HL Deb 16 June 1999 vol 602 cc281-6

2.51 p.m.

The Earl of Northeskasked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether, in the light of the turn-out in the European elections, they will institute an inquiry into the operation of the closed list system of election.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said in another place on Monday, we shall be conducting a review of the electoral arrangements, as we do after every election. That review will cover all aspects of last Thursday's elections.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does the noble Lord accept that one of the arguments advanced by the Government in previous debates was that the use of PR and the closed list should be accepted by the party on these Benches because it would work to our electoral advantage? However, is it not as a result of that attempted spin that use of the system has saved the Government and the Liberal Democrat Party from an even more crushing defeat than they would have suffered had first-past-the-post still been in place?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, even at the time of the discussions in your Lordship:;' House, I marvelled at the selflessness of Her Majesty's Government, and events have proved me to be right.

Lord Shore of Stepney

My Lords, does my noble friend recall that this House turned down the closed list system not once but five times? That is an unusual situation but for once this place was right and the Commons got it wrong. When he examines the matter, as I hope he will, will he bear in mind also that the mass abstention of the British people reflects something far deeper than even their distaste for the system of election; that is, their profound distrust and lack of respect and affection for the European Parliament and the other associated institutions?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I well remember the largely repetitive discussions we had on a number of occasions. My noble friend is right. The system was turned down five times in this House. But the purpose of the new regimes in Scotland, Wales and in the context of the European parliamentary elections has been to ensure a more proportionate and inclusive result. If one bears in mind what happened in Wales and Scotland, the Conservative Party did benefit. As I said on many occasions, we knew that that was likely to happen. We wanted to have inclusive assemblies in consequence.

Lord McNally

My Lords, is the Minister aware that on these Benches we should welcome a government-funded inquiry into low turn-out at all kinds of elections? I remind the Minister that on the same day as the European elections a parliamentary by-election was held by first-past-the-post with another deplorable turnout. However, will the Minister take note also of the point raised by the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, that, if the European elections had been held by first-past-the-post, there would have been 66 Conservatives going to Strasbourg? God only knows what members of the Flat Earth Party, xenophobes and others would have gone in that bloated and distorted delegation. Instead, is the Minister aware that there will be 13 more Labour MEPs than would have otherwise been the case and 10 Liberal Democrat MEPs, including my noble friends Lady Nicholson of Winterbourne and Lady Ludford? To adopt the cry of the noble Baroness, Lady Thatcher, is that not cause for us to rejoice, rejoice?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I cannot for the life of me understand why the noble Lord draws a distinction between the Conservative Party and the Flat Earth Party. If first-past-the-post had produced the deplorable consequences which the noble Lord identified, it seems to have been a blessing that we did not use first-past-the-post. The truth is that the by-election, which was the result of the death of my colleague Derek Fatchett, had a very poor turn-out. In my opinion, that has nothing to do with first-past-the-post or any other system. In many ways, a large number of people in this country have had rather too much of elections. That is a purely personal view. It may be that we should do away with elections altogether as a significant element of your Lordships' House believes.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, whether that was a prediction for the House of Lords Bill, we shall have to wait and see. Has not the low turn-out shown convincingly, among other things, that the British people prefer to vote for people rather than parties? However, is it not the case that the British people have very wisely elected my noble friends Lord Inglewood, Lord Bethell and Lord Stockton to the European Parliament? I am sure they will serve with distinction.

Have not the Liberal Democrats every reason to be satisfied with PR? After all, if it had been a general election, they would have only one Liberal Democrat MP south of Inverness?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I shall answer the question, if your Lordships wish. By and large, as a party, I agree that the Liberal Democrats are self-satisfied, if I heard the question properly. It is not quite as simple as the noble Lord proposed. It was a vote for an individual in the Leeds by-election and the turn-out was very low. Historically, and lamentably, local election turn-outs are very low in this country. If my recollection is correct, in the United States, which has a democratic system, the turn-out for presidential elections is often less than 50 per cent. There are important questions here about whether the menu—and I put that generally—which we offer to the electorate in different contexts and different sorts of elections is sufficiently interesting and important to them. Recent experience shows that we have not got it entirely right. That is not solely a governmental responsibility. It is a matter of important political consequence.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I represented an inner-city area of Leeds for 30 years? I lived in that area. I did not just visit it on polling day. Is he aware that in the by-election which took place last week, which was largely in the area I represented, there was the factor of the list system used for the European elections on the same day? As my noble friend pointed out, the turn-out for first-past-the-post poll was equally low. There are many reasons for the problem of low polls. One is a hearty dislike of politicians, whether they take the name of a party or call themselves "independent." My friends tell me that, sometimes, to call oneself "independent" makes it worse. It is important that we should be concerned about these issues, and not just on polling day. There are real problems in these areas that have to be faced, and nobody cares. Doctors come in like missionaries; teachers do not live in the area. With the best of intentions, they are good people but there is something radically wrong.

