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Orders Of The Day

Volume 301: debated on Tuesday 25 November 1997

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European Parliamentary Elections Bill

Order for Second Reading read.

5.14 pm

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

The Government were elected in May with firm commitments to improve the democratic process in this country. As the House knows, our programme of constitutional reform is already well advanced. It gives me great pleasure to add another item to the list of manifesto commitments that are being fulfilled.

In the manifesto, we promised to introduce a proportional voting system for elections to the European Parliament; the Bill does just that. It will enable the 1999 and subsequent elections to the Parliament to be conducted using a proportionally based regional list system.

The Bill has had a long genesis. Twenty years ago yesterday, a Bill to provide direct elections to the European Parliament was introduced into the House following a White Paper in April 1977. The Bill initially provided for a regional list system, but in December 1977, the House voted by about 100 votes to reject that system and instead to put in its place one based on first past the post. It is that system which has remained in place ever since.

The first direct elections to the European Parliament took place in June 1979. Since then, for almost all of the past 20 years, the European Union has been attempting to ensure that elections to the European Parliament in each of the member states are based on common principles. The system that we are proposing in the Bill is in conformity with those principles.

A regional list system of elections to the European Parliament has been Labour party policy for a number of years. In 1993, Professor Raymond Plant, as he then was, who is now a distinguished Member of another place, produced a report for another place—I am sorry, for the Labour party—

Well, these days it is very easy to get a place.

Professor Plant produced a report recommending a regional list system for those elections. That policy was endorsed by the Labour party conference the same year, confirmed by the Joint Consultative Committee on Constitutional Reform in February 1997 and included in our formal election manifesto.

Before discussing the Bill, let me say something about electoral reform generally. I believe that it is reasonably well known that I do not have a reputation as an evangelist for proportional representation for the Westminster Parliament. However, I have never been opposed to proportional representation for elections to the European Parliament nor, in certain circumstances, for local elections.

It is of the utmost importance that any voting system is appropriate for the nature and functions of the body that is being elected. My arguments against proportional representation for the Westminster Parliament have been based on the mathematical and political difficulty of securing an identity between votes cast, seats gained and power secured. It is possible to devise a voting system where the seats won are proportional to the votes cast— but there follows a serious conundrum. The greater the proportionality of votes to seats, the less may be the proportionality of votes to power.

PR systems typically give disproportionate power to the smaller minority parties, while first-past-the-post and similar systems with single-member constituencies give power to the largest plurality and so help secure a system where the proportionality, not between votes and seats, but between votes and power, may be the greater.

However, those characteristics of proportional representation and the consequences that may go with it— unstable Governments—can apply only where a Government are being elected. There are fundamental differences between the European Parliament and our United Kingdom Parliament. The European Parliament is a representative body; it is not a Parliament from which a Government are drawn.

As it is clear to those of us who have served in the European Parliament that many other European countries envy the connection between elected Members and their constituencies and understand that it has one enormous advantage over a system under which the parties control the list, will my right hon. Friend give us the real justification for the system that he is proposing this afternoon?

I accept entirely what my hon. Friend says in terms of the Westminster Parliament. She has outlined one of the great strengths of our system of representation, based on single-Member constituencies. It is well worth remembering that the root of the word "Commons" is the French word "commune", meaning a community. I believe—and I am sure that my view is shared by anybody who has been a Minister or a shadow Minister— that one of the enormous strengths of our system is that, however high and mighty we think we may be, the fact that we have to go back to our constituency on a Friday evening, sit in a community centre and receive representations from our constituents, gives us a direct link to our constituents in a way that it is impossible to replicate under a system of multi-member proportional representation.

However, there is a world of difference between a constituency that one can comprehend in terms of its size—such as Crewe, Blackburn and similar places or parts of cities, which broadly accord with the majority of communities—and the vast constituencies that form the basis of representation in the European Parliament, where the direct connection between the Member and his constituents is very much more tenuous.

