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6.13 pm

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): The Liberal Democrats accept the guillotine motion; I am sorry to disappoint the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir N. Fowler) yet again. The Conservatives' concern for the mortal souls of the Liberal party--as they style us--has been touching throughout the many debates on the Bill, and is greatly appreciated by me and my colleagues.

We have debated this subject for so many hours that we believe that there are no new arguments to be made--only decisions, which, unfortunately, have been lacking due to the nature of the ping-pong in ermine that we experienced towards the end of the previous Session. We have been asked to back the provision of more time for debate on this subject, so that we can follow the common dictum that the primary tool of opposition is the use of time, but, in my recent time in the House, I have learnt that that dictum often leads to us giving our debate plenty of quantity but little quality. I suspect that we may well again be running into a situation where the Opposition are talking about issues other than the issue on which they have chosen to focus for most of the time, and saying, "These are the issues that we want to debate." In that case, why did they choose to spend so much time on the specific issue of closed and open lists if they are really interested in the other subjects?

Mr. Sayeed: The Home Secretary described the question of closed lists versus open lists as a detail. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the proposition of closed lists is just a detail?

Mr. Allan: We are returning to a familiar subject. We have said that we have two primary objectives.

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The first--and key--one is the achievement of proportionality; the second is the extension of voter choice. We believe that the benefits of greater proportionality in the Bill as tabled far exceed any disappointment that we have at not achieving the open lists, and therefore back the Bill as it stands, as the alternative to first past the post. We can make that position clear again in the later stages of consideration of the Bill.

Mr. Sayeed: Answer the question.

Mr. Allan: I thought I had said that the issue of greater proportionality is far more significant than the issue of closed or open lists. The voter choice element is secondary to the principal issue of proportionality.

I have gained a great benefit from these debates. I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield and others who have participated for giving me an opportunity to learn about the more arcane elements of parliamentary procedure at a greatly accelerated rate--experience that it often takes hon. Members many years to acquire. My only sadness is that the proposed changes to another place may shortly render that knowledge redundant; I certainly hope so.

I have discussed this subject with a far wiser head than mine--my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), who has great experience of these matters and of parliamentary procedure. We have agreed that, as the Home Secretary outlined, there has been abuse of convention in the debate so far.

I draw attention to contributions made to the most recent debate on this subject in another place by my noble Friend Lord Russell and by the Conservative Lord Garel-Jones. Both had resisted the change, but, in the final debate, they argued that, in that fifth and final battle, it would be an abuse of convention not to allow the Bill to pass, as the Government had a mandate for it. Both argued that, having made their opposition clear in a perfectly honourable way within the conventions, it now behoved them, if they wanted to stay within the conventions, to allow the Bill to pass. I am disappointed that other Lords on the Conservative Benches were persuaded otherwise, having been given an indication as to their duty. I believe that Lord Garel-Jones and Lord Russell had the entirely correct approach to the conventions.

We believe that all the key issues that have been mentioned by Conservative Members were debated at length in all the stages that preceded our final charade over the open and closed lists. The suggestion that there was no debate on the principle of proportional representation versus first past the post, or on the size of regions, or on whether we should have regions, is a gross misrepresentation of debates that I sat through in the previous Session, in which all those issues were debated at length.

We believe that many people outside this place--including many prospective Conservative candidates--are now desperate for us to resolve the issue and pass the Bill. Conservative candidates--including the Conservative, Lord Bethell--have expressed great concern at the tactics employed.

The Conservative party obviously needs a strategic diary secretary, as at present its opposition is in the wrong place and at the wrong time. It would be appropriate for

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the Bill to proceed with all due speed, as the debate that we need on the subject has been had--as hon. Members present know, however much they argue otherwise.

6.18 pm

Miss Melanie Johnson (Welwyn Hatfield): I believe that this is the sixth time that the subject has been debated in the House. The fifth time that it was debated, on 18 November 1998, there was a massive majority in favour of the Bill.

The danger--[Interruption.] If the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) wishes to say something, I shall give way to him to allow him to say it.

Mr. Shepherd: Of course the Bill was not debated six times. It was the Lords amendment that was debated a number of times. That is a narrow point.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. Sedentary comments that lead to further interruption of debate are not very helpful in a time-limited situation.

Miss Johnson: Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

There is a danger that a Bill about a system to be used for electing MEPs will dominate the main business of the House. The key points have been debated and, as was remarked earlier, 34 hours of debate have taken place. As the Home Secretary commented, three and a half hours on each clause or schedule is a great deal of time. If the Opposition have not advanced their arguments, although they have had ample time in which to do so, many would say that they had wasted their time.

The vote on the last occasion was Ayes 326 and Noes 133--a clear majority of 193 in favour of the passage of the Bill.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire): Does the hon. Lady recall that, at that time, the vote was on the motion to disagree with the Lords in their amendment, and to send to the Lords another amendment in lieu of that amendment? Although I opposed it, the House agreed to a review of the electoral mechanism proposed by the Government, yet the Government have now brought back a Bill that does not include such a review. Will the hon. Lady explain why?

Miss Johnson: Rather than strengthening the hon. Gentleman's case, the fact that we have gone through much additional scrutiny, which has seemed tortuous to many of us, detracts from it. We are now discussing issues for which precedents exist but, as the Home Secretary observed in his opening remarks, to some extent we are beyond precedent, because we have seen torn apart in front of us fundamental conventions by which the House operates.

It is important for you as the Opposition to realise that closed lists are not controversial for Labour Members. If you believe something different--

Mr. Deputy Speaker: Order. The hon. Lady is confusing second and third person. I have nothing to do with the matter.

Miss Johnson: I apologise, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Opposition Members are confused if they believe that a

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few speakers from the Government Benches who disagree with the Government represent disagreement by the vast majority of Government Back Benchers.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West) rose--

Miss Johnson: I will not give way. A majority of 193 is a clear sign. The mark of whether we support the Government is whether we support them in the Division Lobby. Those of us who passed through that Lobby are keen for the measure to go ahead in its present form.

On 1 July 1986, in the debate on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, to which the Home Secretary referred, the then Leader of the House, Mr. John Biffen, moving the allocation of time motion, said that the Bill had "constitutional importance", as does the present Bill. He said that

had already been provided for the Bill, and that is also true in this case. He remarked that, on its Second Reading, the Bill had a

    "clear majority of 319 votes to 160",

which is a majority of 159. It is worth noting that, at its last consideration, the Bill received a majority of 193, which is clearly in excess of that.

In closing the debate, the then Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, Lynda Chalker commented:

That is what this motion would do. The debate has been held; the issues have been fully aired. If they have not, it is the Opposition's fault for not doing so. A clear majority support the Bill, and there are plenty of precedents. I support the motion.

Let us remind ourselves of the precedents. The motion for the allocation of time--or the guillotine, as people happily call it when they want to add to the drama--is mentioned by "Erskine May" as one of the devices that it is important to consider in balancing

I accept that that is an important balance. It is our task both to get business done and to enable hon. Members to debate matters properly in the Chamber. There have been several occasions since 1945 when an allocation of time motion has been accepted.

"Erskine May" goes on to say that such procedures affirm

In the present case, we seek to affirm the rights of the majority in the House who supported the Bill, as well as the rights of the majority of the people, who sent us here on a manifesto which, as the Home Secretary commented, made it clear that we would make such changes. Democracy is the will of the majority when the debate has been had. The debate has taken place, and now is the time to move forward.

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