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Lord Hughes: Before my noble friend resumes his seat, he has referred properly to the fact that this country adheres to its treaty obligations. We cannot disagree

24 Jun 1998 : Column 304

with that. Does Spain's recent behaviour around the waters of Gibraltar mean that it is adhering to its treaty obligations?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: I have never understood it to be an acceptable proposition, in law or in morality, that if people behave unlawfully or badly that entitles us to do the same.

Lord Monson: Before the Minister sits down for the second time, will he concede that it is possible, even if not probable, that in the end the legal advice of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, might turn out to be more accurate than the Government's legal advice?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: The only way ultimately of finding whose legal advice is right or wrong is to test the matter in court. I have no difficulty with that proposition, nor has any other Member of the Government.

The Earl of Carlisle: Why will the noble Lord not test it in court?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: At the moment there is no point to test.

Lord Bethell: I am grateful to all noble Lords who have spoken in the debate. I am glad that we were able to have an interesting discussion on an all-party basis. I am particularly grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, and the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, who put forward the arguments with me.

I did not find the Minister's reply reassuring. I am not sure that I understand the concept of unequivocal legal advice. As has been pointed out, I, too, have received legal advice. I am told that there is an element of doubt which could be sorted out and put to the test. I suggest that the best way of putting this question to the test is to pass the amendment and then see whether anyone disagrees. In my opening remarks I stated that I do not believe any member state or any litigant in the matter would have the anti-democratic, anti-human rights effrontery to say that this is the wrong way to go and that the people of Gibraltar should not be entitled to vote. I believe that Spain would bring upon herself immeasurable odium were she to attempt to do so.

I am disappointed that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, cannot meet my concerns. I am disappointed that we have not had more support from the Liberal Democrat Benches. If ever there were an issue of human rights and fundamental freedoms where one might expect a little sympathy from the Liberal Democrats, this, I should have thought, would be it. But we have had precious little from the Liberals. If I may say so, they have taken an illiberal attitude. I believe that their question of the timetable is a red herring.

I thank the noble Lords opposite who have supported us. I thank all noble Lords who have participated. Let us see what the Committee decides.

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7.2 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said amendment (No. 7) shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 67; Not-Contents, 110.

Division No. 2


Allenby of Megiddo, V.
Alton of Liverpool, L.
Ashbourne, L.
Berners, B.
Bethell, L. [Teller.]
Blatch, B.
Cadman, L.
Carlisle, E.
Carnock, L.
Chesham, L.
Chorley, L.
Clancarty, E.
Craigavon, V.
Crickhowell, L.
Darcy de Knayth, B.
Elton, L.
Freyberg, L.
Gardner of Parkes, B.
Greenway, L.
Gregson, L.
Grey, E.
Hardwicke, E.
Hardy of Wath, L.
Harrowby, E.
Henley, L.
Holderness, L.
Hooper, B.
Hughes, L.
Hughes of Woodside, L.
Hunt of Wirral, L.
Hylton, L.
Inglewood, L.
Islwyn, L.
Janner of Braunstone, L.
Kitchener, E.
Lawrence, L.
Leigh, L.
Liverpool, E.
Lucas of Chilworth, L.
Lyell, L.
McConnell, L.
Mackay of Ardbrecknish, L.
Mancroft, L.
Masham of Ilton, B.
Massereene and Ferrard, V.
Merrivale, L.
Milverton, L.
Minto, E.
Monson, L.
Mountevans, L.
Norrie, L.
Northesk, E.
Norton, L.
O'Cathain, B.
Park of Monmouth, B.
Rotherwick, L.
Rowallan, L.
Shepherd, L. [Teller.]
Skidelsky, L.
Stoddart of Swindon, L.
Strange, B.
Thomas of Gwydir, L.
Turner of Camden, B.
Waddington, L.
Wharton, B.
Wise, L.
Wrenbury, L.


