Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Lord Clinton-Davis: I listened with great interest to what the noble Lord said. He expressed an opinion based on the information given to his committee. But I draw the line when it comes to the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne. For him to say that he was not partial is really straining the imagination.

Viscount Cranborne: I am grateful to the noble Lord. I would be horrified if the noble Lord went away from the debate thinking I was impartial. I am very much the reverse.

Lord Clinton-Davis: That is what I thought. That is what I am complaining about. Affectionately though I look at the noble Viscount, his knowledge of this particular issue baffles me. I refer to Clause 12(1)(c). I served on the European Commission for four years. It should have been longer. The British public simply do not know enough about the value of the work of the

10 Oct 2000 : Column 197

individual organisations which make up the European Union. I do not see why the commission should not be able to press these issues in a perfectly straightforward way. It does not have to be biased. It does not have to adopt a position where it favours the Commission or does not favour the Commission or the other organisations which make up the European Union. Textbooks have been written about the issue which do not take up a "for" or "against" position.

Briefings are written in English or German or whatever. The English edition is in pink. Everyone looks at them very carefully, particularly before a Commission meeting, not with a view to getting a distorted view of the issue but with a view to getting a balanced view of the position.

With regard to paragraphs (a) and (b) of Clause 12(1), I do not see why the commission has to be prejudiced one way or the other. I adopt the view that the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, adopted when describing that. Whatever view one takes with regard to Clause 12(1)(c) on the institutions of the European Union--I know my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney takes a particular view--it is irrelevant as far as concerns the job of the commission. Clause 12 states that the commission shall promote public awareness of the different institutions. So it should.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, is passionately enthusiastic that people should be educated about the system. I agree with her with regard to the new systems, which are very complicated.

The noble Lord, Lord Neill, has now left, but I think he has a house in Scotland. I am not sure whether he was there at the time of the Scots referendum but he will perhaps be more aware than some of us of what happened in Scotland. Any of us who experienced the Scots referendum knows that once the voting system gets into an election, it becomes a huge electoral issue. The way people learned how the system worked during the Scottish referendum depended very much on who was explaining it to them. The noble Baroness will understand that as a political person. Once it is in the system, it is a very political matter indeed.

I do not know whether in schools in her part of the country the discussion of electoral systems or indeed political systems becomes politicised. But certainly where I live, which is in Nationalist country, it is very difficult for a teacher to tackle the subject without politics coming into the matter. I do not blame teachers at all. I have taken part in this exercise myself and know how difficult it is. The discussions become politicised.

The noble Lord, Lord Neill, made a powerful statement that he feels that this is an inappropriate role for the commission. I am sure the Government will pay attention to that. They certainly should. It was courageous of him and he may be criticised for making it. I think that he was right to do so, and I am sure that the Government will pay attention.

I should like to make one point. The noble Baroness, Lady Gould, said that she assumed that pending electoral systems were those which had been agreed by

10 Oct 2000 : Column 198

the Government. I imagine that she meant to say "agreed by Parliament". It is too soon for the matter to come into the public domain and be discussed by the commission.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: The noble Baroness is correct. The word should have been "Parliament".

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: On that point, I would suggest to the Committee that my noble friend Lord Norton of Louth has the position right in Amendment No. 42A, which seeks to insert the words,

    "any electoral system that has been authorised by enactment, but is not yet in force, for use at the next national or local election".

It must be something that has not only been approved by Parliament but has been enacted, so that it is the system that people will use. To teach them about that is very different from teaching them about systems which people are advocating and discussing and which may or may not be accepted. That is a political matter.

If the Government are to accept an amendment, it should be Amendment No. 42A. But, having heard my noble friends Lord Cranborne and Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Neill, how much better it would be to leave the clause out of the Bill and to arrange for the education of people in these matters to be done by another body.

Lord Warner: It seems to me that the case has been rather strongly made in contributions from the opposite side of the Committee for Clause 12(1) and (2) to remain as presently drafted. The cat was slightly let out of the bag when the noble Earl, Lord Onslow, said that people knew how to vote for their lords and masters. That was a quite revealing phrase about elections in this country.

The Earl of Onslow: When I said "our lords and masters", I meant our Government. Those are what they are; that is what we choose them to be; and that is what we are quite grown up enough to do. That is why I am not patronising the electorate and some noble Lords opposite are.

Lord Warner: If the noble Earl reads Hansard, he will see that he was talking about electing our lords and masters. That is the phrase he used. If he reads Hansard, he will see that that is what he was saying elections are all about. I shall not pursue the point. I have registered it already.

Perhaps I may refer to some of the points made by noble Lords opposite. They reveal some of the worst aspects of what I would call the political closed shop. The cat was let out of the bag by the noble Viscount, Lord Cranborne, when he referred to things being dragged down into the political arena. That chimes with much of the public concern about politics and political institutions. I should have thought that Clause 12 as presently drafted would do a good deal to improve people's understanding and recognition of the worth of the public institutions for which they are voting. If they received that information from an

10 Oct 2000 : Column 199

independent body rather than from the political classes, they might possibly have a higher regard for some of those institutions and some of the people who work in them.