In the United States, Congressmen often represent districts with substantially larger electorates than those proposed by the right hon. Gentleman for the European Parliament. There is a direct relationship between those big electorates and their representatives. Anyone who knows the United States well will know that people continually say, "My Congressman said this," and, "I wrote to my Congressman about that." Under the proposals, that close relationship would be lost.

What the hon. Gentleman says is accurate, but Members of Congress in the United States have huge support—typically they have 40 or 50 staff to enable them to achieve the connection. They also have strong media backing and are constantly campaigning as the elections take place every two years.

Moreover, there is a critical difference that strengthens the connection between a constituency and a Member of Parliament or a Member of Congress. In both cases, we are talking about people who act to form a Government— in this country, they act directly to form a Government and in the United States, they act to support and form part of a Government—and to ensure that the Government are provided with revenue. In the European Parliament, those considerations do not apply. The European Parliament does not form the basis of a Government, but is simply a representative body.

Had the hon. Gentleman been correct in his assertion, we would have seen over the past 20 years a close connection between the European Parliament's constituencies and its Members. However, generally speaking, that is not the case.

Even granted the truth in what the Home Secretary is saying, it would have been possible for the Labour Government to come forward with proposals that provided for proportional representation, but maintained a constituency base for the electorate. The Home Secretary has not said why he has chosen the one PR system that ensures that there is no constituency basis.

I shall come to that point—I have only just started my speech. If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is dissatisfied with the explanation that I shall give later, I shall happily give way to him again.

I merely wanted to deal with a myth. The Home Secretary is making a perfectly reasonable case for the different nature of the European Parliament, but lest he should imagine that it is impossible to have a constituency link in a PR system, may I suggest that he visits the Irish Republic, where Members elected under the single transferable vote system are well aware of their link to constituencies and most certainly spend their Friday nights addressing constituency problems?

I have studied voting systems for more than 30 years and I have kept a close eye on the politics of the Irish Republic, where the Irish have a system to which they are attached. I have always found it difficult to understand a system whereby the voters' will does not always appear to be translated into either a change of Government or the sustaining of a Government. In the Irish Republic, Governments have changed every three years with extraordinary regularity.

We are dealing not with the election of a Parliament which then sustains a Government, but with the election of a representative body in Europe. The role of a Member of the European Parliament is different from that of a Member of Parliament, yet they are both directly elected by the same method.

The United Kingdom returns only 87 Members to the European Parliament and, quite apart from the disconnection between the constituencies and the Members, the huge constituencies that we currently have mean that disproportionate results are greatly magnified. As a result, even a small swing in the vote can lead to a substantial difference in the number of seats, as the fluctuating composition of the UK delegation to the European Parliament over the past 20 years has demonstrated.

Members of the House who have studied such matters with care may be aware that it is easy to construct an index of proportionality of seats gained to votes cast. I should be happy to explain the method of calculation to hon. Members who are not familiar with it, either now or later. I hope that colleagues will take my word for the fact that Westminster elections and the first-past-the-post system typically score between 80 and 89 per cent. in terms of proportionality—quite a high score, bearing in mind the criticisms that are sometimes made of the first-past-the-post system in Westminster.

In the last European elections, because of the size of the constituencies, the proportionality index score was only 70 per cent. For that reason, we believe that a simple regional list system of PR, for which the Bill provides, is the most appropriate one for electing Members of the European Parliament.

The Minister stated that he has kept a close eye on electoral reform over the past 30 years. I have kept a close eye on the document that he produced for the national executive of the Labour party a number of years ago. I shall not embarrass him by quoting from the document, but will he clarify two points? Is he in favour of proportional representation for election to the House of Commons? Following on from the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody), is my right hon. Friend now accepting that under a regional list system, Members of the European Parliament will not be accountable to their electorate?

