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6.41 p.m.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for raising the subject of electoral reform. I should point out that I am at something of a disadvantage with regard to one part of the Motion. Almost all noble Lords have referred to how they have voted in the past and sometimes to being disappointed that their candidate was not elected. Indeed, many of your Lordships have stood as parliamentary candidates. I have never been able to stand as a candidate or to vote in a general election but, of course, I have been able to vote in your Lordships' House for the past 25 years.

Today's debate has been an interesting one, partly because for the first time we may have seen the honeymoon period between the Government and the Liberal Democrats creeping slowly to an end--

Noble Lords: Oh!

Viscount Astor: My Lords, it is nice to see Members of the Liberal Democrat Benches joining the Opposition. After all, that is what they are. I wonder whether this is perhaps the beginning of the end of the love-in. I do not know; we must wait and see.

We have heard today from the Liberal Democrat Benches about the benefits of proportional representation: first, that it is fairer because every vote is of equal value; secondly, that it ensures that smaller parties are represented; and, thirdly, that it encourages continuity and consensus.

However, the evidence from abroad suggests otherwise. Proportional representation has not worked well in some other countries. Italy ditched PR in 1993 after years of unstable government. France reverted to its "second ballot" system after the National Front did so well under PR in the period 1986-88. New Zealand changed to PR last year, but it took two months to form a government. I was interested to read in The Times the other day that,

    Instead of the consensus politics envisaged under an electoral system modelled on Germany's, the new order has produced a government plagued by petty scandals and what observers believe is the most disorderly Parliament for decades".

The first-past-the-post system may not be perfect, but it has served this country well over the years. It provides stable government and a strong link between individual constituencies and their MPs. It ensures that parties are elected to govern on a clear programme set out in a manifesto. Proportional representation weakens the link between MPs and their constituents. Indeed, some systems of PR cut that link almost completely; and PR does not give every voter (whether Left, Right or centre) an automatic representative of their views. We on these Benches attach great importance to having Members of Parliament closely connected to a geographical area--a single person responsible for dealing with local grievances and for representing the particular views of that region at Westminster.

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Proportional representation does not automatically increase the number of women in Parliament, as has been suggested this afternoon. The only way in which one can increase the number of women in Parliament--a laudable ambition--is to get them selected as candidates for the party that they represent.

Proportional representation would create a series of hung parliaments, leading to instability and handing control to minority parties. Governments would not be determined by the votes of the electorate, but by deals struck behind closed doors between differing political factions. The horse-trading for office would mean that implementing crucial manifesto commitments would take second place to jockeying for positions of power and influence. The party that finishes last can become the one with the only real power.

As the Home Secretary has admitted--and I quote from The Times of October 1989:

    "PR might ensure proportional voting, but it can give to a handful of representatives from the centre parties quite disproportional power which can then be used to block the manifesto of the party which won the most votes".
The noble Earl, Lord Russell, whose speeches I always enjoy, cited the example of the Ulster Unionists in the last Parliament and in the Parliament of the previous Labour Government. I do not believe that PR prevents that; it actually makes it worse.

I was also interested in the argument for having PR for local elections. I am not sure whether introducing PR for local elections is part of the Labour Party's agenda. I make the same point about having PR for a new London authority, as was suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee. I wonder whether the Minister could deal with those points when he replies because I am sure that all noble Lords would be extremely interested.

The disproportional effect produced by PR is, of course, why the Liberal Democrats have always favoured it. Their principled rhetoric of national interest hides party advantage, as they have come close to admitting. Others have been slightly more honest. The Foreign Secretary, one of the Government's leading advocates of electoral change, once admitted:

    "Labour cannot continue to defend a system that we know has made the Tories the biggest beneficiary in modern electoral history".
The noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, suggested that the Tories would have done better under PR at the last election. That may be true, but just because we have lost the game we do not believe that we automatically have to change the rules.

Of course, there are differing views, including within the Labour Party. Some Labour Members of Parliament are bitterly against PR because they feel that it would hand control to the Liberal Democrats for ever. The Labour Party is divided on this issue. Indeed, in an attempt to paper over the differences, the Prime Minister has promised a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons. According to the Labour Party's Manifesto,

    "An independent commission on voting systems will be appointed early to recommend a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system".

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When the Minister replies, I hope that he will give the House an indication of exactly what the word "early" means. I believe that all noble Lords have asked for that explanation. When will the commission be appointed? When do the Government intend to hold the referendum? Will the Minister also explain whether the Government are in principle in favour of some kind of proportional representation for election to the House of Commons?

Given their support for the additional Member system for elections to the proposed Scottish parliament, Welsh assembly and the European Parliament, I presume that the Government are in favour of PR in principle. Will the Minister comment upon that? Where does that leave, for example, the Home Secretary? Will he be expected to vote for such legislation or will he be free to campaign against change in the run up to the referendum? Will it be a free vote in another place? I hope that the Minister will address some of those questions. Indeed I saw the other day that Mr. Mandelson, the Minister Without Portfolio, said that he remained unconvinced of the merits of a single transferable vote.

The Minister recently gave what I can only describe as an opaque reply to a Question on the Government's plans. He said:

    "We have no present plans to introduce legislation on proportional representation for the European elections this session".
He then added:

    "but if an opportunity to legislate arose we would consider taking it".--[Official Report, 11/6/97; WA84.]
I realise of course that the Minister is a distinguished lawyer and lawyers never wish to be opaque, so I am sure that he will take the opportunity this evening to clarify the issue. What is "an opportunity"? After all, it is the Government who set the legislative programme. It is up to them to create the opportunities. It is not up to the Opposition, whether it be the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats. It is entirely within the Minister's power to do so. When he said that if an opportunity arose they would take it, it is an opportunity that only his government can make.

The Government have given a clear commitment to change the way in which Members of the European Parliament are elected. As the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank reminded us, it is in the Labour Party manifesto. Will that new voting system be introduced in time for the next European election in 1999? The House deserves a clear answer to that question.

It is a difficult subject. I recognise that the Government have not been in office long. If the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, is right-- am not an expert on Labour Party policies going back to 1918--as I am sure he is, that his party has been in favour of PR since then, I am sure he has a clear view on this subject, and that the Minister will be able to give us that this evening.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Viscount for giving way. I did not say that the Labour Party had been in favour of PR since

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1918. I said, like the Conservative Party, we change our minds about a number of matters from time to time, and the majorities differ.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for that explanation. Under a Labour government one could have four different systems in this country. We could have the first-past-the-post for Westminster; an additional Member system for Scotland and Wales; a single transferable vote system in Northern Ireland; and a mixed Member proportion in Euro-elections. It could be even more bizarre, because the Scottish Nationalists favour a Scottish parliament with 200 members, 144 of whom would be drawn from existing constituencies--

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