It would be for the benefit of the status and standing of politics and of the institutions that are involved in politics if some of the passing on of information was taken out of the political arena and given to an independent body, which could then exercise its judgment about how to put that information in the public arena. That would be a sensible way to proceed. I fully support the Government in standing firm on Clause 12(1) and (2) as presently drafted.

Viscount Cranborne: Before the noble Lord sits down, I hope he will agree that I was not against an information function. I was against confusing it with the independent functions of the commission. On his more general point, does he agree that there is probably a deep and unbridgeable divide between his position and mine? I happen to believe that the electorate is best qualified to judge; he believes that a platonic class of guardians should judge rather than the electorate.

Lord Warner: I believe that the electorate are able to judge which party or candidate to choose in any election. I also believe that the electorate might appreciate information about the institutions and electoral systems through which they are voting from an independent source rather than from the political classes, whom they might possibly see as having an axe to grind when putting that information in the public arena.

5.45 p.m.

Lord Norton of Louth: Before the noble Lord finally sits down, perhaps I may say that I have been a long-standing advocate of political education. I believe that it can be delivered neutrally; and contrary to what the noble Lord, Lord Neill, was saying, I believe that it could be provided neutrally by politics professors. I declare an interest as a politics professor. If they were wearing their academic caps, it could be done well. There are means of doing it. We are not arguing about whether there should be education; we are arguing about the appropriate body to deliver it. There are mechanisms for doing it independently of the parties. The noble Lord missed the basic point. He is arguing that there should be education. I am certainly not arguing against that. I am saying that, because of the way the electoral commission is composed, it does not have the expertise to carry out that task.

Lord Warner: I disagree with the noble Lord.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead: I am inclined to support the opening words of the noble Lord, Lord Mackay. He rightly expressed deep concern that the electoral commission might at some point take it upon itself to take initiatives contrary to the will of Parliament and

10 Oct 2000 : Column 200

outwith its remit. I know that Northern Ireland is a very tiresome place but on this occasion I think that we can be of some assistance. I shall give two examples.

In Northern Ireland we have had for a long time a neutral animal--he is supposed to be neutral--in the name of the chief electoral officer. A former occupant of that office once bullied a Minister into attempting to deny to the people of Northern Ireland holiday votes, which had been introduced by Her Majesty's Government in the Representation of the People Act. The Act embraced Northern Ireland but was not solely about Northern Ireland. The Minister and the chief electoral officer got together and threatened resignation if their views were rejected. It fell to me, with some considerable assistance from the Home Secretary of the day, to ensure that they were defeated in their conspiracy. There we had a case of a senior, and ostensibly neutral, electoral officer--an appointed officer--not very different in kind from what is being proposed for the commission; his role should have been restricted to implementing the law made by Parliament and nothing else, but he took it upon himself to act contrary to what he knew to be the view of the government and Parliament of the day.

I have a second example. On another occasion the chief electoral officer, when conducting a proportional representation election, advised electors publicly, by taking space in the newspapers at public expense, to vote down the ballot paper. "Don't stop", he said, "You must go right down it". His objective was to ensure that the very small parties at the bottom of the ballot paper would benefit from transferred votes as candidates were either elected earlier or their votes became valid at some later stage. It was a pure political initiative on his part without approval from or reference to Parliament or the government of the day.

On the question of education, I share the view that it is not the business of the commission to educate people, in particular about the institutions of the European Union. I fear that it would be impossible to secure an impartial opinion on all the complexities of the various institutions within the European Union.

Finally, I think that such a commission would be even more vulnerable to foreign interference than was the old system of the Speaker's Conference which designed boundaries. Again, the experience of Northern Ireland can come to the aid of noble Lords. The situation is plain. The last boundary commission was forced by a foreign European government--they even boasted about it--to go back to the drawing board. The first report of the Speaker's Conference on constituencies in Northern Ireland, reporting at the same time as on the remainder the United Kingdom, did not suit the Irish Government.

The Irish Government made no secret of the fact that they had ordered Her Majesty's Government to ensure that the boundary commission, technically presided over by the Speaker of the House of Commons, designed a different number and pattern of constituencies. That was done and was then implemented by the United Kingdom Parliament. On that occasion, the triumph of foreign interference was

10 Oct 2000 : Column 201

that a very hardworking, moderate and constructive SDLP Member of another place, Dr. Joe Hendron, was ousted by one not so constructive politician in the shape of Mr Gerry Adams from the constituency of West Belfast. That happened because the Irish Government blundered and did not know what they were doing. They transferred into Joe Hendron's constituency a huge slab of IRA supporters, not only individual voters, but also access to their printing presses which were used to produce forgeries of the identity cards needed to vote in Northern Ireland.

I am afraid that the new commission would be even less likely to stand up to pressures from one foreign government, still less could it resist the pressures described by the noble Lord, Lord Shore; namely, from a whole gaggle of European nations, should they decide to get together. For that reason, I believe that Clause 12 is fairly dangerous.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page