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The Deputy Chairman of Committees (The Countess of Mar): Before I call Amendment 16, I have to say that, if Amendment 16 is agreed to, I cannot call Amendments 18 to 30 inclusive, because of pre-emption.
At present, the UK uses the "first past the post" system to elect MPs to the House of Commons. It is proposed that the system should be changed. Please rank the following options in order of preference.
(a) the first past the post system;
(b) the alternative vote system;
(c) a proportional vote system?
(a) the number 1 next to the option that is the voter's first preference (or, as the case may be, the only option for which the voter wishes to vote);
(b) if the voter wishes, the number 2 next to the option that is the voter's second preference, and so on.
(7) Votes shall be allocated to options in accordance with voters' first preferences and, if one option has more votes than the other options put together, that option shall be deemed to have been selected.
(a) each vote cast by a voter who also ranked one or more of the remaining options shall be reallocated to that remaining option or (as the case may be) to the one that the voter ranked the highest.
(b) any votes not reallocated shall play no further part in the counting.
Lord Skidelsky: My Lords, it will not have escaped the notice of the House that I am not the noble Lord, Lord Owen. My noble friend had a minor operation last week, and has had to return to hospital, from which he is being discharged today. He asked me to move this amendment in his name, which I am very pleased to do.
This amendment is not about the date of the referendum, but about its substance. In Clause 1 of the Bill, line 7 on page 1 gives the voter the choice between retaining the first past the post system to elect MPs, and the alternative vote system. This amendment is designed to give voters, in addition, an opportunity to express a preference for proportional representation. By allowing voters to rank their preferences, this amendment is sure to result in a majority expressing their preference for one or other of the three nominated options. It is a very simple demonstration of the power of the alternative vote under certain conditions.
Originally, those who tabled the amendment had intended to put all the varieties of proportional representation-AV plus, the additional member system, STV and maybe others-on the ballot paper, but, after consulting, it was decided to add just one general extra option: general proportional representation. This would leave the House of Commons to decide which version to adopt should PR get a majority. That seems sensible. The advantage of putting all the PR options to the electorate is quite compelling in terms of democracy, but, against that, it would overcomplicate the question being asked, and a referendum should be about broad principles and not about details. That is our main argument against the amendments moved by the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and the group of amendments put down by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I hope that on reflection they will feel willing to support the amendments in the name of my noble friend Lord Owen.
This amendment expresses our disappointment that the alternative vote is the only alternative to the status quo which the Government are willing to offer. Whereas party-political deals are an essential part of political life-we all know that-I doubt whether such a flagrant party-political deal should be the subject of a referendum. We know why it has happened-no one denies it: it was the price of the coalition. The Liberal Democrats wanted electoral reform without a referendum; the Conservatives, who favour retaining the first past the post system, would not concede that, and a referendum on AV was the compromise position.
We also know from many sources, but most recently from Anthony Seldon's fascinating book, Brown at Ten, that, after the general election, Gordon Brown-who was still Prime Minister-offered the Liberal Democrats a multi-question referendum identical to the amendment I am now moving. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, will probably know more about this than I do, but anyway, that was the revelation. The former Prime Minister offered the Liberal Democrats a multi-question referendum identical to the amendment I am now moving.
There was also an offer to make it a vote of confidence to guarantee its passage through Parliament. That was the offer. I am not questioning the judgment of the Liberal Democrat negotiators in turning down that offer in favour of a much inferior alternative, from their point of view. As they say, there were other considerations, but it might be helpful for noble Lords on the Labour and Liberal Democrat Benches to be reminded of this little history-and I think it is authentic-in making up their mind about the value of this amendment.
In our view, narrowing the choice to only two alternatives represents an abuse of the referendum mechanism. Referenda are not part of our political tradition. We use them sparingly to decide on questions
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Nor would the alternative vote make much difference in practice. It has been calculated, for example, that the 2010 general election held under the alternative vote system would have returned 281 Conservative, 262 Labour and 79 Liberal Democrat MPs, as opposed to 307 Conservative, 258 Labour and 57 Liberal Democrat MPs. With impending boundary changes, one would expect that gap to shrink even further as time went on.
Of course, these are changes, but they are at the margin. They are not big changes. In terms of the suffragette analogy put forward by the noble Baroness, Lady Hayter, it is rather as if the Government of the day had offered votes to women more than 60 or 70 years old, which would have been regarded as a great change in the electoral system.
A referendum should be on a grand constitutional issue. A change in the voting system which radically changes the composition of the House of Commons would be a big constitutional change and would meet the standard for a referendum. PR does that and would therefore be worth having a referendum about.
Without debating the merits of a pure alternative vote system, it is a fact that it has been turned down by a number of recent inquires; notably, the Plant commission in 1990 and the Roy Jenkins committee in 1997, basically on the grounds that the game was not worth the candle. We believe that this is an additional argument for adding PR to the options offered by the referendum.
Lord Campbell-Savours: The Plant commission did not turn down AV. It said that it was a perfectly acceptable system, but that it just preferred another. That system was within the AV family of systems; namely, the supplementary vote. I know that the noble Lord has had to pick up the brief from others who unfortunately are not able to attend, but I am having difficulty in understanding why he does not accept the supplementary vote in his amendment. He alluded to it previously, but it was not clear to me exactly what he meant in his explanation. Will he tell us that before he sits down?
Lord Skidelsky: I think that those who tabled the amendment did not want to overcomplicate the choices being put to voters. When people get into the nitty-gritty of constitutional change, first, they can get obsessive about having their own preferred system and, secondly, it can become very complicated. In our view, it is simply a device to delay any changes. We thought that it would be a better idea to have three broad choices, one of which was proportional representation, leaving it to the House of Commons to decide, if that was the
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I urge this amendment on the Government and ask them to consider it seriously. Not to take advantage of the chance opened up by a promised referendum in order to offer the electorate a major choice about the future of the electoral system would be to miss a major opportunity to test their appetite for political reform. I beg to move.
Lord Campbell-Savours: My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 16A and 17, which are in this group. I wish to follow up on something to which the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, referred. He referred to "a proportional vote system", which would be inserted under proposed subsection (3)(c) to be inserted into Clause 1 under Amendment 16. In other words, this referendum would not deal with only clear alternatives set out in the referendum question; it would pose the question, "Do you want a proportional vote system?", which at this stage is not to be identified in the referendum question. By implication, there inevitably would have to be an inquiry arising out of a referendum which might choose new subsection (3)(c) as the option.
I am very interested in inquiries because last week we spent several hours arguing the case for an inquiry. What interested me about this amendment, and why I sought in my Amendment 17 to include the supplementary vote, is that that is precisely what I want to see. I want to see an alternative vote referendum based on the need for an inquiry in exactly the same way as is proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Owen, the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, in their amendment.
In private conversation, I asked the noble Lord, Lord Owen, whether he might be prepared to accept this amendment. There may well be conditions in which some of us would like to divide the House on this. It raises very important issues. He gave me the same explanation; namely, that it is too complicated. But the reality is that, of all the electoral systems that confront the British electorate at the moment, apart from first past the post, the supplementary vote is the simplest system. It is used nationally in the mayoral elections. It has been supported by many millions of voters. Next year, when the mayoral elections finally take place in the new mayoralties-I think that there was reference to 12-I presume that they will also be fought on the supplementary vote. I cannot quite understand why introducing the simplest possible system should be regarded as a complication of the question.
In winding up, I hope that the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, might offer to take back to those who have their names to this amendment the suggestion that before Report they might be prepared to include, if they were to retable their amendment, reference to the supplementary vote.
The content of Amendment 16A is the substance of an amendment that I shall move later and, again, it is about the principle of an inquiry. The referendum question at the moment refers specifically to "the" alternative vote-a specific system that has been identified, which I and many of my colleagues reject for different reasons. My amendment, which I would have slotted in as paragraph (d) of subsection (3) as proposed under Amendment 16, would enable the public to vote on a question which asked whether they were in favour of "an" alternative vote system. That would then beg the question of an inquiry to take place and a decision to be taken by Parliament or whoever wanted to make representations. Finally, a decision to be taken by government could be put to the House. I ask the noble Lord to take this back to his noble friends, because I regard the amendment that he has moved as one of the most important to be considered on this Bill.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: My Lords, as always, the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, has made an attractive speech which was full of interesting references, although I think that this is a somewhat curious amendment. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, made a powerful point, but it leads me rather in the opposite direction to the noble Lord and to think that one could not support this amendment.
It will not surprise anyone that I speak as someone who has been over time a strong supporter of our existing system. In the 1970s, I even wrote a pamphlet defending our system, called Electoral Reform No Reform. At least I stand by the title because it has always seemed to me that the advantages and disadvantages of electoral systems are more evenly balanced than people acknowledge. The word "reform" is tendentious and "change" would be a better word. I have to confess on reading my pamphlet written 40 years ago that not all the arguments have stood the test of time brilliantly. I accept that there is more of a case than it appeared then for something like the German mixed system.
Some of the criticisms, however, that are made of our system, including one made by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, are fallacious. The noble Lord referred to the first past the post system as one that depends on making the winner someone with a plurality rather than a majority of votes. The criticism is commonly made about our system producing over 50 per cent of the seats with people who have perhaps only 40 per cent of the votes and this is not a majority. The point is made that the Government do not reflect majority opinion under our electoral system. The fallacy in this argument is that there naturally exists in public opinion such a thing as a majority. It is true that if you take any single issue-like whether people are for or against the euro, whether they are for or against privatisation, whether they prefer public expenditure to lower taxes-you can get a majority for any single proposition. But elections are not fought on one proposition; they are fought on four or five issues. Opinion polls show that it is much more difficult to get a majority for four or five issues at once than it is for one issue. So it is a wrong argument to say that you have an electoral system that produces a majority when there is not in fact an underlying real majority.
What is the magic of a majority anyway? In a democracy, power, even by a majority, must be exercised with restraint and with respect towards one's opponents. All electoral systems create a majority in an artificial way. The first past the post system does it by converting around 40 per cent of the votes into 50 per cent of the seats. The alternative vote system creates a majority artificially by taking the second preferences of the bottom candidate and allowing those to determine the outcome. But the second preferences of the second candidate do not count. The second preferences are given undue weight, which is why I was able to quote in Second Reading what Winston Churchill said about the system when he called it the least scientific in which the most worthless votes for the most worthless candidate determined the outcome. That is the artificiality of the AV system in creating a majority. With PR, equally, majorities are created rather artificially because people take two or three parties that may have fought the elections on completely different programmes, as we well know, and add them together and call it a majority, although nobody actually voted for the programme of the Government. So the artificiality of a majority is something that has to be recognised before one pours all this criticism on first past the post.
