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Earl Russell: My Lords, I thought that the noble Lord said that he gave no weight to Pope!

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, as the late and revered Mr. Morecambe said, "There is no answer to that!".

One of the urgent and serious reasons that we are in the position of balancing priorities is that we have given priority to what we believe to be of fundamental constitutional importance; namely, devolution to Scotland and Wales. I know that your Lordships will give that legislation very detailed scrutiny, but there is a limit to the number of important constitutional measures that can be considered in any one Session.

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The noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, says that he detects some inconsistencies between my Written Answer and what was stated by the Foreign Secretary and the Home Secretary. There is no inconsistency. We have all stressed that the Government remain committed to the introduction of proportional representation for European elections. We have all made it clear that the question of when the change to a new system should take place is still to be resolved. The Foreign Secretary said as recently as 10th June in the Answer referred to that the timetable is very tight. We look to see whether a suitable legislative opportunity may arise. As I said earlier, and I make no apology for repeating it, we are not entirely masters in this House.

I turn to the other important aspect of electoral reform; that is, the voting system for the House of Commons. We are committed to the creation of an independent commission to consider what would be the best alternative to the existing first-past-the-post electoral system. We propose to honour that commitment. It is said that now that the Government have a large majority their passionate interest in reform will be dissipated. That is wholly and completely wrong. The Government intend to use their majority prudently and decently to ensure that they fulfil all their manifesto commitments, including the one to create an independent commission on the voting system for the Westminster Parliament and the commitment to give the people of the United Kingdom the chance to make their decision between the existing system and the recommended alternative.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary, Mr. Straw, said recently in another place that work was in hand to establish the commission. It is. It is his intention to make an announcement about the commission this summer. We are currently considering matters such as the terms of reference and the composition. Careful attention is being given to the identity, for instance, of the chairman. It needs careful thought and there is the question of availability of suitable candidates, quite apart from the rest of the body. That is what the announcement will cover. I make a specific response to the question which was put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank. We intend that the commission should start its work in the autumn. The noble Lord took the view that the work may take six months. We believe that it will take longer than that. We believe that it will take about one year for the commission to complete its deliberations. The intention is that having started this autumn, it will report, outlining what it believes to be the best system for Westminster elections if we are to move away from first-past-the-post.

The independent commission will not be asked to recommend whether a change to proportional representation would be a good thing. It will be asked to consider to what system we should move if there is to be a change. The decision as to whether any such change should be made will be left to the people of the United Kingdom. Specifically, I assure your Lordships that there will be a referendum in which the people will be asked to choose between the current system and the

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system identified by the independent commission as the best possible alternative. A variety of views has been expressed on that topic this evening.

There are many different views about different mechanisms. Indeed, they are contained within the individual political parties. At the risk of being unduly disagreeable and tendentious, I suggest that the difference between this Government and the official Opposition is that we are willing to let the people decide. We do not regard ourselves as the masters of anything. I hope that we are constantly aware of the cautionary note that was sounded earlier that the possession of a large majority for the present is not a mandate for dictatorship. We are quite content to let the people have their will. I believe and say on behalf of the Government that the more one does that, the better the conclusion that endures and the healthier democratic life is.

The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, asked a specific question, which was echoed subsequently, about London. No decision has been made about how elections to the strategic authority for London should be conducted. We intend to publish a Green Paper. We positively invite and welcome all contributions to that debate.

It was said by the noble Earl, Lord Russell, that Mr. Willetts had written a book saying that sometimes anomalies should be defended. The noble Viscount, Lord Astor, said that he had not read that book. I am sure that when he said that, he was not dissembling because if he has not read the book, he would not need to dissemble. But at all events, it is quite plain, as a moment's reflection would have demonstrated--and in any event, if a moment's reflection were absent, the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, pointed it out--our present electoral arrangements are full of anomalies, as is the absence of them in your Lordships' House. I am sometimes tempted, when one is asked what is the answer to the West Lothian question, to say that one of the answers is the West Belfast question and I suppose that the other one, although I have great personal regard for him and always like to see his happy face, is the West Cranborne question.

The noble Viscount said that the Labour Party is divided internally on its views about some of those matters. Of course, that may be so. The Labour Party in the House of Commons is fortunate to be big enough to be divided, which I suppose one cannot really say about the Conservative Party. The noble Viscount, that purist to the nth degree, said that first-past-the-post is the only reliable solution. I suppose that that is why the Conservative Party leadership election was conducted on first-past-the-post, or have I slightly misread the three-stage election in which it indulged recently?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. He realises that in electing a leader of the Conservative Party, we were electing one leader not one plus two others to join him.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am sure that there is a point lurking there but I cannot quite put my finger on it.

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The noble Viscount suggested also that as a lawyer, now retired, I should not wish to be opaque. I must say that I found that grossly offensive. I thought that the whole purpose of being a lawyer was to be opaque at other people's expense.

I was asked specifically about local authority elections. At present no consideration is being given to proportional representation for local authority elections.

I believe and hope that I have dealt with the specific questions raised. I thank your Lordships again for the different opinions that have been expressed. They are all taken into account, even if they are not all to be successful; and in the nature of things, they cannot be.

I am conscious of the fact, as are the Government, that the spirit of what has been said by many noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches is that this is an opportunity which will never recur in our political lifetime. We want to do our best to get it right. We do not wish to offer dictatorial prescriptions. We do not claim a monopoly of knowledge and, for our part, the more co-operation that we receive from colleagues and opponents on other Benches, the better the outcome will be for our country.

7.16 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I am very grateful to all noble Lords who have participated in this debate. I find that I am slightly nonplussed about what to say at the end, having listened to the Minister at his most charming. It is a long time since I have heard a Minister in this House admit that he and his party are not entirely masters of it; and--and this is a freshness which has seeped through the noble Lord, very unusually in terms of Ministers of this Government--that his party is divided in the House of Commons because it can afford to be. The whole House will be extremely grateful for those charming, if slightly disturbing thoughts.

However, I had hoped to say that the next debate in your Lordships' House on electoral reform would be when discussing legislation for proportional representation in the European Parliament. The hard kernel of what the noble Lord told the House is that that is very unlikely. I express it in that way because if we do not have legislation in the current Session of Parliament, certainly from these Benches, we shall wish to return to that matter.

We shall play our full part in enabling the Government to get their business through this House and elsewhere on many of the constitutional matters with which we wholly agree. But it will prove difficult for us to give our undivided support, whatever may be our priorities, if we feel that this opportunity is lost by a failure to put through legislation in time for the 1999 elections to be carried out by proportional representation.

In my view, the noble Lord made it sound more difficult than it would really be to get through the necessary subsidiary steps, provided that legislation was first carried through this House and another place. I hope that the Government will try extremely hard because I believe that it can be done. They can fit in the

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necessary legislation before the end of this Session and most probably in the winter months ahead. It would be an extremely great disappointment to miss that opportunity.

In my opening remarks, I referred mainly to the matters to which the Minister has replied--the urgency of the European elections and the importance of setting up an independent commission, about which the noble Lord gave a much more satisfactory reply. I am very grateful to all noble Lords and in particular noble Lords on these Benches who spoke about the substance of the matter--the practical aspects of proportional representation, how it will work, and the principles

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which lie behind it. As I say, we shall return to those matters. On that basis, I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

Plant Varieties Bill

7.20 p.m.

Brought from the Commons; read a first time, and to be printed.

        House adjourned at twenty minutes past seven o'clock.

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