections to PR is that it interferes with accountability to the voter. That might just be defensible if he believes that the closed list is the only possible form of proportional representation. If so, the Leader of the Opposition is guilty of believing the Minister without Portfolio. That would be a cardinal sin on the Government Benches. Of the Opposition Benches, words fail me when I contemplate what type of sin it might be. It marks a certain unevenness in the performance of the Leader of the Opposition. I noticed last summer when he was wearing his baseball cap he had "William Hague" on the front and "A Fresh Future" at the back, thereby earning the title of the youngest leader ever to have a fresh future behind him.

William Hague also said, at the Centre for Policy Studies, that: "proportional representation is a profoundly undemocratic measure, masquerading under the banner of democracy and the Conservative Party I lead will have no truck with it". I wonder exactly what the Leader of the Opposition means by "democratic". When I receive the full text of the speech, I shall endeavour to discover. I think I owe it to him to attempt some definitions of my own. First, it is a vital principle of democracy that we should be able to change the Government through the ballot box. In fact, arguably that is the most important thing democracy is all about. Secondly, it is a vital principle of democracy that there should be an opposition. Thirdly, it is a vital principle of democracy that all votes should count equal. It is my contention that first-past-the-post in local government does not meet any of those tests.

During the European elections of 1994, I was visiting a small town in Sussex where I was proudly assured by my host that my party in two elections had gone from having no seats on the parish council to having every single seat. I said to them: "You had better watch it. You'd better make sure at the next election that you lose at least one of those seats because you've got to have an opposition". They replied: "You are quite right, but we need some co-operation from our opponents. I am not sure we can get it".

In the London borough of Newham, the Labour Party has every single seat. In Castle Point. in 1983, the Conservatives won every single seat on 51.3 per cent. of the vote. That does not suggest that first-past-the-post guarantees an opposition in local government. All votes count equal. My noble friends who have already spoken addressed that point. Ever since the Conservative Party in 1867 abandoned Disraeli's proposed fancy franchises, they have accepted the proposition that all votes should count equal. Since they do, the Conservatives should accept that in some ways first-past-the-post is undemocratic.

What interests me most is the possibility of changing a government through the ballot box. As the noble Lord, Lord Watson of Invergowrie, pointed out in a powerful and extremely interesting speech, that sense that it is possible to change control is vital to turnout. I am sure that all of us here who belong to a political party, when we have taken part in election canvassing, have always met the response: "Oh, it's no use voting, they'll never lose here". That—

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, this may be the wrong place to interrupt the noble Earl but perhaps he could help me. He talked about democracy. Is not one definition of democracy and the right to vote the ability to get rid of a government or a local council? Under first-past-the-post, this works extremely well. Indeed, it works brutally, as the Conservative Party discovered on 1st May. Does the noble Earl agree that under proportional representation, however it is defined, that can never happen? All we have is a minor shuffling of the seats which preserves the old order rather than bringing in something new.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that intervention which I was just about to answer. May I also remind him of the point made in the Companion that in timed debates interventions should, if possible, be brief?

There are large numbers of areas where under first-past-the-post there has practically never been a change of government. I do not have a complete list, but among the London boroughs I mention the boroughs of Barking, Bromley, Kensington and Chelsea and Newham. I cannot imagine the prospect of any change under first-past-the-post in Salford or Gateshead. I used not to be able to imagine change in many places in the south of England, though we are working on that. Where there is more than one party, as in my own borough of Brent, there is the possibility of a change of alliance.

In 1985–86 my own party in Brent worked with the Conservatives. In 1990 we worked with Labour. We are prepared to assess which is the less loony of the other two parties. From time to time we change our minds on that question.

Where there is only one party in power, you get factions. In 1994, Mr. Mike Bower, the Labour leader on Sheffield council, said: Liberal Democrats are like fascists. They exploit discontent". I thought that that was called democracy. You get factions. But in another place where the ballot box has not produced an adequate process of change, the London Borough of Hackney, for example, you see it getting out of control. Because people always want to change things, you also get corruption. Not that people are more evil in those places, but they are led more into temptation. My noble friend Lord Tope has resisted temptation, but he should not have been led into it.

4.10 p.m.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I decided to join the debate on proportional representation this afternoon not because I have a great love for the system, but because it satisfies one important criteria by which we need to judge voting systems; that is, the simple test of fairness.

We have had ample examples quoted by our Liberal Democrat colleagues this afternoon indicating how unfair the system is in its present form in terms of delivering what the electorate want in relation to the form of their local government. The Liberal Democrats extended and expanded effusively on the subject and gave good cause for a change of electoral system locally. The Government, in their modernising document published a week or so ago, left the door open for us to consider these matters afresh and in the future.

It is somewhat churlish of some of the Liberal Democrats to discern that Labour is disinterested in electoral reform. That is not the case. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, gave some good examples of where we are contemplating change in the electoral system—in Wales, in Scotland, and perhaps in relation to the Greater London assembly. We are not therefore a party fixed in our opposition to PR and we have a commission looking at the wider question of proportional representation for another place. We are therefore a party which is prepared to contemplate change in that direction.

Perhaps one of the failings in the arguments put by those opposite is that they seem to think that all the problems of local government will be solved by a new system of election. They fail to address the other issues in local government which are just as important: for instance, the need to have better political management; perhaps clearer lines of accountability; ways of ensuring that we get a broader community view; and a more responsive form of local government and local democracy. Those issues are all part of Labour's modernising agenda and those are the issues which interest me most.

However, I believe that we should revisit PR for local government because the current system, as my noble friends opposite argued, throws up ludicrous anomalies and extreme cases. How can it be right that Cheltenham should have 94 per cent. of Liberal Democrat councillors with around 49 per cent. of the vote? That cannot be right and produces a gross inequity. It cannot be right that in many of the boroughs which Labour runs throughout the country, we have almost a majority of seats based on less than 50 per cent. of the vote. That cannot be right either. In my borough, Labour secured 55 per cent. of the vote in the last set of local elections and we have around 77 per cent. of the seats on the council. That is another example of inequity.

However, if we are to change the system of first-past-the-post, we should not countenance changes in other important aspects of representation. It is important to have the community and ward link between the elected member and the town hall, county hall or city hall. If we are to contemplate a change, we should look for a system of proportional representation which produces clear outcomes. I am not one who favours hung councils—and "hung". they are, not "balanced".

