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Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I am grateful for the noble Lord allowing me to intervene. I do not want to interrupt the flow of his eloquent speech. Is the noble Lord saying that women in this country are a minority?

Lord Strathclyde: My Lords, I took a very careful note of the words of the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. She said that PR would mean that more women would be represented and that other minorities would be represented. I do not put a gloss on what she means. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Cheltenham, that I am perfectly well aware that women in this country do not make up a minority of the electorate. The noble Lord has made a good effort to diminish the effects of what I said. If all of this is so good why did we not do it a long time ago?

What would proportional representation mean in practice? It would mean that almost no national government or local council could be formed without the say-so of--guess who?--the Liberal Democratic Party. Having been the least popular of the three major parties, at a stroke they would be transformed into the most powerful. Power would be given to the least popular. I find it hard to see what that has to do with either representative democracy or effective local or national government.

What are the Liberal Democratic Party afraid of? At the start of this century the Liberal Party was the largest party in Britain. It dominated both national and local

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government and it won that dominance under the first-past-the-post system. Under the first-past-the-post system it lost that dominance. Why? The Liberal Party lost it because of what it now calls "unfair votes". That was not the reason: the party lost it because of lost votes. The people of Britain preferred Labour to Liberals--Social Democrats and Liberal Democrats alike. Odd though it may seem, they still do. There is nothing to prevent the Liberal Party from retaking its place at the head of the parties of Britain except that in election after election the public have shown that, whatever they think of Conservatives or Labour, they find Liberal Democrat ideas and policies the least attractive.

I believe that instead of seeking to tear up the first-past-the-post electoral system in their own narrow party interests the Liberal Democrats should seek to do to Labour what the Labour party did to them; namely, to use the existing system to win success as the leading party of the left. This is quite possible. I refer to the noble Baroness's own borough of Richmond, where I understand the Liberals have squeezed the Labour and Conservative parties such that they now dominate the council. I suspect that that is one reason why those who live in Richmond suffer the highest council tax cost in outer London. I am also told that it has lost to property developers the historic ice rink that was once so much loved by local people.

The Liberal Democrats should have the courage to present themselves to the public for what they are rather than seek to win power locally and nationally on the coat-tails of a Labour Prime Minister. As they cling to his coat-tails and sup tea in secret Cabinet committees they should be careful with whom they do business and to what it leads. One does not have to be too perspicacious to see that the Prime Minister's dream is to split their party, bring the Social Democrats under his wing and cast the grand old Liberal tradition, which has served this country well, out into the darker fringes of politics.

We have seen those dangers in the House only this week. I refer to the proceedings on Monday when at the very last minute the noble Lord, Lord Tope, failed to move a Motion on two vitally important matters to Britain's schools, students and universities. The noble Lord told the House that,

    "any further delay with this Bill ..."--

there had been no delay--

    "could have a serious effect on other government legislation, some of which, it is true to say, my party supports, at least in principle."--[Official Report, 23/2/98; col. 407.]

I suggest that the words, "supports, at least in principle" are significant, for it was reported in yesterday's press that "senior Liberal Democrats" had discussed with the Government changes to the PR system proposed for European elections--supported by the Liberals significantly in principle, but not in detail--and had suddenly won movement in their direction. The juxtaposition of these two things is, I submit, no accident. The noble Lord, Lord Tope, was constrained by his Whips to abandon a defence of the universities, students and their families for a modest move by Mr. Straw on PR. Such is the power of PR to influence Liberal Democrat minds and to force low compromise

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at the expense of high principle. That is the fundamental argument against PR at any level, national or local. It puts a premium on private party bartering and fuzzes clarity of principle; it transfers choice away from the electors and gives it to machine politicians; and it offers the greatest power to the most unpopular party. It also creates extremist parties and a proliferation of parties.

I was impressed by what the noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, said, that the current system led to the amelioration of extremes within local government. I agree with her. Surely the opposite must be true: when you have a proliferation of small parties it gives political credibility to small, extremist movements.

For once I find myself in strong agreement with a Labour Party document, their consultation paper on local government, published in February. It says:

    "The tradition in this country is for there to be a close link between constituency representatives and the citizens they represent. Our local government voting system delivers just this result with each councillor being elected by the citizens of the ward or district which they represent. We believe such links between councillors and people are vital to ensure councils engage effectively with their local communities."

