Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Waddington: This amendment is an attempt to make the party list idea more palatable by giving the voter a chance to vote for an individual. But the party list will still exist; it will still operate in vast regions; there will still be no group of electors for whom a specific MEP will have specific responsibility. There will be no one person to whom an elector will be able to turn in the knowledge that that MEP will accept the elector's problem as his responsibility and not the responsibility of an MP for another party or an MEP whose home is in another part of the region.

If I understand the system correctly, the advantage is that it will allow the electors to show their disapproval of and seek to remove from the list any disreputable person who has somehow or other found his way on to the list. That is an extremely important consideration. The Home Secretary in another place said that the electorate's remedy was to refuse to vote for the list which included a bad egg; that is, an elector should, in the case of the north west, vote against nine good eggs in order to get rid of one bad egg. When one is talking about proportionality, that way of dealing with the problem is quite disproportionate to the existing problem.

It is frivolous to say that the only way we can get rid of somebody who has blotted his copy book is to vote against every other member of the party who appears on the list. Therefore I give cautious approval to what has been said from the Liberal Democrat Benches for that one reason. However, I am still gravely upset at the fact that we are introducing an electoral system based on party lists, and particularly party lists covering such regions. But it is a marginal improvement to a bad scheme.

3.45 p.m.

Earl Russell: I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, for at least a number of the comments he made. I should perhaps say a little more about the way the amendment works. It is, of its nature, a compromise. But, as we all know, the task of making politics work is always one of looking for compromise. Therefore, to say that it is a compromise is not any criticism of it.

It is often said--the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, quoted someone saying it; I believe it was the Home Secretary but did not catch it exactly--that a large number of voters are not particularly interested in

24 Jun 1998 : Column 257

who the candidates are, do not know much about them and do not have any specific urge to vote for one candidate rather than another. It is possible to exaggerate how true that is and I say that with respect to my former MEP--the noble Lord, Lord Bethell--who is in his place. Nevertheless, I do not contest the basic principle. There are a number of such people, but there are also a number of other people--perhaps a minority--who feel strongly that they are much more ready to support some candidates put forward by their party than others.

It is equally true that those of us who wish to exercise the right of free speech or wish to write letters to the papers are also a minority. But the whole House will agree that blocking up that loophole because the people who wish to exercise it are a minority would be a grave threat to the freedom of the whole country.

Similarly, it can be argued that even if those who wish to vote for or against a specific candidate are a minority, it is an important part of our being a free country that they should have that right. That is why this system is a compromise. It gives voters a chance either to vote for the party list or to vote for one individual candidate on that party list as a personal vote.

At Second Reading the Minister said that the Government's objection to the scheme was that the way the candidates came out in the final order was not in exact proportion to the number of individual votes for that specific candidate. Of course, that is the very essence of a compromise. The compromise is between the candidate's ordering on the party list and the number of individual votes given for that candidate. Those two figures are dovetailed in order to produce a list which represents both things together. It is perhaps illogical in its way, but most compromises contain a degree of illogicality. I do not believe that any Member of this Committee would argue that therefore the compromise should be given up.

Mr. Khrushchev was probably quite right that if people had to choose between freedom and goulash, they would choose goulash. But I thank our lucky stars that that proposition is not true of everybody. Those people in the minority to whom that does not apply are a very great part of a healthy body politic.

It seems to me that there is a real danger, in a list where the voters cannot express a preference between the candidates--not only as indicated by survey material--that there may be a great degree of frustration among voters. Even if they do not want to exercise the right, they may feel frustrated at being deprived of it. There may be frustration also because the candidates and even more the sitting members are not accountable to the electorate. That breaks a basic link. If there is one thing which is clear, it is that candidates and, even more, sitting members, will be likely to do whatever they need to get their seats and to keep them. In a democracy I would have thought it was tautological that, in order to obtain one's seat and keep it, one needs to please the voters. Under a totally closed list, that is not the case. That is something which I find contains some potential menace to democracy.

24 Jun 1998 : Column 258

I make no party point here. The power of patronage in politics is eternal. It goes back as far as records. No party can claim to be immune from it. But just because that power of patronage is so intense, I view with some misgivings the prospect of extending that power and making it even greater than it now is.