We should look to retain the important, powerful community and ward link. If we can design a system that does that, we will match four or five important tests for local democracy. We must design a system that is simple; one that is fair; one that establishes the local people and councillor link; and one that is effective. Those tests need to be put into the PR debate and I hope that if we revisit PR in government, those tests will be applied.

The fifth test which is also important is transparency and accountability. PR can produce some strange anomalies which blur accountability and can obfuscate outcomes. It is there that we need to concentrate our attention. For example, if we were to opt for a single transfer of the voting system, we would end up with a form of local government where the tail wags the dog. That would not be right; nor would it be in the best interests of local government. We need to look further afield for systems of PR which produce clearer political outcomes and which reflect a better balance in the scale of representation on each local authority.

I might add one argument that has not been put this afternoon, but which is extremely valid in terms of proportional representation. It is this. The current system means that we can almost predict that many northern areas will always deliver a Labour council with a large majority. We might equally predict that many south-western councils will deliver large Liberal Democrat majorities. But in each of those areas there are electors who are effectively sidelined from the system because they have no representation in their town hall, county hall or city hall. That cannot be right or fair. Nor does it give a fair reflection of the state of the parties at the time either locally or nationally.

We therefore need to look at different forms of proportional representation—forms that are more reflective of a party in a locality; forms which retain the local ward and community link with the councillor; and forms which enable people to identify clearly who their councillors are. That is an important point. Some research recently conducted suggested that less than 10 per cent. of the local electorate will know who their local councillor is. I believe that to be wrong. It demeans the system and it means that the councillor will be valued less. We need to address that issue, perhaps through better publicity or by ensuring that local councillors are better local champions. Again, if we have proportional representation in local government, it will need to address that issue.

My noble friend Lady Gould tells me that PR is not one of four, five or six different systems; she says that recent research identified 757 varieties of proportional representation. I never believed that that could be the case, but my researches show that there are indeed many and we need to find one that works. For me, that may be the AV system which produces clear outcomes and in the last general election would probably have produced a House of Commons with a similar composition—certainly on the Labour Benches—to that which it currently has.

I therefore welcome the debate. It opens up the final chapter of the modernising agenda. It should be seen as part of a broader package of improving the quality of local government. I believe too that it may enable us to attack the unfairness that currently exists in the electoral system, create genuine oppositions in those local authorities that desperately need them and better reflect voters' wishes.

Some of the claims made for PR, such as the fact that it will attack corruption and enable better scrutiny, are poor arguments. I believe that corruption can occur in any local authority if that is the way in which members wish to operate, and the system can be exploited to that effect. I do not know that PR will attack corruption. I can predict that there will be systems of PR abroad internationally where corruption occurs in local government. So that is a poor argument.

However, if we are looking for fairness; if we are looking for a better balance; if we are looking for local authorities that give a fair reflection of their host communities in terms of age, gender and ethnicity, PR may be a way forward. On that basis I am happy to give my general support to the move to bring proportional representation to local government.

4.18 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, it is with pleasure that I follow the noble Lord, Lord Bassam of Brighton. It enables me to clear up a misconception that he has on where we Liberal Democrats stand.

I listened to the noble Lord's speech with great interest. He stated that Liberal Democrats see proportional representation in local government as a way of solving all the problems. That is not our case. We say that without proportional representation we will not be able to solve together, with other parties, the problems that local governments face. We say that with proportional representation we may have a better chance of working with others from other parties and, indeed, with those from no party in solving the problems that face local governments.

I thank my noble friend Lady Hamwee for introducing this timely debate. She spoke of co-operation, not confrontation. I recall—as those noble Lords who were present at the time will also recall—in June last year that my noble friend Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank introduced a Motion in this House in which around eight of my colleagues from these Benches spoke, urging the Government to introduce proportional representation in time for the next European elections. It was the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, who, as Minister at the Home Office, answered. Although sympathetic, the noble Lord gave reasons why it was unlikely that proportional representation would be introduced before the 1999 European elections. A few weeks later we found out that the Government had found time. We are very grateful for that. We do not know yet how the noble Baroness will answer the debate. But if she says that it is unlikely to take place or that there will be no time to introduce legislation by the next European elections or the elections after that, perhaps we may take that as a sign that something will come out of Downing Street and that we will be faced with a situation in which we have proportional representation at local government elections. Therefore, I am optimistic. We look forward to her reply on that point.

I declare an interest. I have never taken part in local government, much to my regret. Even if I now lived in east Durham, where I lived for five years after leaving Her Majesty's ground forces, the Army, I would never, under the present system for local government elections, take part. That I regret, but I would not have been elected.

In 1989 there were both county council elections and European elections. I stood in both. The reason I stood as a Social and Liberal Democrat candidate in both the county council and European elections is as follows. The Labour Party in Durham controls politics at every level. It has done so since 1922. I congratulate those in this House who hail from Durham and who have represented Durham, on their splendid service to the people of Durham. I refer in particular to the noble Lord, Lord Dormand of Easington, who is not in his place. Perhaps I may tell the House what happened in Easington in 1989. The Labour Party had not been opposed at the county council elections for about four elections. A farmer who lived in Durham was a member of the Conservative Party but regarded himself in local politics as an independent. We met in the village pub by coincidence. He said, "I understand you are standing for election to the county council. If you do so, I will not canvass for you, but I will vote for you. and I will ask my friends to vote for you". I said to him, "I understand that you are standing against the Labour Party in the forthcoming election. If you stand, I will not only vote for you but I will canvass for you if you want my support". What a way to go about things! He then said, "I will stand but I am reluctant to". I asked him why he was reluctant. He said, "I have a wife and I have children. My wife can take the ostracism, but my children are victimised in the playground at school". I said, "I will then stand". I stood and I gained 30 per cent. of the vote. My opponent, whom I respect, gained 60 per cent. of the vote.

Three things happened. First, my opponent's leaflet came out first. It was not a well thought-through leaflet and it was rather ill-written. The electorate realised that my leaflet, which came out about two days later, was better thought through and rather better written and presented. Then an extraordinary thing happened. Throughout the campaign the Labour Party canvassed. It had about 50 people in the area. They were knocking on doors and cajoling and asking people to vote for the Labour Party candidate. Then came the count. A fellow member and officer of the Territorial Army told me that he had never attended an election count and asked whether he could come. I procured him a ticket. There were the Labour Party workers, myself and my friend. As the votes poured out of the boxes the number of ballot papers showed that I was leading in my ward. My friend turned to me and said, "George, if you win, will we get out of this place alive?" I said, "No". I think that illustrates the point that power corrupts and total power corrupts absolutely.

