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European Parliamentary Elections Bill

8.8 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This is the sixth occasion that this Bill has been brought before this House so my place, if not in history, but at least in the Guinness Book of Records, is well secured. On every prior occasion the wishes of the elected Chamber were thwarted and they were spurned

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in a particular way. It was the power of the hereditary veto which won on every occasion. I do not know whether we shall see that again tonight. But even if we do, all it will mean is that the Bill will become law a good deal quicker than if we had gone through the stages of this Bill in the normal way. I suppose that that would be what some lawyers call an uncovenanted benefit.

The Bill is perfectly simple. It introduces a system of proportional representation--a manifesto commitment--using a party list system. It is worth bearing in mind therefore that it replicates the system for Northern Ireland which was introduced by the Conservative Government. It puts into the European equation the scheme already adopted in both Houses in the Scotland Act and in the Government of Wales Act. We should bear that fact in mind.

I know that your Lordships will not want me to wander about the Bill any further, because I believe that I have done so on a number of previous occasions. Indeed, there cannot be anyone in the world, let alone in your Lordships' House, who does not know and is deeply interested in the intricacies of whether or not the party list should be open, simple or closed.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, said on an earlier occasion that it is different in Wales because it is only part of the electoral system. Exactly so: 20 out of 60. But which 20? If the general election results were broadly the same in the Welsh Assembly elections, it would be the very 20 seats and the only 20 seats that the Conservatives could possibly hope to get. So it is different; it is different, to the advantage of the Conservative Party in Wales. However, I am sure that that is just coincidental.

To assert that this is a principled rejection of a government Bill is humbug. It is most attractive humbug and attractively displayed, as I heard it described this morning on the "Today" programme by the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde; but it is still humbug. We know what the advantages of the system are: it provides and produces a proportionate outcome. It enables women, ethnic minorities and areas of particular expertise to be more fully and fairly represented. It avoids internal party candidates fighting each other as well as the opposition--the point made by Lord Bethell, which has never been answered. Let us not overlook the fact that voters in this country have never ever been asked to choose between rival candidates for the same party.

Finally, and most importantly, candidate A cannot be elected with fewer votes than candidate B in the same election. On every occasion when I trespassed on your Lordships' past patience I have made those points and no one has ever challenged any one of them on every occasion. The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, has certainly gone on the Scottish and Welsh theme, but he has never challenged any of my propositions.

There are 60 million people living in our country. The wishes of the Chamber elected by that country have been flouted by 700 families, or their present representatives. Mr. Hague's hereditaries--that component of our legislature which he is on record as

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describing as "silly"--have won so far. Mr. Hague has either directed the use of the hereditary veto or he has connived in it on five distinct occasions. That is the true struggle of principle. Is unaccountable power to triumph over elected representatives and their wishes?

I do not intend to say any more. I believe deeply and unshakeably that this continued abuse of entrenched power is a very profoundly wrong thing to do.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--(Lord Williams of Mostyn.)

8.13 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish rose to move, as an amendment to the Motion, That the Bill be now read a second time, to leave out all the words after "That" and insert "this House declines to give the European Parliamentary Elections Bill a Second Reading on the grounds that it includes an undemocratic 'closed list' system providing for the selection of MEPs by party choice, an approach which would end the historic right of the British people to choose the candidates they wish to be elected, a step for which the House notes with great concern no mandate was sought or given at the last general election".

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the amendment standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Perhaps I may, first, congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, on his stamina. I think that two Second Readings in one day is not too bad. Perhaps we can forgive him for the brevity of his speech in introducing this particular Bill. Indeed, perhaps we may also forgive him because we know that the argument in favour of a closed list as against the open list is pretty fragile and that it is much easier to have a go at your Lordships' House than it is actually to debate the issues involved in the Bill, especially the particular issue which your Lordships have felt obliged to debate with the other place.

In moving my reasoned amendment tonight, I am actually inviting noble Lords to bring the issue to a decision now. We could allow the Bill a Second Reading and in January we could go through the various stages and insert our previous amendments, if that was your Lordships' wish, in favour of the open list. Then, some time in the second part of January--but, I suspect, no later--we would get to the moment of decision. We would have to decide whether to insist on our principled stand and, if we did, the Government would have to decide whether or not to use the Parliament Act.

I am inviting your Lordships to advance that decision by a very few weeks. If noble Lords decide to support me in the Lobbies tonight and carry my amendment, the Government would have three choices. They could, of course, drop the whole idea and go back to first-past-the-post. They could come forward with a No. 2 Bill with the open list in it--a Bill to which I would be advising my noble friends to give a speedy passage. Alternatively, as the noble Baroness the Leader

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of the House said to your Lordships on 18th November, they could introduce the Bill "in the next Session", which they have done,

    "under the procedures of the Parliament Acts".--[Official Report, 18/11/98; col. 1360.]
So they could in fact use the Parliament Acts.

Indeed, nothing we can do will prevent the Government getting the Bill if they choose to do that. I make no complaint in that respect. I actually believe that, ultimately, the Commons should get their business. After considerable reflection, my view is that we should bring the matter to a head this evening. As Shakespeare said, in what I think one should describe as the Scottish play:

    "If it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well It were done quickly".
I believe that to be the position.

I accept that the Government have a clear mandate on the generality of the Bill. I shall quote from the manifesto, which I keep near me so that I do not stray into error at any particular time. I see in that document the words:

    "We have long supported a proportional voting system for election to the European Parliament".
I am not disputing that and I do not ask your Lordships to do so. Moreover, I make no secret of the fact that I am not in favour of proportional representation. The fact that it may advantage my party at any particular time is, dare I say it, a very unprincipled argument. I am surprised that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, advanced it.