I agree with that.

Yesterday the Leader of the Opposition, Mr. William Hague, made a speech on the constitution. He said:

    "Of all the dangerous and destructive constitutional reforms currently on the table, perhaps the most dangerous and the most destructive is proportional representation."

At a time when a first-past-the-post system has recently found favour in Italy, a country wracked by generations of weak governments which were the fruit of PR, it would be extraordinary, simply to serve the narrow interests of the Liberal Party, to throw over the direct links between electors and elected and make councils less stable and council candidates even more the servants of party than people.

I have listened to the Liberal Democratic Party this afternoon with respect. With equal respect I have to say that this is an old, self-seeking Liberal canard which we on these Benches will not buy. Let the Government, and the noble Baroness in particular, be in no doubt that if they are in favour of proportional representation they are on their own. We will fight them every step of the way.

5.10 p.m.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton: My Lords, I quake to hear the authoritative and, I presume, final position of the Conservative Opposition Benches on a subject to do with the constitution, at least for today.

It is clear from the debate that there is a wide range of views both within the House and elsewhere on the merits of proportional representation and on the importance of considering them in the context of different types of elections to different bodies. There is currently no consensus about the best or most appropriate voting system for local government, although certain possibilities clearly command more support than others. There is certainly not a consensus that a change from the current first-past-the-post system is required, although there are many who argue this particular view, and we have heard some distinguished

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proponents. We have had demonstrated this afternoon a need for a mature and reasoned consideration of the issue.

The Labour Government have embarked upon a radical and wide-ranging programme of constitutional reform, including devolution in Wales and Scotland, PR in elections for the European Parliament, the Independent Commission on the Voting System for Westminster chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the creation of a mayor and assembly for London--which will be contested and supported by all parties represented in the debate today--open government and freedom of information. The Government have a radical programme which will touch all levels of the state, and local government is crucial within that.

In his recent speech at Scarborough the Prime Minister set out four key areas of change in our agenda for local government: new legitimacy, new ways of working, new disciplines and new powers. We have made a start in all of these areas and our aim is to ensure that councils can fulfil their potential. They have a vital role to play in giving their communities the quality of life which people rightly expect and deserve.

We have published a consultation paper on local democracy and community leadership which sets out ideas for achieving this. This is the first paper in a series, with more to come, on best value, finance issues and a new ethical framework in response to Lord Nolan's report on standards in local government.

The change of culture equally affects the disciplines under which modern councils must operate, including the move away from discredited compulsory competitive tendering towards a regime of best value. Your Lordships will be aware that there are now 37 full best value pilots in place across the country. It is an issue which is extremely important in terms of righting the balance between local government and central government.

More generally--not least because of the writing of my noble friend Lord Bassam--people in local government are becoming seized of the cultural change that best value, fully implemented with local performance plans negotiated with the community, will engender.

We intend that this programme should lead to massive change in the culture of local government, with greater accountability and openness, better, more streamlined decision-taking, greater efficiency, greater public involvement in decision-taking and better and more visible leadership. Overall we are working in partnership with local government to enhance its ability to meet the needs and aspirations of the communities it serves.

Our first consultation paper, which has been referred to by many speakers in the debate, deals with options for moving to annual elections and options for possible changes to other electoral arrangements: for example, voting on Sundays, electronic voting, and other experiments which would be made possible by the Private Member's Bill, if enacted, of the noble Lord,

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Lord Hunt of Tamworth. Let me place on record again my gratitude that all sides of the House were able to come together to agree improvements to that measure.

This first consultation paper seeks views on 30 different fundamental questions. The Government will listen to and consider carefully all views expressed on this paper and those to follow before setting out their proposals in a White Paper. We shall legislate, where necessary, at the first opportunity.

The programme set out in the consultation paper includes some major changes, such as the move to annual elections. This manifesto commitment will ensure that authorities will be subject to more regular electoral accountability for their performance. As a minimum, it could mean a change in electoral practice for a large number of authorities.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, asked me for the arguments that would support annual elections. From my experience in local government, the strongest support arises from the argument that you can have a fluke set of circumstances and an unusual result in one year. That can lead to a lack of continuity because there are marked swings every four years instead of a gradual responsiveness to the changing mood of the community.

