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Sir Norman Fowler: As the Home Secretary said, this is the fourth time that we have debated the subject. I think that everyone who has listened to our previous debates will think that the Home Secretary's speech today is easily the weakest one on the subject that he has made so far. The most extraordinary claim he has made so far is that there are overwhelming arguments in favour of closed lists. The arguments are so overwhelming that he has failed to convince anyone except Ministers. He has certainly not convinced Labour Back Benchers, the press or the public, which is why he was so glad to move on to the party politics of Commons versus Lords, and to get off the substance of this debate.

The Home Secretary seemed to suggest that there was some type of constitutional problem with the Bill. For the reasons that Lord Shore--who is not a Conservative--gave in the other place when he voted once more against the Government, I believe that that is an exaggerated claim. The point that the Home Secretary avoids is that, if there is a problem, the man who is responsible for the problem is the Home Secretary himself. He chose closed-list voting. He cannot shuffle that responsibility on to anyone else. It is because of his blunder and his mistake that we are debating the issue yet again.

The Home Secretary also cannot claim that he was not warned of the consequences of going down the closed-list route. In the very first speech that he made on the Bill,

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12 months ago, on Second Reading, he was challenged directly on closed lists. He was challenged not only by Conservative Members but by Labour Members. The hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) said quite bluntly:

    "many of us will not be persuaded by the argument that closed party lists on a regional basis are the right horse for this course."

The hon. Gentleman suggested that it would be appropriate to give the House a choice of proportional systems.

Replying, the Home Secretary said:

However, the Home Secretary knew as well as we know that Labour Members did not have a manifesto commitment on the closed list. Although they had a commitment to proportional representation in the European election, that is not the issue in this debate.

7.45 pm

I make it clear yet again that Conservative Members would infinitely prefer a first-past-the-post system. Much of this prolonged debate has simply confirmed that belief--which I suspect is shared by my hon. Friends. However, that is not the issue in this debate. The Government have forced through the PR system and forced through regional lists. The only remaining issue is whether the public shall have the right to elect their Members of the European Parliament on a named candidate basis--on an open list--or be confined to voting for only one party on a closed list.

Mr. Ivor Caplin (Hove): Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether he accepts the principle that the closed-list system that the House is considering is identical to the systems used in Germany and France?

Sir Norman Fowler: Even if it were identical to the system used in Germany and France, I am not sure where that would take the argument.

Mr. Caplin: It is the same.

Sir Norman Fowler: Where does that take the argument on democracy in the United Kingdom? If the hon. Gentleman wishes to argue that the system advances democracy, I very much hope that he will make a speech on the subject. I very much hope that he will make a speech on it also because we have not heard one Labour Back-Bench speech in favour of closed lists. We have not heard one serious speech by a Labour Back Bencher in favour of the system. Although I am not sure that a speech by the hon. Member for Hove (Mr. Caplin) could meet my definition of a serious one, I look forward to hearing one from him, if and when it comes.

Mr. Straw: The right hon. Gentleman--

Mr. Caplin: He has lost the plot.

Mr. Straw: Yes. The right hon. Gentleman should refresh his memory about the debates on Second Reading. My hon. Friends the Members for Birmingham,

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Northfield (Mr. Burden), for Stroud (Mr. Drew), for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock) and for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) all supported the Bill as published, which included closed lists.

Sir Norman Fowler: I now understand why the Home Secretary is such a good lawyer. It is perfectly true that there were such arguments--I have read them--on Second Reading. It is true also that the Home Secretary won for the Bill a majority of votes on Second Reading. However, can he name one Labour Back Bencher who has spoken in favour of the Government's proposals on closed lists? I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman. The fact is that they all voted, but none of them spoke in favour of closed lists. The Home Secretary is squirming, and he knows that he is squirming. He should perhaps let the debate proceed.

Everyone--regardless of party allegiance--agrees that the closed-list system gives power to the party. It must do that; that is what it is all about. Virtually everyone agrees that, under the system, the Member of the European Parliament will become responsible to the party and not to the public. The whole point of closed lists is to transfer power from the public to the party bosses. However, despite all the arguments, the Home Secretary has persisted in proposing a voting system that has been almost universally condemned in both Houses of Parliament.

As I said, not one Back Bencher--not only in the House, but in the other place--has spoken in the debates of the past two or three weeks in favour of the closed-list system. Even last Thursday, when two or three Labour peers were at last rolled out to support the Government, they were at pains to distinguish their case from the argument on the closed list.

Lord Barnett, in his first sentence in support of the Government, said:

Lord Richard, also supporting the Government, tackled the problem in a slightly different way. He said:

    "I am not concerned about the issue of open lists and closed lists".

Lord Evans who, in the previous debate, had been an abstaining rebel, this time voted with the Government, but ended his speech with the warning:

    "I shall continue to oppose closed lists. I shall take up, through my party's machinery, the absolute necessity of getting rid of the appalling methods we have used to select candidates."

However, he added that that was a matter for future debates, as he sought to explain his change of mind. I watched the debate and was glad to observe from the response that the Lords can spot a bogus reason when they see one.

