§ 3.6 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.
Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)
§ On Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House in Committee accordingly.
§ [The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES in the Chair.]
§ Clause 1 [Number of MEPs, electoral regions and electoral system]:
§ The Earl of Northesk moved Amendment No. 1:
§ Page 1, line 8, leave out ("Members") and insert ("Deputies").
The noble Earl said: I acknowledge that in some respects, I am the warm-up act before the two main events of this Bill. The purpose of the amendments grouped in my name is straightforward. They seek to change the name of members of the European Parliament to either deputies, delegates or representatives. I should stress at the outset that it was the Home Secretary who first alerted me to this matter. On Second Reading of the Bill in another place, the right honourable gentleman pertinently observed:
The role of a Member of the European Parliament is different from that of a Member of Parliament".—[Official Report, Commons, 25/11/97; cols. 805–6.]
Indeed, in the Government's own mind, it is that very difference which justifies the electoral arrangements on the face of this Bill. Much the same point was implied by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, when he introduced the Bill to your Lordships' House.
§ More than that, your Lordships will be aware from my contribution on Second Reading of my concerns that the proposals on the face of the Bill will have the inevitable consequence of eroding the relationship, in so far as it exists, between an individual voter and his representative in Europe. The Home Secretary, echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, commented on that point also. The electoral regions will be very large and individual candidates are unlikely to be known by more than a small, not to say tiny, fraction of the electorate. Self-evidently, the role of MEPs is entirely different from that of MPs and will become even more so as a result of the Bill. Bluntly, in so far as there does exist a job description with which the general public are in tune, MEPs are not members.
§ I stress also that it is by no means my intention with these amendments to undermine or devalue the status or role of those who represent us in the European Parliament. They are a significant part of our developing democratic and constitutional architecture. In that context, they perform a hugely important task. Indeed, I am tempted to suggest that it may well he that being tagged as "members" rather than "deputies", "delegates" or "representatives" is a disbenefit in itself.
§ We should not ignore how important perception is in the modern age. Public perception of the nomenclature of "member" implies a whole host of concepts and responsibilities which are even now outside the remit of those who represent us in Europe, let alone after the enactment of this Bill.
§ For instance, whatever the Minister without Portfolio has had to say on the matter, the Burkean principle of the representative Member still has resonance in the minds of electors. What of constituency surgeries and of advocating constituency interests to the government of the day? Many, if not all, of these traditional duties are outside the competence of MEPs. Calling those who represent us in Europe "Members" may well provoke expectations in the minds of the electorate that they simply cannot meet. In effect the public are being slightly misled.
§ Nor should we forget in this context the low esteem in which Members of Parliament are currently held by the general public. I leave it to the Committee to draw its own conclusions as to how deserved that reputation is. For myself I see no profit in, as it were, attaching guilt by association. MEPs are not MPs, nor can they be. They should not therefore be tarred with the same brush of public disdain and disillusion as our respected colleagues from another place.
§ I have one final bit of housekeeping. I have no particular preference for any of my three suggestions over the other two. I hope the Committee will take it on trust that all three have something to commend them for I do not wish to try the patience of the Committee by citing their dictionary definitions at length. But at the risk of indulging in some vain optimism that the Minister may just be receptive to my proposition. I think on balance I would plump for deputies. It is a nomenclature that has a slightly more Gallic flair and a more European flavour to it than the other two, although I leave it to others to adjudge whether that is 249 a good thing. In conclusion, and perhaps a little mischievously, I am reminded of the admonition from Proverbs that: a good name is rather to be chosen than great riches. I beg to move.
§ Lord Waddington
I cannot pretend that I can go entirely the whole way with my noble friend Lord Northesk but I think he has a point. Why should people gain the style of an MEP when they will not be able to carry out the normal functions which are carried out by a Member of Parliament in the other place? The principal function, of course, is to represent their constituents and deal with their constituents' problems. I can see that the electoral system which has been chosen by the Government has an appeal to some people. Presumably it has an appeal to those who think that the only purpose of an electoral system is to put in place people in exact mathematical proportion to the votes cast for each individual party in the election.
That is not my idea of the principal function of a Member of Parliament or of an MEP. Obviously those who are elected ought to he in a position to command the respect of those who have elected them. Those who are elected should be able to represent in a broad sense the general views of the parties which they represent. But, above all else, those who are elected ought to be able to look after those who have elected them and also those who have voted against them. I cannot for the life of me see how the electoral system which has been chosen by the Government can provide for that.
Indeed spokesmen in another place have said that you cannot begin to acquaint the job of an MEP with the job of an MP. Obviously these people as MEPs for vast regions, such as the north-west region stretching from Merseyside to Carlisle, will not be known to the people who have voted in the election. You just have to accept that. The spokesmen in the other place say it is absolutely obvious that these people will not be able to perform as ordinary MPs and that they will not relate to any particular identified group of constituents within those large regions; all that is quite impossible. If it is impossible, why on earth has this bizarre system been chosen? Goodness only knows. My noble friend has made an important point. It seems to me odd that we should grace these people who cannot perform the duties of Members of Parliament with the style of Members of Parliament. I make that point now in the knowledge that we shall be able to debate the details of the scheme later.
It is important to start our debates this afternoon by saying that the Government have selected the worst possible form of electoral system which they could have done which cannot possibly have appeal to anyone in this Chamber except those—I suspect there must be some on the Liberal Democrat Benches—who really think that the only function of an electoral system is to throw up Members in proportion to the votes cast for different parties in the election. That is complete and utter nonsense.
§ 3.15 p.m.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
I am a little puzzled by this group of amendments. Far be it from me to defend Members of the European Parliament, but I am puzzled 250 as to why these amendments have been tabled! I believe it was in 1985 during the discussions on the Single European Act that the assembly was changed into a parliament. Once that had happened and once it was given the status of a parliament, not by a Labour government but by a Tory government, it gained more status. It would be quite wrong to say to Members—and they are Members—of a European Parliament that they must suddenly revert to being deputies in an assembly. I do not think one can do that in this Bill.
I would have much preferred that the European Parliament, as it now is, had remained an unelected assembly with people deputised to that assembly from this Westminster Parliament, as happened originally. I was an opponent of the 1977 Bill passed by the then Labour government. But having got this far, and as this Chamber and another place have agreed that there should be an elected parliament in Europe, we cannot now say that the Members must not be Members of a parliament but deputies of a parliament. That simply is not on. The word "deputy" means to deputise for someone. Who on earth will they deputise for under this Bill? I am sorry to say that I think that this group of amendments is misconceived. I sincerely hope that the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, will withdraw them.
§ Earl Russell
There is a problem here which is to be addressed by later amendments, most notably Amendment No. 6 which is to be moved by a Member of my Front Bench. What I do not understand is why the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, believes that this amendment makes a practical contribution to solving a problem. It reminds me a little of the academic thesis that Shakespeare was not written by Shakespeare but by someone else of the same name.
§ Lord Henley
I shall not on this occasion follow my noble kinsman in discussing the authorship of Shakespeare's plays. Like him, I know that is a matter of considerable controversy and not one on which I think we would wish to delay the Committee this afternoon. I am grateful to my noble friend for tabling this group of amendments. I think one can describe it as three groups of amendments in that he puts forward three choices. I believe he described this discussion as something of a warm up for this afternoon's business. I am grateful to have that warm up as I believe it is nearly two-and-a-half months since we had the Second Reading of this Bill.
Although one is often grateful for a delay between the Second Reading and Committee stages as that allows one time to draft amendments and to think them out, it also allows one time to forget precisely what the Bill intends and some of the details of the Bill. Therefore, as a small warm-up before we come to what might be described as the bigger arguments, such as my noble kinsman's discussion on Amendment No. 6 or the amendments on Gibraltar, it might be useful to go through this process.
Like my noble friend, I have no particular preference in relation to the three choices that he places before us: "Deputies", "Delegates" or "Representatives". However, he is right to make the point that the role of Members of the European Parliament, whether a parliament or an 251 assembly prior to 1985, is very different from that of Members of the Westminster Parliament. It will become even more different following the passage of this Bill.
The difference of role was confirmed by the Home Secretary in another place. My noble friend Lord Waddington, a former Home Secretary, also made the point that what Members do and how they behave is very different from Westminster Members. There will be a greater difference once the constituency links between an individual Member of Parliament, or whatever he may be called, and his constituency are destroyed by the Bill. We are moving to nebulous regions, originally created for a very different purpose by the Department of Trade and Industry. Those regions are also very large. My noble friend Lord Waddington pointed to the fact that in his part of the country and mine, the north west, we should see individual MEPs representing a region extending from Merseyside to Carlisle. It will in fact be much bigger. It starts well south of Merseyside, in Cheshire, and extends up past Carlisle right on to the Scottish Border; and the region (if I dare call it that) beyond the north west, into Scotland as a whole, extends from Gretna as far as Orkney and Shetland. That is to be one region. MEPs will have to represent the whole area rather than the individual parts of it that they have represented in the past as individual constituency Members of the European Parliament.
My noble friend's amendment therefore raises some interesting questions. I shall be interested to hear the noble Lord's response. My noble friend will then no doubt make up his mind as to how to pursue these amendments in due course before we move on to the more important amendments facing us today.
Lord Bruce of Donington
One of the lessons that can be learnt from a study of these amendments and the matters to which they relate is that, notwithstanding anything that we may say or do here, the European Union institutions tend to do exactly what they like in any event. Perhaps I may offer an illustration.
In 1975 I had the honour to be one of your Lordships who was chosen to be a Member of the European Parliament by the British Parliament. On being nominated, I was called a Member of the European Parliament and was accepted as such in the so-called European Parliament institutions. In fact, at the time it was an assembly and had no official title as a parliament. Not until many years later was it suddenly realised (if indeed it was realised at all) that the European Parliament in 1975, and until 1979, was not a parliament at all. It was a complete pretence. To that extent I participated in the duplicity. I was issued with a European Parliament passport at a time when there was no European Parliament, only an assembly. Moreover, it was connived at by the British Government and their successors by paying attention to the exchange restrictions and the money one could carry abroad by an endorsement in the appropriate section of the so-called passport, which I still have in my possession.
252 Although for other reasons I shall not support the amendment, I can well understand the reasons that lie behind it. Despite the change of name accomplished later by treaty, it is not a parliament at all, as the Government themselves were at pains to point out in a recent debate in another place. The Home Secretary said:The European Parliament is a representative body; it is not a Parliament from which a Government are drawn".He went on to say:The European Parliament does not form the basis of a Government, but is simply a representative body".Later he said:We are not dealing with the election of a Parliament which then sustains a Government, but with the election of a representative body in Europe";and finally, in the same speech:The electoral regions will be very large, and individual candidates are unlikely to be known by more than a small—not to say tiny—fraction of the electorate. Voters cannot, therefore, be expected to make an informed choice between individual candidates from the same party".—[Official Report, Commons, 25/11/97; cols. 804–13.]Since that speech was made by the Home Secretary, the Government may possibly have come to a more definite frame of mind. It may now suit their purpose to call Members real Members of Parliament, as distinct from representatives, deputies or whatever. As I say, for other reasons I shall decline to support this amendment. But the reason is quite simple—the whole thing is a farce anyway.
§ Lord Evans of Parkside
My noble friend referred to the fact that he allowed himself during the period from 1975 to 1979 to be called a Member of the European Parliament. I wish to make it clear that others of us were also seconded to the European Assembly during that period who always refuted the title of Member of the European Parliament and insisted on being called Members of the European Assembly.
However, like my other noble friend, I am amazed at the amendments that have been tabled. I am even more surprised at the support that they have received from the Conservative Front Bench. If, for instance, the Committee accepted the amendments and called Members from Britain "deputies", "delegates", or "representatives", we should be the only country among the 15 so to call our representatives. All the other countries would describe them as Members.
It is argued that the European Parliament is different from the House of Commons. This place is also somewhat different from the other place, but we are proud to call ourselves Members of the House of Lords. I suggest that these amendments have no particular role in the Bill, and I find some parts totally deplorable.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I cannot refer to anything that my noble kinsman has said because I do not have any relatives here. If I had any who might have been related to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, I might have asked what is the crystallised position of the Opposition Front Bench. Does the noble Lord support the title "deputy"—it sounds awfully foreign to me—or 253 "delegate", or "representative"? I am not sure what the Opposition view is. I am happy to say on this occasion how pleased I am to note how sound on Europe and European matters the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, always is. He made the point perfectly well—
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I offered it deliberately as a hostage to subsequent fortune. It was, as always, a pleasure to listen to the concluding remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, delivered in his constructive way.
I sometimes wonder why we spend almost half an hour on a matter which, it may be thought, is of little substance. The European Parliament is what the Parliament is known as. "Member of the European Parliament" is the commonly used and accepted term throughout Europe. I respectfully commend the noble Earl for his extraordinary assiduity and diligence, but he still leaves deputies as,Deputies of the European Parliament",delegates as,Delegates of the European Parliament",and representatives as,Representatives of the European Parliament".We still have a European Parliament, but we have no members of it.
Everybody now uses the term,Member of the European Parliament".As the noble Lord, Lord Evans, pointed out, we happily describe ourselves as Members of this House and other people as members of local authorities, members of the Freemasons, members of the golf club, or whatever. The European Parliament uses that terminology and MEPs themselves use it to describe their occupation.
I take the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that there are subsequent amendments that focus on the way in which the proposed elections will be carried out. However, the MEPs are elected and, whatever they are called, their role remains exactly the same. They will still be Members of the European Parliament elected to represent their region. Nothing that the Home Secretary said in the citations from his remarks contradicts or calls that into question in any way. France, Germany, Greece, Portugal and Spain all elect their MEPs using the system proposed in the Bill, and,Member of the European Parliament",is the accepted and acknowledged term. It is the role that matters, not the title we give to the person who carries it out. The terms "delegate", "deputy" and "representative" are not in the mainstream of our tradition. Therefore, on that single ground alone, they ought to be resisted.
§ 3.30 p.m.
§ The Earl of Northesk
I am grateful for the support of my noble friends Lord Waddington and Lord Henley for the principle underlying my amendment. It is important. I am not sure that I can help the noble Lord, 254 Lord Stoddart of Swindon, with his puzzlement, except to say that, irrespective of whether MEPs sit in the Parliament, there can be no doubt that MPs and MEPs are, as it were, different species. We have that on the authority of the Home Secretary and the Minister.
As an aside, one dictionary definition of "representative" is:One who represents a number of persons in some special capacity; especially one who represents a section of the community as member of a legislative body".I believe that that is a reasonable description of an MEP's duties.
The noble Lord, Lord Bruce, gave us his customary root and branch comments on the nature of the European Parliament, for which I am very grateful. I take the point made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell; I cannot do otherwise. I suspect that he is right in suggesting that the amendments would have little practical effect. I repeat that I none the less felt it important to have a discussion about the underlying principle.
I indicated earlier that I was not labouring under any false optimism. I cannot say that I am in full agreement with the comments made by the Minister. I shall read them closely in Hansard. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendments Nos. 2 to 5 not moved.]
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham moved Amendment No. 6:
§ Page 1, line 9, at end insert ("according to the system set out in sections 3 to 3B").
§ The noble Lord said: In speaking to the group of amendments, Amendments Nos. 6, 13, 17, 18 and 20 in the names of my noble friends Lord McNally and Lord Steel and myself, I propose that we amend the Bill to use what is sometimes called, in shorthand, the Belgian system.
§ There are four voting systems before the House. We have the Government's proposal in the Bill; we have the amendments on which I shall speak in a moment; we have Amendments Nos. 12 and 23 in the names of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and the noble Earl, Lord Kitchener, to provide for the single transferable vote; and we have Amendments Nos. 14, 16, 19 and 21 from the Conservative Front Bench in the names of the noble Lords, Lord Mackay and Lord Henley.
§ My proposition is very simple. We have a good Bill and it is extremely important that it is passed. But we must not make the good the enemy of the best. I seek, with the help of my noble friends, to improve the Bill by making one fairly straightforward change to it.
§ Before I come to my amendment, in order not to take up more of the Committee's time later, perhaps I may briefly review the attitude of these Benches to the other two voting systems in the amendments we shall discuss shortly. The amendment to provide for the single transferable vote has a great deal to commend it and we on these Benches have a great deal of sympathy for it. The Liberal Party and now the Liberal Democrats have consistently urged the case for the single transferable 255 vote for parliamentary elections over many years. In this instance that system is not ideal because of the very large constituencies proposed in the Bill. My party has not supported it for European elections for some 20 years but, rather, supports the kind of system which we hope to introduce to the Bill today.
§ Another problem with the single transferable vote, as the Committee will know, is that the Home Secretary has made clear his inexorable opposition to the change whereas that is not the case with regard to the amendment to which I shall speak shortly.
§ The Conservative Front Bench are most unlikely aficionados of the Finnish system, given their past record on these matters. Perhaps I may say how much I welcome their conversion to proportional representation for European elections. I did not gain the impression from the very warmed up remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, that there had been such a conversion, but maybe there has been. We shall look forward to hearing what they have to say about it. The problem with that amendment is that it will mean changes to boundaries, and thus involve delay, and, in a Bill with regard to which time is of the essence, it could be interpreted as a wrecking amendment.
§ It is an extremely important priority to get the Bill through the Committee and to bring us into line with Europe. I need hardly remind the Committee that the Treaty of Rome commits us to the introduction of a uniform electoral system. With the greatest respect to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, this is not a farce. It would be a farce if we continued to change the balance of the European Parliament by being alone in Europe in not having a fair electoral system. What we have here is a 90 per cent. Bill. The amendment seeks to make it a 100 per cent. Bill.
§ The amendment we propose, while retaining the constituencies proposed by the Government, would allow an element of voter choice by opening up the ballot paper and allowing the voter to choose the candidate and hence vary the order on the party list. This system has been researched by NOP. The results showed that the majority would prefer European elections to be conducted by the system that we propose from these Benches. At Second Reading the Government quoted Home Office research on the subject, but I should point out that that was not quantitative research but research derived from small focus groups. We all know how devoted the Government are to focus groups, but I suggest that in this instance a rather wider testing of opinion is desirable.
In the conclusions of the wide test carried out by NOP it is stated:
Voters can react strongly to the removal of the right to select a candidate for themselves, even if they already tend to vote on the basis of party".
It must commend itself to your Lordships that in a modern democratic system people like to have some balance of candidate and party when they express their preference. Our amendments allow them to do that.
In conclusion, these amendments would enlarge voter power at the expense of the party. They represent a minimal but effective change to the Bill and, crucially,
where time is pressing, would involve no delay to it. The Home Secretary has blown hot and cold on this matter. At Second Reading of the Bill in another place, he said:
I am prepared to listen to the arguments for adopting a Belgian-type system and to give them careful consideration".— [Official Report, Commons, 25/11/97; col. 814.]
At the moment he is blowing more cold than hot. I hope that by the end of this afternoon's proceedings it will become clear whether he and his Ministers in this Chamber are now warm to a change which is wholly justifiable in terms of democratic enhancement and which will help to make a good Bill the best possible Bill. I beg to move.
§ Lord Waddington
This amendment is an attempt to make the party list idea more palatable by giving the voter a chance to vote for an individual. But the party list will still exist; it will still operate in vast regions; there will still be no group of electors for whom a specific MEP will have specific responsibility. There will be no one person to whom an elector will be able to turn in the knowledge that that MEP will accept the elector's problem as his responsibility and not the responsibility of an MP for another party or an MEP whose home is in another part of the region.
If I understand the system correctly, the advantage is that it will allow the electors to show their disapproval of and seek to remove from the list any disreputable person who has somehow or other found his way on to the list. That is an extremely important consideration. The Home Secretary in another place said that the electorate's remedy was to refuse to vote for the list which included a bad egg; that is, an elector should. in the case of the north west, vote against nine good eggs in order to get rid of one bad egg. When one is talking about proportionality, that way of dealing with the problem is quite disproportionate to the existing problem.
It is frivolous to say that the only way we can get rid of somebody who has blotted his copy book is to vote against every other member of the party who appears on the list. Therefore I give cautious approval to what has been said from the Liberal Democrat Benches for that one reason. However, I am still gravely upset at the fact that we are introducing an electoral system based on party lists, and particularly party lists covering such regions. But it is a marginal improvement to a bad scheme.
§ 3.45 p.m.
§ Earl Russell
I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for at least a number of the comments he made. I should perhaps say a little more about the way the amendment works. It is, of its nature, a compromise. But, as we all know, the task of making politics work is always one of looking for compromise. Therefore, to say that it is a compromise is not any criticism of it.
It is often said—the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, quoted someone saying it; I believe it was the Home Secretary but did not catch it exactly—that a large number of voters are not particularly interested in 257 who the candidates are, do not know much about them and do not have any specific urge to vote for one candidate rather than another. It is possible to exaggerate how true that is and I say that with respect to my former MEP—the noble Lord, Lord Bethell—who is in his place. Nevertheless, I do not contest the basic principle. There are a number of such people, but there are also a number of other people—perhaps a minority—who feel strongly that they are much more ready to support some candidates put forward by their party than others.
It is equally true that those of us who wish to exercise the right of free speech or wish to write letters to the papers are also a minority. But the whole House will agree that blocking up that loophole because the people who wish to exercise it are a minority would be a grave threat to the freedom of the whole country.
Similarly, it can be argued that even if those who wish to vote for or against a specific candidate are a minority, it is an important part of our being a free country that they should have that right. That is why this system is a compromise. It gives voters a chance either to vote for the party list or to vote for one individual candidate on that party list as a personal vote.
At Second Reading the Minister said that the Government's objection to the scheme was that the way the candidates came out in the final order was not in exact proportion to the number of individual votes for that specific candidate. Of course, that is the very essence of a compromise. The compromise is between the candidate's ordering on the party list and the number of individual votes given for that candidate. Those two figures are dovetailed in order to produce a list which represents both things together. It is perhaps illogical in its way, but most compromises contain a degree of illogicality. I do not believe that any Member of this Committee would argue that therefore the compromise should be given up.
Mr. Khrushchev was probably quite right that if people had to choose between freedom and goulash, they would choose goulash. But I thank our lucky stars that that proposition is not true of everybody. Those people in the minority to whom that does not apply are a very great part of a healthy body politic.