The issue of complacency and low standards in local authorities which have been controlled by a single party for a long time is widely acknowledged across the political spectrum. Our consultation paper contains a range of measures--a number of them radical--to address this issue. There are measures to encourage higher turn-out, greater public involvement between elections and innovative ways of taking decisions.

Our programme will bring the one-party state system up to the mark and make the absence of opposition less likely. For example, under the Bill brought forward by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, there may be experiments separating the executive role from the representative and scrutiny role in the local authority. This would occur where the authority experimented with a directly-elected mayor or a cabinet model, for example. Wherever there was a separate executive arm established there would be a requirement for the authority to have one or more scrutiny committees. These committees would have full access to information, members of the executive and the officers of the authority, and their membership would be in line with the overall political balance of the authority. That point was supported across your Lordships' House when the issue was raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee.

The power of scrutiny of a majority political party on an authority is an alternative and supplementary means of tackling corruption. The difficulty is the language which is used in connection with local government. It has been interesting to hear today the different language used in connection with control, no overall control and whether there would always be a lack of scrutiny when one party has a large majority on the local authority.

If through enabling legislation we had enhanced scrutiny, it is possible that the small number of senior officers and members of an authority which may have remained under one party control for several years will find that some of the fiercest scrutiny comes not from

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the opposition parties but from their own back bench members. Councillors on a scrutiny committee would have a number of incentives to be rigorous in their oversight of the executive, including the normal process of exercising political opposition and representing the interests of their constituents. Therefore, our package builds on the traditional strengths of local government. A major element is to enhance the degree to which councillors are able to represent fully and actively those who elect them in order to make them closer to the people.

As was recognised by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, the programme for local government is a major undertaking. It will involve legislation and could involve authorities in managing a number of significant changes simultaneously. The Government have decided that on local democracy the highest priority must be given to the broad package set out in the recent consultation paper and to the complementary introduction of best value and the new ethical framework. We are committed to fostering innovation and change in partnership with local government.

The noble Lord, Lord Tope, spoke of the judgment being made by government about priority within a programme of identified issues. Local and central government must work together to develop a radical and realistic programme for change. Delivery must not be impeded by trying to do too much at once. The noble Baroness, Lady Maddock, asked for more change. There is a rate of change which would be a rate too far in keeping the partnership approach between central and local government.

However, the Government recognise that any consideration of democratic arrangements, central or local, must necessarily include looking at voting systems. Clearly, we will have to address the issue in due course. The Government will look carefully at the issues and listen carefully to what people say. Nothing would be served by me seeking to respond to comments about the different electoral systems or their appropriateness to local government today. Claims have been made for proportional representation. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, and other noble Lords spoke about the voting patterns in, for example, the boroughs of Kensington and Chelsea and Sheffield. However, I suspect that in most years there would be a majority from one party and no overall control. Therefore, our approach to the system of scrutiny is extremely important.

The acceptability of the decisions taken by our local authorities depends on their democratic legitimacy. I have attempted to explain today that this is not merely a product of the voting system used. There is a range of views on the voting systems and many will argue for first-past-the-post, as did the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde. The Government take the view that it is necessary to ensure that we have the most suitable electoral system for the body that is to be elected.

Certain issues relate to the size and nature of the body that is to be elected. I was asked specific questions about London and what the Government are likely to do. The Government will publish a White Paper next month on

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the new strategic authority and mayor for London. It will set out the proposed electoral arrangements for the mayor and assembly. The new authority will cover more than 5 million voters and will have strategic powers and functions. The primary function of the assembly will be to hold to account the mayor for London, and the details will be published. However, in considering the proposals in the White Paper and making comparisons with local government, it must be remembered that the authority will comprise a comparatively small number of members and will have a highly strategic function. It is not necessarily comparable with other levels of authority.

As many noble Lords have said, the link between locality and councillors is important. I intend to look further at the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, with regard to the number of councillors in the areas of the country which do not have PR. From my experience as a councillor, I know that it is important to have a good relationship with the local community. At present, it will not be popular to turn to a system--for example, the STV system--which will lead to an increase in councillors of 500 per cent. As a councillor on a county council, I represented almost 14,000 people and I know that a multi-member seat would cover a large area.

