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Baroness Walmsley: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, if young people had the power to vote at the age of 16, they might not feel it necessary to protest on the streets?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, that is an interesting point, although the noble Baroness may have noticed that a fair number of adults have been protesting on the streets as well. They are of voting age, so the one does not exclude the other.

Lord Clarke of Hampstead: My Lords, has my noble friend heard of cases of school registers being marked with "W" for war or "D" for demonstration, instead of "A" for absence? Does he condone such things being done in the name of school governors and schoolmasters? Whatever the age of the pupils, they are absent, and their absence should not be condoned in such a way.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as I indicated, it is for the headmaster, in the first instance, and the school governing body to make a judgment about such things. The department is concerned with overall attendance figures and the performance of local education authorities in improving attendance and reducing truancy.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, what use will be made of the photographs, including photographs of children, that were taken at recent demonstrations?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, as far as the schools are concerned, it is a matter of truancy. The schools will have the information that they need about whether a student has been in attendance. Schools

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keep a register, and the teachers are responsible for the attendance of children at the school during school hours. The issue of photographs does not come into it.

Baroness Park of Monmouth: My Lords, does the Minister agree that lessons in citizenship might cover the point that it is not good citizenship for young creatures way below voting age to kick the police and spit at them? That is not a good beginning to their life as a citizen. I hope that that will be expressly mentioned, when schools tackle the question.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, we would deplore such behaviour by young people in any circumstances. Although the Question has arisen because of anxieties about the unauthorised absence of children from school, most reports about the demonstrations have indicated a relatively low number of incidents of the kind to which the noble Baroness referred. In our debate yesterday, the noble Baroness, Lady Williams of Crosby, gave due testimony of the good relationships that obtained on the demonstration that occurred outside the House.

Lord Elton: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the concern is not so much about the truancy of children but about the possible condoning or assisting of that absence by staff? As an ex-teacher, I join the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath, in saying that allowing it to happen is unprofessional conduct.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I agree with that. Strong views are held about such issues, and teachers will play their part as citizens of a democratic society. However, the noble Lord is right: when they are in their position in school, they are professionals, and bias of any sort would be a negation of educational values.

European Parliament (Representation) Bill

3.28 p.m.

Report received.

Clause 3 [Recommendations by Electoral Commission as to the distribution of United Kingdom MEPs]:

Baroness Rawlings moved Amendment No. 1:

    Page 3, line 4, leave out "or anticipated change"

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, the amendment is designed to set out an important principle; namely, that a power as important as that affecting the franchise for the European Parliament should not be exercised by order, unless and until legislation to effect such a change has been agreed in the European Community. The clause allows the Lord Chancellor—while negotiations continue on the final numbers for each country and before any agreement is reached on the matter, still less any change in Community law—to order the expenditure of public money to investigate a range of possible outcomes as regards changes to our existing electoral arrangements.

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In general, it is best to proceed on the basis of what the law is, not what it might be. I should therefore be grateful to the Minister if she could advise the House of the circumstances in which this power might be used by the Government.

I am prepared to accept that there may be many exceptional circumstances. There is the firm background of the Nice treaty. There is the impending accession of a large number of countries and the approaching date of elections to the European Parliament. Against that background, it is reasonable to explore changes in the franchise arrangements as envisaged under the Bill. But that could be treated as a special case. Exceptional circumstances do not justify permanent powers.

Is the view of the Minister that there might be a change in the law at some time in the future a justifiable pretext for taking a permanent power to incur spending on an investigation of possible electoral futures? I am not sure that it is. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will give some indication of where and when this power will be used and will explain the safeguards that there will be on the use of such an open-ended power. I beg to move.

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, this amendment will limit the circumstances under which the Lord Chancellor can take action to instruct the Electoral Commission to commence its redistribution work. I am grateful for the way in which the noble Baroness has put it; namely, that this is a probing amendment. The effect of the amendment would prevent the Lord Chancellor from asking the Electoral Commission to work on an expected number of MEPs.