Lord Skidelsky: I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I will simply point out that the movers of this amendment are not advocating any particular electoral system. It is neutral between the three choices. It is simply advocating a referendum in which those choices are given. That is all. Your points may be completely valid but they are not the point of the amendment.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: If I digressed, I apologise to the House and stand rebuked. Specifically on the amendment, its Achilles heel is the one the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, alighted on-namely, that it gives as an alternative this broad category of a proportional system. Proportional systems vary enormously. Some of them, like the German mixed system, are not so different from our system. They are different but they are not very different. And there is a world of difference between PR on a national list system, as it used to be at one time in Italy and as it is in Israel, and the German system. It is a huge variation, so much so that it would make the question, if it was put in this form in a referendum, completely nonsensical. I do not think one can follow the noble Lord, Lord Campbell-Savours, and say, "We will have a referendum in which two or three of the outcomes may be definite but if a rather vague outcome is voted for, then we will have another inquiry". This seems to be a slightly unbalanced and rather strange way of proceeding.
The second objection that I have, which is the reason I called it a rather strange amendment, is this device of using AV in order to determine which electoral system we have. It would be extraordinary on something as important as our choice of electoral system, which could have profound effects on the way we run politics in this country, to say that again the result should be determined by the second preferences of the system that people least wanted. The arguments that I put
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Lord Lipsey: My Lords, I am tempted by the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, not only because I always find him an exceptionally persuasive and erudite man but for two other reasons. One is that it uses AV to choose the winner of the contest. No electoral theoretician would think this was a good way of choosing between these preferences. You would need some sort of Condorcet system which ran off options to find the one that emerged as having the most support rather than a system that simply eliminates a better choice. It does not work terribly well for this kind of referendum. AV has the great advantage of simplicity, which is also the reason I, for one, favour it as our national electoral system.
The other reason I am quite tempted by this amendment is that I have no doubt that the result of the referendum, whether it was AV or first past the post, would certainly knock out PR for ever. The power of the arguments that would be placed against a PR system for Britain would be so enormous that nobody would be tempted. As a political observer I add this point. The only people who would be speaking up for PR in such a referendum would be the Liberal Democrats. Liberal Democrat advocacy of anything at the moment is a certainty for its unpopularity. This is the party that has lost more than half the votes that were cast for it at the General Election. The thought of these poor lambs bleating round the country for STV, or whichever system they choose, would make it a certain feature of the result of the referendum that it went down the plughole. So for those reasons, I am tempted by the noble Lord's proposal, though not perhaps for the reasons that he put forward.
I go back to where I started on electoral reform, about which I did not know a huge amount at the time, which was with the Jenkins committee. That committee's terms of reference were written, in many ways wisely, by the party of which I am a member. The terms of reference did not say, "Put forward a whole lot of possible options and discuss their merits as the electoral system for Britain". Nor did they say, "Recommend an electoral system and we will have it". They said, "Recommend the best possible alternative to first past the post to be put before the British people in a referendum". I regret deeply that it was not put before the British people in a referendum at the time.
In the same way as the coalition is wise to put forward an alternative for the referendum, in writing the terms of reference widely in that way the Government were right about what a referendum can seriously manage to do. I think that I heard the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, correctly. He said that this was an abuse of a referendum. It is not. Let us face it: referendums
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This is no disrespect to the British people, but I do not think it is reasonable to expect them to come to grips with the degree of complexity of choice such as is implied by this referendum, still less the choice that exists in real life. Imagine the kind of atmosphere that goes on during an election with claims and counter claims being made. Every time someone says, "This is more proportional", the AV lot will say, "Ours isn't more proportional". You would have a cacophony, which even those who have been studying this subject for half their lives, such as me, would have difficulty disentangling. At least the option that we have before us would give the British people a clear choice to make and the arguments between AV and first past the post are not that complicated.
Moreover, as I said in an earlier debate on the Bill, in a number of years' time people may think, "Well this has worked quite well. We would like to go further to a proportional system". Or, they may say, "That was a big mistake. Let's go back to first past the post". They may say, like the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, "Never go back", but that may show the inadequacy of the system that I thought he favoured. It is not a once-and-for-all choice. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, that there are other choices that could be made about our electoral system. They do not all have to be made in one jump at one time.
I now move on to the case made rather well by the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. The idea that there is something called a proportional system that has a unique set of features is completely without foundation. The differences between STV, the single transferable vote, between national list systems and between the additional member system as used in Germany and recommended in part by the Jenkins commission, are enormous. This calls for a proportional system but there is virtually no proportional system in the world. The only exception is Israel. I have talked to many people about electoral systems but I have yet to find a single person who thinks that the Israeli electoral system is ever other than a complete disaster. It allows for the representation of parties with only tiny members of votes who can then hold the polity to ransom in favour of their peculiar religious objectives. Israel is a disaster among democracies for that reason and, arguably, the current state of the Middle East is a result of that political system.
Other than the Israeli system, there is huge variety among more proportional systems as to how much proportionality. You can have a national list with thresholds, for example. It is a perfectly good system as long as you do not mind all MPs being chosen by
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Lord Skidelsky: Is the noble Lord not descending but ascending into discussing the strengths and weaknesses of different electoral systems? That is not the point of the amendment. The referendum will happen. The amendment is about adding another choice to the two being offered.
Lord Lipsey: I see that that is what the amendment would do. However, it adds not one choice, but a plethora of choices without defining what they are, all with completely different characteristics one from the other and having very little in common except that they can, just about sometimes, be squeezed into the rubric of proportionality. That is why this is not a suggestion that should carry faith.
When the referendum campaign comes, I guess that what will happen in the last few weeks is that those who are against any change will say something like, "If you don't know, vote no". They will try to capitalise on people's ignorance. Even those in this Chamber-and there are many sitting around me-who favour first past the post would probably rather it was not decided on that basis. They would probably rather the people took a clear view of the virtues of the electoral system that we have and the virtues of the alternatives and made their verdict on that, which we would all accept as the way forward. This is a recipe for an extremely blurred choice of ill-defined alternatives which is hard to explain and unfair to ask people to grapple with. It is made even worse because unless the referendum date is moved as a result of the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, which we passed earlier, they will be grappling with this choice at a time when they are dealing with local elections, new mayors and, in Scotland and Wales, with the all-important question of what their national governments should be. This is a seductive amendment, but it is profoundly misguided and I hope therefore that the House will not countenance it tonight.
The Earl of Clancarty: My Lords, I support Amendment 16 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Owen. In the Committee debates that we have had so far, one thing has been left out to a large extent: the
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I have heard people say quite a lot recently that the public are not very interested in voting systems. As an example, they are more interested in how the cuts will affect them today, tomorrow and the next day. Yes of course; most people are not going to be that exercised at present about something that is still fairly abstract and we are not even quite sure will actually happen, but when the public has confirmation of the date and the terms of the referendum, they will, with help from newspapers, TV and the internet, rapidly become experts in different voting systems.
However, there will be qualified interested only if the choice is between first past the post and AV: and no wonder, since a win for first past the post cannot possibly be interpreted as a ringing endorsement if AV is the only other option on the ballot paper. Likewise if AV wins, that too cannot possibly be seen as the system the public would most prefer if they have been denied other key voting systems.
We have an amendment both similar to and different from Amendment 16 in the next group today-Amendment 27 in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. Clearly there are different ways to present the options. I bow to others' much more in-depth knowledge of the various voting systems, particularly their history and development. However, the most important point is that both these amendments are infinitely better, in their own way, than the referendum that we have at the moment, which is incomplete.
The great advantage of the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, is that it seeks to be simple while at the same time covering the reasonable options. In a balanced way, it puts trust in both the public and in Parliament. First, the wording on the ballot paper should be as clear as possible. Secondly, it also needs to be transparent so the public know what they are voting for. Thirdly, it should cover all the reasonable options. If the will is here in Parliament to give the public a proper choice, the hammering out of these details should not be an insurmountable problem.
To those who say that people will not turn out for the referendum, I say that we are not doing our job. Our job is to open the doors of democracy and make it worthwhile for the public to come through. Give people power and they will engage. As Kevin Costner might have said, "Build it and they will come".
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I wish to oppose the inclusion of Amendment 16 in the Bill and to do so as a strong supporter of electoral reform. I actually joined the Electoral Reform Society some 35 years ago at the age of 15. Unlike some supporters of the alternative vote, I remain strongly committed to the principles of proportional representation, and to the merits of the single transferable vote system in
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I am sure we wish the noble Lord, Lord Owen, well in his recovery. I note from his recent correspondence with the Electoral Reform Society that he has been referring to the alliance commission in the early 1980s, which, on behalf of the Liberal Party and the SDP, looked at electoral systems. He notes that that commission found in favour of STV rather than the alternative vote system, but I ask him when he looks at his Hansardto consider that report again in some detail because it also said that in parts of the country where perhaps it was appropriate to have only a single member-such as in the far-flung rural parts of the country-it was appropriate to use the alternative vote system.
I also draw his attention, and that of some of his noble friends, to the system that operated for choosing single candidates within the SDP-of which he was a member between 1981 and 1988-and in the party that he led between 1988 and 1990. The system chosen for choosing a single person, be it a leader, a president or a candidate, was in fact the alternative vote system.
Lord Rennard: It was the system that is proposed in this Bill and which was proposed by the then Constitutional Reform and Governance Bill put forward earlier this year and voted for overwhelmingly by Members in another place. I ask those in your Lordships' House who are members of the major parties, and who are considering tonight and on many other days the merits or otherwise of the alternative vote system, to consider how it is that within their own parties-the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats, the Conservatives, and for that matter the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru or the Greens-when it comes to electing a single person, be it a leader, a president or a candidate, it is the alternative vote system, as generally known, that is always used.
In 1996-97, I was the joint secretary of the committee between the Labour Party and the Liberal Democrats that looked at proposals for constitutional reform in the event that the Conservative Party lost the 1997 general election. I served under the late Robin Cook and my noble friend Lord Maclennan of Rogart. We had very high hopes then because it was agreed between the then main opposition parties that as and when there was a general election in 1997, and if the Conservative Party was defeated, there would be a referendum on an alternative proportional voting system. Over the 13 years in which that Government lasted, no such referendum was ever held.
Shortly after the general election of 1997, the late Lord Jenkins chaired the commission that looked at the alternatives; the noble Lord, Lord Lipsey, was a member of it. I have noted how some of those in support of this amendment are quoting the fact that the Jenkins commission, as it became known in 1998, did not find in favour of AV but in favour of a system
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I note the words of my noble-he called me a little while ago his erstwhile-friend Lord Alton of Liverpool. He said that Lord Jenkins had in the end rejected the AV system. To all those who hold the memory of the late Lord Jenkins in some esteem-I hope there are many in this House-I would say that I know that it was to his great, great regret, in a very long and very distinguished career, that at that period in the late 1990s, when there was the opportunity to implement the AV system, he did not help to seize that opportunity. I believe that we must not let the opportunity of some form of electoral reform go away again.