Acton, L.
Addington, L.
Amos, B.
Ampthill, L.
Archer of Sandwell, L.
Avebury, L.
Barnett, L.
Bassam of Brighton, L.
Beaumont of Whitley, L.
Berkeley, L.
Blackstone, B.
Blease, L.
Borrie, L.
Burlison, L.
Calverley, L.
Carter, L. [Teller.]
Chandos, V.
Clinton-Davis, L.
Cocks of Hartcliffe, L.
Currie of Marylebone, L.
David, B.
Davies of Oldham, L.
Dean of Beswick, L.
Desai, L.
Diamond, L.
Dixon, L.
Dormand of Easington, L.
Dubs, L.
Elis-Thomas, L.
Evans of Parkside, L.
Falconer of Thoroton, L.
Farrington of Ribbleton, B.
Gallacher, L.
Gilbert, L.
Gladwin of Clee, L.
Goodhart, L.
Gordon of Strathblane, L.
Gould of Potternewton, B.
Graham of Edmonton, L.
Grantchester, L.
Hacking, L.
Hamwee, B.
Harris of Greenwich, L.
Haskel, L.
Hayman, B.
Hilton of Eggardon, B.
Hollis of Heigham, B.
Holme of Cheltenham, L.
Howie of Troon, L.
Hoyle, L.
Jenkins of Hillhead, L.
Jenkins of Putney, L.
Kennedy of The Shaws, B.
Kilbracken, L.
Kirkhill, L.
Linklater of Butterstone, B.
Lockwood, B.
Lofthouse of Pontefract, L.
Longford, E.
McIntosh of Haringey, L. [Teller.]
McNair, L.
McNally, L.
Maddock, B.
Mallalieu, B.
Mar and Kellie, E.
Mason of Barnsley, L.
Merlyn-Rees, L.
Milner of Leeds, L.
Monkswell, L.
Montague of Oxford, L.
Montgomery of Alamein, V.
Morris of Castle Morris, L.
Morris of Manchester, L.
Newby, L.
Nicol, B.
Ogmore, L.
Orme, L.
Perry of Walton, L.
Peston, L.
Pitkeathley, B.
Prys-Davies, L.
Puttnam, L.
Ramsay of Cartvale, B.
Randall of St. Budeaux, L.
Razzall, L.
Redesdale, L.
Rendell of Babergh, B.
Richard, L. [Lord Privy Seal.]
Rochester, L.
Rodgers of Quarry Bank, L.
Rogers of Riverside, L.
Russell, E.
Serota, B.
Sewel, L.
Simon, V.
Smith of Clifton, L.
Steel of Aikwood, L.
Stone of Blackheath, L.
Symons of Vernham Dean, B.
Thomas of Gresford, L.
Thomas of Macclesfield, L.
Thomas of Swynnerton, L.
Thomas of Walliswood, B.
Thurso, V.
Tope, L.
Walker of Doncaster, L.
Whitty, L.
Williams of Elvel, L.
Williams of Mostyn, L.
Young of Old Scone, B.

Resolved in the negative, and amendment disagreed to accordingly.

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7.10 p.m.

[Amendments Nos. 8 to 11 not moved.]

Lord Alton of Liverpool moved Amendment No. 12:

Page 1, line 24, leave out from beginning to end of line 28 on page 2.

The noble Lord said: After the passionate debate on the future of the Rock, I invite your Lordships to return to the hard place of electoral systems which the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, earlier described as being the preserve of bores. At the risk of boring your Lordships, I wish to return the Committee to the central question of the way in which we govern ourselves and administer our democratic system.

The amendments offer the Committee the opportunity to vote for the single transferable voting system, a system which has been used in Northern Ireland elections for the European Parliament since 1979. Although I am a Cross-Bencher, I was a member of a political party for some 30 years. Throughout that time I consistently advocated STV for local government and parliamentary elections. Throughout most of that period, I was also a member or supporter of the Electoral Reform Society. I both appreciate the support which it has expressed for the amendment as its preferred system, and the excellent briefing paper which the society has made available to Members of the Committee. Making voting systems intelligible is no mean feat. Mr. Peter Facey the Parliamentary Officer of the Electoral Reform Society is to be complimented for the clarity of his note.

Perhaps I may also invoke the memory of Miss Enid Lakeman who over many decades indomitably trudged the length and breadth of Britain patiently explaining

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why STV was not the Italian list system of proportional representation with all its weaknesses and how STV introduced fair votes while retaining the direct relationship between a constituency Member of Parliament and his voters.