We intend to ensure that we retain a local system and wish to avoid large wards or remote systems which cut people off from the local community. The Government wish to place all their weight behind the programme of democratic reform for local government. Never have a government working with local government supported such a range of exciting initiatives and opportunities to experiment. Evaluation of the radical changes which result from that programme may lead us to consider changes to voting systems. The Government are not, therefore, drawing any conclusions on the issue at the moment.

Today's debate has been helpful in teasing out some of the issues which will need to be addressed. I was particularly interested in the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, based on his particular experience. I am sure that we shall benefit from that in future debates.

My noble friend Lord Watson of Invergowrie raised many important issues and much has been made of the low turn-out in local elections. As a government, we are committed to increasing that turn-out. There are many factors. One issue is a new partnership which allows local authorities greater freedom to work with their communities after years of centralisation. Over the past 18 years, there have been many examples of tension and mistrust between levels of government.

We intend to be open and honest with local government and work through the radical programme. The noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, has given us an opportunity this afternoon to give consideration to an important aspect and subject. On many future occasions I look forward to hearing contributions from noble Lords on that subject.

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I was slightly surprised by the experience of the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, in Durham. My experience of Durham county councillors was that they were a very lively lot. Perhaps the most lively was the leader with whom it was my pleasure to work alongside in the Association of County Councils. At the age of 84, having nursed his wife until her death from Alzheimer's disease, he took up parachute jumping to raise funds. When he was asked whether it was not very stupid to parachute jump for the first time at the age of 84, he said to the young reporter, "Certainly not. If I kill myself, I lose two years. If you do, you lose 62 years". Those people were not all perhaps of the type experienced by the noble Earl.

5.31 p.m.

Baroness Hamwee: My Lords, I welcome very much the enthusiasm for democracy which has been expressed from almost all sides of the House and for the inclusiveness for which we are striving and which we are increasingly attaining in government in this country.

It appears that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, rejects that inclusiveness even of his own party in what I can only describe as "yesterday's speech". He may have missed my explanation that PR would affect the Liberal Democrats as much as it would the other parties, although that was a point made by other noble Lords. I said also that of the various arguments for PR, any benefit to the politicians was the very least.

To put the point firmly on the record, I must say that I did not talk of women as minorities. I most carefully did not use the word "minorities". Indulging myself just a little, I should say also that it is reassuring to know that the Conservatives have absolutely no new arguments against the Liberal Democrats in my own borough of Richmond-upon-Thames. Despite the relatively high council tax there which the noble Lord well knows is because of the extraordinarily low level of central government grant, the electors have continued to return Liberal Democrats with huge majorities.

Perhaps the Conservatives are comfortable only with extremes and the noble Lord does not recognise that, as my noble friend Lady Maddock said, co-operative politics hold back the extremes. He may not know either that Italy has moved to a form of AMS rather than first-past-the-post.

The general point is that it has been said around this Chamber that proportional representation will not be a panacea, nor indeed, I believe, has any noble Lord argued that no overall control--hung or balanced councils, whatever one wants to call them--is the right model and the only model. That is not the case. But proportional representation is a vital ingredient in rejuvenating local democracy. I believe that has been demonstrated today.

The noble Baroness, Lady Farrington, said that PR for local government would be considered in due course. The noble Baroness, Lady Hayman, said earlier this afternoon that she did not have a Civil Service lexicon with her. I am not sure where "in due course" comes in the hierarchy of short, very short or other courses.

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I believe that I am right to welcome the confirmation--to read between the lines--of not only PR in London but also the open mind of the Government on this issue.

My noble friend Lord Tope referred to the outcome of the borough elections in Wandsworth in 1986 and the fantasies that we might have had had the votes been reflected in the number of councillors elected. At that point, I was watching the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, who was a councillor in Wandsworth until four years ago. For him, the fantasy went on a little longer than for some other noble Lords.

In the 1890s Lord Salisbury said:

    "By democracy, I do not mean a system in which seven men tell nine men what to do".

It is that basic issue of fairness which has been central to this debate. I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to it. I do not need Papers to persuade myself of the case for PR in local government. I hope that no other noble Lords do. I beg leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion for Papers, by leave, withdrawn.

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