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Mr. Straw: I am enjoying the right hon. Gentleman's speech--which makes a change. Leaving aside the fact that, as it happens, I was selected in Blackburn fair and square without Lady Castle being present, he has just accepted that the party, not the people of Blackburn, chose me. There we have it: an admission that a closed list of one operated. What is his argument?

Sir Norman Fowler: The right hon. Gentleman has not in any way dented my case. My admission is that he was parachuted into Blackburn from outside; I believe that he stood at Tonbridge and Malling in the preceding election.

The Bill is bad by any standards. It is detested both by Conservative Members and, frankly, by many Labour Members. The Government complain about the Lords, but the Lords have challenged only the worst feature of the Bill: the closed-list system. In that, I believe, they are supported by the majority of the public.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed): Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?

Sir Norman Fowler: If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will not.

The Bill goes to the heart of our constitution: it determines how an important election is to be fought. It is wrong in principle and contrary to what the majority of people in this country want. That is why it should be rejected.

8.9 pm

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam): Far from feeling concern that the Labour party has not accepted all aspects of the Bill with open arms, we are comforted by that fact. We are also comforted by the fact that the Home Secretary has changed his position. A simple dogmatic

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statement of principle at one point in one's life, followed by resistance to any further change, does not contribute much to the body politic.

We welcome the Bill, as we welcomed it during the previous Session, as an important part of the implementation of an agreement that was reached before the election by my right hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) and the Foreign Secretary on a programme of constitutional change. That was a ground-breaking agreement and we have been impressed with the way in which it has worked since to deliver significant benefits for the people of this country, by demonstrating that politicians can work together for the common good rather than simply throw brickbats at each other on every possible occasion.

Fair votes for Europe are vital. The Home Secretary mentioned representation and the fact that we have caused an imbalance throughout Europe. He said that treaties have stated that we should have proportional representation because it is unfair on the European Union if we send an unbalanced delegation to the European Parliament. This Bill offers a chance to reverse the low turn-outs in European elections. Far from decrying the system, we believe that the Opposition parties, in particular the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, have an enormous incentive to get people to vote. In many parts of the country, including the Yorkshire and Humberside area, those votes will count as they have never counted before, so the fair vote issue is important and will bring considerable benefits, as well as meeting those treaty obligations.

We want to be more positive. The Conservative approach has been somewhat schizophrenic. The Conservatives say that the system is appalling and that no one will vote, but they also think that they may pick up a seat or two. There seems to be a conflict between the two objectives.

We have enjoyed the contributions to the debate by the Home Secretary, in particular his lessons on history and geography, which have frequently taken us to Belgium. I fully accept the argument of the hon. Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) that we could have had a clearer explanation, but nothing brings a smile to the face in these lengthy debates as much as the mention of the word, "d'Hondt". I do not know why, but every time that anyone says that word, little grins and chuckles break out throughout the House. We have also enjoyed watching the Conservative party come, somewhat belatedly and not entirely willingly, to the constitutional agenda. They have got involved with some of the issues and debated them seriously, perhaps for the first time, as many Conservatives have studiously avoided such issues during their internal debates and they rarely brought them to the House when they were in government.

For the Liberal Democrats there are two key issues in choosing a voting system. The first is proportionality: there should be a close relationship between the votes cast and the people elected. The second is voter choice, which has characterised many of the debates. The present Bill clearly takes us a huge way forward as regards proportionality. It is vastly superior to the first-past-the-post system that we have had. We regret the fact that the Bill misses the opportunity to take us further forward with voter choice. We have expressed our preference and, whenever I have spoken, I have been

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asked our position by hon. Members intervening from both sides of the House. I have been able to say, every time, that our first preference is for a single transferable vote, which would avoid the problems of a single vote in the open system that the Conservatives have chosen. Failing that, we want more open systems.

However, unlike the Conservatives, we can accept that we did not win the last general election and that, having argued our point through the proper democratic procedures in this House and another place, if we then lose the debate or the vote, the Government have a right and a mandate to proceed with their business. It is not our duty to obstruct the Government on an issue on which we have had a fair hearing. We were pleased that the Home Secretary showed he had an open mind about open lists. He gave the argument a hearing, we discussed it and we voted in another place.

Unlike Conservative Members we work with our peers in another place. We are happy to share our decision-making processes, to use similar arguments in both places and to accept the result of the vote in another place. We are also mindful of the fact that we are more likely to win a vote there than here, given the arithmetic that prevails in this House. We were extremely disappointed that when we tabled an amendment on open lists in the other place at the appropriate time, Conservative peers--surprise, surprise--failed to turn out to support it and yet were later converted to the cause.

All the key issues in the Bill were discussed at length in the previous Session. For example, on regional constituencies, we successfully argued the case that a regional team would bring benefits for the structure of the European Union, gaining regional funds and so forth. We discussed the principles of proportional representation and by-elections--all the issues that have been raised again tonight were discussed.

While the Bill is not perfect, we were convinced of our position at the end of that previous process, which is that the system is workable. It is not perfect in every respect and it is not the system that the Liberal Democrats would choose if they were offered a blank sheet of paper, but it is workable and it is a significant improvement on the alternative, which is the present system.

Internal party procedures have been raised in relation to the Bill and selection has been a major issue. Many notable contributions from Labour Back Benchers have concerned that matter and Conservative Members have been happy to draw attention to the fact that unhappiness has been caused by selection in certain cases. There are major issues to be faced as regards the primaries, but they are not sufficient to block the passage of the Bill. One cannot say that a Bill that allows the United Kingdom electorate a fair vote should be blocked simply because one party has more problems with its internal selection processes than the other parties. That is an issue for that party to solve.

Mr. Beith: A number of Conservatives who took part in those vast hustings meetings have told me that they are wondering why the decisions that they took then might now be overturned by a return to the first-past-the-post system and a re-opening of constituency selections within their party, probably on a less democratic basis.

Mr. Allan: An ironic feature of the present situation is that it is fair to say that the candidates and those who have

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been selected for both the main Opposition parties have been selected by far more people than selected any of us in our single constituency contests. Many thousands of people took part and it was a reasonable test of opinion within those parties.

The Conservatives have trotted out their issue of high principle and, on many occasions, have tried to save us from doing the pragmatic thing. They have suggested that we should continue to stand to one side and bleat in the wilderness about high principle while not achieving any significant goals. We believe that it is better to support a Bill that would achieve some of our objectives than simply to stand by or positively to obstruct something that we want. The Conservatives have been negative throughout. Clearly, they want to fight any fair voting system at every stage of the way. Their position has been explicit. First past the post has favoured them for many years and they see it as their key to success. They want to fight any alternative.

Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest): I should have thought that it was obvious from the lack of numbers on the Conservative Benches that the first-past-the-post system has not been fair to our party. The hon. Gentleman mentioned working together on a cross-party basis. Has he had a chance to read the report published today by the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs? That all-party Committee states in paragraph 91 of its report:



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