Let us look at proportional representation for local government. Local needs range from drains to dustbins, from education to the environment, from pavements to policemen, and from libraries to leisure centres. Let us have more people involved in local government, from all parties and from no party. Let us have more people voting at elections; not just 7 per cent. Let us not just aim, like the noble Lord, Lord Tope, for 54 per cent. Let us aim for 75 per cent. to 80 per cent.

We are one of the countries that first created local government. At the moment one would think that we had not created local government and that we did not have it. I ask the Minister to listen to the speeches made in the debate, to look at the problem with her advisers and to come back to the House and say that her government, to whom most of us offer good will, will bring in proportional representation for local government.

4.27 p.m.

Lord Newby

My Lords, my enthusiasm for supporting the introduction of PR in local government relates to the credibility of the political process as a whole. It will be common ground in the House, as it is across the country, that politicians are held in very low esteem. There are a number of reasons for that. There is a common view that politicians are in it only for what they can get out of it. That is often expressed in those terms rather than by suggesting that politicians might actually be corrupt. It is partly because, as has already been mentioned, there is a sense that many politicians are not seen or felt to be close to the people whom they represent. It seems to me that the electoral system in local government exacerbates these perceptions at lost local levels.

I grew up in what was then a mining area of west Yorkshire. It was a one party state. Labour dominated politics, utterly and completely. I do not believe that the old Rothwell Urban District Council was a corrupt body but it was certainly a smug and unimaginative body. Largely because there was such a predominance of Labour councillors—in reality, councillors of a single party—its actions were never scrutinised and the politicians never had any need to fight anything approaching a real electoral campaign. The electoral system in those circumstances made it difficult for any other party to gain meaningful representation. So I am sure that a number of people who might otherwise have been prepared to play a part in public life were deterred from attempting to do so by the very high hurdle of actually being elected and winning a seat on the first-past-the-post system.

For the population of Rothwell at large there was rarely, if ever, any real sense of an election taking place because everyone knew that the only election that mattered was the selection process that went on in the wards of the local Labour Party. The dangers of the smugness and complacency we saw there become worse if we see that one party has an untrammelled rule over a long period. In parts of west and south Yorkshire huge Labour majorities have been notched up in local elections for decades. While the vast majority of those councillors remain extremely scrupulous and uncorrupt, there are a number of glaring and recent exceptions to this rule.

Doncaster is perhaps the most dramatic of these. Here there is a council in which Labour holds over 90 per cent. of the seats: 57 out of 63, with about two-thirds of the votes. This is a situation which has encouraged a serious and systematic abuse of expenses, overseas trips. gifts and hospitality. The district auditor has produced a damning report on the activities of the council and, on top of the costs of its previous extravagances, it is now faced with a bill of £275,000 to help pay for the inquiry and to set things right. Many of the excesses in Doncaster have been on a pretty low and petty scale rather than on a grandiose scale.

In one much publicised case, a councillor spent £110 on two nights in a three-star hotel in Bradford in order to attend a conference although he had undertaken that he was going to commute. This is hardly corruption beyond the dreams of avarice, but the cumulative effect of this kind of case, partly because it is so common place and partly because people can understand what is going on, brings politics into disrepute—not just the actual politicians involved but, by association, all politicians and the process. This is extremely bad for the system of democracy as a whole. It must be said that it is exacerbated when, as in the case of Doncaster, the councillors who have been specifically criticised by the audit commission steadfastly refuse to apologise for anything that they have done wrong.

If there had been PR in Doncaster based on reasoned votes in council elections, the opposition parties would have mustered over 20 seats instead of their paltry six. They could have then exercised a much more effective scrutiny of what was going on and jolted the ruling group out of the complacency which, in my view, has helped breed its excesses. It would also have been easier for voters effectively to have expressed their discontent over a longer period. Although the Liberal Democrats are now capitalising on the particular problem of Doncaster, and we won a by-election there a fortnight ago with a huge swing of well over 30 per cent., it is still difficult to make a real impression across the board in a place like that with such a tradition of one party politics and with the first-past-the-post system.

Incidentally, I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, that the electoral system is irrelevant to the issue of corruption. If one looks at where there has been corruption in British politics, certainly in recent years, in all the cases of which I am aware it has been in councils where there has been a large and continuing majority of one party or another. In the case of Westminster, I believe it was a fear of losing a long-standing majority that led councillors to contemplate all manner of things which the district auditor and public opinion believed were not in the best interests of the voters of Westminster.

If first-past-the-post can encourage corruption, it also encourages voter apathy. Turn-out in local elections is low, and we have heard many figures about that. As has already been said, in many inner city wards it is lower still. Leeds City Council has a unique social mapping database which records on a street-by-street basis levels of dependency on state benefits—in effect, levels of deprivation. The council has undertaken an exercise to compare deprivation levels with turn-out at local elections. There is an almost exact fit. There are many reasons for this. Education levels are relevant to turn-out as well, so is the daily grind of life if one lives on the poverty line, which makes participation in politics seem to very many people an unnecessary luxury.

Another contributing factor in my view is that in many of these wards there is no effective electoral contest. Labour has held them for decades, the Conservatives have disappeared from the cities; and the Liberal Democrats, despite our spectacular growth in Yorkshire and Sheffield, elsewhere in the county and in inner cities across the country, simply do not have the resources to campaign intensively in all inner city wards. Frankly, in many of these wards there has been no serious electoral activity within living memory. Therefore, even if there were to be an interest in politics among the people who live there, it is actually quite difficult to find an outlet for it.

As many people have said, nobody but a fool would claim that PR would transform the situation overnight. However, any system of PR which would require the parties to take the whole of a council area seriously, instead of being able to leave whole swathes of an area without any real activity, and any system which retained a link between the councillor and a geographical area—I believe that for local council elections the arguments for STV are particularly strong—would jolt many local councillors out of their complacency and require them to keep in close contact with their electorate.

I would have hoped that these were such strong arguments, if not self-evident propositions, that the other parties, both the Government and the Opposition, might find it possible to support them. Indeed, I was rather encouraged to hear the Leader of the Opposition express an enthusiasm for community politics. The Liberal Democrats have many achievements to their credit. To have the Leader of the Conservative Party speaking in favour of community politics must surely rank as one of the more significant ones.

Lord Howell

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord. Having listened to him and his predecessors speaking on the evils that come from low turn-out and the importance of a high turn-out, I wonder whether he would care to address his mind for a moment to the possibility of compulsory voting, which happens in other parts of the world and which would achieve much greater results than would apparently be achieved under proportional representation.