I am not sure whether my hon. Friend was present for my opening remarks, when I think that I made it tolerably clear that I am not enthusiastic about proportional representation for Westminster elections. My hon. Friend would not embarrass me if he were to quote from the document that I produced some years ago, as my views on the subject have not changed. I have always accepted that electoral systems must be appropriate for the particular political institution to which they apply. We must consider the nature of the relationships that we are trying to establish and, for that reason, I am highly sceptical of any systems that move away from single-Member constituencies for the House of Commons. However, as I am seeking to explain, different considerations must be borne in mind in relation to the European Parliament.

Would the right hon. Gentleman be good enough to explain why the Amsterdam treaty, which amends the European Union treaty and which we shall be debating in a couple of days' time in Committee, contains a provision stating:

"The European Parliament shall draw up a proposal for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States"—
which pretty well follows the words of the arrangements entered into at Maastricht, but also adds
"or in accordance with principles common to all Member States."?
In other words, the treaty that the Government— and, presumably, the right hon. Gentleman himself— negotiated contains arrangements that would insist on those common principles, which are essentially proper democratic principles. Why, therefore, in the light of the Amsterdam treaty, have the Government gone down a route that is less democratic than the arrangements that could have been provided for?

I do not accept that for a moment. The arrangements that we are putting in place—whether or not the hon. Gentleman agrees with them—are extremely similar, and in some cases identical, to those that are in place in the majority of other European countries.

May I try to make a helpful suggestion to my right hon. Friend? Many of us will be persuaded by his argument that, with regard to electoral systems, it is horses for courses, but many of us will not be persuaded by the argument that closed party lists on a regional basis are the right horse for this course.

When the proposal first came before the House exactly 20 years ago, in 1977, at a time when there was an arrangement between the Labour party and a previous incarnation of the Liberal Democrat party, the House was offered a free vote on the kind of system with which it would feel most happy. At a time when we are offering a referendum to choose an electoral system, and when there is genuine disagreement about the kind of system that we want for the European elections, I suggest that it would be appropriate to give the House a choice of proportional systems. That would allow us to meet our obligations, and to select a system with which the House would feel comfortable.

Today we are implementing a manifesto commitment on which all Labour Members stood. I cannot speak for the Opposition—no doubt they are as divided on this as they are on other issues—but it is fair enough for us to stick to a whipped vote.

The vote in December 1977 was a hybrid. It was a whipped vote for the payroll vote, except that two members of the payroll were allowed a special dispensation to vote against the payroll, and other Members were able to enjoy a free vote. It is interesting to note that there are 60 Members still in the House from the more than 500 who voted in December 1977 on that matter. Two members of the current shadow Cabinet voted in favour of the proposition for a regional list system at that time. It will be interesting to see what they do this evening.

Let me deal with a point that had been raised and was implicit in the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright). I refer to the referendum on voting systems for Westminster.

I have long believed, as has the Labour party, that it is time to bring to a conclusion the arguments over which electoral system should apply to Westminster elections. The Government do not claim a monopoly of wisdom in that regard. We hope very shortly to be in a position to honour our manifesto commitment to establish an independent commission to consider what would be the best electoral system to adopt, if we are to move away from first past the post. After that, we intend to let the people decide in an entirely free vote on the system that should apply.

Let me deal with what the Bill does. It provides for elections to the European Parliament to be conducted using a proportionally based regional list system. The counting of the votes will be based on the "highest average" formula using the d'Hondt divisor. I intend to say a little more about divisors in a moment.

As I came into the Chamber this evening, I received a ministerial reply from the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), who stated:

"We take seriously our responsibilities for Gibraltar within the EU."
I am sure that the Home Secretary recognises that there are 30,000 people in Gibraltar who, if my information is correct, are the only people in the entire European Union who do not have a vote in European elections. Given the present proposition that we should change to a regional system, it would seem simple to include Gibraltar in one of the new regions. I invite the Home Secretary to give the House an assurance that Gibraltarians will be given an opportunity to vote in the European Parliament elections in 1999.