The political system, and your Lordships' House in particular, is supposed to pick up problems when they arise. How often does this House concern itself with the inner-city areas except by remote control? If people bother to watch, the laughter heard today would not appeal and would add to the dislike of politicians.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not think that what the noble Lord says is different from what I said earlier. Low turn-outs act as a reproach and cause us to question whether we have got right the electoral arrangements. It causes us to ask, "Have we got the questions right?", "Are referendums run properly?", and "Do we need as many elections as we have?" These are all important political questions. They are not necessarily limited to, although they do include, the causes indicated by my noble friend. We need to look carefully at how we educate children at school. I pay tribute, for instance, to the work done by the Citizenship Foundation with which, to my certain knowledge, the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, has been engaged for many years. It is not as simple as saying that people will not turn out for people who do not live in the constituency. Occasionally, people do become tired of elected politicians. They never become tired of non-elected hereditaries.

Lord Renton

My Lords, was not the result a great disappointment to the Government and the Labour Party? Would not the abandonment of the closed list system be more democratic, give greater freedom of choice to the voters and be more satisfactory to the Government and the Labour Party?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, as I indicated earlier, we are holding a review about this election. The June survey to be conducted by the Office for National Statistics will study the matter. Home Office officials will liaise closely—I hope the noble Lord will think that helpful—with all political parties and electoral administrators. We shall have the assistance of professional polling organisations to see what lessons may be learnt. For my part, I believe there are lessons to be learnt. We need to wait for the research to establish the answers.

The Earl of Carlisle

My Lords, does the Minister not agree that the closed list system was a factor in the low turn-out? Does he recall that on 12th November he repeated in this place the promise of the Home Secretary that there would be a review? Will the Government publish the review when it is completed in six months' time? Can the Minister assure us that this House will debate the matter?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I recall the undertaking. I referred to it as being the object of what my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said on Monday. Certainly, I believe that the results of the review should be published. As the noble Earl will accept, the question of whether this House debates the matter is for the usual channels. In my opinion, the greater the publicity given to the findings, the better.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, is it not the case that those of us who have discussed this matter among ourselves are widely of the opinion that people simply do not like voting for lists of people they do not know? The view is widespread. I hope it will be taken into consideration in the review which my noble friend says will take place. I sympathise strongly with that view. People dislike the idea of being presented with a list which they have had no hand in forming and being required to vote for a group of people they have not met and are unlikely to meet. It is very unpopular. I hope that that view will be given proper consideration.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am happy to reiterate that we shall be carrying out the review. I expect that one of the questions will focus upon the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins. I recognise that, certainly within your Lordships' House, that view has substantial support and favour. Whether it is right, we shall have to wait and see.

Lord Harris of Haringey

My Lords, have not there been too many reviews by Home Office officials of the mechanics of the electoral system? Surely, it is now time that steps were taken—perhaps the ministerial boot might be helpful in making something happen—to bring forward proposals for a rolling register so as to improve the quality of the register and produce pilot schemes for electronic voting, voting on days other than Thursdays and at different times, and for telephone voting.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, that is already in hand. There is a working party on electoral procedures. It is chaired by my honourable friend Mr George Howarth at the Home Office. It is looking at ways to modernise electoral procedures including the introduction of a system of rolling electoral registration and the piloting of innovations such as weekend and electronic voting. If I remember rightly, the working party started work in January 1998 and has already had eight meetings. So the work is well in hand.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does it not ill behove the noble Lord, Lord McNally, to talk about xenophobes and "flat earthers" when the electorate showed quite clearly on Thursday that they do not believe in Liberal Party policy but are demanding that this country should be governed by its own elected government and parliament? They showed that they do not want a single currency or a European army. Indeed, they made that so clear that they virtually wiped out the Liberal Party in the south west. Will the Government take this question seriously and reconsider a voting system, especially before there is any chance of repeating it in a general election, which loses for Labour the Rhondda, Islwyn and Llanelli all at the same time? That cannot be good for the Labour Party.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I can agree with the last proposition. I did not think that when the noble Lord, Lord McNally, spoke of "flat earthers" and xenophobia he was using them as terms of abuse but that he was intending to be descriptive. I repeat, I think for the fifth time, that the review promised by Jack Straw will occur. When those results are available, as far as I am concerned they will be published.