Miss Lakeman passionately believed that first-past-the-post had outlived its usefulness, but she was deeply suspicious of electoral systems which were centralising or designed to entrench partisan interests. As a teenager, I was convinced by her arguments and I will try to do justice to those arguments today. Perhaps I may remind Members of the Committee of the maxim of Disraeli, who once said that centralisation is the death blow of democracy. Any party list system is in danger of both detaching the voters from their elected representative and putting an undue amount of power into the hands of a political party.

Before turning to the substantive arguments in favour of STV and against list systems, perhaps I may make one other comment, almost in parenthesis, about the context of today's debate. We are in a period of huge political and constitutional change. Elections in Wales and Scotland, the imminent elections in Northern Ireland, elections for the Lord Mayoralty in London and the referendums which preceded them are a curtain-raiser to the reform of your Lordships' House. There is increasing concern in the country at large that instead of seeking a new constitutional settlement a series of ad hoc measures have been spatchcocked together. Even as the noble Lord, Lord Jenkins, travels the country, seeking views on a voting system for the House of Commons, pre-emptive decisions are being taken which will lead to incoherence in the way we legislate and to considerable voter confusion.

Voters in some parts of the United Kingdom could eventually face elections conducted under four or five different systems. Imagine the situation, for instance, in Scotland where one system could apply to the Scottish parliament, another to local government, another to elections to the House of Commons, another to the European Parliament and perhaps yet another if there were ever elections to your Lordships' House. That in turn will lead to increased electoral absenteeism as the voters become confounded by the various systems on offer.

In an earlier intervention today, I mentioned that in a recent election in my home city of Liverpool the turnout was a mere 6 per cent. and that in a European Parliament election two years ago it was 11 per cent. The Association of Electoral Administrators has warned that nationwide the turnout in many elections is dismally low. Whatever we do to the electoral system should be informed by the determination to address voter absenteeism and disillusionment. It should be designed to strengthen the accountability of representatives to their voters, to boost voter confidence and to demonstrate the integrity of the electoral process.

The Government's proposals before the Committee tonight introduce a closed regional system of proportional representation. Despite the efforts of the noble Lord, Lord Holme of Cheltenham, to amend that system with the marginally better open-list system,

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that closed system is now before your Lordships. Parties will put forward their lists of candidates in the order in which they wish them to be elected. If, for example, a party is entitled to three seats, the top three candidates will be elected. Therefore, for the first time in British elections, a voter will not be able to vote for a candidate of his choice, but will be able to vote only for a party or for a named independent. In that sense, the system is fundamentally different from that which we have operated hitherto, despite what the Minister said earlier. It is certainly infinitely inferior to the single transferable vote system.

This take-it-or-leave-it form of politics will strengthen the power of political parties in the selection process, it will sever the links between an MEP and his constituents and it will add to the general democratic deficit which already exists in European politics. It will militate in favour of party loyalists and activists and place the real power in the hands of a few selectors rather than in the hands of the voters. This will do nothing to restore confidence in our electoral process. It will probably increase voter absenteeism and disillusionment.

By contrast, single transferable votes should commend themselves on five counts. First, we already use it in Northern Ireland. The Bill before us today invites us to use the same system again in future European elections in Northern Ireland and in elections to the new Northern Ireland assembly. Those who wish to strengthen the union could do a great deal worse than vote for a common system which could then be used throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. If the single transferable vote system had failed, presumably the Government would not be putting the provision into the Bill and continuing its use in Northern Ireland. I trust that the moral of the story is not that one has to experience 30 years of violence and sectarianism in order to obtain a single transferable vote.

Secondly, STV ensures the direct accountability of MEPs to the electorate. We should retain the strongest of virtues in our present voting system. Not everything is wrong with first-past-the-post. The best advertisement for first-past-the-post is the accountability of the individual Member of Parliament to his constituents.