The Electoral Reform Society, which was formerly known as the Proportional Representation Society, campaigned for PR for more than 100 years. It is urging rejection of these amendments in order to get some progress and to give voters some say on the issue as opposed to none at all. The alternative vote system may not be perfect, but it gives more power to the voter. It would mean, for example, that MPs who considered themselves unfairly deselected by their party could stand again without fear of splitting their party vote, thus giving more power to the voter. It would have meant, for example, that supporters of the noble Lord, Lord Owen, could have stood against the party that became the Liberal Democrats and avoided the split in votes that damaged his cause and split the vote of what had been the alliance in the 1980s. For these reasons, I would say that AV is at least a much more attractive proposition than first past the post, to say nothing of the greater power that it gives to the voter.
Lord McAvoy: I have listened very carefully to the lucid contributions of my noble friend Lord Lipsey and the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, and I totally accept the sincerity of their points of view on their particular systems, but having heard the various explanations and all the rest of it I started to get a headache. Will the noble Lord care to comment on the fact that I served for 28 years as an elected representative and I do not recall a single occasion, at a public meeting or a surgery, on which the issue of so-called electoral reform, proportional representation or whatever name anyone cares to give it was raised? Surely, we are supposed to reflect the public. Where is the public demand for this?
Lord Rennard: There are many places in this country with very safe seats, where issues of electoral reform are rarely debated. I accept that people are far more interested in outcomes than they are in processes, but I believe the process by which MPs are chosen is rather important in determining the outcomes. In your Lordships' House, reference has constantly been made during these debates to the words of the Deputy Prime Minister considering the alternative vote system. Shall we just deal with those words for a moment? The first point is that the alternative vote system that he is now
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Lord Rennard: My Lords, I thought that we had a very good compromise in 1997 agreed with the party of the noble Lord opposite but, after 13 years, that compromise was never delivered. I was quoting the Deputy Prime Minister rather more fully; I was going to talk about the word "little", which he used. I believe that it is a little change, which preserves the single-Member constituencies, which Members in other parties hold very dearly. I happen not to. But since it preserves the single-Member constituency principle, I believe that it is a little change that will bring greater benefit.
There is also, of course, the word "miserable". The only thing that would make me really miserable-and I say this in all sincerity to noble Lords who supported Amendment 16-would be if we failed to give people their say and made progress on a form of voting system that was effectively designed for the political circumstances in 1872, when Gladstone brought in the Secret Ballot Act.
Lord Grocott: Will the noble Lord clear up one crucial issue for me, at least, and I hope for the House, about the Liberal Democrats' approach to this referendum? They constantly refer to it as a compromise-and whether it is miserable or not is for others to decide-while several are on record as saying that it is a step in the right direction. If there is a referendum next May and the result is in favour of the alternative vote, although I hope it is not, for how long do the Liberal Democrats consider that decision to be binding?
Lord Rennard: My own view is that since Gladstone introduced the current system in 1872 in the Secret Ballot Act, for 138 years noble Lords and Members in another place decided that that system was perfectly good without revision and without letting people have their say. It is a good precedent to let people have their say, and we will wait to see when there is public demand again to have any further say. But for 138 years we have kept the same system. One hundred years ago, a Royal Commission recommended the adoption of the alternative vote, and 93 years ago, a Speakers Conference recommended the use of preference voting. Seventy-nine years ago, the other place voted for the adoption of the alternative vote, which was blocked on five occasions by your Lordships' House. It is 36 years since a minority Conservative Government offered another Speakers Conference on electoral reform and it is 13 years since a Labour Government with a large majority had a manifesto promise and were elected on the basis that there would be a referendum on the issue of proportional representation. So it is a
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Lord Campbell-Savours: Why does not the noble Lord be more honest-although I am not accusing him of being dishonest, he could be more honest-about where we stand who are in favour of electoral reform? Is not the reality that this is simply the first building block and that, once we have changed the system to a single-Member constituency arrangement, it will then go on to the next stage and ask for more? Is not that what is actually being said? I openly admit it; that is why I am arguing about the building block. I am saying that the preferential system being selected by the Government is the wrong building block on which to build the later stages. I wish noble Lords on the Liberal Democrat Benches would be more open and honest about that.
Lord Rennard: My Lords, I think that I have been remarkably open and honest all the time I have been in this House speaking on these issues. The noble Lord's argument suggests that perhaps until the 25th century we should keep the political system exactly as it is and ignore centuries of progress. I do not think that that would be fair or democratic. Perhaps we should say that, given that 2,000 years ago in Athens people all turned up to vote on issues, we should have that sort of system now. I am not arguing that my system or my preference should be imposed on the British people. I am simply arguing that the British people themselves should have the democratic right to say for themselves how their representatives should be chosen. I do not understand how people who consider themselves democrats can resist that fundamental democratic principle.
Lord Rennard: All electoral processes and all elections are constant processes. However, if we kept things as simple as they were in 1872, it would be quite inappropriate. We no longer have a two-party system, as we had then, and which perhaps we had in 1950 or 1951. We are talking in these debates about respect for Scotland and Wales, and the same noble Lords who say that we should respect those countries, where there are four-party systems, at least, in operation, are still trying to perpetuate a voting system only appropriate to two parties. That does not respect people who support other options and, in particular, the people of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
Lord Howarth of Newport: This amendment is a helpful and important one. It certainly needs more work, and I do not think that it should be passed as it is at present drafted, but it points in the right direction.
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It is too melodramatic to talk in terms of a crisis in our political culture, but it is realistic to acknowledge that there is a malaise and a widespread disaffection from our politics, and a widespread view that elections are determined by small numbers of voters in small numbers of constituencies, and therefore that large numbers of votes are wasted. That is wrong in principle and unsatisfactory in practice. It may be that the malaise would be dispelled were we to be blessed with good government. If we were to enjoy a period of government under which the people of this country came to the view that they were being wisely and benignly governed in the interests of all the people and that they could look forward to unlimited peace and prosperity, no doubt the demand for constitutional change, such as it is-it is not very well articulated, but I think that it is there-would abate.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: Would my noble friend care to come with me to Scotland, where we have had a change in the electoral system for the Scottish Parliament for the past 10 years, and where he will certainly find that that malaise has not been dispelled? He is living in a fool's paradise.
Lord Howarth of Newport: I absolutely recognise the force of what my noble friend says and would be happy to visit Scotland with him at any time. However, I disagree with my noble friends Lord McAvoy and Lord Grocott, who contend that there is simply no public interest in this question. While I accept that it is something of a preoccupation of the chattering classes and the professional political class, those of us in politics who believe that there is significant dissatisfaction in our political culture and that it has something important to do with the electoral system simply seek to understand the public mood and to see what ways there might be to improve on it.
It is right that we have a referendum on the future electoral system to be used in this country for elections to the House of Commons, but if we are going to do it we should do it properly. It seems quite absurd to have a great national debate and to go through all this palaver, expense and effort to resolve a timid and incomplete choice between first past the post and the alternative vote. If we are to have a referendum on the future electoral system of this country, a rare and very important event, then let us allow the people to have the choice between the range of plausible and significant systems. I support my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours in his view that the supplementary vote should be among the choices offered at a referendum. That means, if we are going to do it properly, we would have to take time over it and the debate would have to be much more extended.
It makes no sense at all to try to rush a debate of this complexity and importance through in the brief period between whatever date this Bill gains Royal Assent and 5 May. Let us have a sustained exercise of
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I remind noble Lords that Wales is the only part of the Union where a substantial number of people speak two languages. Indeed, 20 per cent of people in Wales speak English and Welsh, so it is important that any ballot paper should contain information in both languages. Indeed, there are five parliamentary constituencies in Wales-Ynys Mon, Arfon, Dwyfor Meirionnydd, Ceredigion, and Carmarthen East and Dinefor where the majority of people speak Welsh as their first language. We will come to that when we come to the part of the Bill on boundaries. I hope that we will have support around the House when we try to ensure that those Welsh-speaking areas will not have their representation in the House of Commons diminished.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My noble friend may have overlooked an amendment that I have tabled suggesting that, if the referendum goes ahead, the question should be put in Gaelic in Scotland. We have constituencies in Scotland where Gaelic is the predominant language and I hope that that will be remembered.
I have one point to leave with the Minister. As I said, there are five parliamentary constituencies in Wales where Welsh would be the first language. It is not spoken across Wales in any uniform pattern. In my former constituency, perhaps 2 to 4 per cent of people are bilingual. Therefore, it is important for the Government to consider that whatever goes on a ballot paper in a referendum, in those areas identified as being where a majority of people speak Welsh as their first language, the question should appear in Welsh first on the ballot paper. In areas where the majority of people do not speak Welsh as their first language, the question should be in English first. I am not suggesting in any way that
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The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, talked about compromise on this whole issue-compromise between his party and the Conservatives. I do not know whether he was in the Chamber last week when his noble friend Lord McNally said that he had switched over to see a rerun of the film on the battle of Waterloo. I saw it as well and saw that bit at the end when Napoleon sent a message to Paris saying, "The battle is won-no, no the war is won". Then the Prussians appeared and we all know the outcome of the battle. I suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that if the Conservatives are the Prussians they may not turn up on this occasion.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My Lords, first, let me say a word about the contribution of the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. It was powerful and he argued his case very well. He said that he had been arguing it since he was 15. I must say that I did rather more interesting things when I was 15.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: I am coming to that in a moment. I am perfectly honest about it and I want the noble Lord to be honest about it. He is pushing that system because manifestly it helps his party. He accepts the alternative vote as a compromise but he really wants the single transferrable vote. He is moving towards that and sees this referendum and this system as the thin end of the wedge.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that in every case in Scotland-I shall argue a strong Scottish case-where he has won the argument and persuaded the Labour Party to move towards a system of PR, such as in the election for the Scottish Parliament and subsequently for the election to local government, it has been a manifest disaster-absolutely disastrous. I shall make that point at some length, I hope.
I shall start with a plea to noble Lords, in the way in which Robert Burns when he was in trouble used to make a sincere and urgent plea to the presbytery of
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Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: There you are. A confession-good for the soul. It is an awful system, but those of you who live in England have first past the post for elections to the House of Commons and first past the post for local government. You know where you are and you know the system. People understand it. It is tried, tested and trusted.
We in Scotland suffer a wild plethora of electoral systems. We have an electoral system, that we share, for the European elections-the list system where there is no choice whatever. It is a great pity that we accepted that. Try to name your MEP. We were talking about going down the streets of Stockport earlier when my noble friend Lord Snape was speaking. Go down the street and ask people who is their MEP. They do not know who they are as they do not relate to local people or have the same kind of contact, accountability or responsibility of other elected Members.
Let us turn to the Scottish Parliament. The noble Lord, Lord Lamont-I am pronouncing his name properly for a change-said that he liked the German system. The system for the Scottish Parliament elections is akin to the German electoral system. I warned him and others against the alternative member system. When he comes back up to Scotland, as I know he does from time to time, he will see a bastard of a system, if noble Lords will excuse the phrase.