It seems to me that there is a real danger, in a list where the voters cannot express a preference between the candidates—not only as indicated by survey material—that there may be a great degree of frustration among voters. Even if they do not want to exercise the right, they may feel frustrated at being deprived of it. There may be frustration also because the candidates and even more the sitting members are not accountable to the electorate. That breaks a basic link. If there is one thing which is clear, it is that candidates and, even more, sitting members, will be likely to do whatever they need to get their seats and to keep them. In a democracy I would have thought it was tautological that, in order to obtain one's seat and keep it, one needs to please the voters. Under a totally closed list, that is not the case. That is something which I find contains some potential menace to democracy.
258 I make no party point here. The power of patronage in politics is eternal. It goes back as far as records. No party can claim to be immune from it. But just because that power of patronage is so intense, I view with some misgivings the prospect of extending that power and making it even greater than it now is.
I say to the party physically on my left that this is not a perfect amendment. However, the point made by my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham in relation to the need for redistribution is substantial. It is also important in politics to try to do what is capable of producing success. This amendment is one about which the Home Secretary at times indicated an open mind; the other is not. We on these Benches therefore believe that this amendment might be capable of success when it seems quite unlikely that their's would. When it comes to the point therefore I hope that they bear that in mind.
§ Lord Shore of Stepney
I cannot pretend that I have any great affection for the European Parliament and to describe it as a "parliament"—I do not wish to go over ground that has already been covered—is a genuine misnomer. It gives to representatives who are elected a kind of bogus status; as though they were genuine parliamentarians in the sense that our elected parliamentarians are genuine in the House of Commons. It gives them a spurious authority. I can conceive of times arising when opinions spoken by MEPs in the name of the electorate clash with views expressed by elected representatives in our genuine Parliament here in the House of Commons. It cannot be helpful that they should share the same description—the use of the common word "Parliament". But I put that on one side.
I also put on one side, because I think it is more appropriate to a Second Reading debate than to the Committee stage, the whole adoption of the electoral system of proportional representation. It is a major innovation for our country apart from Northern Ireland, and one for which I do not myself have any great sympathy, although I acknowledge there is a difference simply because of the different status of the European Parliament from our own Parliament. There is a difference of function which perhaps makes proportional representation not quite so objectionable as it would be in our own House of Commons.
I want to focus on the matter on which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, touched. I refer to the basic issue: do we go for an open or a closed regional list system? I should have thought that we would instinctively be opposed to a closed system, partly because it gives great power to the party managers and there is a real danger that patronage and other devices can be brought to bear to bring forward favoured sons of the party leadership rather than people who, on genuine merit and by popular acclaim, are the kind of people who would, if their names were on the list, be voted for. In addition, there is the other very serious disadvantage that under a closed regional list system there can never be a by-election. By-elections have a certain value in showing how opinions are changing and what matters are of particular concern to people. But in this system a Member may pass away, he may resign or anything else might happen 259 to him, and the vacancy is declared. What happens? The party managers look at the next name on the list, of whom perhaps we have never heard before, and he or she becomes the new Member. Those are serious disadvantages.
I understand that good motives can be in the minds of those who wish to control the listing of candidates. They may genuinely wish to promote groups that they think are under-represented, such as women or members of ethnic communities. I do not go for that positive discrimination approach myself but I understand that a number of people do. I think they are misguided and I think that both women and representatives of ethnic communities can win acclaim and office on their own merits without any spurious favouritism being bestowed upon them.
I now come to what to me was in a way the most baffling aspect of the whole matter. That was the actual reason advanced by the Home Secretary. He obviously gave serious thought to the matter—he is a man of high intelligence—and yet came out against what he described as the Belgian system. He came out in favour of the closed system and rejected the alternative open Belgian system on the grounds that it suffered from a kind of irremediable defect, afundamental and incurable weakness",because it did not follow that the people who got the most individual votes were going to be successful.
Incidentally, the reason that that would not happen is that under the Belgian system voters can also vote for the anonymous party. They can vote not just for individuals but for the party. A large number of them do vote for the party and then the party allocates those anonymous votes to its own order of preference. That may not be the same as the number of votes cast for someone else on the list who has not been favoured by the allocation of these anonymous votes. I understand that. It may cause a good deal of resentment, but that is a resentment with which people have to put up. The electors have a right to know whom they are voting for—that is very important—and to be able to choose them.
I come to my last point of substance. The Home Secretary puzzled me by citing the Belgian system and subjecting it to the serious criticisms that I have listed. But the Belgian system is not the only open regional list system. There is the Luxembourg system and there are indeed other systems. Under those systems you have to vote for a named person. You cannot simply vote for the party. Where that happens, surely, the Home Secretary's objection that people might be upset because, whereas they have the largest number of individual votes, they do not actually get elected in the end, simply vanishes, because those who get the most votes as individuals will indeed be elected as Members of the European Parliament.
I ask my noble friend to help me and to help the Committee in examining the case further. Am I right in what I have said about the Belgian system and about the alternative Luxembourg system? If I am right about the Belgian system, surely the Luxembourg system, if it is 260 as I have described it, is much to be preferred and does not suffer from those disadvantages which led my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to turn it down in the first place and to adopt a closed system.
I hope very much that these additional points will now be seriously considered, with the result that we shall in the end choose an open system.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
Although I do not share some of the views that the noble Lord, Lord Shore, has just advanced about the European Community, I entirely support the remarks he has made about the undemocratic nature of closed party lists and how those are inclined to entrench the party at the expense of constituents and make Members of Parliament less accountable. Although I freely admit that for 30 years, since as a teenager I signed up to the Electoral Reform Society, I have supported the principle of proportionality, I have never been convinced that party lists were the best way of achieving it. That is one of the reasons why later today your Lordships will also consider a further possibility—the single transferable vote in multi-member seats within a region, such as that which occurs already in the Republic of Ireland and indeed in Northern Ireland within our own jurisdiction.
I should have thought that there was a strong case for rejecting both the closed party list system and this limitation of the party list as proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Holme.
I also admit that I would vote for this amendment in preference to that which the Government are offering, but it is not the best that is available. Having been brought up on the pure sweet milk of single transferable votes, I do not see any reason for changing my view today. Indeed, I think there are good reasons for supporting the single transferable vote. Some of those reasons were advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, in his speech. There is a limitation in any list, whether it is open or closed, on voter choice. Single transferable votes keep a commitment to a constituency, to an area, where you are the representative as well as introducing the principle of broad proportionality. We should maintain those principles.
One of the reasons why some Members of the Committee say that there is disillusionment with the European Parliament is because it seems so distant and unaccountable. But there is disillusionment with our own parliamentary institutions, too. Anything that adds to that disillusionment should be strongly resisted. In the city with which I am most familiar and which I represented at one level or another for some 25 years, there were local elections in May of this year. Just 22 per cent. of the voters voted—in other words, four out of five people simply did not bother to vote. That is the city which the noble Lord, Lord Shore, knows well: it was his birthplace.
In the European Parliament election two years ago in that same city just 11 per cent. of the voters voted and in a local council by-election in November last in that city, just 6 per cent. of the voters voted. So when we talk about disillusionment with parliamentary institutions, we must take a careful look at ourselves as well.
261 I believe that one of the reasons people become disillusioned is because they see parties taking power and detaching themselves from the interests of the constituents. Anything that undermines the relationship between the elected representative and the constituents should be passionately resisted. I was brought up on the principle that you put your conscience, your constituents and your country first and party interests behind those. Like many others in this Chamber, I remember the words of W.S. Gilbert who mockingly said:I always voted at my party's call,And I never thought of thinking for myself at all".We should do all that we can to stop the further entrenchment of party managers; the people who choose lists and then force voters to take it or leave it. We should be giving the maximum opportunity to voters to cast votes for people who will represent them in accordance with their consciences.
§ 4 p.m.
§ Lord Inglewood
I have listened with considerable interest to a number of the points that have already been made in discussing this amendment. I do not wish to go over them at all. I should merely like to focus my few remarks on the particular point at issue.
It seems to me that it is in the very nature of the list system that, if you vote for the list, you are voting for the individuals on that list in accordance with the rules that apply in the particular election. In my view, it is a bogus distinction to try to maintain that if you are voting for a list you are not voting for the names contained on that list in accordance with the rules that apply to the particular election.
We heard a number of Members of the Committee speak about the problems of the elector who does not want to vote for the candidates on the list, but wants to vote for a particular candidate for a particular reason. I have always understood that it was in the nature of democracy that the system was intended to throw up as those selected to represent the electors those whom the electors wanted. My criticism of the Government's proposals is that they simply reduce the electorate's choice. That is essentially antithetical to the process underlying the electoral system.
§ Lord Evans of Parkside
The one thing that I can say positively about this Bill is that it was a manifesto commitment to introduce proportional representation for the European Parliament. I am happy to support that particular manifesto commitment. However, I part company with almost everything else because the bounds of this Bill are in Clause 1 and there is little that I can support in it.
As the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, said, there are four options before the Committee today. There are the three Opposition options, if I can put it that way, and the Government's own proposals. The one that I support the least is the proposition that the Government have placed before the Committee. It is not only a question of there being a closed list, thereby denying the electorate the opportunity to vote for the candidates they prefer and, in addition, to alter the 262 rating, as it were, of the people on the list, but there is also—and this is even more difficult to come to terms with—the method that the Labour Party chose in the first place as regards the selection of the party's candidates.
My noble friend Lord Shore referred to more control being given to the party managers. In this case their control is total. While there is a charade of democracy surrounding the arrival at the list of candidates, which will involve the party members within the constituency parties and within the European constituencies, in fact the selection of the candidates and their positioning on the list would be in the hands of 11 people who are representatives of the National Executive Committee and of the regional executive committees throughout our party structure. The domination of the National Executive Committee in the choosing of the candidates means that it has a healthy majority. Therefore the chosen candidates would undoubtedly be those who find most favour with the party leadership. That may be a good thing as far as concerns some people. But I would have much preferred it if the party members themselves had selected the candidates through a one member one vote ballot and placed them in order on the ballot paper so that at least there would have been a partly democratic input in the process. However, I must make it clear that I still believe that it should be the electorate which has the final say in electing a candidate.
There is another aspect of the Bill which I also find difficulty in coming to terms with. If the Government's proposals carry the day and their method is adopted for the candidates for the European Parliament, that would tremendously strengthen the hands of those who are opposed to any alteration to the system of election to the House of Commons. When we go through the fiasco that undoubtedly we are about to undergo as regards Europe, there will be an overwhelming demand from members of the public not to change the electoral system for the House of Commons.
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to the low turnout we have had in many elections. It was certainly pretty awful for the last European elections. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that we had the lowest turnout in Great Britain for the European elections. In adopting the Government's method, I cannot see how that will do anything to enthuse the electorate to go out with simply one vote for the Labour Party candidate, the candidate of the Conservative Party, the candidate of the Liberal Democrats or an individual. That is a deplorable method of approach to any democratic election. I certainly cannot see that the voters' enthusiasm will be improved by adopting this particular method.
I want to hear what the noble Lord, Lord Alton, has to say when he moves his amendment and what the Conservative Front Bench have to say when they move theirs. There is one thing that puzzles me: why have we not stretched this particular method of selecting candidates to Northern Ireland? Strangely, Northern Ireland has had a method of proportional representation since 1979. We are told that it has operated so satisfactorily since then that we are going to leave it in place. I recognise that my noble friend has an extremely difficult job this afternoon. Can he explain to me, if not 263 to everyone else in the Chamber, why the system in Northern Ireland has not been changed or, alternatively, why it has been decided that it is unnecessary to operate that system in the rest of the United Kingdom?
The Labour Government have missed a great opportunity as regards these elections. They could have put before the Committee a system which would have enjoyed widespread support and which would probably have enhanced the case for proportional representation. But as regards the system proposed, I believe that they have set back the case for proportional representation a very long way indeed.
§ Lord Howie of Troon
I wish to make just two points—briefly, I hope. The first relates to the question of multi-member constituencies, which has been mentioned more than once. In drawing attention to that matter again, I hope to remind older Members of the Committee, of whom there are quite a number, that we have had experience in this country of multi-member constituencies. Until 1950 there were quite a number. Blackburn, for instance, had two Members, and there were many others. Therefore, having such constituencies is not an innovation. Furthermore, I recall that in the 1950s there was a seat called the Scottish Universities. It had three Members. I hesitate to say this, but they were elected by the single transferable vote system, so that would not be an innovation either. Multi-member constituencies were abandoned in 1950 for what were thought to be good reasons, but I never found those reasons quite as good as others seemed to.
Reference has been made to the size of the region with which the MEPs would be required to deal. It is hard to say which geographical constituency was served by the Members for the Scottish Universities, who represented all the graduates of the Scottish universities who were entitled to vote in the United Kingdom. Therefore, in a sense, their region was the whole of Scotland and a substantial part of the rest of the United Kingdom. It was an ethereal constituency, but the Members' remit covered the whole country. They did not represent individual geographical areas, so the notion that people have to be tied tightly to a finite area seems questionable.
I turn to the only other matter with which I wish to deal. I refer to the business of the closed list, which I find quite deplorable. Indeed, I find the whole idea of list systems deplorable, but not quite as deplorable as the closed list system and for that reason I am attracted to the admitted compromise proposed from the Liberal Democrat Benches. It is far from perfect and I would much prefer the STV system, such as the noble Lord, Lord Alton, suggests and which existed in the university seats. Indeed, that is the system in Ireland, as other noble Lords have said.
The weakness of a list system, whether closed or open, is the power which it hands to the central party. I have been a member of my party for a very long time and I have supported it sometimes wholeheartedly, sometimes less wholeheartedly, and sometimes not at all. However, I now feel it my duty as a member of my party to try to educate it towards better things.
264 I shall confine my remarks to the Labour Party. I had an experience some years ago which indicates the nature of the relationship between the local party and Transport House, as it then was. Thirty or so years ago, I was invited—I was actually invited, which may surprise some Members of the Committee—by Transport House to enter a selection contest in which another candidate was needed to make up the numbers. I was a bit reluctant because I had parliamentary ambitions at the time. I said, "I'm not too sure about this", and the Labour Party said. "You'll be all right. Everybody will know that you are the Transport House nominee and nobody will vote for you. You can then pursue your parliamentary ambitions elsewhere." Such was the relationship between the local party and Transport House that not only was I selected as the prospective candidate, but I won the ensuing by-election to the surprise of a very great many and the delight of a very small number—
§ Lord Howie of Troon
Yes, my Lords, including me.
I should like to comment on that distance—I shall not call it "distrust"—between the local party and Transport House, as it then was, or Millbank Tower, as presumably it is now. I am not too sure about that because I am not too close to it. Indeed, being on the shelf I do not know about such things. I suppose that I am "middle-aged Labour"—
§ Lord Howie of Troon
All right, "elderly Labour!"
My point is that the gap between the local party and the party management was wide enough in the days of Transport House. But how infinitely much wider would it now be? How democratic is it to yield that substantial power to what my noble friend Lord Evans called "11 or so people"? I find that an extraordinary suggestion.
When we were in opposition, my party rightly condemned the Conservative Government of those miserable 18 years for their centralising propensities. They centralised everything they could get their hands on, yet here is my decentralising party virtually centralising the choice of MEPs into the hands of a tiny coterie. There are too many of them to be a cabal, so they must be a coterie or whatever is the collective term for a group of 11.
I am very much minded to support the amendment despite its shortcomings. It is a compromise. I am much more attracted to the STV solution because at one time in my life I had an Irish step-grandfather—if you can have such a thing—and I have a very strong feeling that if STV is good enough for the Irish, it is at least good enough for me.
§ 4.15 p.m.
Before the noble Lord sits down and knowing that he would never wish to mislead the Committee, may I remind him that when there were 265 constituencies with more than one Member, the voters never voted on a party list? They had to vote for individuals.
§ Lord Howie of Troon
The noble Lord is a friend of mine, but for the life of me I cannot see how that intervention arose from anything I said. I know perfectly well that the electors voted for individuals—and rightly so. The noble Lord may have noticed that I do not actually approve of party lists.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
I have been very impressed by the speeches of my noble friends who have put the objections to the closed list extremely well. I hope that the Government will listen to their voices. I hope that we shall not be told that, because the European Parliament does not raise taxation and is not responsible for raising taxation, it is not necessary for there to be a direct link between the elector and the elected. I do not believe that that is so. Even if the European Parliament does not raise taxation, it spends taxation and it has increasing powers over expenditure. That point is important to taxpayers.
As far as I am concerned, the first-past-the-post system is a perfectly respectable system. Indeed, there is absolutely no reason why it should not be continued. The British people are used to voting by that system. They know how to handle it. I cannot see any reason for the alteration. The Government will say that they have agreed with other countries in Europe that there should be a standard system. But we are told that in Europe things are changing. There is a new era of support for subsidiarity. Even Herr Kohl now supports subsidiarity. There is also greater recognition of the role of the nation state—a fact which was borne out in Cardiff. We should not necessarily move towards a standard electoral system for the European Parliament but continue to have a mix of systems that electorates can understand.
However, I suppose that it would be unrealistic to move an amendment in order to reinstate the first-past-the-post system. If we are to have PR the system adopted by the Government in the Bill must be the worst possible system. It hands great power to party hierarchies. As my noble friend Lord Evans of Parkside said, in the long run it will make great difficulties for political parties and alienate the electorate from voting rather than persuade them to go out and vote. I hope that by one means or other the Committee can agree a system, whatever it may be. I am attracted to various systems, like other noble Lords. I should like to hear the arguments and preferences for one or other system. It is the duty of this House to put the Government right and ensure that anything that goes forward from here does not alienate the electorate from the individual voting procedure and that there is a link between the electors and the elected. I believe that it is legitimate for us to do that. I hope that that can be achieved with all-party support. It would be excellent if my noble friend on the 266 Front Bench recognised the strong feeling in all parts of the Chamber and accepted one or other of the proposals now before the Committee.
§ Lord Hardy of Wath
I had not intended to speak, but I believe that the point that has been made by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, should be borne in mind throughout this debate. I reside in South Yorkshire which recently had a European by-election. The turn-out was appalling. I am prepared to support the Government in this matter, not least because we are dealing here with the European Parliament and not British parliamentary constituencies. To an extent one can argue that Europe will develop as an organisation of the regions rather than individual constituencies. If that is the case the regional dimension is important.
My concern is that if the new arrangement is greeted by a great yawn and an appallingly low turn-out the problem identified by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will command continuing attention. Some years ago following a general election I came to Westminster to take my seat. As I walked towards St. Stephen's entrance there appeared to be a demonstration, although not quite as colourful as those organised by Mrs. Pankhurst in support of the suffragettes.
As I entered the building someone said, "Good afternoon, Mr. Hardy". The gentleman had been the Liberal candidate in a neighbouring constituency. I asked him what he was doing there. He replied that if there had been a proper system of proportional representation he would be taking his seat that day. I said that he might have had about 30 per cent. of the vote but I took it that the Liberal candidate in my constituency was not seeking to chain himself to the railings. He replied, "Oh, yes". I said that I had received about 60 per cent. of the vote, the Tory candidate had received 22 per cent. and the Liberal had managed 15 per cent. I asked what system of proportional representation would stop me taking my seat and enable that gentleman to be elected as the member for my constituency. He began to give me an extremely complicated explanation of the theory of proportionality. I could not understand it. Therefore, if we make the system too complicated and introduce procedures that the ordinary person cannot understand the fears expressed today by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, will be a great deal more acute in future.
§ Earl Russell
For the benefit of the noble Lord, Lord Hardy, perhaps I may put it more simply: Liberals tend to support each other.
Lord Bruce of Donington
All elections in the United Kingdom depend ultimately upon individuals turning up at polling stations and putting their cross against whichever candidate, or in this case whichever party, they favour. This involves a considerable amount of work. If one has a region that covers perhaps 11 or more parliamentary constituencies the question is: who will provide the mechanism, the will and enthusiasm to vote for candidates on a list? I am sure that the following remark applies equally to the Conservative and Liberal Parties as to my party. The people who do 267 the work are members of the Westminster constituency parties. They address the envelopes, organise meetings, do the canvassing and provide transportation to encourage or help disabled people to get to the polls. Let us assume that an election is for a region as a whole on the basis of a list. That help must be provided by individual members of the constituency Labour parties. Fundamentally it is to the Westminster Parliament that individual party allegiance is given. This applies even more vividly in local elections where there tends to be closer proximity between the candidates and the electors.
What will happen in a region that comprises 11 constituencies? Certain legal considerations arise where there are overlaps, and I shall touch upon that matter in a later amendment. How will all of this be mobilised? How will it be done? Will all of the constituency party workers be provided at party expense with mobile telephones so that they can be contacted at any time by whoever organises the matter in the region? My fear is that if it proceeds on that basis it will be difficult to arouse the enthusiasm of the individual Westminster electorates, who elect their own Members of Parliament to Westminster by name, for a regional list.
§ Lord Evans of Parkside
I am grateful to my noble friend for giving way. He may have been misled in referring to a region consisting of 11 constituencies. For example, is he aware that the new north-west Region, which includes Cumbria, comprises more than 80 Westminster parliamentary constituencies, not 11?
Lord Bruce of Donington
I am aware of that consideration. I cite my noble friend in support of this matter. The answer is that it will be very difficult to arouse any enthusiasm for elections to the European Parliament on the basis of a list. If that occurred and the outcome were derisory in terms of the percentage of the electorate voting—if turn-out was very much lower than on the previous occasion—it would tend to bring the whole question of democracy into disrepute. This is something that we ought to beware of.
We tend to regard the influence, or shall I say the direction, by party headquarters and by the leader of the party with a degree of benevolence which follows our own political convictions. Most of us, for example, would prefer to have an organisation based upon Millbank rather than possibly the square in which the Conservative Party has its headquarters, but it is entirely beside the point because it is simply not democratic. We are living at a time—one only has to read the daily and weekly newspapers to realise this—where increasingly policies, including details of policies, come from the top. They are supported by the machine, and the lower orders in the constituencies are supposed to conform and are in fact discouraged from disagreeing with anything emanating from the party machine.