Lord Newby

My Lords, at one stage when I was a civil servant, attempting to look at alternatives to the domestic rates in the days when Michael Heseltine was Secretary of State for the Environment, there was a discussion about whether the poll tax might be an appropriate alternative. Among the civil servants a laugh went around the room and somebody said, "Imagine collecting that in Brixton." Frankly, I believe that the same argument applies to compulsory voting. I do not believe that one can force people into democracy. It is up to the politicians and the system to persuade people that this is something in which they should participate.

I apologise for returning to the topic of the Conservative Party, but I had hoped that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, might, in winding up, extend his movement onto Liberal Democrat ground by expressing support for PR, at least for local government elections, just as his leader had expressed support for community politics. I suspect, from his earlier intervention, that may not be the case. However, I believe that having moved half-way across the road with regard to the relevance of local government and the way in which it might be conducted, he should really give further thought to going the whole way.

Although I do not agree with the noble Lord, Lord Howell, about the desirability of compulsory voting, I believe that other changes will be needed to improve the standing of politicians. A range of other measures will be needed if the status of local government and interest in its elections and participation in them is to increase. I believe that PR is the key.

4.40 p.m.

Lord Alderdice

My Lords, I came yesterday to your Lordships' House from the talks in Belfast. I find it rather remarkable to be sitting in this debate. Your Lordships are struggling over the question whether or not proportional representation might be introduced into local government at some point on this side of the water. Whatever the contentious matters that we debate in Northern Ireland, it is quite clear in the talks that not a single party there is proposing that we should have anything except proportional representation in Northern Ireland. That is because we have had the experience of it over quite a number of years.

Why should the people of Northern Ireland and their political representatives have become so persuaded that proportional representation is much the best way to approach representational politics? It is not because, in the sentiments expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Howell, they fear being made to vote. In Northern Ireland we escaped the notion of conscription because at a very early stage it was appreciated that to try to conscript Northern Ireland people as soldiers would only create trouble; but to give them the opportunity to fight voluntarily would ensure a massive surge of support, and so it was. I strongly suspect that if the largest fines imaginable were to be imposed for failure to vote, there would be a long queue of people blocking up the courts.

There has been no problem about ensuring high turn-outs. Indeed, if one takes into account some of the postal votes, there are areas of Northern Ireland where the vote verges above 100 per cent.! It is not proportional representation on its own which has created this situation, but because, whatever else, there is a sense of stridency, enthusiasm and a valuing of politics in that people believe their votes make a difference.

I have some personal experience of proportional representation in local government. On the two occasions when I stood for Belfast City Council in 1989 and 1993, I was elected under the system of proportional representation and the single transferable vote. It may seem a very complicated system, but it is not, particularly for the voters and the parties. If it is seriously being suggested that the people of Northern Ireland can quite happily understand the single transferable vote system, but that those in the rest of the United Kingdom are simply not up to understanding it, that would be a remarkable state of affairs. It is not a complicated system at all; it is quite simple. People put down, in order of preference, the candidates for whom they wish to vote as one, two, three, four, five and whatever.

Perhaps I may take your Lordships briefly through the kind of situation which has been our experience for more than a quarter of a century in Northern Ireland. As regards the selection of candidates within a party, because the STV system has multi-members—that is to say, in each of the areas there will be a number of representatives—most of the major parties, like my own, put forward a number of candidates for each of the electoral areas. They are not very large areas, but are large enough to sustain five or six councillors. At the selection meetings therefore it is not a question of the party élite deciding on the single standard bearer; on the contrary, there is the opportunity for the party to put forward two, three and sometimes even more candidates, which it is felt might have support in the local community. That means that the parties are not able simply to put their stamp of approval on one single individual; it means that the representation coming forward from the party expresses the breadth of view within it.

As regards campaigning and voting, the voters are able not just to look at the representative of the party and say, "Will I vote for him or her"; they are able to say, "There is one of those representatives whom I think is a particularly fine woman. She deserves my vote and I shall give her my first preference. But I do not think a great deal of the chap standing with her; I prefer the fellow from the other party. So when I come to my second preference, I shall not give it to the party hack who has been put forward to make up the list, even though I generally support that party. I shall give my second preference to the other party because it has had the good sense to put forward someone who is a local representative of some calibre. He deserves to be on the local council". That means that there are transfers not just from one representative of a party to another of the same party, but from a representative of one party to a representative of another because that person corrals support from across the political divisions.

That is not such a difficult concept for the voters as one might imagine. Indeed, within a matter of a year or two the voters of Northern Ireland became extremely sophisticated at deciding exactly whom they wanted; who would really represent their views and who would not. Transfers were sometimes quite remarkable. Representatives from one party found themselves being elected on transferred votes coming from one or more of the other parties.

It is not that this is difficult for the voters and the political aficionados to understand. The problem is that the party leaders and elites do not have full control of things. I accept that that is a problem, but is it one from which we should turn aside?

Some noble Lords have said that it is desperately important for there to be close links between the elected representative and the people of the area. That is entirely so. But if you happen to be a nationalist in the Northern Ireland context and the representative for your area is a unionist, you would not feel that there is a particularly close link between you and your political representative just because he happens to represent your area. Indeed, you would feel completely unrepresented. You would much rather be in a situation where there are four or five representatives for a slightly larger area. You could then go to the representative whom you believe actually represents your views and is in some way sensitive to you. That is exactly the situation that obtains on this side of the water.

If in a particular area there is almost no one but Liberal Democrat councillors, Conservative councillors or Labour councillors, anyone who is not susceptible to those political views will not feel particularly represented just because someone is elected for their geographical area. The voter will want someone who has some sensitivity towards his or her political viewpoint. The voter will want to know that his vote matters and makes a difference. It is not so difficult to create such a scenario.

The noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, said. "Yes, but there will be stagnation. Change will not happen". I can understand that being a concern. If there is to be progress and development in politics, some people have to be in and others out (as the noble Lord well knows), at least for a period. However, I draw the noble Lord's attention to some of the local government elections in which my own party has had that experience in the past 12 months. Last May, before the local government election to Carrickfergus council, my own party, along with some other representatives such as independents, had had control of the council. Then there was a proportional representation and STV election. We were unfortunate enough not to be able to carry quite the same number of seats, so we went into opposition. Another controlling coalition took over. That was sad news for us, but it was balanced by the fact that we and some others effectively took control of Belfast City Council, which is much bigger. The result was that for the first time ever in the history of Belfast my party was able to collaborate with the SDLP and put forward a nationalist lord mayor. That has never happened before in the history of Belfast. Was not that a change? Was not that a development and something of significance under PR/STV? It was of enormous significance.