We have 73 constituencies elected by first past the post in Scotland. We used to have 72 constituencies. Why are there 73? It is because Orkney and Shetland have a constituency each-another concession to the Liberals that was a dreadful mistake. The good bit is that 73 are elected by first past the post. However, on the basis of the regional vote, 56 members-seven members in each of eight constituencies-are added members according to the vote of each party in each constituency, which produces the most unexpected results. In 2007, in Lothian, I was unexpectedly elected by that very strange system. It produces coalitions, the first of which we had with the Liberal Democrats, in which we conceded-I think foolishly-single transferrable votes.
Lord Rooker: I want to make it clear that my noble friend is speaking for Scotland. I am an English person, who, by the way, would like the Scottish system. The only reason why he was elected for Lothian in the top-up system is because there were tens of thousands of Labour voters in that region without a constituency representative. That is the point. That is why he was
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Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: I am grateful for that endorsement and argument. My noble friend is a very powerful debater. He has made a good point. It is not all negative, but let me tell you some of the negative points. When we had a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, we were forced to concede STV for local government-I will come to that in a moment. Now we suffer from a minority SNP Government who have only one more seat than the Labour Party. They are so paralysed that they are unable to put any of their legislation through Parliament. That is why I said to my noble friend Lord Howarth that he should come up and see the stalemate that exists when we are not getting legislation properly dealt with.
I raised once before the system of Members retiring in the Scottish Parliament. If I were to retire tomorrow-and some people might like me to-the person who was second in the list would take over automatically without any election at all, with the people having no say whatever. Since my noble friend Lord McConnell represents a constituency-Motherwell and Wishaw-if he were to retire tomorrow, there would be a by-election and the people would have a say. However, if Margo MacDonald-who stood as an independent-were to retire tomorrow, there would be no filling of the vacancy whatever. I say to my noble friend Lord Rooker-a good friend-that this is just one of the many anomalies of the system that we have in the Scottish Parliament.
We ended up with STV. We had the European election system, the Scottish Parliament AMS system and the single transferrable vote in local government. Chaos has led to no overall control in so many authorities.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: My noble friend is absolutely right. The noble Lord, Lord Steel of Aikwood, who was one of the architects of the system, has said that, if he had his time again, he would not support the system. I think that a lot of people who were involved would feel the same. So we have those three systems.
We should recognise that, if the coalition policy gets pushed through this House, we will have elections for the second Chamber-with another system of elections and another structure-as well as a change for the Commons. That is why I argue the case against having this referendum-indeed, against any changes for first past the post. I was sorry to hear that the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, did not agree with what he wrote 40 years ago because I am sure that it was right then and I am sure that it is right now.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: I did not say that I completely withdrew what I said. I said that not all the arguments had stood up so well. As regards the German system, I did not say that I preferred it; I said that I thought it was the best of the alternatives.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: I am grateful for that clarification and I apologise if I have misrepresented the noble Lord. I hope he will then agree with this practical argument. We should look towards first past the post continuing for the House of Commons. If we have elections to the House of Lords, that is where we should have some proportional system. If the Commons continues, as it will, to form the Government-in other words, once the Commons is elected that is where the Government come from-stability is important. Apart from the current aberration of the coalition, first past the post normally produces stability. It produces one party in power for a period of time-five, 10 or 15 years. That gives some stability, which, in government, is important.
Lord Liddle: Is it the case that under that arrangement what you would have in practice would be more instability? What you would have is a Lords with full democratic legitimacy, elected on proportional representation, which would feel able to overturn the decisions of the House of Commons. Therefore, you would not get stability by that system.
Lord Campbell-Savours: I remind the noble Lord of a speech he gave to the parliamentary Labour Party about four years ago, where he made precisely the point that is now being made. He said that in the event that we were elected here by proportional representation and they by first past the post we would claim legitimacy where they could not.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: I remember it well. On that occasion, I said that, if senators were elected for Scotland, for example, or for Wales, Northern Ireland or England, to a second Chamber, which was a Senate, they would certainly claim some legitimacy or might even claim a greater legitimacy. However, if the Lords continues as a revising Chamber, I would argue the case for proportional representation for that revising Chamber.
Lord Skidelsky: I thank the noble Lord for giving way. As mover of this amendment, I point out that we are not discussing reform of the House of Lords at this point, we are discussing the amendment that has been tabled.
Baroness McDonagh: Is it not the case that, when we are debating this referendum, we also need to think ahead of other changes that may happen and whether they may work with this system? That is the point that my noble friend is alluding to.
Lord Foulkes of Cumnock: I am grateful to my noble friend for rushing to my defence in a distinguished and helpful way-I was going to say gallant, but that is the wrong way round. What I was arguing, as my noble friend said, is that we need to take account of these things when we are looking at this amendment and any changes in the election to the House Commons, the first Chamber. If the Lords is the revising Chamber and is not forming the Government, there is an argument
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As the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky-or perhaps it was my noble friend-rightly said, this would mean that you would have to carefully define the powers of both the Commons and the Lords. That is why I believe that we are moving towards needing some kind of written constitution with devolved parliamentary assemblies and parliaments, with a separate Supreme Court and with the possibility and the proposal to elect the second Chamber. Everything needs to be much more clearly defined. That is why it would be madness-and this is where I come to the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, which was moved on behalf of the noble Lord, Lord Owen-to rush into this kind of referendum, or any kind of referendum, to change the system for the House of Commons. There are enough other changes taking place with the proposed reform of the House of Lords; we should learn from the changes that have taken place in Scotland, although it has not been a happy experience. We should not rush into something that has unexpected consequences just because the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, apparently puts a convincing case. Just because the noble Lord has spent 35 years arguing the case for proportional representation, we should not move in that direction. What is best for the Labour Party and the country is to stick to first past the post, which has provided election to the House of Commons with some degree of stability over a long period.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: My Lords, I will make some practical points in saying why I am in favour of neither this amendment nor the one to be spoken to later by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, which is not dissimilar. Frankly, if one were dealing in the theory of referenda and the reform of electoral systems at this time, I would find a great deal to favour particularly in the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. I will be frank-I have fought and lost five parliamentary elections. The first was for Labour in 1970. At that time, I confess, I did not think twice about electoral systems. I knew, as all Labour and Tory Members know, that the first past the post system was deeply in their favour. One of the problems of discussing reform here or in the other place is that we are all parti pris. We are all conflicted. Nobody can look at this complex but profound issue without party affiliation coming into play.
However, it is also fair to say-the noble Lord, Lord Howarth, expressed it very well-that, before and above that, we are concerned about Parliament: its respect in the country, its effectiveness and its health. I do not think anybody sitting here tonight believes that our Parliament, in 2010, is in good fettle. I do not for one second suggest that the lack of democratic adherence to it is, by any means, solely down to the electoral system. However, I maintain that it is one of the principal reasons why so many of our fellow countrymen do not even bother to vote-to use the precious vote that our forefathers fought so hard for. Four out of 10 do not vote and-I heard this
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The other thing I know, which deeply affects my feeling about this amendment, is that we have been going round and round this mulberry bush my entire political life. There is always not just one but 10 reasons why we should not have reform now, and why we should wait until we have decided whether there is to be election to the House of Lords, and so on. There are always several reasons. My noble friend Lord Rennard gave, as the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, kindly admitted, an extremely clear and persuasive history of electoral reform-or rather the failure to have electoral reform-in this country. It is perfectly clear that many organisations and all the parties in this House use AV now. It has no deep defect. What is absolutely unavoidable is that the consequences of bringing in AV at this juncture will profoundly affect all parties in this country.
I come to my last point, which is to admit that the Liberal Democrats are plainly the party that is keenest on AV for electoral purposes. It is in our self-interest-of course it is. However, we also believe-I hope noble Lords will accept my sincerity-that it is also in the public interest, for the reasons I have briefly touched on, to give many more people a stake in government and a useful vote. Incidentally, if any non-Lib Dem was to go around with a Lib Dem on the doorsteps, my goodness, they would hear about electoral reform then. I am not surprised that you do not hear about it if you are a Conservative or Labour supporter.
Going along with the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, that of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, or any of the comparable amendments would simply be to kill off this latest chance of some amelioration of the system we have. It would kill it stone dead. Why? Because the main party in the coalition-the Conservatives-will not have a PR system. It is as simple as that. It will go to the other end and they will chuck it back at us. The profound practical question tonight is about whether we give the people of this country the chance to choose whether they want a major-though not fundamental-reform of and improvement in the electoral system. I have spent much of my political life struggling to get some reform into the system. It is painful.
Lord Campbell-Savours: If it could be shown that by changing the electoral system in favour of STV or AV, turnout did not rise, would that in any way influence how the noble Lord thinks about the proposition on the table?
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: Noble Lords are now asking me a series of questions at large that need very detailed consideration to be commented on sensibly. All I will say is that I am convinced that, because in many constituencies a Liberal vote, a Green vote or a vote for anything but the prevailing party is a waste of time, common sense says that people will not be engaged with the election in that constituency in the way that they would if they had a vote that counted.
Baroness McDonagh: I am sorry but the noble Lord is saying that if we have a different form of voting system, more people will vote. That clearly has not happened in Scotland and Wales. Will he now change his opinion?
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: I certainly will not. I can speak of this country, where I have fought five parliamentary elections. I know how people in this country-those who are not of the dominant party in the constituency concerned-think about the voting system. It seems blazingly obvious that if you are not of the prevailing party, the tendency not to vote is very strong and has led to the present facts. Please take note of the declining turnout among young voters. They are increasingly disenchanted with the hegemony of our system.
For us on these Benches, it is now or never. It is AV or nothing. We believe AV to be an improvement, and an improvement in the public interest. For those reasons I will not, I am afraid, be tempted to vote for either the amendment we are discussing or those that bear upon it.
Lord Grocott: My Lords, I was going to intervene briefly in any case, but the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, has given me so much material that I cannot guarantee that it will be as brief as I thought. His whole contribution was as though absolutely nothing had happened in the way of electoral reform during the last 15 years. A host of different electoral systems have been introduced. I have not as yet written my memoirs about the period of the Labour Government, but I can reveal to the House this little bit of information. Every time the
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Lord Grocott: But why on earth, if the noble Lord's argument does not apply in Europe-and empirically I can show him that it does not apply-why would it suddenly start applying in Westminster elections? I just cannot understand the point.
Lord McFall of Alcluith: Maybe this will help the noble Lord, Lord Phillips. Since devolution took place in Scotland, in 1998, the turnout for Westminster elections under first past the post has been the greatest of all; followed by the Scottish Parliament with proportional representation, which has been less; followed by the European elections, which has been even less. Can the noble Lord tell us why that is?