In my time—a long time ago, possibly before the war—that kind of policy was called democratic centralism and was said to contain the characteristics of the then Communist Party. Are we not getting 268 dangerously near to a revival of the hated democratic centralism which was the hallmark of the British Communist Party? In my view—I do not speak for anyone save myself—we are getting dangerously near to that state of affairs. Dissent is still the mainspring of democracy. There is unanimity only in the graveyard, because there they cannot argue with one another.
What we seem to be doing—unconsciously, I hope, rather than as a deliberate effort—is beginning to build into the British political structure and British democracy all the worst characteristics of Russian communism: that is to say, policy from the top and no dissent from below, except under severe disapproval from higher up. That is one of the reasons why I dislike the depersonalisation politics. You can work up some affection for, or some dislike of, a person. You can dissent from their views or you can agree with them. You can exhibit varying degrees of emotion for their ideas and possibly for the presentation of your own. However, to have to argue with a machine the whole time and to have to dissent when a machine, by its own definition, can never be wrong, is a total abdication from what I have always believed to be the finest things of British democracy. Therefore, I hope that the Government will take some account of this view, which may in fact not have occurred to them because, as Mark Antony would say,They are all honourable men".
§ 4.30 p.m.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
This has been an interesting debate. It started off with the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, who said that it was a good Bill. I am sorry to say that I cannot agree with him and I think I had better disabuse him of one or two facts before we go too much further. The fact that I have an amendment later on the Marshalled List, with my noble friend Lord Henley, in no way diminishes what I said about the Bill on Maundy Thursday, on Second Reading, when I concluded:I think this is a sad day for Britain and for our parliamentary democracy, based as it has been down the ages on the Westminster pattern of constituency representation".—[Official Report, 9/4/98; col. 864.]I want to make quite clear to the noble Lord and his friends that while I may decide to discuss the finer points of the myriad of proportional representation systems, that in no way removes my objection in principle to any or all of them. My firm view is that the first-past-the-post system is the simplest and the best system whereby people can elect representatives to Parliament, whether that be the European Parliament with its limited powers, our Parliament down the corridor in the other place, or the parliaments proposed to be set up in Wales and Scotland. I am firmly of the view—in fact I am even more convinced, having heard some of your Lordships speak today—that the merits of our system are very considerable. I say that because what we are undoubtedly moving to is a system where people will not have a blind clue who their European Members are.
It was, I believe, the Minister who said that Mrs. Winifred Ewing in the Highlands and Islands seat in Scotland was an exception when I suggested she 269 would be known by more people than would know their Westminster constituency MP. She may be at the top of the league, but I do not think she will be alone in being pretty well known. That constituency link is important because it means that people have local roots and local strengths and even if they cover quite a wide area, as European constituencies inevitably have to do, they still have some degree of pull.
My noble and learned friend Lord Fraser asked how could anyone, extremely well known in, let us say, the Grampian area in Scotland or Aberdeenshire—extremely well known and perfectly capable of being elected there for their party—have that same identification with people in Dumfriesshire or in the City of Glasgow, as Scotland will be one great big seat? I rather suspect that far from seeing an increase in the turn-out in European elections we will see a further decrease. I want to make that point clear.
The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, also said that time was pressing. I presume that was the reason why he made no attempt whatever to explain the system that he was suggesting to your Lordships. I do not believe that time is pressing on this Bill at all. It was Maundy Thursday when we had the Second Reading. I know that part of the Government's excuse for the Committee stage being held now is that we have had to wait on the Registration of Political Parties Bill. Having waited for it so long, when I went to collect it I thought I would need a large truck to carry it away, such would have been its size. But it is only a modest 11 pages long and it has been with us now for some weeks. So we could have had this Committee day some weeks ago. Therefore I am afraid the statement that time is pressing is not actually valid and it does not excuse the noble Lord from giving some explanation of the system he is putting up as an alternative to—
§ Earl Russell
Does the noble Lord remember, in his Second Reading speech, demanding with the utmost passion that this Bill be delayed until the Registration of Political Parties Bill was printed? Is he further aware that the resources of parliamentary counsel have been devoted to preparing Bills on Northern Ireland—a fact which, content or not, we must welcome?
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
Yes, I did say that. We have had the Registration of Political Parties Bill with us now for some weeks. It has already been amended in Standing Committee in another place. So it has been two or three weeks down there. I know that the reason for the delay in producing it was the preparation of Northern Ireland material, but the Registration of Political Parties Bill has been inevitable ever since the day the Government set out on the track of having the additional member system in Scotland and Wales and this proportional representation system in Europe. There has therefore been plenty of time; all the months that have passed since passed since the general election have been available to produce a massive 11-page Bill. We owe it to ourselves to look carefully at the Bill before us today, and I do not believe that time is pressing.
270 The noble Earl, Lord Russell, made a good attempt to explain exactly how the Liberal Democrat proposal might actually work and pointed out rightly that we have three major amendments to discuss today in relation to first-past-the-post. As I said, the moment we move away from first-past-the-post and get people to agree to PR, they promptly fall out as to what system of PR they all favour. I have made my view clear. If there were a simple vote this afternoon—do you agree with the Government's proposal?—and there were no alternatives scattered around, the poor old Minister would be very lonely in the Division Lobby because not one single soul has supported the Government's proposed system. All have suggested that there should be variations to it. The noble Lord, Lord Hardy, came the nearest to supporting the proposal. Let us put it that way. I did not think that it was terribly near, but it was the nearest.
We could have many variations. My amendment and that of the Liberal Democrats have a relationship to each other. There is a different one by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. The three amendments give us an opportunity to explore the matter to see whether there is any way in which we can all come together at a later stage to impress upon the Government what we think should be the alternative to their system.
I have already conceded that, given the manifesto commitment and the Government's majority, my preferred system cannot be put to the test. I suspect that after the Committee has talked about PR for a while it might be happy to rush back to the first-past-the-post system as a far easier proposition. But I am afraid that that is not to be.
We have the Government's proposed closed list system. It is a simple system. People go to the ballot and vote for a political party. That is straightforward. The named person will not be important. I suspect that there will be no names on the ballot paper. We shall probably receive confirmation of that from the Government later. There will be no person's name. The process will be de-personalised, apart from any independents who may stand. That will not last for long because under this system being an independent will be pretty lonely. People will quickly realise that there are no runs in being an independent under that system.
There will be parties. The Committee will be aware that the party vote will be divided by a system known as d'Hondt to decide how many seats each party will receive. Then it will just be a case of ticking off from the top down from the list delivered to the returning officer by the party. We are here considering how to determine that list. The Government's proposal is that the list will be determined by the party itself, by whatever method it chooses. In fact the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, writing in the Guardian on 24th October stated:The order of candidates on a party's list and the order in which they are elected should be determined by parties rather than the electorate".We knew where he stood.
In the debate in the other place on 25th November last year (Hansard, col. 813) the Home Secretary went on to say that voters could not be expected to make an 271 informed choice between individual candidates from the same party. If the electorate were required to rank candidates of the same party such choices could be arbitrary—I suppose arbitrary in the view of the party managers. He received a bit of a battering from all sides in the other place. He then said that he was prepared to listen to the arguments for adopting a Belgian-type system and give them consideration. He said that he would return to that at a later stage in the Bill's passage.
By 26th February the Home Secretary still had not made up his mind. He said that at col. 543 of Hansard. That day he said also that he intended to inform Members the following week, and he did. The Belgian system is the one brought before us by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham. It tries to give the electorate some say.
As no one has explained the system to the Committee I always find it easier if I explain it, if only to myself. The Belgian system means that the ballot paper will have the party on it. Below the party will be the names of the listed candidates. I suppose that they will have been chosen by the party managers by whatever method decided by the party. There they will be. The elector will be invited to vote for the party or for an individual candidate. At the end of the day, all the votes will be added up. If one votes for an individual candidate, that vote is added to the party's total list. All the parties are totalled. The d'Hondt principle is applied, and the number of seats each parties receives is decided.
The returning officer then goes back to the ballots to see who got how many votes. That is where life becomes complex. I wondered whether I could try to explain this to the Committee as a test of whether my school masterly skills had been lost in the 20 years since I left that trade. I think that they have. One would need a blackboard or an overhead projector to explain what happens next.
Unless the electorate for that party—let us say the Conservative electorate—has voted for the people in the same ranked order as the party, then it could easily not get its way, and a candidate who receives more votes for himself or herself than any other candidate on the list can end up not being elected. That is the conclusion to which Jack Straw rightly came. On 9th March he stated:I am placing in the Library some numerical examples to illustrate how the system works in practice. These indicate that even where votes for individual candidates amount to as much as 40 per cent. of a party's total vote"—in other words, 60 per cent. of the people voted just for the party while 40 per cent. split their votes between the individuals on the party list—those candidates receiving the fewest individual votes can be elected while those receiving the most are not". I believe that such an outcome would lead to substantial disillusionment among the electorate following an election".—[Official Report, Commons. 9/3/98; col. 18.]The Home Secretary gave—if I may thus describe them—some worked examples which make it abundantly clear that in certain circumstances the electorate can show that it favours a candidate above all others, but if that candidate is not within the top one or 272 two, or at the very most three places, on the party's list, he has no chance of being elected to the European Parliament. So I reluctantly come to the view that Jack Straw's objection to the Liberal Democrat method is correct.
That cannot happen just in theory. There are a number of pages of theory. Sometimes it can work perfectly well, but it can only work perfectly well if the Conservative electorate, for example, favours the top and the second person on the party list. It will undoubtedly work, but it would have worked on the party list as the Government want it anyway. So there is no point in that. The only point in going away from the closed-list system is to give the elector a proper choice. The elector cannot have a proper choice if his proper choice is too far down the party list and never achieves the magic quota figure.
I just do not believe, theoretically according to the Home Secretary, that the Liberal Democrat proposition is any fairer than the closed list.
§ 4.45 p.m.
§ Lord Shore of Stepney
Following the noble Lord's argument, I think that I agree with what he has said, but does he agree that the obvious solution to this problem is to adopt an open system—Finland and Luxembourg are two examples of it—which does not give the option of voting for the party? One has to vote for named individuals.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
We will come to that later when we come to amendments in my name. In case someone says, "That is all very well, these are just theoretical examples which the Home Secretary has brought forward", I have a real example taken from—where else?—the Belgian system. It is the Christian People's Party in the Antwerp Constituency in the 1981 general election. I shall try to explain it as succinctly as I can. If I succeed, most Members of the Committee will see that, in answering one problem, I am afraid that the Liberal Democrats have thrown up a much greater one.
The head of the CVP list was Leo Tindemans. Not surprisingly, he was very popular. He gained 79,000 personal votes. The list is quite long and the print rather small. If I stumble it is because I have trouble with the small print. Leo Tindemans gained 79,087 votes. There is a list of perhaps more than a dozen candidates for the CVP party, following the party order; and that is the important point. The next person on the list was Blanckaert. He received 3,700 votes. That is a long way behind Leo Tindemans. The next people gained 3,200, 3,000, 2,700, and 2,200. Then Demeester-De Meyer gained 4,674. He was well down the party's list, but he did quite well and beat all the people above him. Smets got 4,207; Cauwenberghs gained 4,022; and Ansoms was second in the people's preference. He gained 6,009 votes. The remainder were also-rans.
In addition to all the personal votes, there was a list vote of 56,000. With the method of quotas used in Belgium, the CVP was to have six members. A quota is worked out. It was 24,857. As I might have said all those years ago, if you have all been listening it will be 273 clear that Leo Tindemans at 79,000 cleared the hurdles by miles, so he is elected. No one else got near the 24,000 quota. So the next person on the party list is looked at. Blanckaert gained 3,700 votes, and was not even the next choice of the people. So 21,000 votes were pulled down from the party's total to reach the quota; he is elected. Suykerbuyk gained 3,200 and was well behind some of the others lower down. So nearly 22,000 was pulled down which were needed for him and he was elected. Swaelen needed 14,000 votes to reach the quota; he was elected. There were no more party votes to pull down so the votes of the four chaps who were second, fourth and fifth were looked at. But there were only two seats left. Therefore Mr. Demeester-De Meyer and Mr. Ansoms were elected, but Smets and Cauwenberghs were not elected despite the fact that they personally received more votes than three of the people who were elected.
If anyone does not believe my usual description of proportional representation as fiddle voting, that seems to be a clear, real example where the system in front of the Committee is totally and absolutely unfair.
§ Earl Russell
The noble Lord is not the first noble Lord to have chosen an example to his own advantage. From the Belgian elections of 1979 and 1984 two candidates out of 24 were elected out of their party order. The number is small, but will the noble Lord agree it is not negligible?
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
I am not entirely sure that that argues against the point I make about the Antwerp elections. On the description I have given, two people were elected out of their party order, but another three people were elected simply because of the party order not because the people voted for them. People voted for others who were beaten. I agree with Jack Straw that this system is wrong. A compromise is proposed which is worse than the Government's original position, although I do not accept the Government's original position. We should look for a better way.
I am not surprised that the Liberal Democrats are going down this road. Much to my surprise they are not backing the noble Lord, Lord Alton, in his single transferable vote. I am one of those who thinks that almost the most boring thing to be is a freak on voting systems; and, honestly, I am not. But I take a slight interest in them because I can count and realise what systems can do; so I am interested. I always believed that the Liberal Party was wedded to the single transferable vote. It is somewhat like the Creed. It is rather interesting to note that they are no longer in favour of it and have deserted it in favour of the system proposed today. However, I am not surprised. I refer to the Liberal Democrat News—there is such a thing and I own up to reading it occasionally. I was going to say that I read the Sun but that may now have come back on board. I read the Mirror and two of the major Scottish newspapers because I like to know what the enemy are thinking. The Liberal Democrat News contains a column called Lords Gallery. In the edition of 29th May 274 the writer Celia Thomas talked about the European Parliamentary Elections Bill. She said:All kinds of amendments to the voting system have been tabled by the Tories"—in fact only one kind has been tabled by the Tories, but never mind—and just an open list system by our peers, but we fear that any change at all will jeopardise the whole Bill, and that in the end we will have to give in gracefully to the closed list system".I look forward to the Liberal Democrats giving in gracefully to the closed list system after the Minister has spoken.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
In your Lordships' House there are many recidivists. Many noble Lords who have spoken stood, I am told, successfully for elections on a number of occasions to another place. And what did they stand on? A closed list of one. They seemed to find that perfectly politically, philosophically and morally acceptable.
§ Lord Howie of Troon
If the noble Lord will give way, that is truly preposterous. Those of us who stood at those elections stood under the only system that was available. We made no philosophical or any other choice. We did what we had to do. I suggest that the Minister skip that paragraph and go to the remainder of the speech.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
There is no paragraph; and I am glad to hear that my noble friend progressed through the whole of his political career with no philosophical base.
§ Lord Inglewood
I put it to the Minister that one cannot have a list if there is only one item on it.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
It is a short list of one. That is exactly the system that has obtained in this country for a long period of time, with the limited exceptions of university seats and those deviations which have been mentioned.
The noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, asked me to take account of the strong feelings in this Chamber. He is right to do so, and I do. But that is the important point, as the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, pointed out. There are strong feelings. Everyone has a different view about what should be aimed at.
The objections which were put by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, are essentially those which I sought to put at Second Reading, although he has expanded them with his usual clarity. Having given the matter a good deal of thought, as Jack Straw promised to do, we believe that the Belgian system has the limitations and the adverse consequences which have been spelt out by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish. In so far as one can deduce any conclusions from the NOP research—it is tentative—many people who were interviewed, as I read it, were distinctly unhappy when the consequences to which the noble Lord pointed were illustrated to them.
275 At the moment in Westminster elections there is no choice. One either votes for one's party candidate or one has to vote for a completely different party. We have sought to produce the best possible compromise. It is, after all, classically true—here I agree with at least the opening remarks of my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington—that parties bring forward candidates. Modern elections, certainly since the end of the 19th century, have not been capable of being conducted without that party involvement.
My noble friends Lord Evans of Parkside and Lord Bruce of Donington made the point that we may be getting back to the days of communism—democratic centralism, if that is not an oxymoron. The answer there is to have appropriate internal party arrangements for choosing the candidates who go on the list. The noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, invited me to comment on whether or not he had correctly described the alternative Luxembourg system. I believe that he did. It seems to me that the systems available are the simple list system, as contained in the Bill; the semi-open Belgian system, which is what noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches contend; and the open list system, which will be contended for in the amendments in group 5.
I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, that many of the observations have been made perhaps inevitably on the basis of Second Reading speeches. That means that because of the groupings list we are having a detailed discussion about what the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, put forward. I understood his explanation, which was perfectly clear. That proposal is linked to the devotion of the noble Lord, Lord Alton, to the single transferable vote. That has taken in a discussion of the main Opposition amendments in group 5, together with the situation that the Government have proposed in the Bill. It is difficult to respond to all the observations without trespassing into other groups, but I am afraid that I must do so in limited part.
We believe that in order for these elections to run satisfactorily the candidates will have to be brought forward by the parties. There is no difference in theory between that system and what is done at present. There is always the opportunity for independents to stand. If someone feels that he cannot vote for a party list because of an objection to a particular candidate or candidates which cannot be overcome he has the choice of abstention or of voting for another party list. That is no different to the present situation in principle.
I differ from the noble Lord, Lord Shore, in his comments about spurious favouritism if a party deliberately wishes to have a fair representation of women or of those from ethnic minorities. I part company with him there because I believe that prejudice and disability against women and ethnic minorities in public life in this country are endemic. Within certain parameters and in some circumstances it is reasonable to try to put right that illegitimate balance.
If that is so, there is every proper reason why a party ought to be able to put women, candidates from ethnic minorities and "representatives" of different parts of our 276 social and political spectrum in the order on the list which that party believes to be appropriate. That has nothing to do with Stalinist control of a party. It utterly depends on the party's internal arrangements to produce its list.
The last Bourbon king unwisely boasted that he had learnt nothing and forgotten nothing. I entirely understand that the position which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, holds to is the one that he has always held to; namely, that he wants first-past-the-post for all elections, including the Welsh assembly and the Scottish parliament.
§ 5 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I hear the "Hear, hears". They may well be behind me, but, in my experience, that is not always supportive. I am briefly indicating the outturn of the Welsh assembly elections. At the last general election, the Conservative Party gained about 20 per cent. of the vote in Wales but no MPs. It was the same general story in Scotland. We want an assembly in Wales, which on Second Reading all your Lordships said ought to be made to work, bearing in mind the result of the referendum. We have produced a system which is not fiddled. It is constructed and designed so that if the Tory Party in Wales gains 20 per cent. of the votes it will have 12 seats out of 60; in other words, a perfectly proportional and proportionate representation. We have said, and many Members on the Benches opposite have agreed, that the Welsh assembly and the Scottish parliament cannot be made to work properly without being made inclusive and therefore without having such a system of elections as will produce a representative proportionate result.
I respect the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, because he sticks firmly to his principled approach that it must always be first-past-the-post. But sometimes first-past-the-post notoriously produces imbalance; it can produce an unfortunate, overpowerful imbalance in some circumstances. One well remembers in 1951 that the Labour Party, which had a majority of the popular vote, had a minority of the representation in Parliament. Therefore, it is not as simple as the noble Lord contends. But I repeat that I respect his position because if it were put into effect it would be to his party's disadvantage undoubtedly in Wales and undoubtedly in Scotland.
My noble friend Lord Evans of Parkside invited me to deal briefly with the issue of STV. It might be more appropriate if I deploy my submissions and propositions when the noble Lord, Lord Alton, puts forward his amendment. But the fact is that if one had STV, for instance, in the south-east region there would be about 6 million electors possibly having to express up to 50 preferences. I shall develop those illustrations later, but in those circumstances it would be exceptionally difficult.
As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, indicated on his worked scheme, it is true that the mechanism of distributing the votes may seem arcane and not the usual 277 topic of conversation in the saloon bar of the pub. However, the voter does not make that calculation; he simply casts his vote. Therefore, perhaps one should not be misguidedly led to the conclusion that it makes it difficult for the elector.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Does he accept that if the regional list were broken into multi-member seats the point he makes about the south-east could easily be overcome? Secondly, if STV is such a bad system why does he favour it in this Bill in respect of Northern Ireland? Furthermore, should not he be arguing that the closed party list system should be introduced there and in voting for the forthcoming Northern Ireland assembly?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I promised myself and your Lordships that I would try to stick to the amendment, but I shall deal with the question that the noble Lord asked. Northern Ireland has strange circumstances indeed. They are not the same as we have enjoyed in Scotland, Wales and England. It was thought that if one had first-past-the-post in Northern Ireland one would not achieve an appropriate representation. In fact, STV is generally thought to have worked well in Northern Ireland. There have been two unionists and one SDLP members of the European Parliament since 1979. The electorate is different, the local circumstances are different and I believe that the argument is different.
As I said on Second Reading, I do not believe that one can always solve such constitutional problems by saying, "Ah, this system is not one of perfect symmetry". I do not, of course, allude to your Lordships' House as possibly being somewhat asymmetrical, but I might have had I not been so polite. I do not think that it is an argument. I believe that they are reasonable questions to raise, but I do not believe that they define the conclusion of the argument.
Many of your Lordships have been concerned—I respect it and hope to claim that I understand it—about the over-strong party system. That is a factor of modern life in all parties, as I said on Second Reading or perhaps in answer to an intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. We know notoriously that some Conservatives have been excluded from any possibility of standing as Conservative MEP candidates. Winston Churchill is one of them. That may be right or it may be wrong, but it illustrates the proposition which I sought to make earlier that it is parties which bring forward candidates.
I have heard none of your Lordships say that we ought to go to the United States system, which is possible and would develop the libertarian argument further, which would be to have write-in votes. I do not believe that that solution is likely to find favour in this country partly because of the difficulty of a write-in candidate being able to present his or her views to the electorate and partly because, like it or not, since the end of the 19th century we have fundamentally depended on party organisation, party membership and party funding in order to generate the enthusiasm among a small number of activists who make elections in this country work at whatever level. In that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington.