I say to the party physically on my left that this is not a perfect amendment. However, the point made by my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham in relation to the need for redistribution is substantial. It is also important in politics to try to do what is capable of producing success. This amendment is one about which the Home Secretary at times indicated an open mind; the other is not. We on these Benches therefore believe that this amendment might be capable of success when it seems quite unlikely that their's would. When it comes to the point therefore I hope that they bear that in mind.

Lord Shore of Stepney: I cannot pretend that I have any great affection for the European Parliament and to describe it as a "parliament"--I do not wish to go over ground that has already been covered--is a genuine misnomer. It gives to representatives who are elected a kind of bogus status; as though they were genuine parliamentarians in the sense that our elected parliamentarians are genuine in the House of Commons. It gives them a spurious authority. I can conceive of times arising when opinions spoken by MEPs in the name of the electorate clash with views expressed by elected representatives in our genuine Parliament here in the House of Commons. It cannot be helpful that they should share the same description--the use of the common word "Parliament". But I put that on one side.

I also put on one side, because I think it is more appropriate to a Second Reading debate than to the Committee stage, the whole adoption of the electoral system of proportional representation. It is a major innovation for our country apart from Northern Ireland, and one for which I do not myself have any great sympathy, although I acknowledge there is a difference simply because of the different status of the European Parliament from our own Parliament. There is a difference of function which perhaps makes proportional representation not quite so objectionable as it would be in our own House of Commons.

I want to focus on the matter on which the noble Earl, Lord Russell, touched. I refer to the basic issue: do we go for an open or a closed regional list system? I should have thought that we would instinctively be opposed to a closed system, partly because it gives great power to the party managers and there is a real danger that patronage and other devices can be brought to bear to bring forward favoured sons of the party leadership rather than people who, on genuine merit and by popular acclaim, are the kind of people who would, if their names were on the list, be voted for. In addition, there is the other very serious disadvantage that under a closed regional list system there can never be a by-election. By-elections have a certain value in showing how opinions are changing and what matters are of particular concern to people. But in this system a Member may pass away, he may resign or anything else might happen

24 Jun 1998 : Column 259

to him, and the vacancy is declared. What happens? The party managers look at the next name on the list, of whom perhaps we have never heard before, and he or she becomes the new Member. Those are serious disadvantages.

I understand that good motives can be in the minds of those who wish to control the listing of candidates. They may genuinely wish to promote groups that they think are under-represented, such as women or members of ethnic communities. I do not go for that positive discrimination approach myself but I understand that a number of people do. I think they are misguided and I think that both women and representatives of ethnic communities can win acclaim and office on their own merits without any spurious favouritism being bestowed upon them.

I now come to what to me was in a way the most baffling aspect of the whole matter. That was the actual reason advanced by the Home Secretary. He obviously gave serious thought to the matter--he is a man of high intelligence--and yet came out against what he described as the Belgian system. He came out in favour of the closed system and rejected the alternative open Belgian system on the grounds that it suffered from a kind of irremediable defect, a

    "fundamental and incurable weakness",
because it did not follow that the people who got the most individual votes were going to be successful.

Incidentally, the reason that that would not happen is that under the Belgian system voters can also vote for the anonymous party. They can vote not just for individuals but for the party. A large number of them do vote for the party and then the party allocates those anonymous votes to its own order of preference. That may not be the same as the number of votes cast for someone else on the list who has not been favoured by the allocation of these anonymous votes. I understand that. It may cause a good deal of resentment, but that is a resentment with which people have to put up. The electors have a right to know whom they are voting for--that is very important--and to be able to choose them.

I come to my last point of substance. The Home Secretary puzzled me by citing the Belgian system and subjecting it to the serious criticisms that I have listed. But the Belgian system is not the only open regional list system. There is the Luxembourg system and there are indeed other systems. Under those systems you have to vote for a named person. You cannot simply vote for the party. Where that happens, surely, the Home Secretary's objection that people might be upset because, whereas they have the largest number of individual votes, they do not actually get elected in the end, simply vanishes, because those who get the most votes as individuals will indeed be elected as Members of the European Parliament.

I ask my noble friend to help me and to help the Committee in examining the case further. Am I right in what I have said about the Belgian system and about the alternative Luxembourg system? If I am right about the Belgian system, surely the Luxembourg system, if it is

24 Jun 1998 : Column 260

as I have described it, is much to be preferred and does not suffer from those disadvantages which led my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to turn it down in the first place and to adopt a closed system.

I hope very much that these additional points will now be seriously considered, with the result that we shall in the end choose an open system.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page