It is important to understand that in that context the unionists did not suddenly feel, "Now we are completely out in the cold and there is nothing for us for the next few years; we have lost control which means we have lost involvement; we are alienated from our own city". That was not so at all. The fact that we have a controlling interest on the council means that not only can we ensure that the SDLP provides the lord mayor for this year but that the Alliance Party will provide one for next year. The unionists, even though they lost votes, do not have to feel alienated from their own city because they will have their opportunity in the millennium year.

It is not necessary to create the conditions where those who are in power have control and keep it to themselves and those who are out feel alienated and have no part in the conduct of their own local government. There is a real possibility for change, development and evolution. Surely that is part of what this debate is about. It is about change, development and evolution for the better of our whole political system from bottom to top or, as in the case of proportional representation perhaps, from the top to the bottom.

4.49 p.m.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, it is always a great pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Alderdice—and one that I often have. Apart from the eloquence and force of his contribution, we have learnt that the British constitutional system is conspicuously bad at finding actual experience, drawing conclusions from it and then applying it. We have such experiences in Northern Ireland—my noble friend outlined them—and perhaps we could all usefully learn from them.

We owe a debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lady Hamwee for introducing this subject—not, I emphasise, wholly or solely (as one or two noble Lords have implied) as a matter of Liberal Democrat interest only. This is genuinely a matter of public interest because it affects the quality of our government in this country.

I say at the start that I warmly welcome the Government's approach to modernising our democracy, putting our institutions back in touch with the people and generally producing a better quality of government. This is a time of constitutional renewal and this debate is about whether that constitutional renewal should apply also to local government. I think that it should because there is much to be done. As one of my noble friends has said, it was John Stuart Mill who pointed out that local government is the seedbed of democracy. It is where people—citizens and their representatives—learn the give and take of difficult decisions that deeply affect local people. Things can go wrong at the grass roots. We have had some terrible experience with local government in the past few decades in this country. Of course, some had nothing to do with the electoral system—the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, was right to remind us of that—but some relate to the voting system in local government.

As many noble Lords have said, one-party government can lead to complacency and corruption. It is not inevitable but, as my noble friend Lord Russell said, let us not lead people into temptation. Distance can grow between voters and their representatives and, as a result, turnout can decline and apathy and cynicism can grow. Unrepresentative minorities can gear themselves up (because they are part of the largest minority) to absolute control for extreme and unrepresentative policies. I hope that even now the memory of what Militant did in Liverpool is as fresh in the minds of the Government as it should be fresh in the mind of every citizen in this country. It was an example of what can be done by a small, unrepresentative minority taking over a ruling party which is itself based on a bare majority.

It was the problem of unrepresentative minorities taking over city councils, largely, that led the former Prime Minister, now the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, to introduce the poll tax. Let us be quite clear about it. That was the motivation for the introduction of the poll tax. This country had five years of convulsion, with the most unpopular policy of modern times. That led directly to her political demise as Prime Minister because she had not grasped the basic fact that you best get representative policies by having representative government. The party to my left could certainly have saved itself the agony and humiliation of the poll tax incident if it had simply set about democratising local government so that majorities were representative majorities, and not unrepresentative majorities.

I fear that that blindness in Conservative ranks continues because the most conspicuous feature of this afternoon has not been the eloquence of my noble friends—it is well known that Liberal Democrats know the arguments for proportional representation—and it has not been the extremely cogent speeches of the noble Lords, Lord Watson and Lord Bassam, from the Labour Benches; it has been the silence of the grave from the Conservative Benches. We have not heard one single speaker, yet I read this morning in the Financial Times, a reputable organ, that Mr. William Hague, now a reluctant convert to community politics and to partial constitutional reform, will nevertheless fight proportional representation tooth and nail. I am sorry that the weight of that responsibility falls solely on the broad shoulders of the Conservative Chief Whip. One would have thought that the Conservative Party could have found someone else also to fight tooth and nail this afternoon. Perhaps their colleagues at this end of the Corridor should be brought in to the new Conservative project and realise that this is something that they must fight—or perhaps they are ambivalent.

Indeed, Conservatives should be ambivalent because the Conservative Party's attitude on proportional representation is a very strange one. The first-past-the-post system from which the Conservatives have benefited for so long has now turned on them. The Conservative Party has now become the victim of the system to which it has been so slavishly devoted for so many years. In Scotland and in Wales, the Conservative Party has been eliminated as a parliamentary force—because of the voting system. As my noble friend Lady Maddock said, the Conservative Party is now the third party of local government—because of the voting system. The Conservative Party has very nearly been eliminated as a force in local government in many Northern and Midland cities—because of the voting system. In the London boroughs of Hounslow, Islington, Newham, Lewisham and others, the Conservative Party is hardly represented. It seems political masochism of the most extraordinary order for the Conservative Party to persist in its opposition to a reform which is not only in the public interest, but which would also so clearly benefit the Conservatives in their new minority status by ensuring that they are properly represented. I have a prediction for them: it will get worse.

I dare say that we shall hear from the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, about the defects of proportional representation. I have heard that argument from him before on such occasions. Most of the arguments boil down to the following: first, PR produces weak government. All that I would say to that is that in local government what we want above all is good government, based on consent, and good government that will persist over time, with policies that are in touch with local people. We do not want little Mussolinis in our town halls; we want good government. Strong government is not the British way of doing things. I repeat that we want good government.

The second argument is the one that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, made when he intervened in the speech of my noble friend Lord Russell. It was the question of how, with PR, one can turn people out. As my noble friend Lord Alderdice said, that is a real discussion. My answer to the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is this: if the Conservative Party were able nationally to muster 50 per cent. of the votes, it would have the majority in Parliament. What is there intrinsically to stop any party setting out with the leadership and the policies that will command the majority of its fellow citizens? That applies locally as well as nationally. If you cannot do it, you have to do what most people do in their personal, professional and business lives—and that is, to find some via media and some way of compromising so that good government can be carried on.

The other argument that is often used is to say that the system is complicated. My noble friends have dealt with that point very well. I am not sure that I would go as far as the noble Lord, Lord Watson, in saying that we should sell PR on the basis that it is just as easy as the Inland Revenue form. There is probably a slightly better way of putting across our case. However, PR is certainly just as easy as filling in a lottery form, which most people seem to have mastered pretty readily.