278 I readily agree that all the propositions that have been put forward have some worth to them. It would be foolish to pretend differently. There are some attractions to the Belgian system which the Home Secretary undertook to examine. He looked at it with some care and reached the conclusion,—it has already been set out by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and I shall not repeat it—that that would be an inappropriate solution.
We believe that the solution that we have is likely to be the better of the four alternatives. On that basis, not least the fact that one has an unacceptable discrimination against women and ethnic minorities in our parliamentary and electoral system, to our eternal shame, we believe that the party should be able to make that scrupulous choice, if it wishes, and present itself to the electorate.
I repeat that I do not dismiss any of the arguments because many are persuasive to one degree or another. But the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that all political solutions are compromises; well, almost all. Ours is a compromise and I believe that it is the best available on the menu.
§ Lord Waddington
Before the noble Lord sits down, will he address his mind to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, about the death of an MEP and the seat becoming vacant? The noble Lord, Lord Shore, made the point that at present, the next person on the list is brought forward and takes the place of the person who has died. But is there not another grave defect which emerges simply because of the selection of lists by parties?
Let us take, for example, the north west where there are 10 people to be elected. In the case of the Conservative Party, even in our most optimistic moments, we should not expect, in a good year, to win more than five of those seats. Therefore, the consequence is that the party selects 10 people and the last five on the list, when they discover that they are the last and not the first five, say, "Thank you for nothing". The last five on the list say, "We have been very happy to come along to this selection conference but we were hoping to come first, second, third or fourth and we have not. Therefore we are very sorry but we do not wish our names to go forward". What happens then? The five failed candidates who did not come within the first 10 are brought forward on the list and take the next places on the list.
Does that not mean that if a vacancy occurs, not only is someone brought forward who nobody has ever heard of to the immense surprise of the electorate but somebody is brought forward who has already been determined to be completely useless? He has failed in the selection process and has only reached sixth on the list because the other five at the bottom of the list withdrew.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
Someone who is not elected as part of the party list is not necessarily, by definition, completely useless. After all, he has had the endorsement of his party to reach the list in the first place. Therefore, I should not be so harsh in my description.
279 We shall deal with this situation in particular when we reach the amendments to Schedule 2 tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and Lord Henley. Therefore, I shall answer the point quite briefly because we shall consider those amendments tomorrow. There will be a by-election but only in limited circumstances; that is, where there has been the death or resignation of an MEP who is an independent or where the appropriate party list is exhausted. Therefore, noble Lords are correct that by-elections will take place in a minority of situations.
If a list MEP dies or resigns, the intention is that the seat should be filled by the next eligible and—I take the noble Lord's point—willing person on the party list. Therefore, if someone had perhaps become utterly disenchanted with the Conservative Party in the immediate aftermath of European elections and wished to join the Labour Party, as I believe sometimes happens in your Lordships' House, the disenchanted would not be eligible to take over the seat.
§ 5.15 p.m.
§ Lord Waddington
I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord again but he has missed my point. I am not talking about post-election; I am talking about post-selection. What is already occurring is that when the list is first compiled by the party, those who come towards the bottom of the list do not wish to contest the election in the sure knowledge that their efforts will come to nothing because their party does not have a cat-in-hell's chance of winning seven, eight, nine or 10 of the seats in the north west. Therefore, they withdraw at that stage and the people who are brought forward onto the list before the election are not the first, second or third choices of the party managers. They are brought on simply to fill up the list because the people who have been chosen are not prepared to waste their time for three weeks on a campaign knowing perfectly well that they cannot possibly be elected.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I take the noble Lord's point but that is a matter for party selection. Indeed, I know of examples, which are quite notorious, where some prospective candidates have been selected at too low a point and they have said, not quite in these words, "This is my bat and I am taking my ball home". In fact, they have gone on to apply for other constituencies. That is a matter for selection and for the internal party system.
I repeat that it is the parties which bring forward their lists. If a candidate does not wish to stand in the south east, he is perfectly entitled, should he be so minded, to try in Wales. But that does not mean that the candidates who then go forward on the party list and may, after death or resignation, reach their desired goal are useless.
§ Lord Waddington
It certainly would come as an even greater surprise to the electorate in the north west if not only did they have somebody who they did not 280 think for one moment would be brought forward at all but they had somebody who was considered to be very low down in the original choices.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I suppose that that will happen in some cases. It happens now in parliamentary elections. People withdraw and do what I think was called in another place "the chicken run". But no one holds them in permanent odium. It lasts only a short time.
§ Lord Steel of Aikwood
We are rather disappointed by the tone of the Minister's reply because it did not reflect the tone of the debate. In fact, it has been interesting that in this debate we have put forward what is an improvement on the Government's system of election in the Bill and we have attracted to that amendment support from people who do not believe at all in the system but who nevertheless recognise that if we are to have it, our proposal is better than that contained in the Bill at present.
Therefore, my noble friend Lord Alton—I still call him that despite where he sits—reared as he was on the pure milk of the single transferable vote, recognises that our amendment is an improvement on the Government's proposal, as does the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, reared on the pure gin and tonic of the first-past-the-post system. Unfortunately the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who is later to introduce the pure vodka of the Finnish system, tells us that after all, he does not believe in it. We shall look forward to that speech later on.
I invite the Committee to consider just three points before deciding what to do about the amendment. The first is that the list system depends very much for its effectiveness on the selection method chosen by the parties. On that we are all agreed. The experience of the political parties is very different on this matter. I like to think that we in the Liberal Democrats have got it as near right as anybody. It is not perfect and I have many criticisms of the administration of the system as we have it. But, fundamentally, we have allowed every single party member in each of the regions a vote in the selection of the members.
Indeed, it can be argued, if one looks at the state of party politics in this country, that by doing that you are enhancing party democracy because members are being given something constructive to do other than paying their subscriptions. If the turn-out were higher than it actually is, I should say that with greater conviction.
The Earl of Dartmouth
I should like to draw the attention of the noble Lord to the fact that the system which appertains in the Conservative Party for European parliamentary elections is more or less identical to that which he has outlined for the Liberal Democrat Party.
§ Lord Steel of Aikwood
I shall deal with that in a moment because I do not believe that it is quite identical. However, I am saying that in our party, every single party member has a say in the order of the list that appears on the ballot paper. The Minister did not reply to a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay.
281 I understood that names were to appear on the ballot papers. I am glad that the Minister confirms that that is the case.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I was going to deal with that when we reached the group of amendments in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay.
§ Lord Steel of Aikwood
Let us be clear that the names on the party list, as proposed by the Government, will appear on the ballot paper. Our amendment suggests that when that appears on the ballot paper, the voter should have the additional opportunity to indicate a preference for individual candidates as against the order that the party has decided.
As I said, if one starts with a democratic process by which to order the list, that is an advantage. I do not know about the European elections, but certainly as regards the Conservative Party in Scotland and the regional list there, that party goes nearly as far as us but not quite, in that it gives a vote to those party members who turn up to a meeting. That is, of course, by definition a minority in any party. That is almost as democratic a system as the one I am discussing, but not quite.
I was rather taken aback by the description of the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Parkside, of the Labour Party's selection method for the European elections. If it is left to 11 people to draw up the list, that is far removed from the kind of democracy we have adopted in drawing up the list. I submit that it makes the closed list even more open to objection. I know that in Scotland the selection process of the Labour Party is not a matter of intruding into private grief but of intruding into well publicised public grief. I am surprised there has not been more of a row over the selection method for Europe.
§ Lord Evans of Parkside
Will the noble Lord accept that the information I gave the Committee is correct? However, is he also aware that in the previous elections to the European Parliament, the Labour candidates for each of the seats were selected on the basis of every member in that Euro constituency having a vote? There was one member, one vote throughout. For some reason best known to itself the Labour Party has scrapped what I and many others in the Labour Party believed was almost perfect democracy within the party.
§ Lord Steel of Aikwood
I thank the noble Lord for his explanation. I do not wish to intrude into the internal matters of the Labour Party. I say simply that the more closed the selection process of the closed list, the more objectionable it is to the voter and the more the voter has the right to say, "I do not agree with this order. I prefer certain people". That is what our amendment seeks to do.
Although I grant that the Minister is one of the more omniscient Members of this place, I do not believe that even he would pass an examination on the selection methods of Plaid Cymru, the SNP, the Green Party, the British National Party, the Referendum Party or the Communist Party. There are other parties not represented in this Chamber. We do not know how they 282 will compose their lists. I believe it would be preferable for individual electors at least to have the chance to say, if they wish, "No, I prefer Mrs. Bloggs to Mr. White", or whoever the party has put forward.
In the rest of Europe the majority of member states allow the voters that opportunity. Only five member states, Germany, Spain, France, Greece and Portugal, use the system which the Government propose, and in nine states, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Finland, Sweden and Ireland, voters have the opportunity to change the order of the names on the list by casting personal votes for particular candidates. If our amendment were carried, we would come into line with the better democratic practice in the majority of states.
This is known as the Belgian system. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, made much play on one result in Belgium. However, research has shown that having used this system over many years, almost half the voters in Belgium make use of the voter choice element of that system. Although, as my noble friend Lord Russell said, it has an effect only in a minimal number of cases, nonetheless they have the opportunity, and they have taken the opportunity, to say no to the parties and to say that there are people they would rather vote for.
In the mathematics lesson which the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, gave us, he omitted one important point; namely, that if the party list members are elected in preference to members who have been voted by individuals, that is because the voters have chosen to endorse the party list system. That is the point that Mr. Straw should be told to reconsider. It is not a question of denying voters the choice. If half the voters say, "Yes, we are content with the party list", but a minority of voters say, "We would rather have so-and-so", but the latter does not gain the same number of votes as those on the party list, the voters have had their say. That is the answer to the apparent conundrum that the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, put forward.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
How would the noble Lord, Lord Steel, explain to someone—I refer to my example of Antwerp—who had achieved fourth position and fifth position in the batting order of personal votes that he could not be elected, but people who had achieved a lower position in the batting order could be elected? I think that is manifestly unfair.
§ Lord Steel of Aikwood
I repeat that is because the voters themselves have chosen to endorse the party list at the ballot box. They have the final say. As my noble friend Lord Russell said, on occasions the voters have disagreed with the party choice and have said that they want to choose certain individuals.
Many Members of the Committee have made my following point in the course of this debate. Whatever our views on systems, we are all concerned that there should be a high, democratic turnout for this election next June and for the subsequent elections. Is it more likely that we shall achieve a high turnout if it is thought that we are asking electors to go to the polls in June 283 to choose between lists cobbled together—as they will perceive it—by the parties in smoke filled rooms, because few of them are members of parties and they will not understand our different methods, or is it more likely that they will vote if they know that they not only have a choice between parties but they can also choose individuals? I believe that the method we have proposed is a superior one and does not interrupt the legislative timetable of the Bill. For that reason I believe we should seek the opinion of the Committee.
§ 5.26 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 6) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 73; Not-Contents, 89.284
|Division No. 1|
|Addington, L.||Maddock, B.|
|Alton of Liverpool, L.||Mar and Kellie, E.|
|Avebury, L.||Meston, L.|
|Bath, M.||Milverton, L.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Naseby, L.|
|Bridges, L.||Nathan, L.|
|Calverley, L.||Newby, L. [Teller.]|
|Carlisle, E.||Northesk, E.|
|Cawley, L.||Ogmore, L.|
|Chalker of Wallasey, B.||Onslow of Woking, L.|
|Colgrain, L.||Perry of Walton, L.|
|Dahrendorf, L.||Razzall, L.|
|Davies, L.||Redesdale, L.|
|Dholakia, L.||Ritchie of Dundee, L.|
|Erroll, E.||Rochester, L.|
|Ezra, L.||Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.|
|Falkland, V.||Russell, E.|
|Gladwyn, L.||Sainsbury, L.|
|Goodhart, L||Smith of Clifton, L.|
|Grey, E.||Stafford, L.|
|Hampton, L.||Steel of Aikwood, L.|
|Hamwee, B.||Thomas of Gresford, L.|
|Thomas of Swynnerton, L.|
|Harris of Greenwich, L.||Thomas of Walliswood, B.|
|Holme of Cheltenham, L.||Thomson of Monifieth, L.|
|Hooson, L.||Thurso, V.|
|Howie of Troon, L.||Tope, L.|
|Inchyra, L.||Tordoff, L.|
|Inglewood, L.||Vivian, L.|
|Jacobs, L.||Wallace of Saltaire, L.|
|Kitchener, E.||Warnock, B.|
|Linklater of Butterstone, B.||Weatherill, L.|
|Lloyd-George of Dwyfor, E.||Wharton, B.|
|Ludford, B.||Wigoder, L.|
|Mackie of Benshie, L.||Williams of Crosby, B.|
|McNair, L.||Wilson of Tillyorn, L.|
|McNally, L. [Teller.]||Winchilsea and Nottingham, E.|
|Acton, L.||Brooks of Tremorfa, L.|
|Ailesbury, M.||Burlison, L.|
|Allenby of Megiddo, V.||Carter, L. [Teller.]|
|Amos, B.||Charteris of Amisfield, L.|
|Archer of Sandwell, L.||Clinton-Davis, L.|
|Barnett, L.||Currie of Marylebone, L.|
|Berkeley, L.||David, B.|
|Blackstone, B.||Dean of Beswick, L.|
|Blatch, B.||Desai, L.|
|Blease, L.||Diamond, L.|
|Dixon, L.||McIntosh of Haringey, L. [Teller.]|
|Elis-Thomas, L.||Mallalieu, B.|
|Falconer of Thoroton, L.||Marlesford, L.|
|Farrington of Ribbleton, B.||Mason of Barnsley, L.|
|Fraser of Carmyllie, L.||Merlyn-Rees, L.|
|Gallacher, L.||Miller of Hendon, B.|
|Gladwin of Clee, L.||Mishcon, L.|
|Gordon of Strathblane, L.||Monkswell, L.|
|Gould of Potternewton, B.||Montague of Oxford, L.|
|Graham of Edmonton, L.||Morris of Manchester, L.|
|Grantchester, L.||Nicol, B.|
|Gregson, L.||Orme, L.|
|Halsbury, E.||Paul, L.|
|Hardy of Wath, L.||Peston, L.|
|Haskel, L.||Pitkeathley, B.|
|Hayman, B.||Prys-Davies, L.|
|Healey, L.||Puttnam, L.|
|Hilton of Eggardon, B.||Ramsay of Cartvale, B.|
|Hogg of Cumbernauld, L.||Randall of St. Budeaux, L.|
|Hollis of Heigham, B.||Rendell of Babergh, B.|
|Hoyle, L.||Richard, L. [Lord Privy Seal.]|
|Hughes, L.||Serota, B.|
|Hughes of Woodside, L.||Shepherd, L.|
|Irvine of Lairg, L. [Lord Chancellor.]||Simon, V.|
|Smith of Gilmorehill, B.|
|Janner of Braunstone, L.||Strabolgi, L.|
|Jay of Paddington, B.||Strange, B.|
|Jenkins of Putney, L.||Symons of Vernham Dean, B.|
|Kennedy of The Shaws, B.||Turner of Camden, B.|
|Kennet, L.||Walker of Doncaster, L.|
|Kilbracken, L.||Whitty, L.|
|Kirkhill, L.||Williams of Elvel, L.|
|Lockwood, B.||Williams of Mostyn, L.|
|Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.||Young of Old Scone, B.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ 5.34 p.m.
§ Lord Bethell moved Amendment No. 7.
Page 1, line 9, at end insert—
("(2) In this Act, unless the context otherwise requires, "United Kingdom", "Great Britain" and "England" include Gibraltar.").
§ The noble Lord said: We have had an interesting debate about who could be allowed to vote for Members of the European Parliament; on what basis they could be allowed to vote; and what system might be used. However, I wish to draw the attention of the Committee to a group of people who, unless your Lordships do something about it "smartish", will not be able to vote at all when the European elections take place in June 1999.
§ In view of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Shore, it may strike noble Lords as strange that there are British subjects who feel strongly about the European parliamentary elections. Earlier today, I presented a petition signed by more than 16,000 voters who live on the Rock of Gibraltar. They represent nearly 90 per cent. of the total population. That is the extent of the feeling that is in evidence in Gibraltar. I do not know quite why it is, but it seems that they are extremely proud and certain of their European identity and they want to be able to vote in the June elections. I appeal at this late stage to the Government, as the guardians of Gibraltar's external affairs, to facilitate this matter. Otherwise, we may have to press the question to a Division.285
§ The elected representatives of Gibraltar have come to London specially for this debate. Feeling is running high in relation to what the Government may or may not do about the matter. The eyes of the people of the Rock are on your Lordships' Chamber today.
§ Perhaps I may provide some background at this stage. There are several member states of the European Union which have overseas territories outside their own metropolitan territories. Spain has its territories in North Africa; France has island territories in the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian Ocean; the Netherlands has the Netherlands Antilles. In every case, the people who live in those outlying parts of the member states of the Union have the right to vote.
§ In the case of the United Kingdom the situation is slightly different. We have some territory for which we are responsible in matters of external affairs. I refer to the Isle of Man, Jersey and Guernsey. But they are not members of the European Community, and do not therefore need the consideration of an amendment such as this. We do not need the attention of such an amendment to the island of Montserrat, St. Helena, or the Falkland Islands. Why? Because those territories are not part of the European Community and, so far as is known, there is no particular demand by them for a vote in the European parliamentary elections. However, a very great demand is expressed by all the parties in Gibraltar that they should be able to vote in June.
§ It is strange that the matter should have been allowed to reach this stage. In 1979, even Greenland voted for a Danish Member of the European Parliament. An Act had already been passed by the members of the European Economic Community, as it then was, in September 1976, requesting that the first European elections should take place on the basis of universal suffrage. Surely, "universal" suffrage means just that. "Universal" means everybody, not "everybody minus 18,000", which is the electorate of Gibraltar.
I suspect that at the end of the debate the Minister will turn to Annex 2 of the September 1976 Act, which reads:
The UK will apply the provisions of this Act only in respect of the United Kingdom".
He will say that he has advice to the effect that the right to vote should not be extended to Gibraltar, that it should not be extended outside these islands.
§ The Government of Gibraltar have taken legal advice and it is their opinion that in this respect the United Kingdom includes Gibraltar and the people of Gibraltar are United Kingdom nationals for European Union purposes, which is the expression used in various sections of the treaty.
§ When a matter is debated for legislation by the Council of Ministers, the House of Assembly of Gibraltar does not have the right to discuss it or even to be present at the negotiations. The British legislator—usually the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—acts as the guardian of Gibraltar in this matter. One might say that the United Kingdom subsumes Gibraltar in EU matters. I suggest therefore, backed up by the legal advice available to the Gibraltar Government, that in 286 this respect the United Kingdom includes Gibraltar and that Gibraltar is therefore as entitled as the United Kingdom to the suffrage in European elections.
§ This is not only a question of practicalities but one of human rights and fundamental freedoms. When I was first a Member of the European Parliament in 1979 this matter was raised by Gibraltarians, who came to the Parliament in Strasbourg and asked why they had no one there who could represent them. My noble friend Baroness Hooper and I, together with others, carried out that representation in an informal way. We did what we could to see that the Gibraltarians, who had no one in the Commission in Brussels and no one in the European Parliament to help them, and only tangential influence with the Council of Ministers, were not forgotten. I therefore hope to invoke what may be called a matter of principle as well as a matter of practicality.
Perhaps I may, in the first instance, refer the Committee to Article 3 of the First Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights, which says that member states,
undertake to hold free elections at reasonable intervals by secret ballot
to enable the people to choose their legislature. There is already a case before the Strasbourg Court on this question. It has been argued by some that the European Parliament is not a legislature. I believe that that contention is very hard to sustain, given the changes that have taken place in the European Parliament in recent years. It may be a partial legislature; it may be a legislature that makes laws in conjunction with another body; but it does help to make laws; and, as was pointed out earlier, even if it does not raise taxes, it spends public money. One could therefore argue that not just most people of the European Union but all of them should be entitled to vote in the elections next year.
§ Other documents signed by British Ministers have been adduced to strengthen this contention that the Gibraltarians should not be left out. In April 1977, when Dr. Owen, as he then was, was President in Office of the Council of Ministers and Mr. Roy Jenkins, as he then was, was president of the Commission, the institutions of the European Community issued a declaration stressing the prime importance they attached to fundamental rights, including the European convention. I am sure that those two great Liberal figures, Dr. Owen and Mr. Jenkins, would see the right to vote as one of those fundamental rights.
In 1985 the Single European Act, signed by the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, made it clear that:
the European Parliament, elected by universal suffrage, is an indispensable means of expression
for the democratic peoples of Europe. I believe that universal suffrage is indivisible. It means universal suffrage: suffrage for all, not suffrage for most.
§ I would be more sanguine about this matter had the situation not continued for so long. The noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, and I have raised this question many times over the years. I am sorry to say that the Conservative Government were no more anxious to find a resolution to it than the present Government now seem to be.287
§ In the early 1980s we were offered the excuse that it was not possible to tag Gibraltar on to one of the 81 Euro constituencies of the United Kingdom and that it would be pointless and ridiculous to do so.
§ From about three or four years ago the question of Annex 2 of the 1976 Act has been adduced as a reason for doing nothing. There are varying legal interpretations of Annex 2. If it is so important, surely the Government, if they really believe in human rights and universal suffrage for all its peoples, including those for whom it has stewardship, should have raised this matter a long time ago with the other states which are signatories to the Treaty of Rome. Alternatively, I suggest that the Government should accept the amendment and say to Spain or any other member state: "Challenge, if you dare, the right to universal suffrage, one man, one woman, one vote. You will receive no sympathy from the judges in the Luxembourg Court if you challenge the right of the people of Gibraltar to cast their vote. You have no right to challenge it because it is a human right and a fundamental freedom which transcends such a technical matter as Annex 2 of the 1976 Act".
§ I hope that the principle in the amendment, which I believe to be a sacred one, will be endorsed by the Committee today. I beg to move.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ Lord Shepherd
I am sure that the Committee will be grateful to the noble Lord, not only for bringing forward the subject once again but also for the very fair way in which he deployed the argument. In a previous debate on Gibraltar some of my friends and colleagues declared an interest in that they had recently been in Gibraltar as guests of the Gibraltar Government on a fact-finding tour. I should therefore declare my own interest, because I was with that party.
