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Lord Onslow of Woking: My Lords, I disagree strongly with the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, and shall explain briefly why.

Today we are faced with the introduction of a system which is capable of abuse. The Ministers on the Government Front Bench admitted that. It is generally agreed that there is potential for abuse in the system as it stands in the Bill. I believe--I hope that I can take the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, with me--that Parliament has a duty to protect the electorate and to ensure that all votes are of equal value. If the proposition in the Bill is passed as it stands, all votes in the future will not necessarily be of equal value. That is fundamentally wrong.

I add that I do not believe that, in matters concerning the representation of the people, self-regulation is enough. The law should defend the people. We cannot rely on political parties to do so. The suggestion that some condition should be laid down in the Registration of Political Parties Bill is fatuous. The law should protect the people and it is our function today to see that it does.

Even if we accept the self-denying statements of all party leaders represented here today that they would never take part in such a cynical manipulation as was

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outlined by my noble friend, this is not a matter necessarily confined to political parties. A non-political organisation may intervene in an election seeking to influence events. It may stand under some such trendy name as "the Peoples' Partnership". It may be in sympathy with two parties at once; for example, the Labour Party and the Liberal Party. It would be a crypto-Lib-Lab party. But it would not be registered as such. It would be a national pressure group and it may well attract support from the media. It is not impossible that the Sun may find it in its interests to give "the Peoples' Partnership" a fair wind in its pages.

The effect would be to encourage the transfer of support in the first ballot from the Labour Party to the second ballot and thus to the Liberal Party. The devaluation of the Conservative Party would be total, as noble Lords should be able to see. It is not encouraging that, while admitting that the problem exists, the Government failed entirely to deal with it. All they say--I suppose Minsters will say the same today--is that there is a problem, but that the remedy is worse than the problem. I find that difficult to accept.

My noble friend is entirely right. Shame on a Government claiming to be purer than pure that they should seek to enshrine in law a manipulative device like this.

Viscount Bledisloe: My Lords, having heard the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, on this topic several times, I think I now see that there is a real problem, certainly mathematically. I am also prepared to accept that it is a problem that is not just mathematical but is real, because from these Benches I am perfectly prepared to believe that any political party will commit any dirty trick which it thinks will be to its own advantage. However, having said that, I have to say also that, at least in regard to the first solution of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, the remedy is worse than the problem. On that I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Thomas. Surely the remedy propounded by the noble Lord is a total discouragement to anyone voting for a candidate on account of his individual characteristics. If, by voting for an individual because he is a very good MP or voting against him because he is a very bad one, one is then doing the same as voting for the list of candidates who come behind him, one is discouraging any form of choice of individuals. It seems extraordinary that it should be suggested in this House that we should discourage choice of individuals on their merits rather than merely by their party label.

The solution to this problem lies in the Registration of Political Parties Bill because the whole matter comes from the noble Lord's assumption that one can register two parties, one of which is a stalking-horse for the other. Why cannot that Bill provide that no party shall be registered without giving an undertaking that it is a genuine independent party and also make provision for deregistration if it uses itself merely as a stalking-horse for another, in the way the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, suggested.

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There is a problem. To my mind, the solution is unacceptable. But surely it can be thought out that other way.

The Solicitor-General (Lord Falconer of Thoroton): My Lords, as many noble Lords have pointed out, we have discussed this issue on a number of occasions and every time I have heard it debated, the noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has made a truly great speech. Like all great advocates, he puts his case brilliantly and omits to mention any save the weakest arguments against his case.

Perhaps I may summarise the Government's position. First, we think it is unlikely that the problem will occur but we accept the theoretical possibility of the problem. I draw attention, as the noble Lord fairly did, to the fact that each of the major parties has undertaken not to indulge in the kind of practice to which he has referred. Secondly, if the practice was indulged in, we believe that the people of Wales, no doubt assisted by the media, would very quickly see through the kind of manipulation that the noble Lord has in mind. Thirdly, in any event, all the proposals that have been put by the noble Lord, whether today or on other occasions, are much worse than the problem he appears to perceive in this area.

As I understood the noble Lord's speech this afternoon, he is proposing alternative solutions. The first is that your vote for your constituency member should be counted for regional list purposes. The second--I am not sure whether it is an alternative or is part of the first solution--is that you can put up a regional list only if your party stands in half of the ordinary constituencies.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord for giving way. They are alternatives.