The debates are positively littered with examples of Labour Members and Labour peers attacking the Government. In the debate to which I just referred--it is only the latest one--Lord Shore, who is not exactly a Conservative peer, said:

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    Lord Stoddart, who was provoked to speak by Lord Barnett, rather against the interests of Lord Barnett and those on the Government Front Bench, said that he had been accused of being a leading Eurosceptic, which he was, but that had nothing to do with his motives. He said:

    "Indeed, as a leading Euro-sceptic, it would suit me very well to support this legislation because it divides and separates even further the Euro MPs from the electorate . . . The fact of the matter is that I believe that this legislation is bad because it removes the link between the electorate and the elected."--[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 November 1998; Vol. 594, c. 851-61.]

So far, the argument that the Home Secretary believes is overwhelming does not appear to be going altogether his way. Perhaps the press has been kinder to him. However, the leader in The Times on Saturday does not lead to that conclusion. It said:

    "The Government should not continue to defend the indefensible. There is almost no Member of either House of Parliament who has any sincere enthusiasm for closed lists. It is not enough to conduct a review of a rotten exercise after it has happened. This could only challenge the legitimacy of those who are elected. Mr. Straw should make the most of the unwanted opportunity that their Lordships have thrust upon him. He should drop this dubious proposal entirely."

That is exactly what the Home Secretary should do. The system that the Home Secretary is proposing is basically without friends. We all know that.

If the Home Secretary wants a constitutional issue, I suggest that he examine the speech made in the House on Tuesday last week by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Dr. Marek). In taking up the argument of another Labour Member, the hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), who also criticised the closed list and who I see is in his place, the hon. Gentleman said that his hon. Friend had

That was a Labour Member speaking only a few days ago, and surely he asked the question that we should be asking.

We are being asked to accept a voting system that next to no one wants, yet the Government are forcing it through against opinion in their own party, against that of the Conservative party and against the vote in the House of Lords. Let us not pretend that it is a great test of the democratic process. The issue is not the House of Lords carrying out its right and proper function, but Labour Whips forcing support for a voting system which the Labour party, left to its own devices, would reject.

As for the Lords, it is certainly true that hereditary peers helped to vote down the Government amendment, but so did Labour peers like Lord Shore and Lord Stoddart and, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) pointed out, the vast majority of Cross Benchers. I am no more convinced now than I was before that the votes of some of the Labour placemen who have been put into the House of Lords are in some ways superior to those votes. The Home Secretary will find it very difficult to establish overwhelming support for the Government's proposals.

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Even a Liberal Democrat broke ranks last week. Up to now, the Liberal Democrats have exhibited what is, even for them, the most extraordinarily pathetic attitude to the issue. They have argued for the open list but voted for the closed list. That is not being cruel--it is simply a fact. To his great credit, Lord Russell this time voted against the Government. He ignored the threat that he would be sacked from the Liberal Democrat Front Bench. As far as I know, he has not been sacked. Of course, it would have been terrible had it happened, but the Liberal Democrats can no more make up their mind about sacking a spokesman than they can about anything else. In any event, it exposes the terrible sham of the Liberal Democrats in opposition, and can be explained only by their new coalition with the Government.

This is the third time that we have debated the amendment regarding the open list and the Government's opposition to it. The Government's latest amendment makes no concession and is not intended to do so. The Home Secretary does not expect us to be persuaded by a review which, by definition, will take place after the European elections. His arguments are increasingly unconvincing, and the most unconvincing of all is that which he uses about the closed-list system in the exceptional circumstances of Northern Ireland.

I took the trouble to confirm the position in Northern Ireland with my right hon. Friend the Member for Huntingdon, the former Prime Minister. He confirms that when it was used for the election for a deliberative forum in Northern Ireland, it was to meet the special circumstances there, and was so explained. That was not what the Home Secretary said tonight.

My point is confirmed by the statement made by my right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister on 21 March 1996. Speaking of the list system, he said that the solution was "not ideal". He used those words because the then Leader of the Opposition, now the Prime Minister, had began his questioning by saying:

Yet it is that "not ideal" voting system that we are now to have for the European election. How does the Prime Minister defend that? Apparently, he says that it is simpler. That shows a deeply patronising attitude to the British electorate. It is saying that it is all rather complex for the public, so the Government will help them or, in fact, decide for them.

I am most unconvinced by the Home Secretary's analogy with the election of Members of Parliament to Westminster. There is a fundamental difference. I leave aside cases in which the public have rejected the candidate in spite of the party label or in which people have resigned the party label to challenge the party, sometimes successfully--for example, Dick Taverne. Most of us in this House regard our first duty as being to the public and to the people who elected us. Under the closed-list system, the representatives' first duty can easily become a duty to the party because it is the party that selected them. That is a fundamental difference.

There is one straightforward issue in this debate. It is the difference between the closed list, under which the public vote not for a candidate but for a party, and the open list, under which the public may choose a named candidate who will represent them. That is the choice we face.

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The Home Secretary attacks the House of Lords and the role of a second chamber. He is as unconvincing in those attacks as he is in all his other arguments. He avoids the real criticism that the argument against the system that he has proposed is that it is basically anti-democratic. He cannot raise a flag proclaiming "power to the people" when the system that he proposes will give power to the parties. However, he seeks to do just that.

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