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The Lord Bishop of Hereford: My Lords, I speak with what I hope is an independent voice. I am not against the Government. I am not a Euro-sceptic. I am not, I hope, part of the hooligan tendency. I am even in favour of proportional representation.
I sat through the debate in your Lordship' House last week and listened carefully to everything that was said. I have listened carefully to everything that has been said today. I remain deeply unhappy about the principle of the closed list. It seems to me that it is at the heart of our democratic method that the individual voter should be able to express an opinion about an individual candidate.
I am well aware of the enormous complexity of proportional representation. I am well aware that there is no perfect system. I warmly support a great deal of what Her Majesty's Government are trying to undertake in their programme of legislation. I want to see the United Kingdom playing a full and vigorous part in European affairs. I would like to see us reaching the point at which we can present to this House and to the other place a system of proportional representation which carries conviction and wins general approval. However, I remain deeply unhappy about the closed list.
There are many imperfect systems. I believe that the closed list is one of the most imperfect. I remain unconvinced by the arguments of those asking us to resist the amendment. I propose to vote again for the
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, your Lordships' House is a remarkable House and today again has been a true occasion for the connoisseur. I wish to offer a word or two about the profound heart of the matter and about where we are.
This House is a revising Chamber. It should not seek to become a dictating Chamber. The facts are that the vote was won by the Opposition with the votes of hereditary Peers on every occasion. There were 47 on 20th October; 29 on 4th November; and 58 on 12th November. The figures bear thinking about because they fail to meet what happened in another place. In February there was a government majority with the Liberal Democrats and others of 174. In March, it was 180. On 27th October, it was 207. On 10th November, it was 182. The last time we indulged in this "ping" they said "pong" by 187.
We have discharged our duty to ask the other place to think and think again. I want to put this gently and neutrally. I suggest to your Lordships that to insist further is to be abusive of our system. I believe that one should pay careful attention to what my noble friend Lord Callaghan said, bearing in mind particularly that he has made no secret of the fact on any occasion before your Lordships that he really prefers first-past-the-post and is not a devotee of any PR system. He rarely speaks in your Lordships' House. For my own part, I believe that I can say that I have never heard him make a contribution which has been without value and without deep thought. Sometimes he has spoken in a way contrary to what I should have hoped, but he never speaks without thought and considered weight.
This is an occasion for the connoisseur. My noble friend--we call each other that because we both mean it--Lord Tebbit presents himself as the champion of the ordinary man, one of the levellers and diggers of the English Civil War. You could have fooled me.
The noble Lord, Lord Peyton of Yeovil, talked about a sanitised list of 10 candidates. He always stood for election in Yeovil as a sanitised list of one candidate and so, nine times in 33 years, did my noble friend Lord Shore of Stepney.
If you want to have a perfectly open system for parliamentary elections, we can do as they do in the United States and have a write-in list. We do not have that. Parties bring forward policies. Some people will disagree with some policies and must therefore opt to vote for a list which they partly support, or not. Parties must bring forward lists of candidates. There cannot be internal squabbling and fighting between the candidates, as the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, again said. A list is put forward for the electorate to decide upon.
The noble Lord, Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, is shrewd but his disability is that I always listen to him. I demonstrate that. He answered my argument about Northern Ireland by saying that it is only a deliberative Assembly. But that is normally what the European Parliament is described as. It forms no government.
I go on to what he did not deal with. The Government of Wales Bill has gone through the other place and your Lordships' House on a closed list for the top-up seats. That is excellent for Wales. My noble friend Lord Sewel and the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, will be able to remind me that a little time was spent considering the Government of Scotland Bill in your Lordships' House. What is the system for Scotland? It is a closed list.
I am sorry to say--and I do not say this with any particular harshness nor, indeed, is the pitch or the tone of my voice rising so that your Lordships' spectacles, if not your Lordships' drinking glasses might be in danger--this is not a point of pure principle. It is a device; it is a stratagem. All oppositions are entitled to deploy their devices and to manipulate their stratagems, but only so far. I can do no better for your Lordships than to repeat what my noble friend Lord Callaghan said. The game has been played for long enough. Our colleagues in another place were elected. Some of your Lordships disparage them. I never do because they have
Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, we have certainly had an interesting debate. If I have done nothing else, I have brought before your Lordships an excellent performance of old skills honed over the years by the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff. To an extent, I suppose that his argument is enhanced by the fact that he believes quite honestly and openly that first-past-the-post is the best system.
However, he argued his case persuasively and cleverly as befits someone who managed to remain as Prime Minister for quite a long time without commanding a majority in the other place. Therefore, I was not in the least surprised that it was a clever performance and it certainly gave us all a lesson on how to perform in front of your Lordships. I shall read it with some care.
The noble Lord, Lord Bach, came out of the closet and owned up to agreeing that the closed list is the best system. He asked us to be gentle with him and I shall be. He sang in harmony with Tony, and I do not mean Tony Benn but the other one. He said something interesting which the noble Lord, Lord Callaghan of Cardiff and the Minister also mentioned; that is, that somebody with a lower vote could easily be elected against someone with a higher vote. I am sure that the Minister accepts that that is true only between the parties' lists. Within the parties' lists with the open list system, the people with the highest vote will be elected. I accept of course that someone may be elected with a lower vote than somebody else on another party list, but that happens all the time when one compares one constituency with another. Nobody complains that he received 30,000 votes and was beaten while the chap next door won 20,000 votes and was elected. Nobody complains about that. That is a false premise. People will be able to understand the system. The ballot paper will not be too complicated. Noble Lords who think that should look at the German system.
My noble friend Lord Bethell explained why he does not approve of the closed list. He mentioned some of the problems which occur with the open list. On balance, I believe he would agree with me that the problems with the closed list are greater. He indicated the defects of the closed list from his experience in the European Parliament. I believe that my noble friend is trying to help the Government by suggesting another system which they may try. I must say to my noble friend that I am not happy with the Belgian system and neither is the Home Secretary. However, my noble friend has certainly given the Government some food for thought if they need it.
The right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Hereford made it clear that individual voters should have some say. That is all we ask for in the open list. The noble Lord, Lord Williams, and I enjoy jousting--at least, I hope that he enjoys it because I certainly do. The noble Lord mentioned the Scottish and Welsh Bills. I did not like the list system as set out in the latter, but the fact is that both pieces of legislation have the majority of the Members of that parliament and assembly elected by the first-past-the-post system: the list only comes in for the minority for the top-up. Therefore, it is not the same as the European Parliament where everyone will be in the list system.
The noble Lord also said that the argument was over-egged. If that is so, why not accept the open list? I suggest to noble Lords that it is not just the majority in the other place that they should listen to; indeed, they should also heed the voices in another place. Those voices represent a very unhappy troop behind the Government on the issue.
My noble friend Lord Tebbit made the position clear: it is up to the other place. This Bill does not necessarily need to be lost if your Lordships agree with me today. The other place can come back--it is to be hoped--with a substantial compromise which might persuade us actually to accept it, instead of these rather meaningless crumbs of comfort that they think will buy us off.
The Government could also accept the open system which is consistent with their manifesto; indeed, they have the time to do so. I think that we should ask them to do it again and to come back, if they wish to do so, with something sensible. Alternatively, and better still, if they wish to accept that the open list is every bit as proportional as the closed list, perhaps they will accept the open list. I wish to test the opinion of the House on my Motion.