My involvement with Gibraltar goes back to 1967, when the then Prime Minster, Harold Wilson, asked me to give up the position of Chief Whip in your Lordships' House and become Minister of State in the Commonwealth Office and to take responsibility for what was the rump of the colonial territories. Those territories were many and diverse. The target we set ourselves was to bring about the maximum constitutional advance that was possible within the locality and history of each colony. Some were able to progress to independence. With colonies such as Hong Kong, the Falklands and Gibraltar, because of their proximity to other countries or their connections with treaties, it would have raised many difficulties and may have resulted in threats to them if we advanced too far.
In the case of Gibraltar, we gave it what was to all intents and purposes internal self-government. There were elected ministers for the first time and an elected assembly. I believe one can say that in Gibraltar today there is an adult democratic society. But all democratic societies become restive, and naturally Gibraltar is looking for further progress. However, that is not a matter for us tonight. We must remember that when we gave them the constitution in 1969, fascist Spain was on 288 their doorstep. There was a feeling—which I shared—that we ought to find some way of giving comfort to the people of Gibraltar. From that there came what was known as "the link".
I say to my noble friend that the Foreign Office was true to its tradition; it was loath to give any support to any form of formalised parliamentary legislative relationship. Fortunately, the Prime Minister intervened and we had what was known as the "preamble"; that is, that the people of Gibraltar shall never be handed over to a foreign power contrary to their wishes.
We have now given Gibraltar its security and from that has come improvement and well-being. But now the people of Gibraltar are anxious, not so much about relations with Britain, but they too want to be seen as part of Europe, and that is understandable. It is clear that under the previous arrangements for European parliaments we could not have found a place for them; they would have distorted a constituency had they been attached to it. But now we have great regions, and 10,000 voters would make little significant difference to what would be the outcome of a region. There are therefore no practical difficulties in including the electors of Gibraltar in one of the British regions.
I understand—perhaps my noble friend will confirm this—that, as the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, said, the people of Gibraltar are the only people within Europe who will be denied a vote. But is it not a fact—perhaps the Minister will correct me if I am wrong—that Gibraltar entered the European Community with the accession of Britain? Within the articles of the Community it says that a European state would be made up of European citizens and be part of the European Community if its affairs, especially its foreign affairs, were governed and looked after by a member of the Community. If that is a fact, Gibraltar can be defined as a member and its people are entitled to a vote.
The exclusion of Gibraltar comes from our own legislation. I cannot recall the reasons why, in the 1979 Act, Gibraltar was excluded. It may be that it was seen as a colony and if we gave admission to Gibraltar, we might have been forced to give it to Hong Kong, the Falklands, St. Helena and the others. There was always to be considered what was known in my time as the "repercussive consequences".
Therefore, whatever was the reason and whatever may be the obstacle in terms of our own legislation, no parliament can bind another. This Parliament is entitled to say that whatever was done in 1979—even though it may have been right and proper—in the present circumstances it would not be right. In all justice, we cannot deny the people of Gibraltar their vote.
The ridiculous situation is that if I am a Gibraltarian and reside in London I can vote in the European elections; if I am a Gibraltarian and live in Madrid, I can vote in Madrid for a European parliament; but if I am a taxi driver in Gibraltar and reside in Gibraltar, I am denied the vote by the United Kingdom legislation. I see nothing within the European Community legislation which bars Gibraltarians from the right to vote.
289 I hope that the Government will understand that they owe a duty to the people of Gibraltar. Our relations with Spain may be important. But if we in any way diminish human rights and democratic rights—wherever it may be—without doubt we weaken our own rights. I believe that this Chamber, in Committee, should take the opportunity offered by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, and support the amendment in the event of the Government not being able to accede to what are the unanimous wishes of the people of Gibraltar, as we saw by the Petition granted to the House this afternoon.
§ Lord Merrivale
I support this amendment and wish to refer to some words the Minister said on Second Reading; namely,There is no way in which our domestic legislature could, on its own, give the people of Gibraltar voting rights in the European parliamentary elections".That may or may not be so. But can the Minister clarify this point? Can Britain act unilaterally under the Convention on Human Rights to which my noble friend Lord Bethell referred?
I turn to Annex 2 of the Act, annexed to the Council decision of 20th September 1976. On 28th June 1994 the then Minister of State, my noble friend Lady Chalker, wrote to me saying:In order to enfranchise Gibraltar it would be necessary to follow the procedure laid down in Article 138(3) of the Treaty of Rome to amend the territorial scope of the EC Act on Direct Elections of 1976".On 9th April last the Minister said that that would require a proposal from the European Parliament, a unanimous decision in Council and ratification by all member states. When I saw the Chief Minister, Peter Caruana, on 15th April last in Gibraltar, he said that Britain should take political steps to amend the 1976 Act on direct elections, so that Spain is left to adopt the democratically disreputable position of insisting on Gibraltar's continuing disenfranchisement if she so wishes.
Finally, it is interesting to note that in a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights a minority found that the European Parliament had now developed into a parliament to which the Convention on Human Rights applied.
§ 6 p.m.
§ Lord Thomas of Swynnerton
I was going to ask the mover of the amendment, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, whether it would not be appropriate to consider the suggestion that the voters of Gibraltar should vote in an appropriate Spanish constituency, but I dare say that that idea is too advanced for this House at the present time. However, I agree with the noble Lord that it is quite illogical that a substantial number of Europeans are not able to vote as citizens in the European elections of next year and of any other year. The fact is that the best way to secure that aim must be to seek a long-term settlement of the Gibraltar question.
The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, reminded us of what happened in the 1960s in what he himself admitted were very different circumstances. The present situation is that the strategic aims and purposes of having a colony 290 and then an autonomous government in Gibraltar which have existed over so many generations now no longer exist. At the same time we are close allies as well as European partners of Spain. That is a matter of fact. I dare say that if Spain happened to be attacked by Morocco, Britain would be obliged to defend that country. Equally, Spain has similar responsibilities in relation to ourselves. Spain has strategic interests in the Straits of Gibraltar which I think we no longer have.
So my belief is very strong that we should see this anomaly as a way of approaching the idea that there should be a solution to the Gibraltar question which need not be so radical as many noble Lords fear. The present situation of having an autonomous government could survive. But there could be and should be a concession in relation to sovereignty. This would involve a shared sovereignty such as has worked so successfully and for so long in the history of Andorra. I see no reason why that should not be done.
As the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, pointed out, Britain and Spain are on good terms. We need to be on good terms with Spain for all kinds of reasons. The King of Spain has been an example and an inspiration to democrats throughout the world. Therefore, this is a moment for conciliatory moves and even concessions which in all likelihood would not turn out to alter the life of Gibraltar in any respect but which nevertheless would remove a sore from the Mediterranean coast.
§ Lord Hardy of Wath
I trust that the noble Lord who has just sat down will forgive me if I do not follow his line in my speech. I shall try not to detain the Committee unduly long. I shall therefore not refer to the arguments advanced by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, and by my noble friend Lord Shepherd, with whom I was in Gibraltar last month.
My real reason for participating in this debate is that, as one or two noble Lords may recall, I spent a longer time on the Council of Europe than any other British parliamentarian since the Council of Europe began. During that time I was privileged to take part in the dramatic changes which have taken place in Europe. Before 1979, when the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, became part of the European Parliament, I was involved in debates in Strasbourg which brought Spain into the democratic community of Europe. I was very pleased to become a friend and colleague of Spanish parliamentarians from then until September last year. I marvelled at the enthusiasm which our Spanish colleagues developed for democracy. Indeed, my friend Miguel Martinez, who is currently the president of the IPU, occupied the presidency of the Council of Europe at a time when the central and eastern European countries were developing their structures and constitutions and electing their parliaments, a task supervised by my noble friend Lord Kirkhill in enormous detail. Our Spanish colleagues, led by Our president, were so eager to embrace the new states that they were actually prepared to accept them before they properly qualified.
I recall arguing with my Spanish colleagues who were saying "We must bring in Croatia" about three years before Croatia was entitled to come in under the 291 arrangements which were made. During that period my Spanish friends and colleagues were certainly enthusiastic about endorsing the sovereignty and independence of Liechtenstein, Andorra and San Marino. I remember saying to some of my Spanish colleagues, "If you are so keen—and I am delighted you are keen—on recognising the sovereignty of Liechtenstein, Andorra and San Marino, what about Gibraltar?" Their faces froze.
I accept that it would be desirable for us to maintain our happy association with Spain. But if Spain really wanted to change the situation, instead of laying claim to Gibraltar all the time, it might do a little more to win the hearts and minds of the Gibraltarians; and that it has very signally failed to do. When Spain allows 190 or so incursions of illegal fishing in Gibraltar waters, with the Gibraltar police boats going out and being threatened by the Spanish fishermen, who clearly have enjoyed a nod and a wink relationship with the authorities, the British Government have an obligation to do something. When one considers the enormous queues which face people trying to get into Gibraltar, one realises that that really is not the act of a friendly state.
I accept that we have seen a massive change in the world. We have seen a movement from serious risk to mild threat in the international security situation. But Gibraltar remains as it was, the rock which is the south western bulwark of European security. While Spain is a partner state in NATO, I have very real doubts as to the wisdom of Europe being safeguarded in its south western approaches by Spain, given the present priority which Spain affords to security.
I have taken part in debates in Spain in the past three or four years when Spanish governments of both complexions have demanded that we have the European security pillar. The sad thing is that if we had the European security pillar today the Spanish contribution to it would be negligible. I shall illustrate my point by looking at the longer vista of European historic practicality. The Spanish Government invited the defence committee of the Western European Union to meet the Spanish Minister of Defence to discuss European security policy and European defence. About 18 months ago I travelled out to Spain early in the morning—in a dreadful rush—and got to the Ministry of Defence 15 minutes before the meeting was due to begin only to find that it had been cancelled. Instead, we were put on an aircraft, flown to Coruna, taken by bus to Ferrol, the Spanish naval shipyard, to be shown an aircraft carrier nearing completion. The noble Lord, Lord Newall, and another colleague, Jack Thompson, and I went aboard the aircraft carrier. The British members made some rather pertinent inquiries. We got into a lift and pressed buttons. We found that it was not a proper aircraft carrier at all. Most of the superstructure was heavily furnished in expensive wood and it was going to go to Thailand to be the flagship of the Royal Thai Navy and the royal yacht for the king of that country, which hardly made it a formidable weapons system. Had it remained in Spain it may have been a useful addition to NATO's armoury.
292 But the fact remains that this country takes its obligations for security very seriously and quite properly; indeed, rather more properly than some of our partners in Western Europe. For us to suggest that we pass the Rock of Gibraltar, the bulwark, to Spain with its record on security which is grossly inadequate, would be an act of gross irresponsibility.
The real argument is the one that the noble Lord, Lord Bethel], and my noble friend Lord Shepherd have deployed. We have an obligation which was conferred on us by the Treaty of Utrecht. I am not a particularly expert historian but Gibraltar might have been tied to Britain longer than it was to Spain before the treaty. Gibraltar has served this country and the free world well by the inevitability of its geographical position. But for generations Gibraltar was devoted to the interests of British security. Seventy per cent. of its economy was dedicated to defence, not in its own interests but in ours. In recent years Gibraltar has had to struggle mightily as that proportion of its income has been reduced from 70 per cent. to 7 per cent. That is proof of the endeavour and success which Gibraltar has achieved in recent years.
We cannot ignore our responsibilities. Surely, we cannot accept a situation in which we do the dirty work for Spain because it will proclaim that it is not Spain which has blocked democracy in Gibraltar but the government in London. That would be a very shameful thing given our heritage and historic responsibilities.
§ Lord Steel of Aikwood
I do not propose to detain the Committee for long. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, is to be congratulated on taking this opportunity to raise again the subject of Gibraltar. I remember my own visit there as foreign affairs spokesman for my party which took place some years ago. I remember expressing the hope that, following the accession of Spain to the European Community, the longstanding future of Gibraltar could be sorted out. My thoughts are very much along the lines of those stated by my noble friend Lord Thomas of Swynnerton, but so far it is not to be.
My simple point tonight is that I do not believe that that can be achieved in this Bill either. We are dealing here with a technical matter relating to elections next June for the members of the European Parliament. Leaving aside the fact that the amendment does not deal with where the people of Gibraltar are supposed to vote, I remind the Committee—the noble Lord made much the same point earlier—that for Gibraltar's position to change electorally, it would require, first, a proposal from the European Parliament, as I understand it, and, secondly, the unanimous decision of the Council of Ministers followed by the ratification of all member states. Frankly, none of that is going to be achieved by next June. If we concentrate on this Bill we have to conclude, sadly, that while this is undoubtedly a useful opportunity to debate Gibraltar, we should leave the text of the Bill as it stands.
§ Lord Waddington
Before the noble Lord sits down, does he not agree that it is an abuse of civil rights to deny the vote to the people of Gibraltar when, as I understand it, the situation in the European Union has 293 changed in that the European Parliament now has a role in the formulation of legislation which is binding on the people of Europe? How on earth can it be said that it is compatible with our obligations under the Convention on Human Rights to deny people a vote in the legislature which can actually impose legislation on them?
§ Lord Steel of Aikwood
My simple answer is that I am not putting forward any such proposal. I am simply saying to the noble Lord that he was Home Secretary for a long period when the position of Gibraltar was exactly the same as it is today. I agree that it is highly unsatisfactory but we cannot sort it out in this Bill. That is all I am saying.
§ 6.15 p.m.
§ Viscount Montgomery of Alamein
The noble Lord, Lord Hardy, made a somewhat lengthy intervention about Spain. I remind him that Spain is a very active member of NATO. My noble friend Lord Bethell has long been a great advocate of Gibraltar and he demonstrated that tonight. I have a lot of sympathy with the solution proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Swynnerton. We need to tackle the major issue, but perhaps not in this particular piece of legislation. The fact is that we always have problems with overseas territories, as they are now called—hence dependent territories—because their regimes are all different.
I have taken a great interest in this subject with various overseas territories, some of them being further away. Their regimes are rather complicated. It worries me that the overseas territories always seem to cherry pick what they want. They remember their Britishness when it is convenient and forget it when it is not. They are not in that situation with us all the time, but it is a worrying aspect. Although the people of Gibraltar are very close to us, is this not another example? For instance, the tax regime in Gibraltar is rather beneficial.
In the United States there was a very old maxim about no taxation without representation. In this instance one could perhaps reverse that and say no representation without taxation. Perhaps that is not quite appropriate to this particular debate, but it is a factor. I wonder whether we need to resolve the matter on a longer time-scale as suggested by others rather than in the amendment we have tonight, however much sympathy one has with my noble friend Lord Bethell in his brilliant advocacy.
The Earl of Carlisle
My noble friend Lord Steel of Aikwood has pointed out that this is a very untidy and unsatisfactory situation. I agree with him. I take a rather different line. I support the amendment most ably proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell. Before I do so I wish to declare an interest. From 10th to 12th May this year I was part of a delegation from your Lordships' House which visited the Rock of Gibraltar under the leadership of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd. I pay tribute to him.
As he informed us, 32 years ago it was he who put in place the constitution of Gibraltar, which turned it into a democracy. That constitution has stood the test of 294 time. It is a very rare fact that the constitution from a colony to a dependent territory should also ensure that the dependent territory flourishes.
There is one serious omission. Gibraltar has no vote for Europe of which it is a part geographically, culturally, economically and socially. It also conforms to all the directives of the Community at great financial cost, but it does not have a vote in the forthcoming European elections.
I derived two points from my visit. I had never visited before. I have declared the interest. Nobody has pressured me to speak or to vote either way. I thank them. Having been in your Lordships' House for about 30 months, I note that political parties very rarely agree on one thing totally either here or in another place. I was struck by the way in which all the political parties and all the people I met in the 48 hours agreed totally on one point; namely, that they wished for a vote in the European elections. I pay tribute to that desire to take part in European democracy. I believe it was called "The People's Europe" two weekends ago at a conference at the LSE.
An example of that was when the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, after Question Time, laid a Petition in this Great Council of England, as it was called for centuries and still is. On the Table of the Great Council in London up to 90 per cent. of the Gibraltarians voted by writing their names and saying, "We request this Parliament for a vote".
The Bill incorporating into British law the European Convention on Human Rights passed through your Lordships' House a few weeks ago. I took part in those proceedings as a spectator and as a voter. Having passed that Bill a few weeks ago, are we really going to tell the Gibraltarians now, "Sorry, it is too difficult to give you a vote"? Historians, constitutionalists and voters among your Lordships will recall what was said by governments in 1821, 1865, 1883 and 1917. Those governments said, "It is all too difficult", but in 1918, the women, the fairer and gentler sex, got the vote and used it. Are we saying to Gibraltarians, "We are not going to give you a vote"?
Perhaps your Lordships will permit me briefly to widen the issue. On 31st March this year, five-plus-one nations agreed to enlarge the Community. They came to Brussels and they said, "We wish to be part of the European Union and we want to have MEPs". Are we going to say to them when they have completed their negotiations, "Sorry, some of your people in your constituencies do not have the vote"? If they then turn to us and say, "But the people of Gibraltar do not have a vote", what can we possibly say to them? Looking them straight in the face, are we going to say, "That is a different subject"?
I do not quite understand the reasons why, stretching back to 1973, we have never arranged for the Gibraltarians to participate in European parliamentary elections. Will the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, assure the Committee that his great department of state has not been put upon by any other great department of state to block the vote for the Gibraltarians? If a department of state which contains 295 diplomats has put pressure on the noble Lord's department and if his department has succumbed to that pressure, that department of state and the diplomats within it have dishonoured a great profession.
If the amendment is pressed to a Division, I ask Members of the Committee to vote in favour of giving the Gibraltarians a vote and of ensuring that the Government either press the European Union on this or introduce legislation themselves so that we can at least show the world that we are in favour of human rights for those who hold British passports.
§ Lord Monson
The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, reminded us at the beginning of this debate that within the past month we have seen a magnificent demonstration of grass-roots democracy in action. Over 90 per cent. of Gibraltar's electorate—an amazingly high percentage—have in effect voted for the right to vote in European elections, a right which is at present denied them despite a ruling by the European Commission of Human Rights.
For better or worse, Gibraltar joined the EEC, as it then was, well over two decades ago. The Gibraltarians have fulfilled all their EU commitments, some of which are quite onerous, but they have not received all the corresponding benefits due to them. They have not been cherry-picking, as the noble Viscount, Lord Montgomery, seemed to suggest.
The Government should accept the amendment. If Spain then wishes to challenge it in the courts, let Spain incur the Europe-wide odium of so doing.
§ Baroness Strange
I should like briefly to support my noble friend's amendment. My association with Gibraltar goes back even further than that of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, as I had an ancestor who served in the garrison there in the late 18th century. More recently, my son also served in the Army there. We visited him often and made many friends among the people of Gibraltar, some of whom are in this House today. We were always very impressed by the Britishness of Gibraltar. We believe that the Rock of Gibraltar is a very British rock.
Lord Bruce of Donington
I shall participate only briefly in this debate, but should like to ask the Government whether they can inform the Committee quite definitely as to whether Spain has withdrawn, or is likely to withdraw, its claim to sovereignty over Gibraltar and, if so, when. As far as I am aware, Spain's attitude to Gibraltar is that Gibraltar is really part of Spain. As I see it, that is the argument.
I am not at all sure that, if the Gibraltarians were further to involve themselves in the European process, and in particular in the elections for Members of the European Parliament, Spain would take a different attitude. If, for example, the Gibraltarians were accorded the right to participate in the European elections, would Spain drop its claim to Gibraltar? I have had no indication of that. Of course, I may be entirely wrong 296 because this is not an aspect of European affairs to which I have devoted detailed attention, but, as I see it, the position rests on a question of trust.
Successive governments of all parties in the United Kingdom, supported I believe by all parties, have continued to give Gibraltar and its inhabitants the guarantees for which they have asked us. As far as I am aware, no party in Parliament has dissented from the view that that should continue to be so. For me, this is a balance of probabilities.
Like some Members of the Committee, I have had considerable experience of European affairs. I remember very well when Spain—this is within living memory—declined to give support to the enlargement of the Community unless it was given the right to fish in the Irish box. That does not seem to augur well for the future because, if the Gibraltarians were given the right to participate in European parliamentary elections, thus becoming more and more European as time goes on, and bearing in mind that the European Commission has the right under this pillar to participate fully in defence and foreign affairs, in my view the certainty of Gibraltar's independence, as guaranteed by us, is worth far more than if it began further to be immersed in the European institutional machinery.
§ Baroness Hooper
I, too, support the amendment. As a directly elected Member of the European Parliament in 1979, I was one of the group, to which my noble friend Lord Bethell, referred, which was asked by the then Chief Minister of Gibraltar, the late Sir Joshua Hassan, to form part of the group representing informally in the European Parliament the interests of the people of Gibraltar. My first visit to the Rock was with a group of MEPs, led by my noble friend. It was clear to me then, as it is now, that it was unfair, unjust and plain wrong that the people of Gibraltar did not have the right to vote—and that was before Spain had even become a member of the European Union. After all, Gibraltar agreed to become part of the European Union with the United Kingdom in 1973, unlike other places such as the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man which opted for different and less onerous association agreements. Those agreements did not require those territories to observe European rules and regulations as in the case of Gibraltar.
As a result of that first visit I have campaigned in favour of finding a way to give the people of Gibraltar the right to vote in European elections and a solution to the tensions between Spain and the United Kingdom over Gibraltar under the umbrella of the European Union. I believe that that is possible. This amendment provides an opportunity to take a concrete step forward. Gibraltar is a special case. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, that the distinction between Gibraltar and the other dependent territories is that Gibraltar is geographically in Europe and has become part of the European Union. In the past our single member, constituency-based system prevented an easy solution to the problem of how the people of Gibraltar should vote. I believe that under the list system it would be relatively simple to find a way of including the people of Gibraltar and giving them the right to vote. I shall be amazed if 297 we do not have the support of all noble Lords, in particular those noble Lords physically on my right (to use a phrase of the noble Earl, Lord Russell, when debating an earlier amendment), in seeking to achieve the purpose of this amendment.