The latter is in fact an argument which is dear to the hearts of the Liberal Democrat Party. That party does not seem to understand that someone can actually have a principled belief in first-past-the post. I do. Its members seem to think--and they do so again this evening--that they are the only people with any right to have any principle. Indeed, I am glad to hear that they seem to agree to that. However, ironically, they appear to have modified their stand on proportional representation when it suits them. Perhaps I may remind them of what their honourable friend Mr. Allan said in the other place on 27th October:

    "My party's position remains consistent. Our preferred option is neither a Belgian nor a Finnish model, but one closer to home--the Northern Irish model of the single transferable vote".--[Official Report, Commons, 27/10/98; col. 183.]
It seems that the Liberal Democrats have set aside their principled support for the single transferable vote in favour of a closed list. In the light of the Government's manifesto commitment, I am prepared to set aside my principled support for the first-past-the-post system, though certainly not in favour of a closed list but in favour of an open list. The difference is simple, yet it is profoundly important for representative democracy.

We in this country have always voted for an individual, albeit these days the individual carries a party banner, in order to represent us in Parliament. That individual has usually been chosen--indeed, almost always--by the party membership in each constituency. However, that will change next June. We will be asked

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to vote, and only to vote, for a party. Who the winning candidates are to be will be decided by the party; the people, the voters, will have no say, no choice.

In contrast, in the open list system, we would vote for an individual of our choice within the party list of the party of our choice. The number of MEPs for each party would be decided from the party totals in exactly the same way, but which individuals would be elected would be decided by the people who voted for the party and not by the party high command; in other words, the people's choice and not the party's choice.

I have argued the points that the Minister put forward this evening on a number of occasions. Perhaps I may review them; for example, the Northern Irish one: "You Tories used the closed list for the Northern Ireland Forum elections". Yes, we did; but that was for the forum and for the very special circumstances of Northern Ireland where we wanted as many people represented there as possible in order to advance the peace process. It has nothing to do with the Parliament. It was very specific and done for that reason only. No one, not even the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, can imagine that the circumstances in the European elections are anything like the circumstances in Northern Ireland, or that the European Parliament would have to do the kind of job that the Northern Ireland Forum was going to be asked to do. Indeed, no one can imagine that.

Moreover, I do not have to look further than the current Prime Minister for support in my case that there is no comparison. On 21st March 1996 in the other place, Mr. Blair said:

    "As I am sure that the Prime Minister"--
at that time John Major--

    "would agree, the solution on the election process is certainly not ideal".--[Official Report, Commons, 21/3/96; col. 499.]
Given those words, I should caution the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, against pretending that the closed list is ideal; otherwise his leader might hear about this contradiction.

Next we have the proposition that some candidates may be elected with fewer votes than other candidates who are not elected. But not within the same party. That is quite important. The electorate will have no trouble with this issue. They will quite understand that a candidate in a party which does not receive as many seats may not be elected yet he may have more votes than a candidate who is elected in another party. That happens at the moment in first-past-the-post elections. I shall not weary your Lordships by quoting the seats in which the second or even the third candidate in one seat gained fewer votes than the first in another seat. The electorate do not rise up in the streets about that. We have a sophisticated electorate who understand these matters perfectly well.

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Then there is the fact that we accepted the closed list for Wales and for Scotland. However, those Bills were about much, much more than the electoral system. They not only sought to enact clear manifesto commitments to devolve power to Scotland and to Wales; but they were also endorsed--although, in the case of Wales, just--in referendums. As the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, pointed out in his defence--although I suspect that it is more in mine--the Parliament in Scotland and the Assembly in Wales will have a majority of traditional first-past-the-post members. Those drawn from the closed list will be a minority. That does not mean that I was particularly happy about the systems in those Bills, but they were larger Bills and addressed much greater issues than just simply the election. I warned the Government about the system they proposed, and they turned a deaf ear. In Scotland--I know not about Wales--the Government are panicking. They are proposing to spend vast amounts of taxpayers' money to try to "educate" the population on how those votes are to work.

More importantly, the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, should not have reminded me about Scotland. The Select Committee on Scottish Affairs in another place published its report on 18th November. It was looking at what it called the "operation of multi-layered democracy". It looked, among other things, at the electoral system.

The committee voted on paragraph 91. Some members of the committee did not want the last sentence; others did. When it came to a vote two Labour Back Benchers--I do not know whether I insult them by calling them "Blair babes"--voted for the sentence to be removed. Four members of the committee voted for it to be retained. One of them was my honourable friend Mr. Desmond Swayne; two of the others were Labour Back Benchers, Mrs. Irene Adams and Mr. Eric Clarke. Just to cause a little bit of discomfort to the Liberal Democrats, perhaps I may add that the fourth person was Mr. Michael Moore, who I understand is the successor of the noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, in his Borders seat. They voted in favour of retaining this sentence:

    "We feel that an open list would be more in keeping with the principle of trusting the people and giving them the maximum choice".
That was agreed not by the Tories on that committee--because, quite frankly, there are not many Tories on the Select Committee on Scottish Affairs--but by the Liberal Democrat Member and by two of the Labour Members. I shall repeat that sentence so that your Lordships can appreciate that it fully backs the case that we have made about this Bill:

    "We feel that an open list would be more in keeping with the principle of trusting the people and giving them the maximum choice".

The final argument that I want to address, in order not to disappoint the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, is that the closed list enables a party to get a mix of candidates elected who would not be elected if it were left to the electorate. That is a funny idea of democracy. "Trust the people" is clearly an out-of-date

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phrase in the new Labour lexicon. It is now "the people should trust the party". Shades of 1984--the book, not the year.

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