Lord Grocott: I will even try and trump my noble friend on my knowledge of Scottish elections. I agree entirely with what he said and the implication of what he said. However, is it not also true to say that in what was described as the laboratory of a Scottish election for the Scottish Parliament-where people have two votes, one for PR and one for first past the post; and that is as near a laboratory as you will ever get in an electoral system-in election after election, more people turn out for the first past the post option than they do for the PR option. With this kind of debate, the whole of the discussion takes place as if nothing has happened, A lot has happened. A lot of electoral systems have been tried. Those who were suggesting, insisting on, demanding reform-for there was a huge public demand for a change in the electoral system-have been proved conclusively and unarguably wrong in terms of the benefits they told us would accrue if their proposals were accepted.
Lord Lamont of Lerwick: I am very reluctant to join in the almost filibustering tactics of the Opposition and incur the wrath of my colleagues, but would the noble Lord not reject the idea of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, that a vote for someone who loses an election is a wasted vote? In a presidential election people lose, but that does not mean that their vote has been wasted. In case the Opposition have not noted it,
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Lord Grocott: I wholeheartedly agree with that, and I speak as someone who has lost nearly as many elections as the noble Lord, Lord Phillips-four, as a matter of fact, all for the Labour party. If anyone should be opposed to first past the post and want to change to any other electoral system, it probably ought to be me. I should add that I have also lost three county council elections and one or two parish elections as well. So it is a pretty abysmal electoral record. However, I have no doubt whatever that as far as local electors in local constituencies are concerned, first past the post is the fairest, best and most understood electoral system. But that is not what we are here to debate. I am not going to filibuster-I can assure the House of that. I am going to stick rigorously and briefly to the amendment that we are debating and try and say why I am opposed to it.
The amendment would give us a choice between first past the post, the alternative vote system and a proportional vote system. People like me used to be at a huge disadvantage-like the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, I have not changed my mind on this over decades-but I support, and always have done, first past the post. Historically, however, we were always at a huge disadvantage. We were asking people whenever we were in debate, "Judge the first past the post system, which you know and with which you are familiar, against these various alternative theoretical systems", which were unspecified-and particularly, I say without undue criticism of the amendment, unspecified in the choices being put to the electorate here. As for the first past the post system, it is precise and exact. That is what we know. That is what we have lived through. It has its strengths and it has its weaknesses, and we are very familiar with its weaknesses.
As for the alternative vote system, as my noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours has already conclusively argued, it is actually a series of possible options in itself. As for a proportional vote system, there are very nearly as many of those as one can imagine. Whenever I was in a debate with someone about first past the post versus proportional representation, they would always say to me, "Ah, but you're arguing against that form of proportional representation, not the form of proportional representation that I am in favour of". When you are choosing between what is known and what is unknown, a referendum of this sort is always difficult. But I am not therefore arguing that you can never put anything to the electorate because, taking that to its logical conclusion, you never could put anything to the electorate as you would always know what is familiar best. I am saying, in relation to this amendment, that if we are to have a referendum-I would prefer that we did not, but if we do-it needs to be as specific as it can be.
I find myself in a strange position. Probably for the first time in my life, I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I do not think that this amendment is helpful. It does not have the precision of the proposal currently
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The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, helped the House-at least it was helpful to my line of argument-when he conceded, and he can correct me if I am wrong, that for him, and I would assume that it would apply to whatever referendum question went to the public, this would only be a short-term solution. This is a referendum about work in progress. I must say that that alarms me.
I think that I can probably help the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, in his summing up. His Liberal Democrat colleagues rightly have been asked: "How long? Should this referendum result in a yes, for how long would it stand?". The Liberal Democrats have already given us their answer, which is basically: "As short a period as possible. We want to move on rapidly to full PR or whatever". I can guess what the answer of the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, would be if he were asked: how soon after a yes or no vote should the matter be put to the public again in a referendum? I would guess that his answer would be, "We wouldn't want to touch that with a barge pole". I think that that would at least be a straightforward and honest response. But as far as this proposed amendment is concerned, it is not one that should be attractive to the House.
Lord Snape: It is a pleasure to follow my noble friend Lord Grocott. So far in this debate it has been the other way round. He will not be surprised to learn-I do not know how gratified he will be-that I agreed with every word that he has said, too. Like him, I am a fan of the first past the post system. Unlike him-purely coincidentally, I am sure-I have had a bit more success, which is probably the best argument against first past the post that either side of your Lordships' House has come up with. Certainly I do not find much favour with the amendment due to the various alternatives that it provides. No one listening to this debate could doubt the sincerity of the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, although I found some of his conclusions somewhat confusing, to say the least. We talk about young people and politics. There will be lots of young people interested in politics demonstrating outside this building this week, largely because politicians who make promises and then immediately break them do not greatly enamour themselves to those young people.
To suggest, as the noble Lord did, that those of us who spent time canvassing in elections for the other place talked only to our own supporters is somewhat bizarre. He said that if I followed him round and talked to Liberal Democrats, I would come across people desperate to embrace the principle of proportional representation. I have to tell the noble Lord that I have canvassed unsuccessfully for my own party in various by-elections in various Liberal Democrat strongholds. In places such as Eastbourne, people said to me, "I'm not voting for the Labour candidate; I'm voting for the Liberal candidate", but when I asked them why, they could not normally tell me. Let us be honest about this. Many supporters of the Liberal Democrat party are diametrically opposed to many of that party's policies. That is a fact, as all of us who have gone
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We heard a fascinating speech, as ever, from the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, who said that he was in favour of the alternative vote system because it was a step along the road to PR. However, according to the late Roy Jenkins, it is actually a step away from PR. As I reminded the noble Lord earlier today, in 1998 Roy Jenkins said that the conclusion of the independent royal commission which he chaired was that AV was even less proportional than the current system. Therefore, what the noble Lord is proposing is a step away from what he wants-or at least it is according to Roy Jenkins.
Like the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, my noble friend Lord Howarth, who I am afraid is not in his place at the moment, bemoaned what he called the widespread disillusion about politics, and he felt that the acceptance of this amendment or a change in the electoral system might help to cure that widespread disillusion. I do not want to run again through the list of countries that have AV as their electoral system but Australia has been widely mentioned. I wonder whether my noble friend, who I am glad to see has rejoined us, has been to Australia. If he has, he will not have found the Australian people or their press speaking lyrically about their politics or their politicians, even though they are elected under the AV system. Indeed, if he travels a bit nearer to home-to Italy-he might find that, because of the system that they have there at present, a lot of people say, "If only we had a system like yours". Therefore, to pretend that AV or any other proportional representation system is being widely demanded by people out there or that it will transform this nation into a happy band of brothers and sisters is, in my view, a complete aberration.
The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, accuses those of us who are in favour of first past the post of wanting to preserve, presumably in aspic, a political system that has been around for more than 100 years. However, it is the coalition that appears to be following the doctrine, "If it ain't broke, break it". I honestly cannot see how the Liberal Democrats can justify their stance on AV for any reason other than that it might favour them, and the noble Lord, Lord Phillips was honest enough to let the cat out of the bag on that. It might save them-or at least their colleagues in the other place-from electoral Armageddon at some point in the future. That is the only reason why they support it. It might shock the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, and his Cross-Bench colleagues that a member of the Liberal Democrat party in particular could be so blatantly political about these matters. However, it has to be recognised that the reason why the Liberal Democrats are in favour of this AV system, which they have long campaigned against, is that they hope it will preserve some of their colleagues down the Corridor at the next election. Therefore, I cannot bring myself to support the noble Lord's amendment.
Lord Campbell-Savours: Perhaps I may remind my noble friend that the only party that has consistently supported and campaigned for AV is the Labour Party. We are the only ones to have done so. Am I being helpful?
Lord Snape: My noble friend is indeed being helpful and I am grateful. The fact is that we got it wrong. At least that is certainly the opinion that many of us hold, and we will continue to get it wrong if we continue to support it. I accept the sincerity of my noble friend and my noble friend Lord Rooker. I remember a conversation that I had with him in 1987 after the then-from the party's point of view-unsuccessful election. I asked him why he was in favour of PR. I cannot imagine why we were discussing PR-we must have been stuck on a very long train journey. I hope that I am not betraying any confidences when I say that my noble friend was brutally honest and said, "Because we can't win under the present system". However, we did eventually win under that system. The Liberal Democrats argue that they cannot win under the present system because their votes are diffused throughout the United Kingdom. I understand why they campaign in favour of proportional representation and I would understand them supporting some parts of the amendment before your Lordships tonight. However, I wish that they would be a little more honest, as was the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, in their declared support for AV. It is totally in their interests, although it is against everything for which they have campaigned for over 100 years.
Lord Baker of Dorking: I feel that I almost have to ask permission of the Labour Party to participate in this debate. For the past hour and three-quarters, we on this side of the Committee have been privileged to attend a Labour Party seminar on electoral reform. It has been a fascinating experience and the advocacy from the other side for every possible system of voting has been heard in this Committee. I feel almost sympathy and sorrow for the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer-not a sentiment that I often feel-because he is supposed to be representing Labour Party Front-Bench opinion. I do not know what threads he is going to draw out of what he has heard this evening. Do I see a conversion to first past the post for a Front-Bench speaker? That is not consistent with what his leader is saying. The leader of the Labour Party is totally opposed to most of the views that have been expressed on the Benches opposite. I do not want to intrude any further into private grief.
Lord Baker of Dorking: My Front Bench are wonderfully consistent. Their consistency consists of retaining power for as long as possible, and I look upon that as an essential political talent. Over the past hour and three-quarters we have seen the Labour Party approach constitutional reform with a spirit of confusion, illogicality, incoherence and low cunning. That is entirely consistent with the attitude that they showed in government, and it indicates why they should never be trusted with reform of the constitution of our country.
Lord Liddle: I was very tempted by the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, because I should like to see a wide-ranging debate about all forms of electoral reform in this country. I am very tempted indeed by the amendments of my noble friend Lord Rooker, which go for a two-party arrangement, first seeking the people's opinion on whether in principle they want change and then asking them what system in particular they want. That is an amendment that deserves the support of many people on our side of the Chamber.
So far as concerns the general question of why we need a debate on this issue, I think that we should set aside questions of party advantage. I know that people will laugh at that but I think that we should do so and ask ourselves whether the present system has legitimacy. The first general election in which I canvassed and campaigned was the 1964 general election, when the Labour Party and the Conservative Party got more than 85 per cent of the votes cast. The two parties were overwhelmingly dominant in our politics. But when you look at the result of the last two general elections-2010 and 2005-you see that the two major parties won only about two-thirds, 65 per cent, of the votes cast. This is not legitimate. You cannot have a system, which is an alleged two-party system, in which the voice of 35 per cent of the electorate is not being effectively heard. That is why we have to have a big debate in our country about electoral reform.
