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Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

5 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I hear the "Hear, hears". They may well be behind me, but, in my experience, that is not always supportive. I am briefly indicating the outturn of the Welsh assembly elections. At the last general election, the Conservative Party gained about 20 per cent. of the vote in Wales but no MPs. It was the same general story in Scotland. We want an assembly in Wales, which on Second Reading all your Lordships said ought to be made to work, bearing in mind the result of the referendum. We have produced a system which is not fiddled. It is constructed and designed so that if the Tory Party in Wales gains 20 per cent. of the votes it will have 12 seats out of 60; in other words, a perfectly proportional and proportionate representation. We have said, and many Members on the Benches opposite have agreed, that the Welsh assembly and the Scottish parliament cannot be made to work properly without being made inclusive and therefore without having such a system of elections as will produce a representative proportionate result.

I respect the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, because he sticks firmly to his principled approach that it must always be first-past-the-post. But sometimes first-past-the-post notoriously produces imbalance; it can produce an unfortunate, overpowerful imbalance in some circumstances. One well remembers in 1951 that the Labour Party, which had a majority of the popular vote, had a minority of the representation in Parliament. Therefore, it is not as simple as the noble Lord contends. But I repeat that I respect his position because if it were put into effect it would be to his party's disadvantage undoubtedly in Wales and undoubtedly in Scotland.

My noble friend Lord Evans of Parkside invited me to deal briefly with the issue of STV. It might be more appropriate if I deploy my submissions and propositions when the noble Lord, Lord Alton, puts forward his amendment. But the fact is that if one had STV, for instance, in the south-east region there would be about 6 million electors possibly having to express up to 50 preferences. I shall develop those illustrations later, but in those circumstances it would be exceptionally difficult.

As the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, indicated on his worked scheme, it is true that the mechanism of distributing the votes may seem arcane and not the usual

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topic of conversation in the saloon bar of the pub. However, the voter does not make that calculation; he simply casts his vote. Therefore, perhaps one should not be misguidedly led to the conclusion that it makes it difficult for the elector.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: I thank the noble Lord for giving way. Does he accept that if the regional list were broken into multi-member seats the point he makes about the south-east could easily be overcome? Secondly, if STV is such a bad system why does he favour it in this Bill in respect of Northern Ireland? Furthermore, should not he be arguing that the closed party list system should be introduced there and in voting for the forthcoming Northern Ireland assembly?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I promised myself and your Lordships that I would try to stick to the amendment, but I shall deal with the question that the noble Lord asked. Northern Ireland has strange circumstances indeed. They are not the same as we have enjoyed in Scotland, Wales and England. It was thought that if one had first-past-the-post in Northern Ireland one would not achieve an appropriate representation. In fact, STV is generally thought to have worked well in Northern Ireland. There have been two unionists and one SDLP members of the European Parliament since 1979. The electorate is different, the local circumstances are different and I believe that the argument is different.

As I said on Second Reading, I do not believe that one can always solve such constitutional problems by saying, "Ah, this system is not one of perfect symmetry". I do not, of course, allude to your Lordships' House as possibly being somewhat asymmetrical, but I might have had I not been so polite. I do not think that it is an argument. I believe that they are reasonable questions to raise, but I do not believe that they define the conclusion of the argument.

Many of your Lordships have been concerned-- I respect it and hope to claim that I understand it--about the over-strong party system. That is a factor of modern life in all parties, as I said on Second Reading or perhaps in answer to an intervention from the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. We know notoriously that some Conservatives have been excluded from any possibility of standing as Conservative MEP candidates. Winston Churchill is one of them. That may be right or it may be wrong, but it illustrates the proposition which I sought to make earlier that it is parties which bring forward candidates.

