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Lord Holme of Cheltenham: There is certainly a very strong case for having an election commission in this country to deal with the very large number of issues which arise in a democratic society with regard to the conduct of elections. That was the conclusion of the commission of the Hansard Society chaired by the right honourable Christopher Chataway on an all-party basis. Indeed, it was a manifesto commitment of this party and, I think, of the Government that there should be established an independent election commission to deal with a range of matters, including the efficacy of voting systems, the conduct of elections, broadcasting and other matters which are otherwise argued on a wholly partisan basis. We on these Benches very much support the idea of such a comprehensive election commission rather than having these matters reduced, as they so often are, to partisan sharp elbows. When the Minister replies, I shall be interested to know whether it is still the position of the Labour Government that there should be an election commission of that kind.

I find it more difficult to support the proposal in the amendment that there is something so idiosyncratic about this particular election that it needs a particular commission to look into it. When the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, replies, he might substantially affect my views by telling me whether the Conservative Party supports an election commission with a wider general role rather than a commission which is slipped in when there is a particular Bill that it does not like the look of.

Earl Russell: I am in entire agreement with my noble friend Lord Holme of Cheltenham. If I were to think of a text to apply to this amendment, I fear I would choose:

The amendment addresses a task which can already be done three different ways. I do not think we need a fourth.

The noble Lord should be aware of an article written by Edward McMillan-Scott, leader of his own party in the European Parliament, in the House magazine of 25th May. The European Parliament is itself reviewing its methods of election with a view to reaching a common system. I notice that the noble Lord's party is proposing the outlawing of the closed list through that system. That would bring about change without any need of this amendment. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, so carefully explained to the House with regard to Gibraltar, a British Parliament cannot alter European law. If the matter were addressed as the noble Lord's party wishes, it would make the amendment entirely redundant.

Secondly, there is a case for making a greater degree of uniformity between the different electoral systems which we are setting up in the British Isles. Before the next European parliamentary election, the commission chaired by my noble friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead will have reported. The electorate will have formed a

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view upon it. That might give guidance to what type of electoral system would be most appropriate if there were a change.

Thirdly, the noble Lord's attachment to first- past-the-post appears to be totally immutable. He has been accused of having learned nothing and forgotten nothing. I am certain that if the noble Lord's party should by any chance be in office at that time, it would then, using the sovereign power that Parliament has until European law restricts it, achieve the distinction of being the first government ever to introduce first-past-the-post anywhere since the invention of political parties.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I fully appreciate and understand the intention behind the amendments and I am grateful for the way they were described. I shall speak first to Amendments Nos. 26A and 26B. We do not believe that these are necessary devices. We already have a working group which has been set up on the basis of past experience with other elections. It is chaired by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office. It is now reviewing all aspects of electoral procedure in the light of last year's general election. In response to the question put by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, the discussions of that working group will include consideration of whether or not there is a case for establishing an electoral commission.

The European parliamentary election in June 1999 will be the first to be held under a new electoral system. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. Obviously, we shall want to review the conduct and operation of that election. I am happy to tell the Committee that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary gave an assurance when the Bill was in another place that such a review would take place and, importantly, that the results would be placed before Parliament. There will therefore be an opportunity for parliamentary review and scrutiny.

We do not believe that it is right to prescribe by statute that a particular kind of review should be established. We believe that it is best to leave the procedure as it has been in the past; namely, that the most appropriate review is decided by the government and then discussed by Parliament.

Amendments Nos. 26C and 27A would have the effect of preventing the new Act coming into force until an independent commission had, first, met; secondly, considered the relative merits of first-past-the-post and the system provided for in the Bill; and, thirdly, reported. That would mean that the new electoral system could not be in place for the next European parliamentary election on 10th June 1999. That would be quite impossible. I am sure that that is not the consequence desired by the noble Lords who put down these amendments. We have a clear manifesto commitment to have a proportional voting system for European parliamentary elections. That is what we seek to deliver in the Bill.

Amendment No. 27A is a little different. It requires both Houses to affirm that legislation, which both would have passed, should come into force. We do not believe

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that that is necessary. There are limited precedents for this. The Easter Act 1928 springs immediately to mind. That introduced a fixed date for Easter, subject to an affirmative resolution, so that Parliament could consider whether religious objections to the fixed date had ever been overcome. As far as I have been able to detect, they have not been overcome and that provision has never been brought into force. There is also the Representation of the People Act 1985 which contained similar provisions relating to absent voting in Northern Ireland which could be commenced if the issue became a problem there. Those provisions were also subject to affirmative resolution and have never been used. The precedents depend on contingent events. There are no contingent events in this case.

We shall have the reviews, and they will be discussed by Parliament. I hope that I have been able to satisfy the Committee on the points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, and on the point on the electoral commission raised by the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I am grateful to the Minister for the assurance that there will be reviews, although, if the reviews are to be chaired by the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Home Office, I am not sure that they will be of quite the status that I asked for, nor that they will have the independence that I should like to see. I leave that aside because, of course, I accept that all Ministers of the Crown are entirely independent when they chair committees of this nature and that they do not bring any political baggage with them. At least, that is what happened in the previous government, and the opposition always believed it.