There are many arguments made against electoral reform, such as that it will result in weak government because there have to be coalitions. However, although I do not agree with the Conservative/Lib Dem coalition, I do not believe that it is a weak Government. I think it is quite a decisive Government who are getting on with doing a lot of things I do not particularly like. It blows a hole, however, in one of the arguments against proportional representation, which is that it would result in a coalition politics that would mean that nothing would ever get done.
There is a strong argument to be made for the sake of the country. The late Lord Jenkins, of whom I was a great admirer, attached a lot of importance to the belief, based on his experience in the 1980s, that it was a very bad situation indeed when there were no Conservatives in the county of Durham and no Labour people in the county of Surrey. What you got was a polarisation of the country when in fact what you want is a system of representation where there are Conservatives who have to represent the deprived areas of the north of England and there are Labour MPs who represent the more affluent districts. That would be good for the country and would produce a more legitimate system. That is why I support electoral reform; why I am tempted by the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, but am not going to support it; why I would definitely support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Rooker; and why I very much support the principle of a referendum on some change.
Lord Sewel: My Lords, in a previous existence I used to teach something called social science research methods, which was basically reduced in large part to constructing questionnaires and getting undergraduates to go out and ask people in various ways which way
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Let us note the two words "proposed" and "changed". You are actually sensitising the respondent to the desired response, because everyone accepts on that basis that it is proposed, so it is a good thing: and "change", as we know, is a very powerful word-think of Barack Obama. It is a false question in terms of equal balance because you are making clear the direction of the desired response just by using those two words: "proposed" and "changed".
We then get on to the more substantive issue of linking the first past the post system, which is actually undefined, with the alternative vote system. The one thing that we have learnt during the debates and discussions on this is that we do not know whether there is "the" alternative vote system. Very different types of systems claim to be the alternative vote system, but there is not one "the" alternative vote system.
The game is given away in proposed new Clause 3(c), which says: "a proportional vote system". What does that mean? Does it mean an absolutely strictly proportional system, such as the system used in Israel where every party's representation on the Knesset is dependent quite rigorously on the application of a proportional system? This is one of the major reasons why Israel has not been able to move towards a broader Middle East settlement, particularly on the Palestinian issues. If you have a strictly proportional system you will inevitably finish up being in hock to a whole range of minor parties.
I am not sure whether that is what is meant by a proportional vote system, but if it is not it has to be specified in the amendment. Does it mean STV? Does it not mean STV? Does it mean strict proportionality? Does it not mean strict proportionality? This amendment as it stands deals totally inadequately with the issues that we face in possibly revising the voting system upon which the House of Commons is elected.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: My Lords, that was a fantastically revealing debate. The noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, delivered an extremely good speech that was rational, reasonable and sensible. It basically said that, if we are going to have a debate about constitutional reform, let everyone have a reasonable choice. Unfortunately-this is no fault of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky-he has absolutely no understanding of what is going on in relation to the proposal for constitutional reform that is being advanced.
For the past 13, maybe 20, years, our approach to constitutional reform as a nation has been that this House has the role at least of producing as good a constitutional reform as we can. The work of the Cook-Maclennan report, which had lots of years behind
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The perfectly reasonable amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, therefore meets a car crash. The first part of the car crash is the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, who, with eyes popping with sincerity, tells us that he is strongly in favour of AV, having never supported AV before. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, then gets up and says that he has been talking about constitutional reform since he was 15-I rather agree with the noble Lord, Lord Foulkes, when he says "poor Lord Rennard", whom we greatly admire in this House-and he says that he supports the alternative vote system. This lot on the Liberal Democrat Benches are therefore standing on their heads. The noble Lord, Lord Phillips, has the nerve to say that they are doing this to restore the people's trust in our parliamentary representatives by adopting a system that the Liberal Democrats have opposed for so long and which, as has often been said, is described by Mr Nicholas Clegg as "a miserable little compromise". The public think that they are doing this to get more seats, not because they are sincere, so they are eroding public support. Sensibly, the party opposite has remained completely silent throughout this debate in relation to whether there should be a change to the electoral system. Members opposite looked patronisingly on the Liberal Democrats for being so easily gulled into behaving in a way that brings the whole system into contempt.
The noble Lord, Lord Baker, in an embittered little speech, had the nerve to say, "I have been privileged to listen to a seminar on electoral reform from the Labour Party". Yes he has, and he is lucky to have done so because no one else in the whole country appears to be debating what the right system is. Surely the least the public could expect is Parliament debating what the best system is, because no other debate is going on. In answer to the noble Lord's question about how to bring all the strands together, I have great sympathy for the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky. There are problems with it. It is pretty eccentric to choose an electoral system on AV when you are asking the public to determine whether they like AV best. I understand why that is being done-it is a rational way of doing it-but I am afraid he is wasting his time because this constitutional reform is motivated not by what the best constitutional reform is but by a grubby deal that was done that had no reference to what was best for the public.
Lord Phillips of Sudbury: The noble and learned Lord has made a rather passionate attack on my position. I am not standing on my head and I have not argued anything other than that I believe that this referendum should be held on an AV system, and I have explained why.
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: I was under the impression-obviously wrongly-that on previous occasions the noble Lord had supported AV+, as suggested by Lord Jenkins. Indeed, his party supported that, but I was obviously wrong.
Lord Maclennan of Rogart: I am extremely grateful to the noble and learned Lord for his kind references to the agreements arrived at between Robin Cook and me. He will also remember in the context of his suggestions that this is just a stitch-up: that the Labour Party in Government did not implement the Cook-Maclennan proposals on electoral reform, despite a manifesto commitment to give the public the opportunity. In those days the Labour Party was not in favour of PR; yet it committed itself to giving the public a choice. Where is the difference now?
Lord Falconer of Thoroton: The noble Lord is right. We did not implement Lord Jenkins' proposals. We said that if we were going to implement a change, there would be a referendum. I fail to see how that justifies implementing a system of election which Lord Jenkins said would sometimes lead to greater disproportionality than the present system. As the noble Lord, Lord Lamont, has said, that leads to the second party's second preference votes having no say in the answer. Although he is absolutely right to condemn us for that, I do not think that it allows the public to have sicked upon it a system that absolutely no one wants. My position on the amendment in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, is that I admire his logic in proposing it, but I would not support it because of the technical changes. In a sense, I think he is wasting his time.
Lord Strathclyde: If noble Lord, Lord Owen, had been here-like others I wish him well-I am sure that he would have been immensely proud of the way in which the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, moved his amendment. I expect he would also have been reminded of the reasons why he left the Labour Party in the first place.
The purpose of the amendment is to give people the choice of a proportional system along with the choice of first past the post and the alternative vote. As the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, explained, they had previously tabled an amendment giving a choice of AV+, AMS or STV but had subsequently changed their amendment, so it was not about specifically wanting to pose AV+, AMS or STV as options in their own right but to pose the principle of PR as an option.
We believe that on an issue as fundamental as voting reform, the public need to be given a clear choice that will produce an equally clear result. The key point is about the impact that this sort of approach will have on the result. I understand that the noble Lord wished to see a multiple choice of voting options, including some form of PR. However, for the sake of simplicity-this is the crucial point-it is better to present people with a simple yes/no alternative, exactly as set out in the Bill. Multiple choice questions go against the recommendations of the Lords Constitution Committee report on referendums, which concluded
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A referendum on AV replacing the existing system will give a clear choice to the electorate, with the ability for them to express a clear view. Offering more than one choice could lead to an indecisive result and confusion over the interpretation of the result. The watchwords that we need to stand by when holding any referendum are simplicity, clarity and decisiveness. We would risk disregarding each of those if we went down the road suggested by these amendments.
The question in the Bill as it currently stands reflects the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, which tested the question through focus groups and interviews with members of the public as well as through input from language experts. This amendment risks going against that independent advice from the Electoral Commission, which recommended that, unlike a question requiring a yes/no answer, this style of question has never been used in a UK-wide referendum, and, as such, fuller testing would need to be undertaken before recommending this style of question ahead of a more traditional yes/no question.
Lord Campbell-Savours: If during the referendum campaign the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, is in a television studio and is asked why the public cannot decide on the system that they want-first past the post, a variant on the alternative vote system or a proportional system-how would he reply?
Lord Strathclyde: I would reply that this is the system passed by Parliament: that, in particular, the House of Commons agreed on the system, as we did-if that is what has happened-and that is why we have the choice of AV. As to why we have AV above the other systems, no doubt we will get to that in other debates. Of course, AV is the one that preserves best the link between elected Member and constituency.
In these amendments there is not even an indication of the kind of proportional voting system that the public would get if they voted for this option or of how this type of system would work. One attraction of the approach taken in the Bill is that for all the arguments there might be about how AV works, the Bill sets that out in Clause 9 and in Schedule 10. Any questions about how AV works can be resolved by looking at the Bill, which would not be the case with these amendments. The results might be a lack of clarity and voter confusion.
Lord Sewel: For the sake of completeness and comprehensiveness, would the noble Lord agree, given the weaknesses of the definitions under proposed new paragraphs (a), (b) and (c), that for the sake of completeness there ought to be mention of the additional Member system that has at least been tried and used in parts of the United Kingdom?
Lord Strathclyde: That is a matter for the noble Lord, Lord Skidelsky, and not for me. I hope that he will not press his amendment. I know that he wanted a short debate about these matters-he may have got more than he bargained for-and I hope that he will reflect carefully about what I and others have said. I urge him to withdraw the amendment.
Lord Skidelsky: I am grateful to all those who have taken part in the debate, particularly to the two Front-Bench spokesmen for the cogent and gracious way in which they summed up the issues that the amendment raised. I have four concise points to make. First, I very much appreciated the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Lamont. He made a very powerful case against the alternative vote-he might even have persuaded me of its demerits-but I emphasise that the amendment was not about the merits and demerits of particular voting systems; it was designed to give people a choice.
Secondly, it was said that voting reform is not a subject of interest to the mass of the people; it is of interest only to the chattering classes. I think there are quite a large number of chattering classes in this country, and if you call them professional classes they may even constitute a majority. They are interested in subjects such as this, so that is simply wrong.
I am not convinced that ordinary people are incapable of understanding the principle of proportionality. I think that it is a very reasonable question to put and that people will know what you mean and how it differs from first past the post and the alternative vote.
Finally, no one addressed the issue I raised in my speech of whether a simple choice, of the kind that the noble Lord, Lord Strathclyde, supported, is worth a referendum. Referenda ought to be preserved for grand issues of constitutional import, and a measure of this kind, which would make a marginal change in the voting system, is not worth a referendum. No one really addressed that.
Having said all that, I am very grateful. I do not propose to test the opinion of the House on this amendment, and I therefore ask leave to withdraw the amendment, but I give notice that I may return to it on Report. Thank you very much.