That is an enticing prospect. I await further advice, as Gibraltar is not my responsibility. The Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are my responsibility, and I believe that Gibraltar is in a similar, but not the same, position. Gibraltar is a dependency under the Crown, but it is not part of the United Kingdom. It is the United Kingdom that is part of the European Union, not the dependencies. People who live on the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man do not have representation in the EU, even though they are clearly affected by decisions made by it.

Will the Home Secretary return to the point made by the hon. Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright)? It was not part of the Labour party's manifesto to propose a closed list system. That is perhaps the most obnoxious feature of the proposed arrangement. Will the right hon. Gentleman address that matter?

If the hon. Gentleman will be a little patient, I shall come to that and hope to provide some comfort, both to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase.

A list system is used to elect Members of the European Parliament in every other member state of the EU, apart from the Republic of Ireland. The particular simple list electoral system that the Bill would introduce is the same type of system as is used in France, Germany, Greece, Portugal and Spain, so nearly two thirds of EU citizens already elect their MEPs in this way, and the figure would rise to over 70 per cent. if Britain also adopted that approach.

Under the Bill, the United Kingdom will be divided into regions. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will each constitute a single region. They will return eight, five and three MEPs respectively, as they do at present. Northern Ireland already elects its three MEPs using a proportional system—the single transferable vote. It works well there and appears to enjoy wide support, so we do not propose to change it.

England will continue to return 71 MEPs. It will be divided into nine regions. The regions, which are set out in schedule 2 to the Bill, will be the regions that are currently used by the Government offices for the regions. We have chosen those regions because they are well established and understood by the people who live in them. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] It is no good Opposition Members mocking the regions or their boundaries. In an effort to be ecumenical, I have chosen those regions because they were established by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). I hoped that there would be no suggestion of any fiddling of the boundaries, which were established by the previous Government, following clear geographical lines, and have been widely accepted.

If, in a particular area such as Cumbria, people feel strongly that the MEP should be part of a northern regional arrangement, will there be some flexibility in the decisions that my right hon. Friend takes?

I regret to say that if the Bill is passed unamended—it will be open to my hon. Friend to move amendments to the schedule laying out the regions—that will not be the case. I understand my hon. Friend's concern, but if there are standard regions, it is important, in order to maintain people's confidence in the system, that we should adopt them without trying to change them.

Had I sought to move Cumbria into the North East— although I understand the arguments for that—I would have ended up in dispute with some but not all of the local authorities in Cumbria, and I would also have been open to accusations that we were doing that for the wrong reasons. I hope that my hon. Friend will accept the reasoning behind the schedule.

May I re-emphasise a point made by the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours)? Is the Home Secretary aware that under the proposals that he is presenting to the House, the Peak national park will fall into four regions—four counties? There is therefore a case for him not to follow dogmatically the areas corresponding to the regional offices. It is nonsense that the area of the Peak national park should fall into the East Midlands, the North West, the West Midlands, and Yorkshire and The Humber, and thus have no voice at all.

I am sure that they will write a good line about the hon. Gentleman in his local paper—and I am sure that he needs it. I have been in this place longer than him, and I never heard him speak, while a Minister, against the boundaries devised by his predecessors.

The only exception that we propose is Merseyside, which we shall combine with the North West region for electoral purposes. That is simply a recognition of the fact that Merseyside alone would be too small to return enough MEPs to make the system work effectively. The number of MEPs for each region depends on the number of registered electors in that region. As nearly as possible, the ratio of electors to MEPs will be the same in each region. The Bill contains provisions for the numbers to be adjusted to take account of population shifts, as schedule 1(4) makes clear. The initial number of MEPs for each region is set out in the table in schedule 1.

Under the Bill, parties will be able to put forward a list of candidates containing up to as many names as there are seats to be filled in that region. In addition, any independent candidates who wish to stand may do so— including lots of independent Conservatives if the Opposition have arrived at that position by then. Under the proposal on the face of the Bill, voters will vote either for a party's list or for an independent candidate. They will not be able to vote for individual candidates on a party list. As now, the process will be simply to mark a single cross on the ballot paper.

