HL Deb 19 June 2002 vol 636 cc736-8

2.51 p.m.

Baroness Hooper

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether it is their intention to convene a constitutional conference in order to consider the proposed reforms to Bermuda's electoral system.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Amos)

My Lords, there are no plans at the moment for a constitutional conference. As I stated in my written reply of 24th July last year to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, we do not propose to reach a judgment on the case for a further process until we have received the report of the Constituency Boundaries Commission, which is due in a few weeks.

Baroness Hooper

My Lords, I welcome the Minister's response that some action may be expected in the near future as a result of the report. In view of the United Kingdom Government's role as the guardian of the democratic rights of the people of Bermuda, can she give a further assurance that Bermuda will be treated in the same way as other Overseas Territories, notably Gibraltar, and other Commonwealth countries, notably New Zealand and the Bahamas, where constitutional changes were adopted only after referendums or other similar mechanisms were used?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I hope I made clear in my original Answer that a constitutional conference has not been ruled out. But neither has it been ruled in. We have said in relation to this process that after the boundaries commission has reported, and after there has been an opportunity to discuss that report in Bermuda, that information will be fed into the British Government. We will look at it; we will look at the reactions to the report; and we will make a decision at that time. It would be inappropriate for me to make any commitment before we have been through that process.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, the Minister will appreciate that, for obvious reasons and because of the job I had there, I have no wish to comment on the proposals for constitutional change put forward by the Bermuda Government. But does not a point of general importance emerge? Is it not correct that there was a constitutional conference in 1966 when constitutional change was in the wind, and another constitutional conference in 1979 when constitutional change was in the wind? It would have cost the Foreign Office nothing if it had allowed a constitutional conference right at the beginning of this exercise. Had there been a constitutional conference, would it not have gone some way towards disarming criticisms from people who fear that if there is no constitutional conference this time round a precedent will be set which might be relied on in years to come when very much more important constitutional change is in the wind?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, is right—there were constitutional conferences in 1966 and 1979. There has been a process of consultation. Four consultation meetings have been held across the island and a wide cross-section of the community participated in those meetings. We have not ruled in or ruled out the possibility of a constitutional conference but, on the basis of the commitment to constitutional change made by the Government of Bermuda in their 1998 election manifesto, we thought that this was the most appropriate way to go. We will look at local reactions; we will look at the outcome of the boundaries commission report; and we will then make a decision on the next steps.

Baroness Sharples

My Lords, is the Minister aware that I have recently returned from a few weeks in Bermuda having not been there for many years? Is she further aware that a great deal of concern has been expressed by many people to whom I spoke about the situation that faces them?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, I was not aware that the noble Baroness was recently in Bermuda. I am aware that concerns have been expressed. In fact a decision to put this matter to Order in Council was challenged by judicial review and overturned. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, there have been opportunities for consultation. We will look at the responses to that consultation process, the debate in the national assembly and the recommendations of the boundaries commission. I repeat, no decision has been made. A constitutional conference has been neither ruled in nor out. Our minds remain open on this matter.

Lord Shutt of Greetland

My Lords, bearing in mind that the largest constituency in Bermuda is underrepresented by 33 per cent and that the smallest is overrepresented by 42 per cent, does the boundaries commission have the power to look at other kinds of electoral systems, including a proportional multimember system, where the number of members is less likely to get out of kilter than under the present first-past-the-post, double-member system?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, why am I not surprised at the tone of the noble Lord's question? There are currently 20 two-member constituencies in Bermuda. The boundaries commission is looking at a variety of systems which would deliver no more than a maximum of 40 members for the assembly. I have no idea at this point what its recommendations will be, but as soon as we receive the report and are able to make it public, I shall of course send it to the noble Lord.

Lord Howell of Guildford

My Lords, is it not a wise general principle when dealing with constitutional change to stick rigidly to the established procedures and to ensure all-party support? Does not that principle apply as much here as in Bermuda?

Baroness Amos

My Lords, perhaps I have not made myself clear in the answers that I have given. There have been a number of instances of constitutional changes in our Overseas Territories—albeit some not as fundamental as this—where there has not been a constitutional conference or a referendum. It is important that there is a degree of agreement about the next steps. That is why we decided to consult, to have the boundaries commission look at the situation, to see what is the reaction of Bermudians to the proposals, and then to make a decision. As I have said a number of times, we have not ruled one process in or out. Our minds remain open on this matter.