Although we expect to be reasonably certain of the final numbers of MEPs for the 2004 elections by September 2003—by which time it is expected that all the accession states will have held their referendums—it is likely that the final figure will not be certain and fixed by Community law until it is too late for the Electoral Commission to finish its work and for the necessary implementation to take place. Clearly, that will simply limit flexibility and possibly prevent the work being completed in time. There can be no objection to beginning work early when a change is anticipated so that we can be quick off the mark when the final decision is made.

Furthermore, the Electoral Commission will be able to make recommendations, which would suit different possible numbers, to enable a review where the final position is uncertain. But it is only the recommendation which matches the final number fixed under Community law which can be reflected in the order.

Allowing work to commence on the expected number is simply prudent planning. I hope that that is an explanation with which the noble Baroness will feel able to be content.

Baroness Rawlings: My Lords, I am grateful, as ever, to the Minister for her courtesy in her reply and for all

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the briefing that she sent me. I thank her for such a detailed reply. Therefore, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 2 to 4 not moved.]

Baroness Rawlings moved Amendment No. 5:

    Page 3, line 17, at end insert—

"( ) After the first issuing of a notice by the Lord Chancellor under subsection (1) after the coming into force of this Act, no further notice may be issued until the Lord Chancellor has invited the Electoral Commission to carry out a full review of the method of election of MEPs, including specifically the issue of whether it is the most effective means of allowing electors to choose the individual candidate or candidates of their choice from among all those standing for election, and the report of the Commission has been laid before both Houses of Parliament."

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, in moving this amendment, I do not pretend that the wording is perfect. But the point behind it is extremely important. It follows on from the spirit of an amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, in Grand Committee—an amendment with which this side of the House had a great deal of sympathy, but which was swatted away by the Minister as not relevant to the present Bill.

With respect, the issue is entirely germane to the present Bill which is about the representation of the United Kingdom in the European Parliament. Those of us who believe profoundly in the importance of the European Parliament, as I do, are deeply concerned by the degree of cynicism and alienation that surrounded the methods of election used in the last European elections. I do not believe that it is in the long-term interests of true representative democracy or the standing of the European Parliament to perpetuate that system of election.

The closed list system, used cynically, deprives the electorate of what this amendment asks that they should have; namely, an effective means of choosing an MEP of their own choice from among candidates set before them. Surely that right is the very essence of representative democracy.

As is well known, we on this side are not in general terms enthusiasts of PR systems. But the fact is that it is possible to have a PR system which allows electors to choose an individual MEP. Sadly, the Government chose a system in 1999 which deliberately deprived the electorate of that right. Instead, they placed the selection of MEPs in the hands of the central apparat of the various political parties through the notorious closed list system.

To its great credit this House, on six occasions, stood against that undemocratic system. Indeed, it never agreed to the imposition of closed lists. They were imposed by use of the Parliament Acts. No less an authority than the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson of Lymington, has added his voice to those who argue that an Act such as this, passed by only one House of Parliament, is of questionable legality. But that is not the issue before us today.

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However, I question whether this discredited and anti-democratic system can be allowed to continue indefinitely without question, as the Minister appeared to imply in Grand Committee. There is no one outside the ranks of the Government and their most robotic supporters outside Parliament who thinks that it should.

Amendment No. 5 is not a device to interfere with or to hold up progress towards treaty implementation or towards the next European elections. Doubtless, that change will be levelled, but it would be wrong. Nor is it a frivolous amendment. It addresses an issue of major concern. It simply states that at a certain point in the future after the first order issued under this Act, but before any subsequent order, the Electoral Commission should be required to conduct an investigation into the nature and application of the closed list system and into whether it properly allows the public to choose their MEPs.

It also asks that the report of the Commission should be debated in both Houses of Parliament. That is not an unreasonable proposition or an unreasonable expectation to have of the Government. Indeed, I believe that there would be agreement with this objective on all Benches of this House. I do not think that this House which fought so hard and for so long against closed lists should give up that fight.

I hope that the Government will listen and that the Minister will give an undertaking that there will be a full review of the validity of the closed list system. If not, I shall be tempted to return to the matter at Third Reading. Indeed, given any encouragement from noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches, I might be tempted to test the opinion of the House. I beg to move.

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