In our debate on the dependent territories last year some noble Lords, in particular my noble friend Lord Bethell, referred to this issue and signalled our interest in trying to do something about it in the course of the passage of this Bill. I believe that the resolution of this issue is in line with the Government's ethical approach to foreign policy. I hope that they will take it seriously in that context. I am delighted that this amendment has all-party support and very much hope that it will be accepted by the Minister. But failing that, I hope that all noble Lords will support us in the Contents Lobby.
§ 6.30 p.m.
§ Lord St. John of Bletso
I rise briefly to support this amendment. Last year I was fortunate to be able to join an all-party delegation on a visit to Gibraltar. I do not want to go over any of the points that have already been made. However, for years the Gibraltarians have been implementing all of the EU directives and regulations. For this reason it is an enormous anachronism that the Gibraltarians should be denied the basic right and freedom to vote. I accept the point made by the noble Lords, Lord Thomas and Lord Steel, that technically it may be difficult to introduce this particular amendment to the Bill, but surely the time is now right for the interests of the people of Gibraltar to be acknowledged.
§ Lord Waddington
I hope that the Minister will inform the Committee whether there is any legal objection to tagging voters in Gibraltar to an English constituency. We were told in another place that there were legal difficulties, but do those difficulties prevent that possible solution? To an extent it is artificial, but it is better than nothing. One knows perfectly well that the regions which are the subject of this Bill are artificial creations. There is not the slightest community of interest between Carlisle on the one hand and Merseyside on the other; nor is there the slightest community of interest between the Isles of Scilly and Swindon. In any event, one is dealing with completely artificial areas for the purposes of this Bill. Surely, to add the voters of Gibraltar to one or other of the regions demarcated in the Bill is better than nothing.
I find myself very much in sympathy with the views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, my noble friend Lord Shepherd and my noble friend (to whom I cannot refer as my noble kinsman but perhaps as my namesake) Lord Hughes of Woodside. My sympathy arises from a parliamentary visit that I made to Gibraltar a good many years ago. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, was part of that visit. Having spent a few days in Gibraltar I came away with the feeling that I could just as easily have been visiting a part of England. I understand why the people of Gibraltar have no interest in being part of Spain. They are so British in their outlook, behaviour 298 and parliamentary procedures that to be part of Spain is anathema to them. That has been demonstrated year after year since then.
My noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside said rightly that Spain was a democracy. Of course it is a democracy when it deals with its internal affairs; it is democratic as far as Catalonia is concerned. But when it comes to Gibraltar Spain is not interested in the fact that over 90 per cent. of Gibraltarians have made perfectly clear that they have no desire at any time to be part of Spain. I cannot recall the name of the noble Lord who spoke from the Liberal Democrat Benches a long time ago and said that the obvious solution was to reach an agreement. I would accept that were there the slightest indication that Spain was interested in any reasonable negotiations whatsoever.
As my noble friend Lord Hughes of Woodside has pointed out, the behaviour of Spain in relation to fishing shows that it is much more interested in the use of force than in democratic discussion. For that reason I also hope that the Government, who all along have shown how anxious they are to preserve the position of Gibraltar, will not oppose this amendment. Although it is unlikely that it will have any effect on the position of Gibraltar before the next elections to the European Parliament, as my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington points out, at least it will show sympathy with the people of Gibraltar, who all along have shown a total willingness to be regarded as British as well as Gibraltarians.
§ Lord Henley
I rise briefly from this Front Bench to give our views on the amendment tabled by my noble friend Lord Bethell and supported by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, and the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle. The Committee owes a debt of gratitude to my noble friend Lord Bethell for presenting the petition this afternoon following questions from the people of Gibraltar asking that this House takes note of their concerns. That petition was supported by the vast majority of the people and electors of Gibraltar. We also owe my noble friend a debt of gratitude for tabling this amendment. We on these Benches intend to support my noble friend if he decides to press this matter to a Division at this or any other stage.
As always, I have a degree of sympathy for the noble Lord, Lord Williams, who is to respond to this amendment. Unless he is to accept the amendment, which I very much doubt, yet again he appears to be in a rather small minority in terms of those who have spoken on this amendment. Virtually every single speaker, with the exception, dare I say it, of two speakers from the Liberal Benches, has spoken in support of this amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Hardy, who was the only one who managed to support him on the previous amendment, on this occasion made it quite clear that he would support the amendment. The amendment has in fact had support from all parts of the Committee, as my noble friend Lady Hooper said.
I believe the case to be absolutely overwhelming. As we have heard and as we all know, Gibraltar is part of the European Union. My noble kinsman Lord Carlisle made clear that it is not just culturally, economically, 299 socially, geographically and politically part of the European Union. He could also have added—and I think this is just as important—that it is also legally part of the European Union. The European Parliament is elected by universal suffrage, and, as my noble friend Lord Bethell made clear, universal suffrage means just that. It should be indivisible and it does not mean that universal suffrage is just for a large majority but excludes a certain number of people. The third point is that the citizens of Gibraltar are excluded.
This Bill, with its abolition of the old European Union constituencies—regrettable though that might be for those of us who still believe in first-past-the-post and who would still like to have those European constituencies—provides an ideal opportunity, and an opportunity we have not had in the past, for adding Gibraltar to one or other of these regions—regions which, as my noble friend Lord Waddington said, have no particular community of interest between one part of the region and another. Therefore this would be an ideal moment to add Gibraltar to London, the south-west or whatever region seems to be most appropriate.
The noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, made a point which had not occurred to me, but it seems almost more damming than all: that is, the extraordinary idea that a Gibraltarian living in London would have the vote and also a Gibraltarian living in Paris, Madrid or wherever could vote, but that same Gibraltarian if he happened to live in Gibraltar would not have a vote. That cannot be right. We were told by the noble Lord, Lord Steel, that there are insurmountable hurdles to resolving this problem. We may be told that we need a proposal from the European Parliament. We need then a unanimous decision from the Council of Ministers and we need the ratification of all member states. No doubt we will also be told, in response to points put by my noble friend Lord Waddington, that technically it is very difficult. However, I do not accept that particular argument and certainly with the expert lawyers available to all government departments I am sure that this is a matter that they can resolve should they so wish and should this Committee and the other place make it clear that that is what we wish to do.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
Would the noble Lord allow me? Is he saying that it is the stance of the official Opposition that it would not be unlawful in international law and treaty obligations to seek to put this into effect?
§ Lord Henley
I am not saying that at all. I was somewhat guessing at the arguments which the noble Lord might put. The noble Lord will try to argue perhaps that there are technical reasons why we cannot do this. Some of those reasons might be legal ones and some others might be because of drafting, but I am quite sure that the lawyers in the Home Office and the Foreign Office will be able to resolve those problems. Of course I would rather that the noble Lord did not put forward those arguments, and indeed he may not do so, but I think it is right that this Chamber should send the appropriate message to the Government so that the 300 Government can resolve this problem. This is an occasion when we can act here and I see absolutely no reason why we cannot do so.
The last point I wish to make is in response to the noble Lord, Lord Steel, who implied that should we act in this way it might affect the timetable of the Bill. I do not think that it will affect the timetable one jot. There is no hurry about this Bill. That is why we have seen some two-and-a-half months pass between the Second Reading and this Committee stage. Quite obviously the Government Chief Whip feels that he can get this Bill on the statute book at the right time and the official Opposition will co-operate with that, as we have; but I do not think that adding this amendment to the Bill will affect that timetable. I therefore hope that the noble Lord will be able to make sympathetic noises in response to what has been said. If he is not able to do that, I hope that my noble friend Lord Bethell will consider testing the opinion of the Committee.
§ 6.45 p.m.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
It is important to understand the position in international law, which is why I put the question to the noble Lord, Lord Henley, to see precisely what the attitude of the official Opposition is towards what are our treaty obligations in international law.
I did not myself understand—no doubt it was due to my poor understanding—what the definitive position of the official Opposition was as regards, I repeat, treaty obligations in international law. I will return to them in a moment. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, for the way he has put forward his case on the amendment and of course for the way in which he has over the years demonstrated that he wishes to safeguard, protect and further the interests of the people of Gibraltar. Of course those observations also apply to the noble Baroness and to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd.
One's instinctive response is a feeling of sympathy, because I do not suppose that there is anyone in your Lordships' Chamber who does not value and have full regard to the friendship between Gibraltar and the United Kingdom over very many years. It is no coincidence that my noble friend Lady Symons, who has spoken so unambiguously so often about the Government's attitude towards Gibraltar, is sitting at my side.
Of course, there are arguments for allowing Gibraltarians to vote in European parliamentary elections, since Gibraltar, as has been said, is part of the territory where EU treaties apply and it has rights and obligations under them. I recognise that the inability of Gibraltarians to vote in EU elections is an area of deep concern to them, deeply and profoundly felt. Gibraltar does have an unusual status in the European Union. It is outside the Customs territory; it is exempt from VAT; it is not bound by the common agricultural policy; it is not bound by the fisheries policy; and it does not contribute to the Community budget. I believe these to be correct assertions of the factual and legal position.
§ Lord Bethell
I am sure that the noble Lord realises that Gibraltar is not the only territory in the Union which 301 does not pay VAT. Ceuta, Melilla and the Canary Islands also are exempt from VAT, and the people who live there of course vote in European elections.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I appreciate that. I am simply setting out what I believe to be the legal position as far as Gibraltar is concerned. Gibraltar has never participated in domestic elections within the United Kingdom. Those are the facts.
I come then to the legal questions and they are of two categories. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, identified them as such, raising questions first of all about what he called technical drafting matters. I do not dissent from his description; they really derive from the questions put by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, and I am bound to say that given a degree of drafting skill, I imagine that those relatively minor matters, in the context of what we are discussing, could be attended to. That is about drafting and about constituencies.
I do not myself regard that to be at the heart of this matter. In fact, if I understand the noble Lord's amendment correctly, Gibraltarians would really be part of a Greater London region or a south-eastern region. I see him nodding, and I am grateful to find that I have understood his scheme correctly.
One speaker asked whether the present situation is in breach of the European Human Rights Convention. My advice is quite clear and unambiguous: it is not.
There was a further question from the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, as to whether there had been what he would categorise as illegitimate pressure from another department—which I think he may have been using as soft words to describe the Foreign Office, as to whether the Foreign Office had somehow pressured the Home Office. Of course not. Equally, it would have been foolish for me to have come to the Committee without, at official and personal level, having taken the views of colleagues in the Foreign Office about the true status of the present legislation. This is not a domestic Act of 1979; it is a European Community Act of 1976. It relates to direct elections to the European Parliament. I repeat—I hope not disagreeably, because it is fact—that this matter cannot be resolved by domestic legislation. We do not have the capacity in law to do it.
§ Lord Waddington
While the Minister is on that point, I was not asking whether we, by domestic legislation, could give the Gibraltarians a vote in one of our regions; I was saying that we know that it was said in another place that the British Government took the view that the EC Act in 1976 on direct elections prevented the UK from acting unilaterally to extend voting rights to Gibraltar. Surely it is a different thing entirely, as distinct from giving voting rights to Gibraltar, to give individual Gibraltarians the right to vote individually in England. That is a different concept. That may not present the legal difficulty which would arise from creating an EC constituency, as it were, in Gibraltar and allowing people to vote in that EC constituency.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his development of his theme, but that is 302 not lawfully possible in the context of our international treaty obligations. As the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, pointed out, Annex 2 relates to direct elections to the European Parliament. It restricts the application of the Act to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. It excludes therefore other territories such as Gibraltar, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. It is not possible to do it.
§ Lord Bethell
I am sorry to interrupt again, but this is a crucial point. Is the Minister assured that legally he cannot act on this matter? Is he acting on advice? I have acted on advice. I have counsel's opinion, by some other legal authority, which states the opposite to what the Minister has said: that legislation can he enacted by the British Parliament to allow the Gibraltarians to vote next June. Is it not a fact that lawyers often disagree about points such as this?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I think that I have a long history of knowing about lawyers' disagreements. I have had clear, unambiguous advice. I would not be justified in standing at this Dispatch Box without it. I assure the Committee that on plain legal advice the Government's view is that it is not possible to do this.
I deviate for a moment, if we are talking about legal advice. The noble Lord read out earlier—verbatim, I think—a letter from the noble Baroness, Lady Chalker, when she was Minister of State at the Foreign Office, which seemed to state virtually the same as I am stating, although, of course, for reasons of economy the noble Lord did not read the letter out in full. I am sorry that the noble Baroness is not still in her place, but I do not think that anyone could ever have sensibly regarded her as a pushover by anyone.
It is disagreeable for me to have to say these things, because I know it is not what people would wish or prefer to hear. I cannot sugar the pill. The Government are bound by international obligations. I repeat—the noble Lord and the Committee are entitled to hear this—that I can only emphasises that the legal advice which the Government have received is unambiguous and sets out the position that I have described. It would be an irresponsible government who sought to give in to a policy which they had every soundly based reason to believe would put them in breach of international obligations.
The rule of law, after all, is not merely domestic: it is international. The rule of law depends upon the ultimate validity that one has to be bound by it, even when it does not suit one's present desires, purposes or wishes.
I repeat—I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, was right—that the only way for Gibraltarians to vote in European parliamentary elections is to amend the European Community Act 1976. To amend that—I am sorry to repeat it—needs a proposal from the European Parliament, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, pointed out, a unanimous decision in Council and then ratification by all member states. That is, unfortunately, the state of affairs.
There are therefore the real difficulties which we cannot overlook because we feel an instinctive sympathy for our colleagues in Gibraltar. We cannot put 303 it on one side. Again—I do not want to lower the argument—a time for trying to settle these matters was in 1986 when Spain entered the European Community—now the Union. I am not pointing a finger at anyone, but that was an opportunity that was not then taken. I believe, for instance—I recognise the force and strength of everything said by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington—that when he was a senior member of the government during the relevant time, the advice which must have been given—I do not know, of course—to the Home Office and the Foreign Office must have been the same as the legal advice which I have recited, I hope, faithfully to the Committee today. There was the opportunity, which has now long since gone, in 1986 which might have made matters a little different in terms of what Spain might or might not have concluded about the position of Gibraltar.
The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, is entitled to my full response on this because of the care and patience with which he deployed his views and arguments. There is the case of Matthews v. United Kingdom. The applicant there has made a complaint that there is a breach of the Convention on Human Rights—to deal with the noble Lord's point specifically—and, in particular, an impeachment of the rights under Article 3 of Protocol 1, to which the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, referred. The matter has been referred to the court but the noble Lord will be aware—I think that he indicated this—that the Commission reported by a sizeable majority that there has been no violation of the convention.
It does not mean that we lack sympathy for the views expressed, not just in this place, but those that I can honestly say are fully known and have been fully ventilated not just in the Home Office for the purpose of these matters but in the Foreign Office over a long period of time since the Government came to power. It does not mean that we overlook those concerns, nor does it mean that Gibraltarians' interests are not represented. They are not represented as immaculately as the noble Lord and the noble Baroness would prefer. I recognise that. There have been voices—not least the noble Baroness's and the noble Lord's—which have spoken up for Gibraltar in the European Parliament in the past. I do not pretend to claim that that is the perfect answer to the desires of the Gibraltarians. I merely record it as I conclude my remarks.
I conclude in this way: I reiterate the sympathy which the Government have. I believe that everyone in the Committee who has spoken or who has been present share the sympathy. We will not put our hand to a course of action which we know on unequivocal legal advice will make us act unlawfully. That is wrong.
Before my noble friend resumes his seat, he has referred properly to the fact that this country adheres to its treaty obligations. We cannot disagree 304 with that. Does Spain's recent behaviour around the waters of Gibraltar mean that it is adhering to its treaty obligations?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
I have never understood it to be an acceptable proposition, in law or in morality, that if people behave unlawfully or badly that entitles us to do the same.
§ Lord Monson
Before the Minister sits down for the second time, will he concede that it is possible, even if not probable, that in the end the legal advice of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, might turn out to be more accurate than the Government's legal advice?
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
The only way ultimately of finding whose legal advice is right or wrong is to test the matter in court. I have no difficulty with that proposition, nor has any other Member of the Government.
§ Lord Bethell
I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I am glad that we were able to have an interesting discussion on an all-party basis. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, and the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, who put forward the arguments with me.
I did not find the Minister's reply reassuring. I am not sure that I understand the concept of unequivocal legal advice. As has been pointed out, I, too, have received legal advice. I am told that there is an element of doubt which could be sorted out and put to the test. I suggest that the best way of putting this question to the test is to pass the amendment and then see whether anyone disagrees. In my opening remarks I stated that I do not believe any member state or any litigant in the matter would have the anti-democratic, anti-human rights effrontery to say that this is the wrong way to go and that the people of Gibraltar should not be entitled to vote. I believe that Spain would bring upon herself immeasurable odium were she to attempt to do so.
I am disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, cannot meet my concerns. I am disappointed that we have not had more support from the Liberal Democrat Benches. If ever there were an issue of human rights and fundamental freedoms where one might expect a little sympathy from the Liberal Democrats, this, I should have thought, would be it. But we have had precious little from the Liberals. If I may say so, they have taken an illiberal attitude. I believe that their question of the timetable is a red herring.
I thank the noble Lords opposite who have supported us. I thank all noble Lords who have participated. Let us see what the Committee decides.
§ 7.2 p.m.
§ On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 7) shall be agreed to?
§ Their Lordships divided: Contents, 67; Not-Contents, 110.306
|Division No. 2|
|Allenby of Megiddo, V.||Janner of Braunstone, L.|
|Alton of Liverpool, L.||Kitchener, E.|
|Ashbourne, L.||Lawrence, L.|
|Berners, B.||Leigh, L.|
|Bethell, L. [Teller.]||Liverpool, E.|
|Blatch, B.||Lucas of Chilworth, L.|
|Cadman, L.||Lyell, L.|
|Carlisle, E.||McConnell, L.|
|Carnock, L.||Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.|
|Chesham, L.||Mancroft, L.|
|Chorley, L.||Masham of Ilton, B.|
|Clancarty, E.||Massereene and Ferrard, V.|
|Craigavon, V.||Merrivale, L.|
|Crickhowell, L.||Milverton, L.|
|Darcy de Knayth, B.||Minto, E.|
|Elton, L.||Monson, L.|
|Freyberg, L.||Mountevans, L.|
|Gardner of Parkes, B.||Norrie, L.|
|Greenway, L.||Northesk, E.|
|Gregson, L.||Norton, L.|
|Grey, E.||O'Cathain, B.|
|Park of Monmouth, B.|
|Hardwicke, E.||Rotherwick, L.|
|Hardy of Wath, L.||Rowallan, L.|
|Harrowby, E.||Shepherd, L. [Teller.]|
|Henley, L.||Skidelsky, L.|
|Holderness, L.||Stoddart of Swindon, L.|
|Hooper, B.||Strange, B.|
|Hughes, L.||Thomas of Gwydir, L.|
|Hughes of Woodside, L.||Turner of Camden, B.|
|Hunt of Wirral, L.||Waddington, L.|
|Hylton, L.||Wharton, B.|
|Inglewood, L.||Wise, L.|
|Islwyn, L.||Wrenbury, L.|
|Acton, L.||Dubs, L.|
|Addington, L.||Elis-Thomas, L.|
|Amos, B.||Evans of Parkside, L.|
|Ampthill, L.||Falconer of Thoroton, L.|
|Archer of Sandwell, L.||Farrington of Ribbleton, B.|
|Avebury, L.||Gallacher, L.|
|Barnett, L.||Gilbert, L.|
|Bassam of Brighton, L.||Gladwin of Clee, L.|
|Beaumont of Whitley, L.||Goodhart, L.|
|Berkeley, L.||Gordon of Strathblane, L.|
|Blackstone, B.||Gould of Potternewton, B.|
|Blease, L.||Graham of Edmonton, L.|
|Borrie, L.||Grantchester, L.|
|Burlison, L.||Hacking, L.|
|Calverley, L.||Hamwee, B.|
|Carter, L. [Teller.]||Harris of Greenwich, L.|
|Chandos, V.||Haskel, L.|
|Clinton-Davis, L.||Hayman, B.|
|Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.||Hilton of Eggardon, B.|
|Currie of Marylebone, L.||Hollis of Heigham, B.|
|David, B.||Holme of Cheltenham, L.|
|Davies of Oldham, L.||Howie of Troon, L.|
|Dean of Beswick, L.||Hoyle, L.|
|Desai, L.||Jenkins of Hillhead, L.|
|Diamond, L.||Jenkins of Putney, L.|
|Dixon, L.||Kennedy of The Shaws, B.|
|Dormand of Easington, L.||Kilbracken, L.|
|Kirkhill, L.||Puttnam, L.|
|Linklater of Butterstone, B.||Ramsay of Cartvale, B.|
|Lockwood, B.||Randall of St. Budeaux, L.|
|Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.||Razzall, L.|
|Longford, E.||Redesdale, L.|
|McIntosh of Haringey, L. [Teller.]||Rendell of Babergh, B.|
|Richard, L. [Lord Privy Seal.]|
|McNair, L.||Rochester, L.|
|McNally, L.||Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.|
|Maddock, B.||Rogers of Riverside, L.|
|Mallalieu, B.||Russell, E.|
|Mar and Kellie, E.||Serota, B.|
|Mason of Barnsley, L.||Sewel, L.|
|Merlyn-Rees, L.||Simon, V.|
|Smith of Clifton, L.|
|Milner of Leeds, L.||Steel of Aikwood, L.|
|Monkswell, L.||Stone of Blackheath, L.|
|Montague of Oxford, L.||Symons of Vernham Dean, B.|
|Montgomery of Alamein, V.||Thomas of Gresford, L.|
|Morris of Castle Morris, L.||Thomas of Macclesfield, L.|
|Morris of Manchester, L.||Thomas of Swynnerton, L.|
|Newby, L.||Thomas of Walliswood, B.|
|Nicol, B.||Thurso, V.|
|Ogmore, L.||Tope, L.|
|Orme, L.||Walker of Doncaster, L.|
|Perry of Walton, L.||Whitty, L.|
|Peston, L.||Williams of Elvel, L.|
|Pitkeathley, B.||Williams of Mostyn, L.|
|Prys-Davies, L.||Young of Old Scone, B.|
§ Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.