3.45 p.m.

Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, that is how I understood the noble Lord's speech.

Perhaps I may deal with the first of the noble Lord's proposals; namely, that your constituency candidate would then be counted for the purposes of the regional list. As the noble Lord rightly pointed out, that would give each voter only one vote. The vote would be taken automatically to be a vote for the same party's list in the electoral region. On the noble Lord's first proposal, voters would not have the option to vote for the party list. They would have to take the composition of the list into consideration when making their constituency selection. That would reduce the election for the four additional members in each electoral region to an indirect election.

If voters want to vote for the candidate of one party in the constituency and for the list of another party in the electoral region, why should they not have that choice? That point was made by the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble Viscount, Lord Bledisloe. Under the noble Lord's proposal, you would have to vote for a particular party if you wanted that to be reflected in the electoral region. We believe that is not democratic and does not give effect to a direct election system.

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The second problem with the noble Lord's proposal is that it would have a serious impact on the ability of small parties to mount a realistic campaign for seats in the assembly. It would, as he expressly acknowledged, prevent independent candidates from being candidates at regional level. For smaller parties, their main hope for winning seats in the assembly may be the party list vote in the electoral region. To maximise its potential for party list seats, a small party would have to run candidates in all the constituencies in the electoral region. That would be a daunting prospect for such a party, which would have to find suitable candidates and the resources to contest between seven and nine constituencies per region. That may be beyond many of them. Why should they be denied the opportunity to concentrate their resources to their best advantage? Why should not the electorate have the option of voting for particular favoured constituency candidates but for small parties in the regional list? I submit, for the reasons I have given, that the noble Lord's proposal is much worse than the problem as he perceives it.

His alternative proposal, as presently drafted, is contradictory. He proposes to amend Clause 5(1) to say that a registered political party may submit a list of candidates to be assembly members for the assembly electoral region provided it puts up candidates in half of the constituencies in the region. It permits a party to put up a regional list only where it has candidates in half the constituencies. Yet the second part of Amendment No. 2 states:

    "A registered political party shall submit a list of candidates to be Assembly members for each Assembly electoral region in which there is a candidate of the party in at least one half of the Assembly constituencies included in that Assembly electoral region".

The first part of the amendment provides that a party is allowed to put up a regional list if it has candidates in at least half of the constituency seats; the second part of the amendment provides that once a party has put up candidates in half of the constituencies it has to put up a regional list. The amendment is contradictory. It is doing precisely what the noble Lord said he was not doing in his second amendment; namely, requiring a party to put up a regional list where it stands in half of the constituencies.

As a matter of drafting, the amendment is fundamentally flawed. But the problem goes further than simply drafting because one cannot tell from the amendment which of the two choices the noble Lord has made. Is he saying that a party has to put up a regional list when it has candidates in at least half the assembly constituencies, or is he saying that a party may put up a list when it stands in half of the constituency seats?

Whichever it is, all parties wanting to put forward a party list for an electoral region would be required to contest at least half the seats in that region. In four of the regions that would mean contesting four constituencies and in the North Wales region the threshold would be five seats. I do not accept that the state should be entitled to exercise such authority over the political parties. It is for the parties to decide where to mount their campaigns and where to target their resources. We should not be directing their involvement in the political process. It would be very wrong if we

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were to oblige parties to engage in what were token contests in some areas simply to allow them to pursue their real intent in another.

I do not exaggerate when I refer to token contests. Parties which ran candidates in at least half the constituencies in a region would be obliged to put forward a party list for that region, whether they wanted to or not. Why should these token contests be inflicted on the electorate? What intrinsic democratic purpose would they serve? We would have party lists which were no more than penalties imposed for exceeding the approved threshold for the number of constituency candidates in a region. The noble Lord has not addressed any of those concerns. It was the skill of his speech that made the argument sound so attractive. He did not address the real problems in the proposals that he was making. We have thought carefully about the problem that the noble Lord identified, which we accept exists in theory. But for all the reasons I have given I submit that both his solutions are substantially worse than the alleged problem. I invite the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment. If he is not minded to do so, I invite the House to reject it.

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