I am not sure that the noble Earl, Lord Russell, is right about nobody starting first-past-the-post. As I understand it, the New Zealanders are trying desperately to get back to it as quickly as they possibly can, having gone down this road. Although I would have to check, I think that the Italians have gone at least part of the way back to first-past-the-post from the electoral system they used to have. The noble Earl dissents, and I accept his dissent. I know that it was the intention of the Berlusconi Government to try to get back to first-past-the-post and that they made some changes to the electoral system.

I am not one of those who thinks that in Britain we should ape what is done in other countries. If we did that, our history would be very different. Indeed, the history of the world might be quite different and a deal more unpleasant when it comes to most of this century. I do not think that it is necessarily a bad thing that we do things differently in this country; nor do I think that it is a bad thing that other countries do things differently from the way we do them. As someone said yesterday--I think it was the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington--uniformity is a bit like silence; it is what you get in a graveyard. I am not too bothered about the fact that we do things differently from the way other countries do them. I am prepared to learn from them, but I am not prepared to work on the assumption that

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they must always be right, and I must always be wrong. It is possible that our system suits us and their system suits them.

Turning to the commission, the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, may recollect that last summer, when we were dealing with the Referendums (Scotland and Wales) Bill, I was keen that the Government should set up a commission and introduce a proper Bill dealing with referendums. That would involve a commission studying those referendums. To say therefore that I am a "Johnny-come-lately" to this matter omits many happy hours we spent last July on these issues.

However, whether it be this Bill, the Scottish Bill or the Welsh Bill, we will have three different systems-- I know that the Scottish and Welsh systems are almost the same, but they are not quite because of the number of additional members in each constituency. I am still attracted to the idea of setting up an independent commission to look at all of those elections, not just this one. I accept that Amendment No. 26A concerns just this one, but one must ride one's hobby horses on the vehicle available and it is the European Parliamentary Elections Bill that is before us.

Perhaps at a later stage we can explore the possibility of the Government setting up an independent body to look at all the electoral systems that will be in being in this country by the end of next year, thus giving us a chance of an independent report. I believe the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, would like to intervene.

4 p.m.

Lord Bruce of Donington: I am sorry that I am unable to support the amendment tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, on behalf of the Opposition. In particular, the instrument of this Bill does not seem to me to be the correct place in which to put the idea that we should appoint a commission. We do not need to prevent the operation of the Bill by insisting on the insertion that we should now appoint a commission to do something after the Bill has come into operation. That will be a matter to consider after the Bill has come into operation and after the forthcoming elections have been held.

At the same time, I urge my noble friend to realise to the full the implications of what we are about to do, particularly in relation to the existing political divisions--both the Westminster constituencies for the election to our own British Parliament and also the existing constituencies for the European election that will be subsumed in the new arrangements.

The dislocations will be considerable. In that connection I tried to do some research as to the effects that will occur when redistribution of seats takes place. It has been a little difficult for me--I suspect for other members of the Committee also--to obtain copies of the precise boundaries involved in the various divisions. I found considerable difficulty in obtaining maps that show the three positions to which I refer--the Westminster constituencies, the European constituencies as they now exist and the European boundaries as they

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will exist on the assumption that this Bill is passed. It would be nice if one could be furnished with copies of the maps that show the precise divisions.

In so far as one has been able to make an examination, there can be no doubt that the effects on constituency parties will be considerable. If one endeavours to superimpose one map upon another, the constituencies that will be affected and the members of the constituency parties that will be invited to work the new constituencies--very much larger ones than the European Parliament--are as follows: Hampshire North West will be split; Newbury will be split; Penrith and The Border will be split; in the London constituencies there will be cuts in Hertsmere, Broxbourne, Brentwood and Ongar, Enfield, Chingford and Woodford, Upminster, Orpington, Epsom and Ewell, Hayes and Harlington and Twickenham.

All those areas will be split in their membership allegiance across the final constituency boundaries with all the consequences that I ventured to suggest last night. They will be torn as to which lists they will vote for--those with which they formerly had some parliamentary matters in common or those about which they know nothing. Complications will arise. Similarly, when the present European parliamentary constituencies are spread around over the new series of 71 (or 81 in total), once again existing constituencies will be split and transfers will take place from one to another. That will produce further enormous complications.

What I am troubled about and venture to reiterate is that, in view of the fact that most of the active work in all the new European constituencies will be carried out by members of existing constituency parties returning candidates to Westminster, a degree of apathy and uninterest may be produced which will reflect badly upon the whole election. I ask the Government to consider the point very seriously. I express no hope in the matter; I am all for full participation in the democratic process. But if, in the event, the total amount of the electorate that participate is as low as 15 per cent. nationwide, then somebody's face would be extremely red and there would be no anxiety to continue the system.

I therefore urge that these matters be considered now before we commit ourselves irrevocably. I do not believe however that at this stage we can put anything in the Bill. Rather, the Government should themselves prepare for what is likely to occur after the election.

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