It is right that PR is no panacea. However, in local government PR could have some conspicuously virtuous effects. It could make election more important than selection. It could encourage higher participation and therefore a better turnout. It could produce greater responsiveness on the part of local government. It would produce a lower likelihood of complacency and, I believe, a lower possibility of corruption. It would produce better representation, and I believe that it would ultimately produce better government. The arguments for PR are extremely powerful.

In concluding, I should like to ask the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, who has great experience of local government, to answer two questions when she responds at the end of the debate. First, when shall we know the system by which London elections are to be conducted? Secondly, if, as is widely rumoured, they are to be based on proportional representation, why does the same logic that is to be applied to London not apply to local government in the rest of the country? I should like to hear quite specifically from the Minister that at this stage on this important issue the Government have an open mind. I believe from the sense of the debate this afternoon that that is what the House wants to hear.

5 p.m.

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I am grateful for the opportunity to take part in this interesting debate. I am sure that the House is grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, for having instigated it. Noble Lords may have noticed that I slipped into the Chamber a few minutes after the noble Baroness began her speech. I apologise for that discourtesy.

I am the only speaker so far who is to speak against proportional representation. I therefore look forward with particular interest to the speech to be made by the noble Baroness, Lady Farrington of Ribbleton, to see whether I am the sole voice in the debate this afternoon. There is nothing particularly surprising about the Liberal Democratic Party initiating a debate on proportional representation. It is rather like a convention of football club owners initiating a debate on the need for more televised football.

In all the best detective stories the first task is to look for the motive. The Liberal Democratic Party has a powerful motive. Proportional representation gives more power to the Liberal Democrats, more power to politicians and less uncertainty for those with political power; in other words, the political machine.

Who stand to be the great gainers from the introduction of proportional representation? It is the Liberal Democratic Party. "PR" should stand not for "proportional representation" but "permanent representation"—permanent representation for the Liberals in government and local government alike. It also stands for the preservation of governments, local councils and politicians. Earlier in the debate I asked the noble Earl, Lord Russell, a question. It was the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, who replied, I am sure much to the gratitude of the noble Earl. The noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, made a very good point, but when answering he inadvertently made an even better point about proportional representation. It was not the voters who decided what the coalition in Belfast should be but the politicians who got together behind closed doors and produced a solution that they thought would work best for themselves. During this debate statistics have been hurled around the Chamber. They do not prove anything bar whatever one wants them to prove.

The Motion before us today is concerned with local government, but let us not delude ourselves. PR in local government would be a further step on the road to PR in general elections—a direction in which both the Labour and Liberal Parties are already pointing in policies for European elections and for Scotland. During the course of the debate I could not help but reflect on why, if PR was such a good idea, we had not got it already. Why did not the Labour party include PR in its manifesto? Why in the past 18 years did we not bring forward our own ideas? We have not done so because we believe PR to be profoundly undemocratic.

I ask the House to consider the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, in describing the benefits of proportional representation: it will be fairer to the electors; it will increase the turnout at local elections; people will vote for candidates rather than parties; it will mean that more women will be elected and that other kinds of minorities will be represented. This is marvellous stuff, and the Labour Party should listen to it with care.

Lord Holme of Cheltenham

My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord allowing me to intervene. I do not want to interrupt the flow of his eloquent speech. Is the noble Lord saying that women in this country are a minority?

Lord Strathclyde

My Lords, I took a very careful note of the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. She said that PR would mean that more women would be represented and that other minorities would be represented. I do not put a gloss on what she means. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Cheltenham, that I am perfectly well aware that women in this country do not make up a minority of the electorate. The noble Lord has made a good effort to diminish the effects of what I said. If all of this is so good why did we not do it a long time ago?

What would proportional representation mean in practice? It would mean that almost no national government or local council could be formed without the say-so of—guess who?—the Liberal Democratic Party. Having been the least popular of the three major parties, at a stroke they would be transformed into the most powerful. Power would be given to the least popular. I find it hard to see what that has to do with either representative democracy or effective local or national government.

What are the Liberal Democratic Party afraid of? At the start of this century the Liberal Party was the largest party in Britain. It dominated both national and local government and it won that dominance under the first-past-the-post system. Under the first-past-the-post system it lost that dominance. Why? The Liberal Party lost it because of what it now calls "unfair votes". That was not the reason: the party lost it because of lost votes. The people of Britain preferred Labour to Liberals—Social Democrats and Liberal Democrats alike. Odd though it may seem, they still do. There is nothing to prevent the Liberal Party from retaking its place at the head of the parties of Britain except that in election after election the public have shown that, whatever they think of Conservatives or Labour, they find Liberal Democrat ideas and policies the least attractive.

I believe that instead of seeking to tear up the first-past-the-post electoral system in their own narrow party interests the Liberal Democrats should seek to do to Labour what the Labour party did to them; namely, to use the existing system to win success as the leading party of the left. This is quite possible. I refer to the noble Baroness's own borough of Richmond, where I understand the Liberals have squeezed the Labour and Conservative parties such that they now dominate the council. I suspect that that is one reason why those who live in Richmond suffer the highest council tax cost in outer London. I am also told that it has lost to property developers the historic ice rink that was once so much loved by local people.

The Liberal Democrats should have the courage to present themselves to the public for what they are rather than seek to win power locally and nationally on the coat-tails of a Labour Prime Minister. As they cling to his coat-tails and sup tea in secret Cabinet committees they should be careful with whom they do business and to what it leads. One does not have to be too perspicacious to see that the Prime Minister's dream is to split their party, bring the Social Democrats under his wing and cast the grand old Liberal tradition, which has served this country well, out into the darker fringes of politics.

We have seen those dangers in the House only this week. I refer to the proceedings on Monday when at the very last minute the noble Lord, Lord Tope, failed to move a Motion on two vitally important matters to Britain's schools, students and universities. The noble Lord told the House that, any further delay with this Bill …"— there had been no delay— could have a serious effect on other government legislation, some of which, it is true to say, my party supports, at least in principle."—[Official Report, 23/2/98; col. 407.] I suggest that the words, "supports, at least in principle" are significant, for it was reported in yesterday's press that "senior Liberal Democrats" had discussed with the Government changes to the PR system proposed for European elections—supported by the Liberals significantly in principle, but not in detail—and had suddenly won movement in their direction. The juxtaposition of these two things is, I submit, no accident. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, was constrained by his Whips to abandon a defence of the universities, students and their families for a modest move by Mr. Straw on PR. Such is the power of PR to influence Liberal Democrat minds and to force low compromise at the expense of high principle. That is the fundamental argument against PR at any level, national or local. It puts a premium on private party bartering and fuzzes clarity of principle; it transfers choice away from the electors and gives it to machine politicians; and it offers the greatest power to the most unpopular party. It also creates extremist parties and a proliferation of parties.

