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Earl Russell: My Lords, the Minister may be familiar with Mr. David Willetts' book, Civic Conservatism. It is Mr. Willetts' view that one should not be afraid of defending anomalies. Does the Minister agree with that view?

Viscount Astor: My Lords, the noble Earl kindly called me the Minister. I have to remind him that I am sitting on this side of the House and not on that side. That is an anomaly indeed.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): A defensible anomaly!

Viscount Astor: My Lords, it is one that I am quite prepared to defend. I have not read the book. I shall obviously have to go and read it. Perhaps I may return to the Scottish Nationalists' proposal. They favour a Scottish parliament with 200 members of whom 144 would be drawn from existing constituencies, elected by alternative vote, and 56 drawn from party lists; that is, AMS. As I understand it Plaid Cymru--I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Elis-Thomas, will correct me if I am wrong--wants a 100-member lower chamber of a Welsh parliament, elected by a system of PR, which will ensure equal representation for men and women. So we could have a number of systems. I was confused. I wondered whether they wanted an upper chamber as well as a lower chamber. Are they going to have their Lordships' House sitting somewhere in the Principality? I do not know.

There are many questions that the Government need to answer.

Lord Alderdice: My Lords, the question of anomalies in different voting systems has been raised. Is the noble Viscount aware that under the Conservative government, in Northern Ireland we have not only the first-past-the-post system for Westminster and the single transferable vote for Europe, local government and assemblies, but in the last Session of Parliament a further new voting system of a peculiar list form, known in no part of the civilised or uncivilised world, was introduced. That surely was an anomaly invented entirely by the previous Conservative Government.

Viscount Astor: My Lords, I am aware of what happens. I alluded to what happens in Northern Ireland.

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Northern Ireland is a very special case. It is difficult to argue that the changes there have made the political situation easier or more difficult. Views differ on that. It is not for me to go into that this evening. Northern Ireland is a special case. I am not sure that the case is proven either way. We did introduce a different system, as the noble Lord is well aware.

Although there is a degree of confusion on the Benches next to me, we on this side of the House--all of us--are clear as to where we stand. We do not support PR for Westminster. We believe that the advantages of our current electoral system far outweigh its disadvantages. The noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, gave the example of a beauty competition, proved by PR. I think that PR should be left for beauty competitions.

PR would produce coalition government, with minority parties in the driving seat. Policy would become confused as manifesto commitments were ditched to secure power. If the Government eventually hold a referendum on this issue, we will oppose it.

6.57 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, for initiating this debate, and all noble Lords who have made contributions of quality. One of the most important tasks to which the Government have to attend is reforming and improving our constitution. We fought the general election on a manifesto which contained a firm commitment to modernise the constitution. We had a ringing endorsement. We intend to deliver.

I shall deal first with elections to the European Parliament. As the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank, said, our election manifesto stated:


    "We have long supported a proportional voting system for election to the European Parliament".
Our commitment to making such a change remains as strong as ever. The noble Lord asked which department and which Minister have responsibility for electoral matters. It is the Home Secretary, my right honourable friend Mr. Straw, which is why I am here today. The noble Lord asked also whether anything I said would be said on behalf of the Government, including all departments. I am speaking for the whole of the Government. Apart from that, my personal belief that our electoral arrangements need close scrutiny and improvement is deep.

It was, after all, as has been pointed out, one of the recommendations made by the committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Plant of Highfield. He apologies for his absence today. As a head of house, he has university duties to which he must attend, otherwise he would have been here. There is no doubt about our intention to change the electoral system for elections to the European Parliament.

The key question is one of timing, and one of choice. But the Government's decision--I believe it to be right--is that incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights has, and ought to have, a higher priority than the mechanism for election to the European Parliament. If one looks at both those options, if they become alternative options, I have no doubt that the

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Government's conclusion is right. Incorporation will affect many more of our citizens in the United Kingdom much more deeply and fundamentally than the mechanism for election to the European Parliament.

It has been remarked upon that I made an Answer to Written Questions from the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, in which I set out plainly that this matter cannot be rushed. First, we must make decisions on precisely what electoral system we would want to introduce. Alternatives have been offered by almost every speaker.

Although we support, and have supported for a long time, the regional list system of proportional representation, the details would need to be decided. Even if they had already been decided, we would still have to attend to considerations of timing. Once the necessary legislation had been enacted, electoral boundaries for European elections would almost certainly need to be redrawn. A great deal of secondary legislation would be required dealing with matters such as nomination procedures, the wording of ballot papers and the conduct of the count. None of that is dealt with in primary legislation. Existing regulations would need to be revised to take account of the new methods of election.

Those responsible for conducting the elections would need time to get to grips with the new system. We would want there to be a publicity campaign--

Lord Holme of Cheltenham: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for giving way. I wonder whether I misheard him. Did he say that constituency boundaries would need to be redrawn? I understand that the regional list system proposed by his party and mine would certainly involve drawing up regional boundaries, but there is no question of redrawing parliamentary constituency boundaries.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord. I said that electoral boundaries would have to be redrawn; I did not say constituency boundaries. There is nothing between the noble Lord and myself, but as always I am grateful to him for asking for my clarification.

There ought to be a publicity campaign to provide the electorate with as much detailed knowledge as possible about the new system and the new way to vote. That would take time; it would not take only a week or two. Political parties would wish to adjust to the new system. They would want to consider their methods of selecting candidates for larger areas than at present and, I dare say, change their techniques accordingly. Therefore, as I stated unambiguously in my Answer to the noble Baroness, Lady Rawlings, we have reached the conclusion that the relevant legislation would need to be in place some nine to 12 months before elections under a new system. It is an inescapable timetable.

Noble Lords have indicated that the next European elections will be in June 1999 and that is well known. I do not believe that it is at all realistic to think of conducting those elections with such a new system unless the necessary legislation is enacted in this Session

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of Parliament. We have not ruled out the possibility of taking any opportunity that might arise, as we have made clear. We have no present plans to introduce legislation this Session to change the electoral system for the European elections. Perhaps I may indicate why with just a small illustration.

We have a simple referendum Bill before your Lordships' House at present. It contains a handful of clauses and, as a number of noble Lords pointed out, it is simply an enabling mechanism for a referendum to be held. On Second Reading, we heard 37 speeches lasting from shortly after three o'clock to just before midnight. If we can, we must deliver the Bill for Royal Assent by the end of July. We have promised that a White Paper should be available for reasonable scrutiny and for debate in your Lordships' House. We are not sole masters of the timetable in your Lordships' House. I am told that there is a large majority for the Government in another place and I believe that they do things differently there. But we are not the dictators of your Lordships' House, nor do we choose to be. If opportunity arises--and that is in part within the gift, control and decision of the Conservative Opposition--we will give the matter the most careful attention.

I know that that will be disappointing to many of your Lordships, not least the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers. The noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, quoted Pope at me in a rather threatening way. Well, I am a member of the Church in Wales and therefore what Pope says does not really have much effect!

We have had to decide our priorities and we have given them careful attention. I earlier indicated some of the reasons. As was said by my noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell--pertinently, if I may say so--we must recognise that the margin of time available is very tight. We cannot do everything that we wish in the first Session. We have been elected for a five-year term and we want to balance our programme across the five years. No one can suggest that the gracious Speech did not set out a full and ambitious programme. Even doubters had their breath taken away. But it could not contain everything. The noble Lord inquired whether something had been left out in error. It is well known--axiomatic, I believe--that this Government are not capable of error--so far!


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