I have heard none of your Lordships say that we ought to go to the United States system, which is possible and would develop the libertarian argument further, which would be to have write-in votes. I do not believe that that solution is likely to find favour in this country partly because of the difficulty of a write-in candidate being able to present his or her views to the electorate and partly because, like it or not, since the end of the 19th century we have fundamentally depended on party organisation, party membership and party funding in order to generate the enthusiasm among a small number of activists who make elections in this country work at whatever level. In that I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington.

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I readily agree that all the propositions that have been put forward have some worth to them. It would be foolish to pretend differently. There are some attractions to the Belgian system which the Home Secretary undertook to examine. He looked at it with some care and reached the conclusion,--it has already been set out by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, and I shall not repeat it--that that would be an inappropriate solution.

We believe that the solution that we have is likely to be the better of the four alternatives. On that basis, not least the fact that one has an unacceptable discrimination against women and ethnic minorities in our parliamentary and electoral system, to our eternal shame, we believe that the party should be able to make that scrupulous choice, if it wishes, and present itself to the electorate.

I repeat that I do not dismiss any of the arguments because many are persuasive to one degree or another. But the noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that all political solutions are compromises; well, almost all. Ours is a compromise and I believe that it is the best available on the menu.

Lord Waddington: Before the noble Lord sits down, will he address his mind to the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shore of Stepney, about the death of an MEP and the seat becoming vacant? The noble Lord, Lord Shore, made the point that at present, the next person on the list is brought forward and takes the place of the person who has died. But is there not another grave defect which emerges simply because of the selection of lists by parties?

Let us take, for example, the north west where there are 10 people to be elected. In the case of the Conservative Party, even in our most optimistic moments, we should not expect, in a good year, to win more than five of those seats. Therefore, the consequence is that the party selects 10 people and the last five on the list, when they discover that they are the last and not the first five, say, "Thank you for nothing". The last five on the list say, "We have been very happy to come along to this selection conference but we were hoping to come first, second, third or fourth and we have not. Therefore we are very sorry but we do not wish our names to go forward". What happens then? The five failed candidates who did not come within the first 10 are brought forward on the list and take the next places on the list.

Does that not mean that if a vacancy occurs, not only is someone brought forward who nobody has ever heard of to the immense surprise of the electorate but somebody is brought forward who has already been determined to be completely useless? He has failed in the selection process and has only reached sixth on the list because the other five at the bottom of the list withdrew.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: Someone who is not elected as part of the party list is not necessarily, by definition, completely useless. After all, he has had the endorsement of his party to reach the list in the first place. Therefore, I should not be so harsh in my description.

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We shall deal with this situation in particular when we reach the amendments to Schedule 2 tabled by the noble Lords, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and Lord Henley. Therefore, I shall answer the point quite briefly because we shall consider those amendments tomorrow. There will be a by-election but only in limited circumstances; that is, where there has been the death or resignation of an MEP who is an independent or where the appropriate party list is exhausted. Therefore, noble Lords are correct that by-elections will take place in a minority of situations.

If a list MEP dies or resigns, the intention is that the seat should be filled by the next eligible and--I take the noble Lord's point--willing person on the party list. Therefore, if someone had perhaps become utterly disenchanted with the Conservative Party in the immediate aftermath of European elections and wished to join the Labour Party, as I believe sometimes happens in your Lordships' House, the disenchanted would not be eligible to take over the seat.

5.15 p.m.

Lord Waddington: I am sorry to interrupt the noble Lord again but he has missed my point. I am not talking about post-election; I am talking about post-selection. What is already occurring is that when the list is first compiled by the party, those who come towards the bottom of the list do not wish to contest the election in the sure knowledge that their efforts will come to nothing because their party does not have a cat-in-hell's chance of winning seven, eight, nine or 10 of the seats in the north west. Therefore, they withdraw at that stage and the people who are brought forward onto the list before the election are not the first, second or third choices of the party managers. They are brought on simply to fill up the list because the people who have been chosen are not prepared to waste their time for three weeks on a campaign knowing perfectly well that they cannot possibly be elected.

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