Thirdly, STV is broadly proportional, which means that we end the obscenity that a party may poll as many as 25 per cent. of the votes--the noble Lord, Lord Steel, will have better cause than anyone in the Chamber to recall the experience of polling as many as one quarter of the British votes but obtaining only 2 to 3 per cent. of the seats in the House of Commons. The elimination of the Conservative Party in Scotland and Wales and in most of our great English cities would not have occurred under STV. It is a disgrace that many people who vote Conservative in those places should be entirely without representation under the first-past-the-post system.

Fourthly, STV, unlike closed party lists, allows voters a free choice of candidates and therefore encourages candidates to work hard in the communities which they wish to represent, and not merely to carve out a career in their political party. Safe seats are the curse of British politics. I might add that lack of competition leads to voters losing out.

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I was particularly struck by what the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, with huge political experience behind him, said to the Committee today about the importance of parliamentary by-elections. I too was the beneficiary of a parliamentary by-election in becoming the shortest-lived ever Member of another place when I won my seat the day after the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan, lost a vote of no confidence. I was there for a mere 2½ days, and some would say that that was 2½ days too many.

By-elections are often a safety valve in our political system. They allow voters to deliver a verdict on governments and administrations, through medium-term elections, to say that they are dissatisfied. Politicians take note. If one of the effects of today's Bill is to abolish parliamentary by-elections for European elections, then it is a very bad precedent indeed to establish for the future.

It leads also to a sort of conformity which the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, addressed in his remarks to the Committee. A late friend of a number of us in this Chamber and the other place was the Member of Parliament for Truro, David Penhaligon. He was once turned down by a London-based candidates committee as unsuitable to be a candidate for his party. His West Country voters thought differently, recognising a man of independent thought who invariably put the interests of Cornwall before those of his party. I fear that those out of favour with activists or the party managers will never make it to the list. That may well help the politically correct but heaven help anyone who puts forward a dissenting point of view.

Finally and fifthly, the STV system maximises the number of votes which contribute to the election of a candidate, enabling voters to express their preference by marking their papers with a first, second and third choice, and so on, but not ad nauseam or ad inifinitum as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, would have had us believe in his earlier intervention. The voters go as far as they want to go. It may be four or five votes. That is not beyond the wit of people. It works perfectly well in the Republic of Ireland and in Northern Ireland. Surely no one suggests that it is beyond the wit of our own voters here. Yes, it replaces the simple X which was once the sign of illiteracy and opens up the prospect of voters being able to break out of the straitjacket which party managers are apt to use on voters at any opportunity. Voters will be able to vote across lists and perhaps, for example, if they are Conservatives but would like to see a particular person from another party who has served the community well elected in addition to the candidates of their first choice from their own party, they will be able to do so.

For the record, STV is used in Northern Ireland. It consists of a single column of names on a ballot paper. When the votes are counted, a quota is calculated from the number of votes cast. The quota is the minimum number of votes which a candidate will require to be elected. The surplus votes of candidates who reach the quota through first preferences are then transferred to the second preference of those voters. Meanwhile, the

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votes of eliminated candidates with no chance of election also transfer to second preferences. The process of transfer continues until the seats are filled. That is a system which is fair, workable, open and accountable, but it is also tried and tested in this country. It is untrue, as the noble Lord, Lord Williams, suggested earlier on, that we have no experience of such a proportional system. We do in Northern Ireland.

In a few weeks time the Institute for Citizenship Studies, whose president is my noble friend Lord Weatherill, begins its "Get the vote out" campaign. It will be launched by the Home Secretary, Mr. Jack Straw. The institute has been examining ways of modernising our voting system--everything from rolling registers and civic education to the siting of polling stations in places of easy access. Jenny Talbot, the chief executive of the institute, has made a heartfelt plea that there should be government support for a voter education programme. When the voting system was changed in Northern Ireland, every voter received a leaflet explaining the new system. I should particularly like to ask the Minister whether the Government will at least provide voter education, whatever changes we finally settle on.

I would go further than that. The Home Office's own focus group research undertaken by NOP in February last found that voters felt that a closed list system, the one before the Committee, appeared,

    "to deprive voters of their right to select individuals",
and raised the question with some voters,

    "as to whether party loyalties will precede constituency loyalties".
STV addresses those fears and will give us a system worth telling voters about. I beg to move.

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