How will the electorate get rid of an MEP whom the people dislike and who they believe is failing them under the new system?

They will do that in the same way as they get rid of any politician: by not voting for him. I shall deal with the gravamen of the hon. Gentleman's point in a moment.

Under the system, the number of votes cast for each party and each independent is counted and the seats allocated. The seat allocation process, which is set out in clause 1, is as follows. The first seat in a region goes to the independent candidate or the party with the highest vote. If the seat is allocated to a party, it goes to the first candidate on that party's list. The remaining seats are allocated, one by one, in the same way except that, at each stage, the parties' original totals are divided by the number of seats that each party has won, plus the number one. That gives me an opportunity to say more about another scintillating subject.

I shall give way to the right hon. and learned Gentleman, but I ask him to hold back until I have dealt with d'Hondt and Sainte-Lague. I shall then give way to him immediately.

I know that this question has gripped many people: they talk of little else at open-air meetings in Blackburn. The divisor is the set of numbers by which party votes are progressively divided to take account of the number of seats that a party has already won. The divisor used in the Bill is known in Europe as the d'Hondt divisor. It was devised at the end of the last century by Victor d'Hondt, a Belgian. I hope that hon. Members will take careful note of Monsieur Victor d'Hondt, as it is not often that a Minister of the Crown offers them a chance to improve their prowess at that popular Christmas parlour game, "Name 10 famous Belgians". I have contributed greatly to Christmas disputes and to the sum of human knowledge in that area by naming at least one famous Belgian.

Lest anyone think that the d'Hondt divisor is a highly complex mathematical calculation, I shall divulge the first few numbers in the series: one, two, three, four and five. In other words, a party's total vote is always divided by the number of seats that it has already been allocated, plus one. There has been some suggestion that the Bill should use a different divisor—specifically, the Sainte-Lague divisor. The numbers in the Sainte-Lague—

He is not Belgian. The right hon. and learned Gentleman may be interested to know that divisors are used for council elections in Cambridge, Massachusetts. However, the d'Hondt system is called the Jeffersonian method and the Sainte-Lague system is called the Webster method.

I must give the House more information about this interesting subject. The numbers in the Sainte-Lague divisor are not one, two, three, four and five—as under the d'Hondt system—but one, three, five, seven and nine. As I am sure hon. Members will have worked out already, the effect is that, when allocating seats, a party's total is always divided by twice the number of seats that the party has won, plus one.

To complicate matters, there also exists a modified version of Sainte-Lague—which is generally used in Scandinavia—in which the initial number one, the divisor, is replaced by 1.4. I know that hon. Members will ask— even I did—why 1.4 is used. Those hon. Members who have studied art history will know that 1.4—which is approximately the square root of two—is the golden number that was much admired by Leonardo da Vinci, and is embedded deep in European architectural history.

My hon. Friend, for whom I have always had high regard, expresses some dissent about the use of the modified Sainte-Lague system. I am pleased to say that she and I are at one in rejecting it. We shall ensure that it is not used in Britain. There is a serious point to this—as there often is. Different divisors can produce different results, and there may be arguments as to which is the most truly proportional.

I am most grateful. I think that hon. Members have enjoyed the right hon. Gentleman's presentation of the various formulae, but will he now return to the question posed by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill): how will the electorate in a particular region get rid of a candidate whom the people do not like? In reality, the people will simply choose one or other party and the party will appoint the MEP.

I shall come to the issue of voter preference later. I assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that there is no difference in principle. He was chosen to stand as the candidate for his constituency, not by the voters but by his constituency association.

Yes, they can—indeed, we tried to ensure that they did so, and it is one of the few constituencies where we failed in that endeavour. The electors of Sleaford and North Hykeham could vote for candidates from another party, and exactly the same situation arises in principle under any of the other systems.

I must continue but, if time allows, I shall accept more interventions—and give way to my hon. Friend—on the fascinating issues of divisors and the kind of list system that we should introduce.