§ 7.10 p.m.
§ [Amendments Nos. 8 to 11 not moved.]
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool moved Amendment No. 12:
§ Page 1, line 24, leave out from beginning to end of line 28 on page 2.
§ The noble Lord said: After the passionate debate on the future of the Rock, I invite your Lordships to return to the hard place of electoral systems which the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, earlier described as being the preserve of bores. At the risk of boring your Lordships, I wish to return the Committee to the central question of the way in which we govern ourselves and administer our democratic system.
§ The amendments offer the Committee the opportunity to vote for the single transferable voting system, a system which has been used in Northern Ireland elections for the European Parliament since 1979. Although I am a Cross-Bencher, I was a member of a political party for some 30 years. Throughout that time I consistently advocated STV for local government and parliamentary elections. Throughout most of that period, was also a member or supporter of the Electoral Reform Society. I both appreciate the support which it has expressed for the amendment as its preferred system, and the excellent briefing paper which the society has made available to Members of the Committee. Making voting systems intelligible is no mean feat. Mr. Peter Facey the Parliamentary Officer of the Electoral Reform Society is to be complimented for the clarity of his note.
§ Perhaps I may also invoke the memory of Miss Enid Lakeman who over many decades indomitably trudged the length and breadth of Britain patiently explaining 307 why STV was not the Italian list system of proportional representation with all its weaknesses and how STV introduced fair votes while retaining the direct relationship between a constituency Member of Parliament and his voters.
§ Miss Lakeman passionately believed that first-past-the-post had outlived its usefulness, but she was deeply suspicious of electoral systems which were centralising or designed to entrench partisan interests. As a teenager, I was convinced by her arguments and I will try to do justice to those arguments today. Perhaps I may remind Members of the Committee of the maxim of Disraeli, who once said that centralisation is the death blow of democracy. Any party list system is in danger of both detaching the voters from their elected representative and putting an undue amount of power into the hands of a political party.
§ Before turning to the substantive arguments in favour of STV and against list systems, perhaps I may make one other comment, almost in parenthesis, about the context of today's debate. We are in a period of huge political and constitutional change. Elections in Wales and Scotland, the imminent elections in Northern Ireland, elections for the Lord Mayoralty in London and the referendums which preceded them are a curtain-raiser to the reform of your Lordships' House. There is increasing concern in the country at large that instead of seeking a new constitutional settlement a series of ad hoc measures have been spatchcocked together. Even as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, travels the country, seeking views on a voting system for the House of Commons, pre-emptive decisions are being taken which will lead to incoherence in the way we legislate and to considerable voter confusion.
§ Voters in some parts of the United Kingdom could eventually face elections conducted under four or five different systems. Imagine the situation, for instance, in Scotland where one system could apply to the Scottish parliament, another to local government, another to elections to the House of Commons, another to the European Parliament and perhaps yet another if there were ever elections to your Lordships' House. That in turn will lead to increased electoral absenteeism as the voters become confounded by the various systems on offer.
§ In an earlier intervention today, I mentioned that in a recent election in my home city of Liverpool the turnout was a mere 6 per cent. and that in a European Parliament election two years ago it was 11 per cent. The Association of Electoral Administrators has warned that nationwide the turnout in many elections is dismally low. Whatever we do to the electoral system should be informed by the determination to address voter absenteeism and disillusionment. It should be designed to strengthen the accountability of representatives to their voters, to boost voter confidence and to demonstrate the integrity of the electoral process.
§ The Government's proposals before the Committee tonight introduce a closed regional system of proportional representation. Despite the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, to amend that system with the marginally better open-list system, 308 that closed system is now before your Lordships. Parties will put forward their lists of candidates in the order in which they wish them to be elected. If, for example, a party is entitled to three seats, the top three candidates will be elected. Therefore, for the first time in British elections, a voter will not be able to vote for a candidate of his choice, but will be able to vote only for a party or for a named independent. In that sense, the system is fundamentally different from that which we have operated hitherto, despite what the Minister said earlier. It is certainly infinitely inferior to the single transferable vote system.
§ This take-it-or-leave-it form of politics will strengthen the power of political parties in the selection process, it will sever the links between an MEP and his constituents and it will add to the general democratic deficit which already exists in European politics. It will militate in favour of party loyalists and activists and place the real power in the hands of a few selectors rather than in the hands of the voters. This will do nothing to restore confidence in our electoral process. It will probably increase voter absenteeism and disillusionment.
§ By contrast, single transferable votes should commend themselves on five counts. First, we already use it in Northern Ireland. The Bill before us today invites us to use the same system again in future European elections in Northern Ireland and in elections to the new Northern Ireland assembly. Those who wish to strengthen the union could do a great deal worse than vote for a common system which could then be used throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. If the single transferable vote system had failed, presumably the Government would not be putting the provision into the Bill and continuing its use in Northern Ireland. I trust that the moral of the story is not that one has to experience 30 years of violence and sectarianism in order to obtain a single transferable vote.
§ Secondly, STV ensures the direct accountability of MEPs to the electorate. We should retain the strongest of virtues in our present voting system. Not everything is wrong with first-past-the-post. The best advertisement for first-past-the-post is the accountability of the individual Member of Parliament to his constituents.
§ Thirdly, STV is broadly proportional, which means that we end the obscenity that a party may poll as many as 25 per cent. of the votes—the noble Lord, Lord Steel, will have better cause than anyone in the Chamber to recall the experience of polling as many as one quarter of the British votes but obtaining only 2 to 3 per cent. of the seats in the House of Commons. The elimination of the Conservative Party in Scotland and Wales and in most of our great English cities would not have occurred under STV. It is a disgrace that many people who vote Conservative in those places should be entirely without representation under the first-past-the-post system.
§ Fourthly, STV, unlike closed party lists, allows voters a free choice of candidates and therefore encourages candidates to work hard in the communities which they wish to represent, and not merely to carve out a career in their political party. Safe seats are the curse of British politics. I might add that lack of competition leads to voters losing out.309
§ I was particularly struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, with huge political experience behind him, said to the Committee today about the importance of parliamentary by-elections. I too was the beneficiary of a parliamentary by-election in becoming the shortest-lived ever Member of another place when I won my seat the day after the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, lost a vote of no confidence. I was there for a mere 2½ days, and some would say that that was 2½ days too many.
§ By-elections are often a safety valve in our political system. They allow voters to deliver a verdict on governments and administrations, through medium-term elections, to say that they are dissatisfied. Politicians take note. If one of the effects of today's Bill is to abolish parliamentary by-elections for European elections, then it is a very bad precedent indeed to establish for the future.
§ It leads also to a sort of conformity which the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, addressed in his remarks to the Committee. A late friend of a number of us in this Chamber and the other place was the Member of Parliament for Truro, David Penhaligon. He was once turned down by a London-based candidates committee as unsuitable to be a candidate for his party. His West Country voters thought differently, recognising a man of independent thought who invariably put the interests of Cornwall before those of his party. I fear that those out of favour with activists or the party managers will never make it to the list. That may well help the politically correct but heaven help anyone who puts forward a dissenting point of view.
§ Finally and fifthly, the STV system maximises the number of votes which contribute to the election of a candidate, enabling voters to express their preference by marking their papers with a first, second and third choice, and so on, but not ad nauseam or ad inifinitum as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, would have had us believe in his earlier intervention. The voters go as far as they want to go. It may be four or five votes. That is not beyond the wit of people. It works perfectly well in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. Surely no one suggests that it is beyond the wit of our own voters here. Yes, it replaces the simple X which was once the sign of illiteracy and opens up the prospect of voters being able to break out of the straitjacket which party managers are apt to use on voters at any opportunity. Voters will be able to vote across lists and perhaps, for example, if they are Conservatives but would like to see a particular person from another party who has served the community well elected in addition to the candidates of their first choice from their own party, they will be able to do so.
§ For the record, STV is used in Northern Ireland. It consists of a single column of names on a ballot paper. When the votes are counted, a quota is calculated from the number of votes cast. The quota is the minimum number of votes which a candidate will require to be elected. The surplus votes of candidates who reach the quota through first preferences are then transferred to the second preference of those voters. Meanwhile, the 310 votes of eliminated candidates with no chance of election also transfer to second preferences. The process of transfer continues until the seats are filled. That is a system which is fair, workable, open and accountable, but it is also tried and tested in this country. It is untrue, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, suggested earlier on, that we have no experience of such a proportional system. We do in Northern Ireland.
§ In a few weeks time the Institute for Citizenship Studies, whose president is my noble friend Lord Weatherill, begins its "Get the vote out" campaign. It will be launched by the Home Secretary, Mr. Jack Straw. The institute has been examining ways of modernising our voting system—everything from rolling registers and civic education to the siting of polling stations in places of easy access. Jenny Talbot, the chief executive of the institute, has made a heartfelt plea that there should be government support for a voter education programme. When the voting system was changed in Northern Ireland, every voter received a leaflet explaining the new system. I should particularly like to ask the Minister whether the Government will at least provide voter education, whatever changes we finally settle on.
I would go further than that. The Home Office's own focus group research undertaken by NOP in February last found that voters felt that a closed list system, the one before the Committee, appeared,
to deprive voters of their right to select individuals",
and raised the question with some voters,
as to whether party loyalties will precede constituency loyalties".
STV addresses those fears and will give us a system worth telling voters about. I beg to move.
§ The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Ampthill)
I should remind the Committee that, if this amendment should be agreed to, I shall be unable to call Amendments Nos. 13 to 22.
§ Earl Russell
The last occasion on which I obviously suffered the misfortune of being the House's dinner bell, was on Second Reading of the poll tax Bill. On that occasion, I felt, nevertheless knowing the risks of the position, that I had to speak. I am sorry to say, so do I now.
I am most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Alton of Liverpool, for introducing this amendment. In supporting it, I must declare a non-pecuniary interest. I am president of the Electoral Reform Society, by which I am in large measure advised. I entirely endorse the noble Lord's tributes to Peter Facey and Enid Lakeman.
STV is also the policy of my party. It has most recently been reaffirmed at the Southport Conference last March. The arrangement we reached in Scotland was a compromise. But the smaller party in a negotiation must necessarily consider compromise. That is what it is.
The first thing we do if we adopt STV is to introduce a uniform electoral system for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, said, STV has been in use for a long time 311 in Northern Ireland. Mr. David Trimble in another place and my noble friend Lord Alderdice in this Chamber have paid glowing tributes to how well it works.
At this juncture, it would be most unwise of us to convey the impression that in Northern Ireland they are lesser breeds without the law and what is good enough for them is not good enough for us. I simply do not agree with that.
There are two functions in an election: it should give victory to the most popular party and to the most popular candidate. It is the first which first-past-the-post is most often reproached for not doing. The reproach is valid. It does not always do that well in relation to the other. When the noble Lord, Lord Alton, referred to the peril of safe seats I was reminded of an incident in Chester in the general election of 1955. Mr. John Arlott, who was as great a Liberal as he was cricket commentator, said that if you put up a pig with a blue ribbon round its neck, the voters of Chester would send it to Westminster. However, he very rashly added, "This might not happen this time", and the Conservative candidate threatened to sue him.
Mr. Nick Brown, now the Government Chief Whip in another place, in a letter to the Independent on 15th August 1996, said that the purpose of an election is to elect the most popular party. With respect, that is an incomplete statement. That is one of the purposes of an election. The other purpose is to elect the most popular candidate.
Because so much of the propaganda for proportional representation has been in terms, perfectly justified terms, of striking the right balance between the parties, we have tended to lose sight of the real importance of having individual candidates who are accountable to the electorate and acceptable to them. Both of those are responsibilities of an electoral system.
It is my contention that STV is the only one that does both. It is also the one which is most likely to be made acceptable to the voters. That is not a negligible consideration. At our party conference in Eastbourne last September, one speaker said that before the referendum—I know that is wide of the present Bill but it is nevertheless of interest—we should consider what is the most powerful argument that might be used against proportional representation. I think the most powerful argument by far will be the one which I have heard and respected from the Benches on my left; namely, the extent to which other systems of proportional representation tend to increase the power of party patronage. Mr. Andrew Rawnsley writing in the Observer last Sunday reported that the Jenkins Commission through its research had found an overwhelming extent of public reaction against the growth of party control of the electoral machinery. I do not know whether that is true but it certainly coincides with my own experience.
It is extremely easy to underrate the power of party patronage. It has been with us for centuries. When Sir Robert Walpole introduced Queen Anne's bounty, pensions for clergymen's widows, he was told by one of his advisers that there was not enough to go round. 312 Sir Robert said, "Precisely, and therefore the wife in season and out of season, day and night, will not cease to urge upon her husband the virtues of conformity". We have enough of that already. It also illustrates the danger in patronage to its user, for there never is enough to go round and therefore those who rely on it tend to find that it bites the hand that feeds it because it always creates more enemies than friends.
The point about STV is that it restores the choice of who the member is to the voter. That is surely where in any democratic system it belongs. We may be told it is too difficult. The slogan that it is as simple as one, two, three is flawed. It works in Northern Ireland. It works in Southern Ireland. It has been used in numerous cities in the United States. It was used for a long while in New York City. It defeated Tammany Hall until Tammany Hall ultimately managed to get its own back. It was used in Cincinnati where, to the horror of the party bosses, it led to large numbers of blacks and women being returned. So much the better. There is no sign in any place where it has been used of any difficulty in understanding it. Not long ago the Committee heard the noble Lord, Lord Howie of Troon, say that it had been used in Scottish university constituencies. It is used in a large number of trade union ballots. It seems to me to be quite as simple as any system we have.
Earlier today the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, referred to the present system as being a closed list of one. Technically he is right but there are 659 closed lists of one. They do not all work the same way. Some 659 monopolies can compete; 11 monopolies are a cartel, and one national monopoly is simply a monopoly. Therefore there is a certain saving pluralism in the present system, but that saving pluralism by the introduction of STV would be spread round on a national basis, and that it would encourage cross-party voting is all to the good. The only people who do not like it tend to be the party managers. In explaining why I support both this amendment and Amendment No. 6, I can best tell the story of two Victorian admirals, Rear Admiral Goodenough and his superior, Admiral Toogood. That is a true story. If there is any objection to STV it is that it is too good for the party bosses. So much the better.
§ 7.30 p.m.
§ Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe
I wish briefly to try to help the Committee by mentioning a few facts. I believe the noble Lord, Lord Alton, mentioned the Jenkins Commission travelling the country, and the noble Earl, Lord Russell, spoke of its finding an overwhelming reaction. I have spoken before in this Chamber about the way in which we have been given to believe that there is a great ground-swell of opinion in this country for change in the constitution. I draw the Committee's attention to the Written Answers in yesterday's Hansard on the number of public meetings which the commission has held. There were eight, in Cardiff, Belfast, Edinburgh, Leeds, Birmingham, Manchester, Plymouth and Newcastle. The average attendance at those meetings was 80. Therefore some 640 people have flocked to the colours to hear this great message.
313 My noble friend Lord Williams did not answer my question as regards the total attendance of the general public as a percentage of the total electorate entitled to vote in the United Kingdom. I am happy to supply the answer which my noble friend did not give. The number of people who have turned up for those meetings is—this great ground-swell!—0.0000625 per cent. of the entire electorate.
§ Lord Evans of Parkside
My noble friend Lord Cocks made an interesting intervention but I suspect his comments were aimed more at retaining the first-past-the-post system for elections rather than at the amendment which is at present before us. Obviously the argument about the first-past-the-post system will resurface when the commission reports. As I said earlier when commenting on a previous amendment, I suspect that our discussions tonight will strengthen the hand and the arguments of those who are opposed to any change whatsoever.
Earlier I said that I would listen to the arguments put for the three amendments to the Government's position which are proposed from three different parts of the Chamber. That is what I intend to do. However, I am inclined towards the single transferable vote. It is a form of election which was used throughout the Labour Party in the selection of parliamentary candidates for the previous general election and for the selection of candidates for the European elections. I am sure that my noble friend Lady Gould will confirm that the NEC was not inundated with complaints from party members about the system that was being used by the party to select candidates. That is one reason I am inclined towards this amendment because at least the members of the Labour Party have had plenty of practice in operating the system. As the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and I have said, this system has been used since 1979 in the United Kingdom. It has been used successfully by the electorate in Northern Ireland. I greatly respect my noble friend the Minister, but his arguments against the system which is in use in Northern Ireland being transferred to the mainland were not particularly convincing.
I wish to clear up a difficulty that I have as regards the system that the Government propose. New Section 3(2) states:A vote may be cast for a registered party, or an individual candidate, named on the ballot paper".If what I am saying is incorrect I hope that my noble friend the Minister will correct me, but I take that to state that the voter would have the choice of voting for one independent candidate even if there were 10 different independent candidates on the ballot paper in, for example. the north-west region, where there are 10 places available. Surely that cannot be right. If there are 10 seats to be taken up, and there are 10 independents, surely the voter should have the right to vote for all 10 because the parties will put up 10 candidates. The voter votes once. If he wants the Labour, or the Conservative, or the Liberal Democrat candidates en bloc he gets 10 for his choice. But when 314 it comes to an independent, it would appear that his only choice is one vote for one potential member of the European Parliament.
I think it is also fair to say that the electorate will have some difficulty in coming to terms with the party system. It will confuse people. They will have a list placed before them from which they will have to choose candidates from the Conservative Party, the Labour Party or whatever; whereas in the past the list has always been of named candidates. It is a comparatively recent innovation that a candidate's party appeared on the ballot paper. In all the years that I have been active in politics, as a candidate and an organiser, I have never noted any difficulty on the part of the electorate, even when party names did not appear on the list, in deciding who was the Labour or Conservative candidate. That was the function of party activists, who had to make sure that their candidates were well known. So the electorate may have some difficulty with the system proposed by the Government.
I also wish to place it on record that I believe the statement attributed to my right honourable friends in the other place about the electorate being unable to distinguish between candidates of the same party is an arrogant, even dictatorial statement. I have more faith in the electorate. Certainly when we have held elections every four years—a circumstance that has been widespread—and there have been three or four party candidates on the ballot paper, the electorate has had no difficulty whatsoever in distinguishing between the candidates of the different parties or the candidates of each party.
I wish to address a point directly to my noble friend the Minister. I am concerned about the danger of disillusionment among party members in relation to having candidates imposed on their regions. It is a growing danger. I know that there is a rather complex form of democracy surrounding the methods of arriving at the candidates with whom party members will be involved at European constituency level in a one member, one vote ballot and at hustings. All they will be doing is arriving at two or three candidates to put forward, who will then be placed on a national panel of candidates. It is from that national panel that the 11-member sub-committee of the NEC which I mentioned earlier will decide who will be the candidates in each of the regions.
Perhaps I may conclude with a comment on an issue that has been mentioned on a number of occasions; namely, the huge size of the new regional constituencies. The only reason they are so large is that the Home Secretary decided that. There is no particular electoral or European reason why we could not have maintained single-member constituencies. The present situation is rather odd, in that new regions in England do not conform to the party's own regional structure. Indeed, the Secretary of State has imposed upon the Labour Party the government regional offices. That is why Cumbria has been placed in the north-west. I imagine that in the views of most party people in Cumbria and the North-east of England, Cumbria should have remained where it was. That argument went out of the window in relation to Merseyside, which has a 315 separate government regional office, and that is now included in the north-west region. It would be worth my noble friend asking his right honourable friend the Home Secretary to take a further look both at the regions that he has created and the reasons why he has created those particular regions.
Further, I urge upon him to recognise the danger of disillusionment among ordinary party members, who will find that they have been deprived of their right to cast their vote in a one person, one vote ballot to select their parliamentary candidate. They will suddenly find that they have had imposed upon them by party headquarters a list of candidates, some of whom they will probably never have heard and about whom they know nothing. If the party members will be in danger of disillusionment, God knows the disillusionment that the electors will feel.
§ 7.45 p.m.
§ Lord Waddington
The noble Lord, Lord Alton, was so beguiling and persuasive in the way he delivered his speech, I almost lost sight of one of the important characteristics of the single transferable vote system. The same goes for the eloquent speech made by the noble Earl, Lord Russell.
One of the most important characteristics of an STV system is that it has to be based on large, multi-member constituencies. That is why the amendment proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, incorporates the basic scheme of the Bill. The noble Lord's STV system would be based on the absurd regional structure which is the very essence of the Bill. I shall certainly give way to the noble Earl. Am I giving way too soon? I do not want to encourage the noble Earl to intervene.
§ Earl Russell
I am most grateful to the noble Lord for his anticipation. I merely wanted to draw his attention to the point that this provision may apply to one election only and that the Boundary Commission could address the matter for the following election.
§ Lord Waddington
The Boundary Commission does not come into the matter at all. If the Government have anything to do with it, it will be a matter for the Secretary of State—which brings us to the subject of a later amendment. The Secretary of State will do this over my dead body after the gerrymandering by the Labour Government in 1969. The then Labour Government introduced the terrible device of tabling in the House of Commons the conclusions of the Boundary Commission together with a draft order to approve its conclusions, and then whipped the party to vote down the order. That is a very unfortunate precedent. I should not on my life let a Labour Government loose on arranging the boundaries of constituencies after what happened in 1969. But that is a different story entirely.
There may be changes over the years to the regions as presently set out in the Bill. The fact remains, and I know it is unchallengeable, that an STV system cannot be operated without having multi-member constituencies. 316 There can be multi-member constituencies that have eight, 10, 12, 14 or 20 members. The fact remains that there have to be multi-member constituencies.
That brings us directly to one of the problems that I tried to identify a few hours ago. With a single-member constituency, as advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Evans of Parkside, at least constituents who have a problem know who to turn to. There is only one person to whom they can turn, and there can be no question of confusion as to whose responsibility it is to look after the constituent. There can be no misapprehension in the mind of the constituent as to who is responsible for looking after his concerns.