Lord Jay of Ewelme: My Lords, my interest in the Arctic stems from my interest in climate change. It seems to me to be entirely appropriate that we should
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The issue this evening is not whether climate change is happening or who or what caused it. The issue is that change, dramatic change, is occurring in the Arctic with potentially profound implications, including for British interests. The question is whether we are doing enough now to protect and promote our interests in the future. The subject might be less immediate than many discussed in your Lordships' House, but other nations are reacting to the changes they see or foresee. Our interests are affected too and my concern is that, if we do not take them seriously now, we may well regret that later.
The Arctic is the fastest warming region on Earth. By 2007, it had lost half the ice that existed in 1950-over one million square miles of ice, roughly equivalent to one quarter of the United States. The result is that the Arctic is becoming more accessible. In 2007 and 2008, the north-west passage was opened for two weeks. In August last year, two German commercial ships, unaccompanied by icebreakers, traversed the North Sea route from Vladivostok to the Netherlands. These routes are substantially shorter than the traditional sea routes from east to west and vice versa. They are, of course, only navigable for short periods and there is always the risk of ice and of atrocious weather in hostile, not-well-charted waters. My father was captain of a naval escort ship which escorted Arctic convoys during the Second World War and his description of conditions in the Arctic were not for the faint-hearted.
These seas, the Arctic Ocean, are not going to become the new great sea route for the world in the next decade, but, in 20 years or so-by which time scientists expect ice-free summers-they might. When they do-and I believe that it is a "when" and not an "if"-will there not be opportunities for maritime nations such as ours? Might there not be scope for developing again some of the great ports of northern England, Scotland and Northern Ireland to service the new shipping lanes? Are there not huge opportunities, too, for our insurance companies and our insurance markets? I hope that the Minister will comment on that.
Meanwhile, there is already great interest in the prospect of mineral extraction from the Arctic. Here too, there are risks and opportunities. The risks, of course, are the environmental catastrophes that can follow mineral and especially oil extraction, as we have seen already in Alaska and, more recently, in the Gulf of Mexico. There is at present uncertainty over the likely timescale for exploiting the Arctic; much will depend, as always, on demand, on price and on technology. However, present estimates-and they can only be estimates-are that 13 per cent of so-far-undiscovered supplies of oil in the world, 30 per cent of natural gas and 20 per cent of natural liquid gas, could lie in the
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There is significant change under way in the Arctic, with important implications for Britain. It is therefore equally important that we should remain fully involved in international negotiations and discussions about the future of the region. There are many British academic and non-governmental organisations with great experience and expertise and with much to offer others. The British Antarctic Survey, which has an important Arctic dimension and a deservedly high reputation, is one, but intergovernmental co-operation is crucial. The key forum is the Arctic Council, consisting of the Arctic states: Canada, Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, Russia and the United States. The UK is an observer and, indeed, an active observer, and rightly so, but there is a move among Arctic states members to limit the role of observer states, including the United Kingdom. Can the Minister give an assurance that we will continue to be closely involved in the work of the Arctic Council, given its importance and our experience and interests in the region?
However, the Arctic Council covers only some Arctic issues, essentially protecting the environment, which is, of course, crucial. Other international organisations have a key role too, for example, the International Maritime Organization, for shipping issues, or the UN law of the sea conference, but other issues, including, crucially, security, are less obviously covered by existing institutions. Sovereignty is not always clear. We all remember, I suspect, the Russian flag planted on the Arctic sea bed a couple of years ago to stake a sovereignty claim. How are territorial disputes linking, for example, to oil fields, to be resolved as the Arctic becomes more widely navigable and exploited?
I do not know how often Arctic affairs have been discussed in your Lordships' House, but I would guess that they will be discussed pretty regularly in the future, as the significance of the melting of the ice cap becomes more apparent, and with it the important implications for British interests. I look forward to Minister's response.
Lord Jenkin of Roding: My Lords, we are deeply indebted to the noble Lord, Lord Jay. I am sure that he is right in saying that this is just the first of the debates we shall have on the Arctic. He mentioned the pace of the melting of the ice. This is nothing new. When Nansen's "Fram" drifted across the Arctic Ocean, it took three years to get from the Bering Strait to clear
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The noble Lord raised a number of questions, but there is no doubt about it: this has greatly encouraged the huge search for minerals. There is a difference. Off Alaska, the American environmentalist movement has now made it extremely difficult for international oil companies to prospect for oil with any prospect of being allowed to do so. Shell, one of the big companies there-a British company- is at the moment marking time on this. If one looks across to Siberia, however, the Russian experience is very different. There are, as I have heard described, staggering quantities of gas as well as oil. During the Soviet era, there were enormous and immensely damaging changes to the environment. That is now being corrected by the new Russian administration. The Russians have at least three very major projects offshore of the Siberian coast. Much the biggest is the Shtokman gas field, which is-noble Lords may be surprised to learn- the second largest gas field in the world, though in immensely challenging, hugely deep water.
The noble Lord referred to the ice cap; but of course, there is no land under the North Pole-it is all ice. It is immensely deep water, sometimes four or five miles deep. There are huge icebergs, but in Alun Anderson's book After the Ice, which first attracted me to this-and I really recommend anybody who is interested in this subject to read it; it is a fascinating compendium of facts, history and forecasts-the author described the Shtokman field as,
That is something of which we really need to take account. If one looks at the deeper water further north, it is even more difficult. The combination of accelerating warming and this advancing technology poses, as the noble Lord has said, huge challenges for us all, and I, too, look forward to my noble friend's reply from the Front Bench as to what we are doing about it.
Lord Teverson: My Lords, I am absolutely sure that the noble Lord, Lord Jay, is right that we will be discussing this topic on many occasions in future. I find it one of the most interesting topics because views on the Arctic are some of the most diverse that there are. If one reads the press cuttings and look at the
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The Arctic is of great interest to us. First, the Arctic is the leading indicator of global warming. As the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, said, an important factor is the reflective effect of the polar ice cap, which will lead to the increase in methane in that area that we already see elsewhere in our planet's atmosphere. We have international shipping; we have the strong Canadian view that not all of these waters are international waters, and that it has national control over many of these areas, and so there is potentially a dispute with the United States, among others, and those other nations that might want to use them. There are commodities there, including 100 billion tonnes of hydrocarbons-25 per cent of global reserves. All of that is there to be fought over; I refer to territorial claims and the 1,200 mile-long Lomonosov Ridge-and I am not sure whether I have got that pronunciation exactly right- Ridge that extends across much of that area.
From my humble position, I see that there are things that need to be done, and I would be interested in the Minister's reply. First, in terms of world security, global warming is the one thing that needs to be sorted out in this area, but that is not just an Arctic issue. In terms of territorial disputes, it is most important that we persuade and cajole the United States to finally become a signatory to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, through which these disputes and boundaries can be resolved amicably.
As regards drilling and the way in which these resources will inevitably be exploited, this year, the Gulf of Mexico has shown that we need very stringent terms and conditions in terms of the way in which those minerals are exploited and in terms of the emergency facilities when that does not work. As to international seaways, we need to look to Canada to talk very closely and carefully with the international community to resolve international waters conversations and disputes in a way that everyone is able to respect. We also need to increase hugely our communications ability in respect of emergencies and the seaway. But, most of all, I ask that we encourage-the EU and the United Kingdom should participate in the Arctic Council-the use of these methods to come to a peaceful, long-lasting and legal framework for resolution of these issues.
Viscount Waverley: My Lords, the Arctic has a magical attraction posing special physical challenges-remoteness, ice and extreme temperatures, with long periods of darkness. But as the region warms in the decades to come, the ice cap will gradually melt and its ecosystems change. Technology will improve and commercial opportunities will present shorter shipping routes, fishing grounds, new destinations for commercial tourism, and new oil and gas development opportunities. The United States Geological Survey 2008, for example, has estimated the potential magnitude of the resources in the Arctic as containing, as we have already heard, 90 billion barrels of oil, 1,700 TCF of gas and 44 billion barrels of natural gas liquids, all equating to some 10 years of current global oil and gas demand.
A framework for the staged implementation of performance-based standards is required therefore to govern Arctic offshore oil and gas exploration, development, production and transportation, which must take into consideration the special challenges of the Arctic environment, and so enable compliance integrated with regulatory arrangements. Therefore, co-operation between industry, regulators and other stakeholders is a fundamental.
The central question that comes to my mind is, "How is a global treasure to be developed in a manner which provides, yet preserves?". International and national interest in mitigating and adapting to future changes to make responsible development happen has led to calls from Arctic and non-Arctic nations to anticipate and assess the new levels of activity to the region. Effective governance through Arctic-specific international standards, and adapted national regulations and standards, is critical in managing and mitigating risks and securing safe, reliable and environmentally responsible development. Many commentators choose to view the changes in the Arctic in terms of security; namely, energy security, environmental security and human security.
If the Arctic is to be developed, and there is no possibility of this not happening, it is essential that international co-operation on science, planning, inclusive engagement, standards of operation and safety is ensured. Have we got to the stage that world players, Governments and private sector alike have the experience and technology to develop in a manner that causes no future long-term regret? Have we learnt from the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, including what went wrong and what will be done to prevent a similar occurrence? A constant concern is whether sufficient emphasis will be placed on addressing the wishes and needs of the Arctic's 4 million inhabitants. The Arctic is not about taking short-cuts and the residents of the region should be brought on board at an early stage of planning.
In 2009, the Aspen Commission on Arctic Climate Change of the Aspen Institute identified initial principles of Arctic governance as forming the foundation and the standards by which future governance and sustainable management of human activities in the Arctic marine environment should be measured. Building on those principles, the Aspen commission is in the throes of publishing its final report, which is expected to report its recommendations in January 2011.
I expect a number of points to emerge, the most important of which is to ensure the strengthening of the Arctic Council to allow it to follow through on all recommendations, including those of the Aspen Institute. Other points I expect include, first, that marine spatial planning should be the innovative tool to implement and measure success over time of ecosystem-based management across sectors and large marine ecosystems. It should be noted, however, that the starting point of such a process should be the formulation of clear development objectives. Secondly, a new Arctic marine conservation sustainable development plan should be called for and should recognise that the region's challenges are not limited to national concerns. Launching such an effort would require high-level ministerial engagement, if not that of the heads of state of Arctic Governments. And thirdly, an Arctic science programme should be implemented and integrated as part of an Arctic marine conservation sustainable development plan, using an open-source information network. The Arctic high seas, for example, should be designated as a science reserve to signal a new level and scope of international co-operation and collaboration. A specific plan should be developed to gather the scientific information urgently needed to make informed decisions about the region's future.
A real opportunity exists for a new era of international co-operation in the Arctic, allowing for objective and balanced debate to defuse and pave the way for the development of this global treasure. The noble Lord, Lord Jay, has played his part by raising the critical need for debate at this early stage. He should be thanked.
Lord Rotherwick: My Lords, the principal driver of the temperature of the earth is the sun and fluctuations have occurred for as long as measurements have been recorded. The Arctic is among the most sensitive to temperature fluctuations and consequent changes in the ice cap. Notwithstanding the downsides of the melting of the ice cap, one of the upsides, as mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Jay, is the increased accessibility of the north-west passage. This opens up considerable economic and environmental benefits, providing scope to obviate existing security threats in the Gulf of Aden and introducing alternative routes to the Suez and Panama canals.
