HL Deb 12 October 1998 vol 593 cc751-3

(".—(1) Within six months of the first election held under this Act, the Secretary of State shall appoint an independent commission to consider and report within two years on the relative merits of—

  1. (a) the method of election of MEPs provided for by this Act, and
  2. (b) a method of election of MEPs where voters may express a preference for a candidate.

(2) The commission's report shall be laid before Parliament.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, Amendment No. 13 is brief and is predicated on the fact that we move to a European election by proportional representation, or a variation thereof, as outlined in the Bill. The amendment seeks the setting up of a commission within six months of the first election to be held under the Bill in order to report within two years on the merits of the electoral system that is proposed.

When this matter was discussed in Committee, the Minister helpfully told me (at col. 357 of the Official Report of 25th June 1998) that a group chaired by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office would be set up to review all of these matters after the election, as indeed it is doing right now. I congratulate the noble Lord. I do not believe that we have tussled across the Dispatch Box since he was rightly elevated to his new position. I suspect that it will not bring him the remuneration he was used to before he joined Her Majesty's Government but at least it will go some way to bridge the gap. However, even if the noble Lord were the chairman of that group, I do not believe that that would satisfy my request for an independent commission to consider these matters.

This is nothing to do with the argument about whether we approve of this or that method of proportional representation— or of proportional representation at all. However, if we are to change, it is right that an independent group should look at the results of what has happened and report to Parliament. I do not suggest that that body should have a final say over whether we keep what is proposed in the Bill or change to another system, but I believe that it would be useful to have an independent body to examine the results and to take evidence from the public who will have voted and the political parties who will have operated the new system.

I do not believe that the assurance given earlier about an internal group organised by the Home Office is sufficient. An independent commission is a better approach. I am aware that noble Lords are keen to get to the next very important business and I shall therefore say no more about the amendment. I beg to move.

Lord McNally

My Lords, I hope that, in responding, the Minister can be a little more sympathetic to this proposal. It may be that the amendment moved by the noble Lord is a little tight and prescriptive. On the other hand, as noble Lords have acknowledged during the debate this afternoon, we are going into unknown territory in respect of the European Parliament elections and other elections. There will be a need to look at how these various systems are working, at which ones are effective, at whether my optimism about bringing out the vote is justified and at whether amendments can be made to it. The kernel of the amendment is a very good idea which I do not believe the Government should be hasty to reject.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the points made by the noble Lords who have spoken are important. The elections in 1999 will be important developments. Perhaps I may firm up the assurances that I gave at an earlier stage. The working group is chaired by my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office who has general responsibility for electoral matters within that department. His remit is to review all aspects of electoral procedure in the light of last year's general election here. I am happy to give noble Lords the assurance that we shall review the conduct and operation of the new system following its use in June 1999. The results of that review will be placed before Parliament. In addition, the present review—I hope that this is an earnest of the way that we want to look at it—has on it representatives of all political parties, including the Conservative Party, as well as electoral administrators. That review is making good progress. The representatives of the Conservative Party have not suggested that that body does not have proper status or independence.

I hope that on those bases—first, that there will definitely be a review of the 1999 elections; secondly, my undertaking that that review will be presented to Parliament; and, thirdly, that representatives of all parties participate in the review—noble Lords' concerns will be reasonably allayed.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, I am grateful for the support that I have received from the noble Lord, Lord McNally, despite our tussles earlier this afternoon. I believe that he is absolutely right. His standpoint is that PR is a good thing; I do not believe that it is. Whatever the outcome, there are so many variations of PR that it is right to have a review. I shall read what the noble Lord has said. By way of assurance, it probably meets my concern about the independence of any body that is to be set up. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 [Commencement]:

[Amendment No. 14 not moved.]

Schedule 1 [New Schedule 2 to the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978]:

[Amendments Nos. 15 and 16 not moved.]

In the Title:

[Amendment No. 17 not moved.]

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