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House of Lords

Tuesday, 30th November 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

Kenneth William, Lord Bishop of Portsmouth--Was (in the usual manner) introduced between the Lord Bishop of Birmingham and the Lord Bishop of Guildford.

The Lord Bishop of Derby

Jonathan Sansbury, Lord Bishop of Derby--Was (in the usual manner) introduced between the Lord Bishop of Lichfield and the Lord Bishop of Guildford.

Elections: Turn-out

2.43 p.m.

Lord Smith of Clifton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether low voter turn-outs at all levels of election are a cause of concern and, if so, what steps they are taking to improve them.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, of course we are concerned about low turn-outs. The Queen's Speech contains three Bills concerned with electoral matters. The first, which will modernise our electoral procedures, is having its Second Reading in another place this afternoon. Bills to create an electoral commission and to allow for directly elected mayors will follow shortly.

Lord Smith of Clifton: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, it does not convey the degree of urgency demanded by the political situation. We have had turn-outs of under 10 per cent in local government by-elections; our score has been the lowest in the European elections, with only a 24 per cent turn-out; and in October, a MORI poll indicated that over 50 per cent of those under 35 do not intend to vote. The situation requires greater remedy than this. Should not a task force be set up, as many have been in regard to other matters, to examine this urgent question and report back with speed?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we share the noble Lord's concern about low turn-outs. It is a problem that currently afflicts many democracies across the world, but it cannot be cured overnight. Responsibility rests with political parties and candidates to ensure that people feel engaged and want

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to participate in elections. We in government believe that we are playing our part. For that reason we are introducing three Bills which will have considerable bearing on the electoral process. The Representation of the People Bill will modernise procedures and lead to a rolling electoral register, giving homeless people, remand prisoners and mental health patients the opportunity to vote more easily. It will be made easier for people to cast postal votes and local authorities will be entitled to run pilot schemes to encourage innovative electoral procedures.

The Government take the issue seriously. We want the maximum co-operation and participation from parties in Parliament to put our legislation on to the statute book. I believe that, as a result, we shall see turn-out and interest in elections increased. All those in politics would be much impressed by that, and would benefit from it.

Viscount Cranborne: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the number of times that the electorate is being asked to vote may have some bearing on the matter? Are not people fed up with being asked to vote so often, whether it be in European parliamentary, local or regional elections, as well as general elections? Perhaps rarity might lead to an increased turn-out rather than enforcing elections so often.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I thought that the purpose of a mature democracy such as ours was to enable people to express their opinion on matters of the day and to take part in elections. I do not think that electoral fatigue is the only explanation. This is a complex issue. We can all play our part in politics to encourage people to join in the political process. That is one of the reasons why we want to see, for example, citizenship courses encouraged in schools to encourage and engage young people in particular as they appear to be less engaged in electoral politics than are older generations.

Lord Shore of Stepney: My Lords, surely the noble Lord will agree that there is something very obvious and direct that can be done; namely, the European Parliamentary Elections Act could be amended to get rid of the fundamentally repugnant and anti-democratic closed list/regional list system which all sides of this House had the good sense to send back to the Commons five times, and on which the nation has delivered its judgment by turning out in the smallest number ever in a national election, when only 23 per cent voted. Does the Minister agree that that requires immediate action and that the Government should take the lead?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I realise that I am in danger of arguing a difficult case. The wisest course of action is to let the electoral system that was

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used in the European elections bed in. It is in use in 70 per cent of European democracies. It must be given time to work through.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I wonder whether the noble Lord would agree--

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords--

The Attorney-General (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, I think it is the turn of the Cross Benches.

Lord Alton of Liverpool: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord. Does the Minister recall that his right honourable friend the Home Secretary told another place during the passage of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill that after the election there would be a review of how the procedures had worked? Is it not time, in the light of the other legislation that is to be laid before the House, for the Government to reconsider their decision to impose the closed party list system on this country? For the first time in our history, the electorate has been denied the right to vote for individual candidates and has been forced to vote for political parties. As the noble Lord, Lord Shore, said, does not that help to explain the dismal turn-out in this year's European elections?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am confident that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary said that the electoral process used would be subject to review. However, I remind your Lordships that the system used in the elections for the Welsh Assembly and for the Scottish Parliament was a PR system on a closed list. Participation in those elections was far higher.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, does the Minister agree that if any of the three Bills to which he referred actually does anything to cure the problem, that will set a precedent? It is most unlikely that the load of legislation which we now face will do anything but add to the deep dullness which affects the electorate. Perhaps he could also reflect on the fact that not everything that happens in politics is intrinsically entertaining. In a world that craves entertainment, we must resign ourselves to some dullness and particularly to the fact that the presentation of politics by some of the candidates is abysmal.

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, perhaps I may be forgiven for saying that I find the world of politics endlessly interesting and entertaining. So long as noble Lords like the noble Lord opposite are involved, politics will continue to be endlessly entertaining to me.

Earl Russell: My Lords, the Minister mentioned the difficulty of engaging young people in politics. Is he aware that from the nature of my job I spend a great deal of time listening to them? What I hear from them shows as much concern about political problems as

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there has ever been, but a deep lack of faith in the possibility of political solutions. Does that indicate a problem which is wider than the answers so far given by the Minister, welcome though many of those answers have been?

Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, I am well aware that the noble Earl is in regular contact with young people, as are many Members of your Lordships' House. As to speculating on whether younger people are disengaging from the political process, all I can honestly say is that my 10 year-old son takes a great interest in politics. I hope that many more of his generation continue to do so. We in this House have a part to play in ensuring stimulating debate among younger generations.

Belarus: Political Repression

2.52 p.m.

Lord Hylton asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the subject of political repression in Belarus was discussed at the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe's Istanbul summit meeting.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, the Belarusian political situation was discussed at the Istanbul Summit. The summit declaration emphasised the need for real political dialogue in Belarus to pave the way for free and democratic elections and real democracy. Senior Finnish officials, representing the presidency of the European Union, met Belarusian Foreign Minister Latypov in the margins of the summit and underlined the European Union's continuing concerns about political repression in Belarus.

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