Nor should we ignore Greenland, an autonomous country within the kingdom of Denmark, located within the Arctic Circle. It is the world's largest island and owes its name to the agricultural opportunities that settlers were keen to exploit-a green land that as a private pilot I have landed on a number of times. Populated for around 5,000 years, the Norse Vikings established farmland settlements around the year 1000 AD, something which would have been impossible in 1900. However, even at the time of the Vikings' presence on the island, almost the entirety of the land mass would have been covered by at least a 1 kilometre sheet of ice, yet the climate along the coast was conducive to supporting an agricultural community, attractive in its similarity to the lifestyle of the Scandinavian farmer of that period, based on arable and livestock farming.
Approximately 85 per cent of the island is covered by ice and Greenland benefits, as we have heard, from valuable fish stocks, an issue which ended its brief membership of the European Community in the 1980s. Its natural resources include coal, iron ore, lead, zinc, molybdenum, diamonds, gold, platinum, niobium, tantalite, uranium, fish, seals, whales and hydropower-quite a lot. Additionally, there are significant potential oil and gas fields, especially in the northern and north-eastern parts of the island. The current economy remains critically dependent on increased catches and exports of shrimp, Greenland halibut and, most recently, crabs. These represent around 82 per cent of the country's total exports.
Opportunities for fishing in Greenland may be widened further but the scope to broaden its economic position in respect of other natural resources should not be discounted. For example, the increased interest in hydrocarbon exploration off Greenland's western coast represents a significant opportunity to deliver both economic and environmental benefits. The potential abundance of hydropower generation could also become a considerable source of power. Similarly, there has been an increase in tourism in Greenland. Cruise liners now operate in the western and southern waters during the peak summer tourist seasons. Although debates on topics of this kind tend to be characterised by the threat of impending doom, we should not forget that opportunities will emerge. We should be alert to them and include them in our considerations.
Lord Alderdice: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Jay, to whom we are indebted for achieving this debate, started his speech by asking whether your Lordships' House had paid much attention to the Arctic in the past. Perhaps one of the notable references was that of Lord Dufferin, who, as a young man in his 20s, took a wooden sailing boat and sailed the whole way to Spitsbergen. This was before he went on to be ambassador at St Petersburg and Paris, Viceroy of India and Governor General of Canada, where he is still favourably remembered.
In those days, the voyage was not much followed up because although Lord Dufferin wrote letters to his wife which were published in Letters From High Latitudes, it was a cold and difficult place. There were much better places to go for resources, such as in the scramble for Africa, the struggle over South America and North America and of course in the Far East. Indeed, every century seems to have seen a scramble or race for somewhere. In the latter part of the past century, it was probably the struggle for space.
One characteristic of every one of those struggles was not just that it opened up new lands in order that there would be more resources available, but that it ended up with military struggle-the struggle for power and control. While we think of the situation in the Arctic and the melting of the waters in environmental terms-I understand that today it is expected in Ottawa that the Minister may well declare a scientific park just off the north of Baffin Island-and although there has been much said about the economic consequences,
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My old friend Bill Graham, when he was defence Minister in Canada, remarked on the fact that the melting of the Arctic ice opened up great opportunities but also real threats. Canada has sent military equipment and men into the region in order to identify its own interests and show that it has the capacity to defend them should the time come. In 2009, the president of the United States in a presidential directive indicated potential security concerns in the region, and Russia has for quite a substantial time had a major military presence on the surface and more particularly under the surface in the region.
We have always to some extent-although this was not entirely true during the Second World War when a threat did indeed emerge from the north-felt that there was some degree of protection. That is not the same if it is possible to traverse the areas easily. Not least at a time when austerity has forced us to cut back on our military naval fleet, it is important that part of our strategic defence thinking over the next number of years should include not just the opportunities, which are marvellous and the requirement to protect our world, but the potential threats to our own security and that of the European Union.
This is not solely a matter for ourselves of course. It is clearly a northward shift of emphasis for NATO. If one looks at the map not from a normal perspective of Britain being right at the centre but looks down at the world from an Arctic projection, one sees a northern equivalent of the Pacific rim, where there is a major confrontation between Russia, which has half of all the coastline, Canada and the United States and, as has been mentioned, Denmark in the form of Greenland, as well as Norway. I am keen to hear from my noble friend what our security advisers are telling us about the need to protect ourselves and our national interests, and what is being discussed at NATO in this regard where there is a much greater and more obvious responsibility.
Lord Greenway: My Lords, I agree very much with the noble Lord, Lord Jay, when he says that he does not think we will see a great new northern sea route coming into play within the next 10 years. I suggest it will be quite a few years beyond that. Most of the voyages that have been made round the north-east passage rather than the north-west passage, which is over the top of Russia, have been experimental. We can go back to 1997 when a Finnish tanker made the voyage. More recently, as the noble Lord said, two German freighters made the voyage but not, as he said, from Vladivostok to Holland; in fact, they came from South Korea and went over the top to Rotterdam. They stopped off on the way at Novyy in Yamburg province which meant they had icebreaker escort and had to take Russian ice pilots.
This year, a Danish bulk carrier "Nordic Barents" carried 41,000 tonnes of iron ore from Kirkenes on the Norwegian-Russian border to Qingdao in China. The
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Sovcomflot is preparing to send an even bigger tanker-162,000 tonnes-on a trial voyage next year. However, here we come up against draft restrictions. At the moment the Sankov and Sannikar Straits are restricted to 12.5 metres and 13 metres respectively and larger ships, drawing more than 15 metres, will be forced to go further offshore into higher latitudes, where the risk from floating icebergs is greater.
Companies which have sent ships around the north have said that they are very satisfied-it cuts 4,000 miles off the voyage, it saves them paying Suez Canal dues and saves the piracy problems. If a much larger amount of shipping was to go round the north of Russia, and if one was to believe from WikiLeaks' revelations that Russia is a mafia state, I can see various Russians becoming very interested in what was going around their shores and there is nobody there to help ships, unlike going through the Gulf of Aden.
One possible drawback to the northern sea route is attracting the attention from the green and climate change lobbies. One report suggests that the release of CO2 and engine particles-that is, black carbon or soot as we know it-from diesel engines in a sensitive area as regards climate change could lead to an increase in global warming.
Other reports suggest that up to 2 per cent of global shipping traffic could be using northern sea routes by 2030, rising to 5 per cent by 2050. To put that in context, today 4 per cent of world shipping uses the Suez Canal-that is an enormous amount of shipping. To be quite honest, I cannot see it happening for a very long time.
The other thing to take into account, which has not been mentioned, is that at the moment, with global warming, we have a two-month window in effect for shipping but the winter is still frozen over. Shipping is not going to suddenly take to using these Arctic routes. I think the likelihood is that it will be reserved for bulk cargoes, both wet and dry, mainly exports from Russia. The main container trades, I would suggest, are very unlikely to start using these northern routes. I want to give an example of the mileages-Hamburg to Yokohama going by the northern sea route saves about 4,000 miles; to Hong Kong you save about 1,000 miles and to Singapore the distances are exactly the same.
Container shipping is a very complex web these days and ships pick up cargo all over the place. Let's face it-they are not going to get any cargo in northern Russia, so I think they are going to stick to their proven routes for some time to come.
Lord Brett: My Lords, when I left home this morning, I trudged through the snow to the car. My wife, who was kindly driving me to the station, asked what we were discussing this evening. I said the melting of the Arctic ice cap. She pointed out that the temperature was minus 11 degrees. I was going to offer some scepticism, but I decided that as I needed the lift I
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A number of noble Lords have set out the opportunities provided by the melting of the Arctic ice cap and have rightly described some of the repercussions. Sometimes our media and our own enthusiasm will not give true weight to some of those issues. I have rarely seen the albedo effect, mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin of Roding, argued other than in the most scientific and technical journals.
Access to oil and gas will be an issue, not only because of the unpredictable seas but because of the thawing permafrost. There is also the very real question of oil spills, which could be a major problem under ice, because it could spill for many hundreds of thousands of miles. That points, as all these questions do, to international co-operation, licensing and safety regimes. Then there are the fisheries. It is perhaps not so much a question of the ice cap melting that is the issue with fisheries, but as a result of that fish stocks will migrate to other areas. Sustainable fisheries management is the key. Again, that talks of the need for international co-operation, if we are not to see some of the problems that we have seen in the past decade or two repeat themselves.
We have the question of commercial shipping. Yes, there are insurance opportunities, but someone's opportunity for enhanced insurance premiums is someone else's penalty in having to pay them. More importantly, whatever shipping is used in those new routes, emergency cover is probably more difficult to provide than where we are at the moment. I join with others in asking what action the Government have in mind to meet these challenges in the IMO, with NATO, the EU and other international forums, by way of enhanced regulatory frameworks and increased collaboration. Specifically, what are the prospects of the United States signing up to the UN law of the sea convention? We have heard words from Washington to suggest that that is an intention, but is it a realistic intention, particularly in the light of shifts of power within Congress?
I finish with an important point from a domestic point of view-the impact of rising seas on the coastlines of Britain. We have seen various estimates of how the seas could rise as a result of melting ice caps, including one of 2 metres by the end of this century, which has been pooh-poohed or debunked, not least by the Met Office and others. But there will certainly be substantial increases. The last Administration made urgent legislation to protect homes and businesses, and the Environment Agency says that more than 5 million properties are at
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The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Howell of Guildford): My Lords, this has been a short but expert debate, with a lot of extremely well informed contributions to what is a fascinating and probably rather undiscussed phenomenon of our times. It is a very fast-developing situation, as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, pointed out, with rapidly melting ice packs and ice floes in the Arctic region. The House is grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Jay, for letting us focus briefly on this; it may be the sort of issue that we will come back to in much greater detail in future.
The phenomenon is all the more striking because of the possibilities that it raises. Greenland is becoming greener, or so we are told. Indeed, there is evidence of areas becoming habitable again in Greenland, which have not been available for five or six centuries. There is a certain irony in the whole situation that, as the ice melts, the hydrocarbons are becoming more accessible. While we want to combat global warming, which is widely believed to be closely associated with excess use of fossil fuels, we have a situation which is making access to fossil fuels all the easier, although perhaps easier is too strong a word. It is certainly less difficult and more possible than it has been in history.
There is the hydrocarbon situation and the fascinating prospect of opening the north-west passage, which my noble friend Lord Rotherwick referred to, and the possibility of solar routes. I want to come to both of those in a moment, but let me begin by answering the central question: what are our key aims in the Arctic and what are we in the UK doing to meet these challenges? Let me sum up the answers to those questions briefly before coming to more detail about hydrocarbons and many other aspects of the Arctic phenomenon.
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