There will be no group of electors for whom a particular MEP will have particular responsibility under the scheme proposed by the Government. There will be no MEP who will be responsible for a particular group of electors under the scheme advocated by the noble Lord, Lord Alton. There will be no one person to whom an elector will be able to turn in the knowledge that that MEP will accept the elector's problem as his responsibility and not the responsibility of an MEP from another party or an MEP who lives in another part of the region.
We have these bizarre regions. In the case of the north-west area there is no conceivable community of interest between the people in Merseyside and those in Cumbria. We are all lumped together, and we are told that there will be proper representation in the European Parliament under a system that will throw up 10 MEPs, none of whom will have any particular responsibility for Merseyside, Manchester, Lancashire or Cumbria. It is a terrible scheme. I agree that the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Alton, would improve it to some extent, because at least it would get us away from the closed list system under which one cannot even register one's dislike of someone who has not performed well, having been elected, or who is not thought to be capable of performing well. However, it does not get us over the basic difficulty that arises as a result of having large multi-member constituencies, which I believe is fatal.
I return to what I said earlier. With respect to the noble Earl, I do not think he was right when he tried to define the purpose of an electoral system. The purpose of an electoral system is not just to throw up the best candidate; it is to have a scheme that will provide service to the electors. That is the fundamental point. Service will not be provided to the electors when the poor old elector has not the faintest idea who is responsible for sorting out his problems. I give way to the noble Earl again.
§ Earl Russell
I am sorry to intervene again, but I have had plenty of Conservative Members of Parliament who could not give me any service because they simply could not understand my concern.
§ Lord Waddington
I could no doubt say that for a number of Liberal Members of Parliament. We are not necessarily enamoured of all those who find their way into Parliament on another party ticket. But I shall not quarrel with the noble Lord, Lord Alton. I nearly said "my noble friend Lord Alton", because we have 317 something in common. He said that he was elected to Parliament as a result of a by-election and was only in for a few days before that Parliament came to an end. I had the same experience. The only difference between the noble Lord, Lord Alton, and myself, was that it was the second time that I had got into Parliament in a by-election, and I think that that established a record.
I cannot support the amendment proposed by the noble Lord. It would certainly produce a better system than that put forward by the Government, but I cannot persuade myself that it would be good for democracy in this country to have these appallingly large multi-member constituencies which are not based on any community of interest.
§ Lord Monson
As first past the post is not an option where this Bill is concerned, whatever its merits, emphasised so strongly by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, it seems to me that STV is the least bad of the available alternatives. My noble friend, Lord Alton, has made out a very powerful case for it. STV is certainly far preferable to the deplorable system proposed in the Bill, which gives so much power to the party Whips and so little power to the voter.
The Earl Kitchener
The main difference between the two voting systems we are considering is that STV gives power to the voters rather than to the politicians and that nearly all voters will have a link to one or more candidates whom they have helped to elect. It also has the merit of simplicity. With the proposed number of MEPs per region being about eight, the proportionality of party votes to members would be much the same as that given by the system proposed in the Bill.
STV has been used for many years in the Republic of Ireland, where voters have twice rejected attempts by politicians to abandon it. I think that that tells us something about the system. The longest user of it is Tasmania, and it is also used in many other Australian elections.
The only serious objection that I can see to STV is that it may encourage a sitting member to devote too much time to his constituents at the expense of his wider duties because he is vulnerable to being replaced by a member of his own party who has cultivated the voters. The remedy for that lies in the good sense of the electors, who should give full weight to the work the member is doing outside his constituency. This objection has been raised mainly in the Republic of Ireland, where members do much of the work which in this country is done by local government councillors and by the citizens advice bureaux.
An objection has been raised that STV is complicated, but it is not complicated for the voter, and the effort involved in the counting has been much reduced by computerisation. The Minister referred to the need for the voter to express 50 choices. It is true that in a very close contest any vote that does not include at least all candidates except one may be partly wasted. In practice it is the early preferences which will count, unless they are for very weak candidates.
318 The Committee is in a particularly strong position to put the interests of the voters before those of the politicians. A vote for this amendment would at least stimulate a careful examination of the many virtues of the single transferable vote.
§ Lord Stoddart of Swindon
When I entered politics, over 50 years ago, I was taught that the essence of British democracy was the link between the elected and the electors; that that was the whole essence not only of parliamentary democracy but of democracy in the town halls and everywhere else. I have never forgotten that. Throughout my life I have represented people in various ways, on local authorities and in the House of Commons. I have always had that link with them, and I would not be without it.
Without that link one does not know what to do. What on earth would a Member of the House of Commons do without seeing or hearing his constituents every so often, without being buttonholed by them as he walks through his constituency on a Friday or a Saturday afternoon? The essence of democracy is that there is a real contact between those represented and those who represent them. Once that contact is broken, we are on a very slippery road indeed. Once the representative feels no allegiance to those whom he represents, once he feels that there is no contact and that it does not matter what they do or say, or how they vote, the tendency is to lose interest. And, vice versa: if the electorate feel that they have no contact with, or influence on, their representatives, they lose interest. The essence of democracy is contact between the governed and the governors.
The other lesson I learnt—I now have to unlearn it apparently—was that the political parties were the guardians of our democratic system; that it was they who ensured that democracy would always prevail. Now it seems that our political parties are becoming control freaks. They want to break that contact that is so essential to democracy. They—not the electorate, but the party—want to be in control of who is elected. As my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington pointed out on an earlier amendment, that is a very dangerous road to go down. We shall regret it if we do not pull our political parties up and warn them that that is the road to authoritarianism. It is a road that I do not want to go down.
We are discussing the possibility of a system of a single transferable vote. I had hoped that this afternoon we would be able to discuss all the options that are being put before us, that we would have an opportunity to consider them and would perhaps vote at Report stage. Perhaps that is not to be. I still hope that it might happen in regard to this amendment.
The system of the single transferable vote is better than the system proposed in the Bill. It is not necessarily better than first past the post. Everyone is writing off first past the post, but I understand that the Swedes are trying to introduce it because they believe that the European Parliament has now got too far away from those whom it is supposed to represent.
319 So it is not only the British who feel that the first-past-the-post system may well be the standard system in the future. We should not write it off for all time, even if we have to write it off for this debate. In my view, the single transferable vote is preferable to the system being put forward by the Government. In the final analysis, if that was all that was available, I would reluctantly have to vote for it, though I am opposed to PR per se.
It is no good my noble friend saying that Northern Ireland is different. In this context Northern Ireland is no different from any other part of the United Kingdom. We know the reasons why the system was introduced in Northern Ireland. But, in relation to the European parliamentary elections, it makes no difference whether it is used throughout the United Kingdom or simply in Northern Ireland. The result will be exactly the same except that it will apply throughout the United Kingdom instead of only in Northern Ireland.
Therefore, if I were asked to make a choice this evening—I hope I will not be—I would have to vote for STV. But, when we discuss the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, I may feel that that is even better and would have to vote to undo what I did this evening—not a very productive exercise. Those are my views. The noble Lord, Lord Alton, has produced a better system than appears in the Bill. However, I hope that he will not press it this evening but bring it forward at another stage.
§ 8 p.m.
The Earl of Dartmouth
I am reluctant to speak to the Committee just minutes before the Dinner Hour—it used to be the Dinner Half-Hour but it seems to be the Dinner Hour on this occasion.
I wish to disclose an interest. I have the honour to be selected for my party in Yorkshire and the Humber to stand in the European elections next year. My already predetermined placing on the list is below the statistically-likely level of election, which is perhaps another disclosure I should make.
§ Lord Steel of Aikwood
I do not know whether the noble Lord was present earlier, but his position was unfortunately described as "absolutely useless" by his noble friend.
§ Lord Waddington
My noble friend can be assured that I said nothing of the sort. I was referring to what could happen when those who were as low down on the list as he was, having been selected, then decided to back out. That was the situation which I was posing and I wish my noble friend luck.
The Earl of Dartmouth
I thank both Members of the Committee for those effective and gracious interventions. However, I was present when my noble friend Lord Waddington made his comment and I integrated it into the body of my speech. I hope therefore that the Committee will not mind if, in passing, I refer to it again.
320 Though my position in the list is below the statistically-likely level of election, for me to have been selected is, for me, a great honour. However, I recognise that it is a minor distinction compared with the huge electoral achievements of other Members of the Committee. Any minor euphoria that I may have felt in this selection was swept away when, as the noble Lord, Lord Steel, indicated, my noble friend Lord Waddington described candidates on the list below the perceived level of election, as "worthless".
§ Lord Waddington
If my noble friend will give way, I can assure him that I did not say that. I was suggesting that if, as has happened, those in the lower part of the list decided that it was not worth going forward because their chances of election were so small, others would have to be brought in. That is not the position of my noble friend. However, in my over-excitement I used the word "useless" when I should not have done so and that is not my true view.
The Earl of Dartmouth
I thank my noble friend for his even more gracious retraction. However, I did the honourable thing and took the offered place on the list. And I say to my noble friend, retraction or no retraction, please do not shoot the pianist; he is doing his best.
Three basic points were made earlier which, from my interesting perspective, I regard as entirely valid. First, the introduction of this system for European elections will have the effect of discrediting proportional representation as a whole. I happen to be against proportional representation for reasons into which it would be otiose to go at this time, but doubtless I shall have the opportunity to debate in this Chamber on another occasion.
For most electors, this will be the first time they have been exposed to what Members on both sides of the Committee have always portrayed as being the wonders of proportional representation. As has been said by the House of Lords committee, they have been deprived of their right to select individuals. As the noble Lord, Lord Evans, pointed out, that will have the effect inevitably of discrediting all forms of proportional representation for the future. The electors are unlikely to make the distinction between this specific form which they will be utilising in June 1999 and other forms put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Alton.
Another point which has not so far been made concerns the status of members of the European Parliament. Even at the present time—this is a value judgment—MEPs have less credibility than Members of another place. They tend to have a lower value. Of course, the lower value is not reflected in a lower cost since the average cost to the taxpayer of a member of the European Parliament is approximately £990,000 per annum.
The Earl of Dartmouth
The figure is approximately £990,000 per annum. It is one of the points that can be made to those who are interested that, by comparison, the average cost of Members of this Chamber is a mere £25,000 per annum. I believe that means we get 321 25 noble Lords for each MEP. That perceived lesser status of MEPs is likely to be made worse by the system proposed by the Government.
A concern with which I entirely agree has been put forward in relation to turnout. It has long been a concern that there is a lower turnout in the United Kingdom for European elections as compared with the elections to the European Parliament in continental Europe. However, should the Government introduce this basically baffling system to the uninitiated—it took me a full day to wrap my head around it when I was applying to be a candidate—and other baffling systems which have also been proposed, it will make the turnout much worse and diminish the credibility of the European Parliament. I detect a lot of rabid pro-Europeans in this Chamber and suggest that they think very carefully before supporting the Government's proposals.
My final point concerns the issue of who gets on the list. We were told by one of the Members of the Committee opposite—it was news to me—that the Labour Party list will be determined by an 11-strong executive. I would characterise that cabal as a kind of Star Chamber with no stars. I, for one, feel sorry for would-be Labour MEPs who are going to have to grovel their way up this particularly greasy pole. By contrast, in the Conservative Party, hustings are open to the entire membership. That is as democratic a solution as is possible under the limitation of the government proposals.
Sadly, I must say to the mover of the amendment that STV is no solution. The fatal flaw is the need to have multi-member constituencies and the average number of electors for each MEP in the United Kingdom for the European Parliament is 508,088 electors. That means that STV, although still an improvement on the Government's grotesque proposals, does not make much sense. So, reluctantly, I shall have to oppose the amendment.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
I shall try again to avoid taking part or giving my vote in the beauty contest on which method of PR I prefer. The more I have listened to this debate—I trust other noble Lords are beginning to agree with me—the more I feel that first-past-the-post is something we could deal with in just a few minutes, all agree with and then go home for the evening. But there we are. We are into PR so we have to look at all these variations.
I have to say that this variation is one which has been around for a long time. It is certainly different from the list system we discussed earlier and will again turn to later. It has been the historic position of the Electoral Reform Society and, until today, it was the historic position of the Liberal Democrats.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
I am grateful to the noble Lord for giving way. If he recalls—it seems many hours ago—I made a point of saying in introducing our earlier amendment that it was and is the preferred system of the Liberal Democrats for parliamentary elections.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
I presume that intervention tells me that it is the preferred system for 322 parliamentary elections to the other place and not European parliamentary elections, not Scottish parliamentary elections and not Welsh assembly elections. We pick and choose. So it is not actually the best system philosophically if it is only the best system in certain circumstances and we will pick and choose on the others. I rather suspect that it has a lot more to do with the "love in" the Liberal Democrats now have with the Government. They are prepared to accept the Government's preferred system to theirs in order to advance this "love in" and to advance the whole discussion on proportional representation.
We have as a background to this debate and all these debates the threat—I use the word advisedly—of proportional representation for the other place. As the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, rightly pointed out to us, the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, and his team of people, all signed up members of the PR tendency, are going round the country holding meetings. I was going to say "great meetings"; they may be great men but they sure are not holding great meetings. I can confirm what the noble Lord, Lord Cocks, said about the average attendance. I took the trouble of sending someone along to the one held in Edinburgh. I asked, "Was it crowded?". He replied, "It depends what you mean by crowded. Even the Tory party in Scotland can hold bigger meetings".
§ 8.15 p.m.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
Yes, we can indeed. If your Lordships think they are small, you should have been at the Jenkins' parade in Edinburgh. The interesting thing about it was that, as my friend said, everyone who was there was a signed up member of the PR tendency. He seemed to think that there were absolutely no members of the governing party there: I can only assume because in Scotland the Labour party has the good sense to know that the last thing on earth it wants is PR and therefore it did not go along in order that it could not be accused of encouraging the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins. Perhaps it ought to have gone along to put the other point of view. But, on the basis of these tours around the country, I certainly hope that no one will tell me that there is a great demand for proportional representation.
One has to judge STV, first, against the Government's chosen method and also against first-past-the-post. When we look at STV for the European Parliament, first-past-the-post becomes a perfectly valid alternative in European terms. The Maastricht Treaty states that the elections should be held,in accordance with a uniform procedure in all member states".If we choose STV, we certainly will not be choosing to move towards a uniform procedure. Indeed, the European Parliament, in a resolution in 1993, made it clear that the distribution of the votes shall be based on lists drawn up either for the whole territory of a member state or for regions on multi-member constituencies. So we would not even be agreeing with the position set out by the European Parliament. If we were going to 323 disagree with it by going for STV, perhaps I may suggest that we should disagree with it and stay with the traditional system.
STV has some merit. It gets closer to proportionality, if that is one's principal aim. But I believe that one ought to have a number of objectives in a voting system and one has to balance them. No electoral system achieves all the objectives, as I pointed out at Second Reading and in the debate on the Government of Wales Bill. The problem about STV is that it still requires large constituencies. It inevitably does. Therefore, the important link between an individual member and his constituent is broken by STV every bit as much as it is broken by the list system. I was amused by the by-election point but I will not go on to discuss that.
My objection to STV is by and large the same as my objection to the list system. It breaks the one-to-one relationship between an elected member and his constituents. That member is democratically elected. He is chosen by a local constituency party and not by the party apparatus. The party apparatus will choose the STV list just as surely as it would choose the PR system at which we are looking for the European Parliament.
With the single transferable vote one has the problem of the order in which the names are placed. In a long list of people everyone knows—all the statisticians have proved it—that the guy at the top of the list achieves an advantage. It may not be a large advantage but it may be sufficient of an advantage to get him elected; whereas if he was last in the list he might not be elected. However, my objection to STV is slightly more complicated. I shall not go into it at any great length but it is this.
I believe that there should be one person one vote. The STV system delivers multiple votes. If someone happens to choose a candidate to vote for first who just comes out below the quota line and stays there for quite a long time, he will never have any of his other votes counted. But someone who votes for "tail-end Charlie" will have his second vote counted, his third vote counted and his fourth vote counted. Equally, someone who votes for a candidate who wins by miles will then have at least a proportion of his second vote counted. When I think about it, it seems to me that I ought to be encouraging this system as it would appear to provide good employment for mathematicians. One has to weigh the balance of the surplus votes and divide them up according to proportionality inside whatever is left over. In the case of people who vote for a person first who wins by a mile, they will then have their second and sometimes their third or fourth votes counted as well. That seems to be a negation of one person, one vote.
I have always felt that to be one of the fundamental philosophical flaws in the single transferable vote system. Therefore, I am not in favour of it, although I accept that it does some things better than the system advocated by the Government. But it does other things in exactly the same poor quality way in contrast to the long tradition we have in this country of single member constituencies voted on by first-past-the-post.
324 While I thought the noble Lord, Lord Alton, made a better fist of explaining STV to us than was made in the amendment about the Belgian system earlier on, I am still not convinced that it is worth moving to STV away from our first-past-the-post system. I certainly would not be able to support the amendment in the Lobbies if the noble Lord pressed it to a Division. But I suspect that he may not. He may wish to see whether he can persuade his old party to be loyal to its traditional beliefs and support STV.
§ Lord Holme of Cheltenham
Before the noble Lord sits down, if I derive one conclusion from his consistent message throughout this afternoon and this evening it is that he believes in a single member constituency with a first-past-the-post vote. He is staunch, he is clear and he has been entirely consistent on that. In that case, I wonder whether he might not now want to indicate that he does not propose to move the later amendment in his name to provide for a multi-member constituency Finnish open-list system and so allow us all not to have to come back after dinner.
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
The noble Lord can please himself whether he comes back after dinner or not.
§ Lord Harris of Greenwich
As a matter of elementary courtesy will the noble Lord tell us, having spent so much time rubbishing any PR system, whether he is going to move this amendment? The convenience of people, other than his own, is involved. Can he not help us?
§ Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish
I suggest that the noble Lord waits until after dinner. He will then find out why I am moving the amendment and what I intend to do with it.
§ Lord Williams of Mostyn
There is virtually nothing new to be said on this and therefore I do not propose to try to say it. I believe that I put our approach pretty plainly earlier on because of the elision of the three or four schemes that there were. We believe that STV has worked well in Northern Ireland. I have never found anyone who has disputed that. As I said earlier, there have always been two Unionist parties and one SDLP. I do not believe that the people in Northern Ireland have felt that they cannot have decent access to their own member.
Indeed, I note that over the past 18 years or so—this is not a party point in any way or a partisan one—the previous government made no attempt to remove STV from Northern Ireland for local or European elections. If it comes to large constituencies with multi-members for England, Wales and Scotland, we believe that the same considerations do not apply. I set out the reasons earlier. In some constituencies such as the South East region, there would be as many as 50 candidates. A choice of up to 50 would have to be made by the unfortunate voter. We have 84 members only available and we have an electorate of 43 million. We do not believe that STV is going to work in those circumstances.
325 The noble Lord, Lord Evans of Parkside, asked me a particular question. The specific answer is that one would be entitled to vote for a single independent—one and one only. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, raised a question as to whether the Secretary of State had power to change the boundaries. He said that that would be over his dead body. Since he looks in extraordinarily good health even at this time of the evening, I can reassure him that the Secretary of State has no power to change boundaries: only Parliament can do that. I believe that I put the Government's view plainly. I cannot improve or embroider on it further. I have to give way to the best argument that I have heard tonight, which is that if I am brief, as the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, said, we can have dinner earlier.
§ Lord Alton of Liverpool
On the basis of that argument I, too, shall be extremely brief. The noble Lord, Lord Waddington, was kind enough to say that my earlier speech almost beguiled him. I shall try to beguile him a little further by being as reasonable as I can in pointing out that we have a straight choice about the systems which will apply here. One of them will not be the first-past-the-post system.
Therefore we have to decide on the best way to proceed. I agree with him that, ideally, that would be multi-member seats so that areas such as Greater Manchester or Merseyside, which are areas that he and I are both familiar with, would elect under STV for those defined areas. In that sense I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, that it is not ideal to have a constituency of 6 million voters. But that can be divided up. We still have time to do that by grouping Westminster constituencies together to form multi-member seats in which STV votes would be cast. It would be quite wrong to presume that that could not be achieved, because it could.
In this Bill we are creating a region, not a group of seats, in Northern Ireland, which will vote again under STV. In the Republic of Ireland, in Connaught, Leinster and Munster. they vote in those regions for MEPs using STV. So it is practicable and it can be done. It has the admirable quality about which we both agree; namely, it retains a link between an elected representative and the voters. That ought to be uppermost in our minds.
Earlier today just 89 Members of this Committee voted for the Government's preferred system and even fewer, 73, voted for the Liberal Democrat amendment that was before us. That was an improvement on what the Government were offering.
I have been particularly struck by the speeches made by people who have vast experience of how politics work. I refer to the former Chief Whip of the Conservative Party, the former chairman of the Parliamentary Labour Party and people such as the noble Lords, Lord Stoddart and Lord Evans. They are very distinguished Members of this Committee who know how politics work. In their speeches tonight they have been saying, "Let us pause to reflect on the system that we are to introduce and which may well set a precedent". I should be very unhappy to force a vote tonight to prematurely bring the debate to a conclusion.
326 I pick up what the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, said earlier about needing to consider the strength of the first-past-the-post system and see how it can best be applied in whatever we decide to do for Europe. I do not believe that that is incompatible with a fair voting system.
Perhaps I may give one example; namely. the Greens. During an election in the 1980s the Greens polled 15 per cent. but failed to elect a single member to the European Parliament. I do not believe that that was just and the question of justice has to be addressed in the way that the electoral system is organised.
I should like time for us to reflect on these questions and accept what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, said to the Committee. He wisely argued that perhaps a better time to divide on this issue would be when we have disposed of the Finnish system which may be offered to us after dinner. We have yet to see. When we have put aside the other options it may be then that the beginnings of cross-party consensus will emerge and that closed party lists will be considered a very bad thing. We should think again about it. That might be met by some agreement over the single transferable vote. We have between now and Report stage to consider that further. On that basis it would not be my intention or, I believe, that of my noble friend Lord Kitchener to press this amendment to a vote this evening.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ [Amendment No. 13 not moved.]
§ Lord Hoyle
I beg to move that the House do now resume. In moving this Motion I suggest that the Committee stage begins again not before 9.25 p.m.
§ Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.
§ House resumed.