I was impressed by what the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said, that the current system led to the amelioration of extremes within local government. I agree with her. Surely the opposite must be true: when you have a proliferation of small parties it gives political credibility to small, extremist movements.

For once I find myself in strong agreement with a Labour Party document, their consultation paper on local government, published in February. It says: The tradition in this country is for there to be a close link between constituency representatives and the citizens they represent. Our local government voting system delivers just this result with each councillor being elected by the citizens of the ward or district which they represent. We believe such links between councillors and people are vital to ensure councils engage effectively with their local communities. I agree with that.

Yesterday the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. William Hague, made a speech on the constitution. He said: Of all the dangerous and destructive constitutional reforms currently on the table, perhaps the most dangerous and the most destructive is proportional representation. At a time when a first-past-the-post system has recently found favour in Italy, a country wracked by generations of weak governments which were the fruit of PR, it would be extraordinary, simply to serve the narrow interests of the Liberal Party, to throw over the direct links between electors and elected and make councils less stable and council candidates even more the servants of party than people.

I have listened to the Liberal Democratic Party this afternoon with respect. With equal respect I have to say that this is an old, self-seeking Liberal canard which we on these Benches will not buy. Let the Government, and the noble Baroness in particular, be in no doubt that if they are in favour of proportional representation they are on their own. We will fight them every step of the way.

5.10 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, I quake to hear the authoritative and, I presume, final position of the Conservative Opposition Benches on a subject to do with the constitution, at least for today.

It is clear from the debate that there is a wide range of views both within the House and elsewhere on the merits of proportional representation and on the importance of considering them in the context of different types of elections to different bodies. There is currently no consensus about the best or most appropriate voting system for local government, although certain possibilities clearly command more support than others. There is certainly not a consensus that a change from the current first-past-the-post system is required, although there are many who argue this particular view, and we have heard some distinguished proponents. We have had demonstrated this afternoon a need for a mature and reasoned consideration of the issue.

The Labour Government have embarked upon a radical and wide-ranging programme of constitutional reform, including devolution in Wales and Scotland, PR in elections for the European Parliament, the Independent Commission on the Voting System for Westminster chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the creation of a mayor and assembly for London—which will be contested and supported by all parties represented in the debate today—open government and freedom of information. The Government have a radical programme which will touch all levels of the state, and local government is crucial within that.

In his recent speech at Scarborough the Prime Minister set out four key areas of change in our agenda for local government: new legitimacy, new ways of working, new disciplines and new powers. We have made a start in all of these areas and our aim is to ensure that councils can fulfil their potential. They have a vital role to play in giving their communities the quality of life which people rightly expect and deserve.

We have published a consultation paper on local democracy and community leadership which sets out ideas for achieving this. This is the first paper in a series, with more to come, on best value, finance issues and a new ethical framework in response to Lord Nolan's report on standards in local government.

The change of culture equally affects the disciplines under which modern councils must operate, including the move away from discredited compulsory competitive tendering towards a regime of best value. Your Lordships will be aware that there are now 37 full best value pilots in place across the country. It is an issue which is extremely important in terms of righting the balance between local government and central government.

More generally—not least because of the writing of my noble friend Lord Bassam—people in local government are becoming seized of the cultural change that best value, fully implemented with local performance plans negotiated with the community, will engender.

We intend that this programme should lead to massive change in the culture of local government, with greater accountability and openness, better, more streamlined decision-taking, greater efficiency, greater public involvement in decision-taking and better and more visible leadership. Overall we are working in partnership with local government to enhance its ability to meet the needs and aspirations of the communities it serves.

Our first consultation paper, which has been referred to by many speakers in the debate, deals with options for moving to annual elections and options for possible changes to other electoral arrangements: for example, voting on Sundays, electronic voting, and other experiments which would be made possible by the Private Member's Bill, if enacted, of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt of Tamworth. Let me place on record again my gratitude that all sides of the House were able to come together to agree improvements to that measure.

This first consultation paper seeks views on 30 different fundamental questions. The Government will listen to and consider carefully all views expressed on this paper and those to follow before setting out their proposals in a White Paper. We shall legislate, where necessary, at the first opportunity.

The programme set out in the consultation paper includes some major changes, such as the move to annual elections. This manifesto commitment will ensure that authorities will be subject to more regular electoral accountability for their performance. As a minimum, it could mean a change in electoral practice for a large number of authorities.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked me for the arguments that would support annual elections. From my experience in local government, the strongest support arises from the argument that you can have a fluke set of circumstances and an unusual result in one year. That can lead to a lack of continuity because there are marked swings every four years instead of a gradual responsiveness to the changing mood of the community.

The issue of complacency and low standards in local authorities which have been controlled by a single party for a long time is widely acknowledged across the political spectrum. Our consultation paper contains a range of measures—a number of them radical—to address this issue. There are measures to encourage higher turn-out, greater public involvement between elections and innovative ways of taking decisions.

Our programme will bring the one-party state system up to the mark and make the absence of opposition less likely. For example, under the Bill brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, there may be experiments separating the executive role from the representative and scrutiny role in the local authority. This would occur where the authority experimented with a directly-elected mayor or a cabinet model, for example. Wherever there was a separate executive arm established there would be a requirement for the authority to have one or more scrutiny committees. These committees would have full access to information, members of the executive and the officers of the authority, and their membership would be in line with the overall political balance of the authority. That point was supported across your Lordships' House when the issue was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.

The power of scrutiny of a majority political party on an authority is an alternative and supplementary means of tackling corruption. The difficulty is the language which is used in connection with local government. It has been interesting to hear today the different language used in connection with control, no overall control and whether there would always be a lack of scrutiny when one party has a large majority on the local authority.

If through enabling legislation we had enhanced scrutiny, it is possible that the small number of senior officers and members of an authority which may have remained under one party control for several years will find that some of the fiercest scrutiny comes not from the opposition parties but from their own back bench members. Councillors on a scrutiny committee would have a number of incentives to be rigorous in their oversight of the executive, including the normal process of exercising political opposition and representing the interests of their constituents. Therefore, our package builds on the traditional strengths of local government. A major element is to enhance the degree to which councillors are able to represent fully and actively those who elect them in order to make them closer to the people.

