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The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. George Howarth): No, he did not.

Mr. Clappison: The hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate said that the Government had taken an unfortunate decision at an earlier stage, and that he supported the Belgian system--a semi-open form of list--in principle. The fact that the Minister seeks comfort in that makes it plain how desperate the Government Front-Bench team has become in its search for support.

There was, of course, no support for the Government from the Conservative Benches. My hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed) made a very good speech in which he drew fairly attention to widespread concern about and lack of support for the Government's proposals in the other place. My hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) made the important point that the Bill was not a minor detail. When history comes to be written, historians will, as my hon. Friend asserted, argue that the Government acted wrongly, and that they set a bad precedent for our electoral system by depriving voters of choice.

My hon. Friend the Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) also made a good point in asking why Members of the European Parliament should be condemned to a life of anonymity through the use of a list, rather than being able to create a direct link with the electorate. The same point has been made by many others, including my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh), who spoke from experience to show that voter recognition can exist.

In response to all that condemnation of the course that he has taken, the Home Secretary, in a speech that was perhaps not as good humoured as some of his earlier contributions to this debate--we can forgive him, because we have been over this course so often--gave up any pretence of making an argument on the subject. He did not try to build a case on the evidence but simply showed brass neck and what the hon. Member for Battersea described as chutzpah. He advanced ludicrous arguments.

The Home Secretary said that this was all a conspiracy got up by the Conservative party. He called it a conspiracy of non-understanding. If it was all got up by the Conservative party and the hereditary peers, I have to say that it extends to many groups and individuals not normally associated with the Conservative party. There has been widespread concern across many different groups about the Government's course.

Concern extends to Charter 88, whose briefing when the matter was first proposed last autumn said:

The Electoral Reform Society expressed a similar view. Its president, Earl Russell, is a member of the Liberal Democrat party.

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Mr. Allan: A fine man.

Mr. Clappison: He was fine in that he had the courage to vote against the Government's proposal, against the Whip put on by the Liberal Democrats.

Concern extends to many in the media. Last October, when the proposals were first unveiled, The Times said that they were bad for democracy and would be bad eventually for the parties too. It described it as the worst possible kind of proportional representation for the European elections and said that it would result in placemen being put in the European Parliament, rather than individual representatives. The Times is also part of the conspiracy.

The Home Secretary reached his most ludicrous when he said that the idea that the closed list is anathema to our system of politics was pure nonsense. He forgets what he said last October in a leaked letter to a colleague reported in The Guardian. In setting out the case for a closed-list system, he said:

The conspiracy of non-understanding may even extend to the Home Secretary himself.

The Home Secretary went on to say that, despite all our concerns, we have to agree because their manifesto commits the Government to the closed-list system. The Labour party manifesto is not something that I normally carry around with me, but I have been helpfully furnished with a copy. It states:

There is no mention of the closed-list system and no reason why there should not be an open-list system. At least eight other members of the European Union have open-list systems that would have been compatible with that pledge. Why, out of all the systems that the Government could have chosen, did they choose one that maximised party control?

We think that the answer is clear, and it was given by another member of the Conservative hereditary peers' conspiracy against the Government, Lord Shore. He said:

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    "The issue is about the open list against the closed list. It is about an open democratic list against a closed party management list. It is about accountability to the electorate, to the voters, against accountability to a party committee".--[Official Report, House of Lords, 12 November 1998; Vol. 594, c. 851.]

That view has been echoed time and again through our debates.

We cannot accept the latest review put forward by the Government. We regarded their original concession--it was described as a concession--as so minimal as to be meaningless. Their new concession is ludicrous. They now say that, in addition to the review of the operation of the closed-list system, we should have one of the operation of the open-list system. How can a review be conducted when that system is not operating? We welcome the fact that there will be consultation on who will chair the review, but we wonder what on earth it will find to do. All the evidence that will be available in six months' time is available now. It is a matter of principle, and the Government have come down on the wrong side. They have come down in favour of party control, rather than representative democracy--not voter choice, but control by the party bosses.

We hope that the closed-list system is not a harbinger of things to come, because it is bad in every conceivable respect from beginning to end. The debate and the Government's proposal are about promoting party control over individual choice and representative democracy. The proposal is a thoroughly bad thing and we are fully entitled to continue opposing it.

It being Ten o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.


Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15 (Exempted business),

Question agreed to.

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European Parliamentary Elections Bill

Lords Reasons for insisting on certain of their amendments to which the Commons have disagreed and for disagreeing to the Commons amendment to the Bill in lieu, again considered.

Question again proposed, That this House insists on its disagreement with the Lords in their amendments, but does not insist on its amendment in lieu.

Mr. George Howarth: I should correct the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) on one point. He said that we had produced the review system at the last minute. In fact, it is in response to a request from the hon. Gentleman and the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) some time ago. We thought that it was a reasonable request--[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman asks for something and is granted it. Then, most ungratefully, he laughs at our agreeing to his request.

The Opposition should acknowledge that we have said that they will be consulted about the way in which the process works, and we mean that sincerely. There is a real point to having a review. They asked for it and I hope that they will be good enough to acknowledge that.

It is customary to begin by saying that we have had a good debate. On this occasion, perhaps I will be forgiven for saying that it has been an interesting debate. We have certainly heard some good speeches, and I shall refer to one or two in a moment, but frankly, the debate has not moved on a great deal since Second Reading. Opposition Members have their view and we have ours, and there does not seem to have been a meeting of minds. If they have doubts about whether the Bill has been debated thoroughly, I remind them that the House has debated it on Second Reading, in Committee and on Report and has considered Lords amendments for a total of 31 hours and 45 minutes. I would have thought that almost everything that could have been said about the Bill, and the choice of an open or closed-list system, had been said.

Mr. Peter Bottomley: Could the Minister say which Labour Back Benchers would support the Government policy on a free vote?

Mr. Howarth: The hon. Gentleman asks a silly question. I wonder whether he could tell me how many of his colleagues would have voted in the poll tax had they had a free vote on it when they were in government. It is the same principle. We were elected on a manifesto commitment to introduce a proportional system for European elections and that is what we will deliver.

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