As was recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, the programme for local government is a major undertaking. It will involve legislation and could involve authorities in managing a number of significant changes simultaneously. The Government have decided that on local democracy the highest priority must be given to the broad package set out in the recent consultation paper and to the complementary introduction of best value and the new ethical framework. We are committed to fostering innovation and change in partnership with local government.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, spoke of the judgment being made by government about priority within a programme of identified issues. Local and central government must work together to develop a radical and realistic programme for change. Delivery must not he impeded by trying to do too much at once. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, asked for more change. There is a rate of change which would he a rate too far in keeping the partnership approach between central and local government.

However, the Government recognise that any consideration of democratic arrangements, central or local, must necessarily include looking at voting systems. Clearly, we will have to address the issue in due course. The Government will look carefully at the issues and listen carefully to what people say. Nothing would be served by me seeking to respond to comments about the different electoral systems or their appropriateness to local government today. Claims have been made for proportional representation. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, and other noble Lords spoke about the voting patterns in, for example, the boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea and Sheffield. However, I suspect that in most years there would be a majority from one party and no overall control. Therefore, our approach to the system of scrutiny is extremely important.

The acceptability of the decisions taken by our local authorities depends on their democratic legitimacy. I have attempted to explain today that this is not merely a product of the voting system used. There is a range of views on the voting systems and many will argue for first-past-the-post, as did the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. The Government take the view that it is necessary to ensure that we have the most suitable electoral system for the body that is to be elected.

Certain issues relate to the size and nature of the body that is to be elected. I was asked specific questions about London and what the Government are likely to do. The Government will publish a White Paper next month on the new strategic authority and mayor for London. It will set out the proposed electoral arrangements for the mayor and assembly. The new authority will cover more than 5 million voters and will have strategic powers and functions. The primary function of the assembly will be to hold to account the mayor for London, and the details will be published. However, in considering the proposals in the White Paper and making comparisons with local government, it must be remembered that the authority will comprise a comparatively small number of members and will have a highly strategic function. It is not necessarily comparable with other levels of authority.

As many noble Lords have said, the link between locality and councillors is important. I intend to look further at the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, with regard to the number of councillors in the areas of the country which do not have PR. From my experience as a councillor, I know that it is important to have a good relationship with the local community. At present, it will not be popular to turn to a system—for example, the STV system—which will lead to an increase in councillors of 500 per cent. As a councillor on a county council, I represented almost 14,000 people and I know that a multi-member seat would cover a large area.

We intend to ensure that we retain a local system and wish to avoid large wards or remote systems which cut people off from the local community. The Government wish to place all their weight behind the programme of democratic reform for local government. Never have a government working with local government supported such a range of exciting initiatives and opportunities to experiment. Evaluation of the radical changes which result from that programme may lead us to consider changes to voting systems. The Government are not, therefore, drawing any conclusions on the issue at the moment.

Today's debate has been helpful in teasing out some of the issues which will need to be addressed. I was particularly interested in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, based on his particular experience. I am sure that we shall benefit from that in future debates.

My noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie raised many important issues and much has been made of the low turn-out in local elections. As a government, we are committed to increasing that turn-out. There are many factors. One issue is a new partnership which allows local authorities greater freedom to work with their communities after years of centralisation. Over the past 18 years, there have been many examples of tension and mistrust between levels of government.

We intend to be open and honest with local government and work through the radical programme. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has given us an opportunity this afternoon to give consideration to an important aspect and subject. On many future occasions I look forward to hearing contributions from noble Lords on that subject.

I was slightly surprised by the experience of the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, in Durham. My experience of Durham county councillors was that they were a very lively lot. Perhaps the most lively was the leader with whom it was my pleasure to work alongside in the Association of County Councils. At the age of 84, having nursed his wife until her death from Alzheimer's disease, he took up parachute jumping to raise funds. When he was asked whether it was not very stupid to parachute jump for the first time at the age of 84, he said to the young reporter, "Certainly not. If I kill myself, I lose two years. If you do, you lose 62 years". Those people were not all perhaps of the type experienced by the noble Earl.

5.31 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee

My Lords, I welcome very much the enthusiasm for democracy which has been expressed from almost all sides of the House and for the inclusiveness for which we are striving and which we are increasingly attaining in government in this country.

It appears that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, rejects that inclusiveness even of his own party in what I can only describe as "yesterday's speech". He may have missed my explanation that PR would affect the Liberal Democrats as much as it would the other parties, although that was a point made by other noble Lords. I said also that of the various arguments for PR. any benefit to the politicians was the very least.

To put the point firmly on the record, I must say that I did not talk of women as minorities. I most carefully did not use the word "minorities". Indulging myself just a little, I should say also that it is reassuring to know that the Conservatives have absolutely no new arguments against the Liberal Democrats in my own borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. Despite the relatively high council tax there which the noble Lord well knows is because of the extraordinarily low level of central government grant, the electors have continued to return Liberal Democrats with huge majorities.

Perhaps the Conservatives are comfortable only with extremes and the noble Lord does not recognise that, as my noble friend Lady Maddock said, co-operative politics hold back the extremes. He may not know either that Italy has moved to a form of AMS rather than first-past-the-post.

The general point is that it has been said around this Chamber that proportional representation will not be a panacea, nor indeed, I believe, has any noble Lord argued that no overall control—hung or balanced councils, whatever one wants to call them—is the right model and the only model. That is not the case. But proportional representation is a vital ingredient in rejuvenating local democracy. I believe that has been demonstrated today.

The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, said that PR for local government would be considered in due course. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said earlier this afternoon that she did not have a Civil Service lexicon with her. I am not sure where "in due course" comes in the hierarchy of short, very short or other courses. I believe that I am right to welcome the confirmation—to read between the lines—of not only PR in London but also the open mind of the Government on this issue.

My noble friend Lord Tope referred to the outcome of the borough elections in Wandsworth in 1986 and the fantasies that we might have had had the votes been reflected in the number of councillors elected. At that point, I was watching the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shuibrede, who was a councillor in Wandsworth until four years ago. For him, the fantasy went on a little longer than for some other noble Lords.

In the 1890s Lord Salisbury said: By democracy, I do not mean a system in which seven men tell nine men what to do". It is that basic issue of fairness which has been central to this debate. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to it. I do not need Papers to persuade myself of the case for PR in local government. I hope that no other noble Lords do. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.