Those who argue for Sainte-Lague say that it favours smaller parties and that d'Hondt discriminates in favour of larger parties. However, we do not believe that that is so, and we have calculated the likely effect of using all three divisors. The differences that they produce are minimal, and we have decided to use the d'Hondt divisor for four reasons. First, we believe that it will produce a fair result. Secondly, Sainte-Lague does not necessarily produce more proportional results. I have already introduced the proportionality index to the House—I noticed how hon. Members listened with bated breath. By calculating the index score for six regions using the 1994 European election vote in the United Kingdom, we found that, on average, d'Hondt scored higher than Sainte-Lague.

Thirdly, as I hope my exposition has demonstrated, d'Hondt is simpler and more logical—I do not claim that d'Hondt is simple or logical, but it is simpler and more logical than the other two systems. Fourthly, d'Hondt is the most commonly used divisor in Europe—of the nine other EU member states that elect their MEPs using the highest average list system, eight use the d'Hondt divisor. Only one—Sweden—uses Sainte-Lague, and it uses the modified form with the golden number 1.4 as the initial divisor.

The Secretary of State will recognise, I hope, that the effects of which divisor is used are most marked where the seats have only a small number of MEPs. If we take the example of Wales and the 1997 general election results—the most recent that we have— using the d'Hondt system, no party other than Labour and the Conservatives would have won seats in Wales, and Labour would have won 80 per cent. of the seats on 54 per cent. of the votes. That is an extreme case within the system, but it would happen, given the d'Hondt divisor and a seat with only five MEPs.

The right hon. Gentleman and I have discussed that at some length outside the House. We have considered carefully the proportionality index that would apply in Wales in respect of d'Hondt, Sainte-Lague modified and Sainte-Lague pure. I am happy to tell him that, in the 1994 elections, d'Hondt and Sainte-Lague modified would have produced a proportionality index for Wales of 88.5 per cent.—the same index—and Sainte-Lague an index of 90 per cent., but overall, there is no question about it: d'Hondt produces a marginally better proportionality relationship between seats and votes than Sainte-Lague.

Let me deal with the issue that has perhaps been more controversial: the nature of the list system.

May I give the Secretary of State another opportunity to explain this to the House? If the electorate are dissatisfied with one Member of the European Parliament, how can they rid themselves of that MEP under the regional list system?

I have already explained that: the electorate should not vote for the list that includes that candidate. It is a straightforward system.

Let me get on; I hope to give some comfort to the hon. Gentleman. [Interruption.] It may be a matter of dispute between the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and his colleagues, but it is not for me.

When a party wins one or more seats, its candidates are elected in the order in which they appear on the list. The fact that voters are unable to influence the order in which candidates are on a party list has attracted some adverse comment, both outside and inside the House. Let me explain the reasoning behind that.

The electoral regions will be very large, and individual candidates are unlikely to be known by more than a small—not to say tiny—fraction of the electorate. Voters cannot, therefore, be expected to make an informed choice between individual candidates from the same party. If the electorate were required to rank candidates of the same party, such choices could be arbitrary. I also fear that it could disadvantage women and ethnic minority candidates. I understand that Lord Plant shares that view.

To reinforce the point, lest that is somehow presented as a radical departure, let us not forget that that is essentially the way in which hon. Members are chosen. Candidates are selected by the parties, and voters have no influence over who the representative of their chosen party will be in their constituency. If they do not like the representative of the party, they have to vote for a different party. That is the simple way in which the system operates and the way in which this system will operate.

The system that is set out in the Bill has the great virtue of simplicity. As now under the first-past-the-post system, the elector has to mark a single cross on the ballot paper. As I mentioned, simple list systems of that sort are already used by nearly two thirds of voters in the European Union to elect their MEPs, so we are in reasonable company.

I realise that this is an important issue that goes to the heart of the Bill, and I have listened carefully to all the representations that have been made to me on the point. In particular, it has been suggested, both by the constitutional group Charter 88 and by the Liberal Democrats, that we could introduce an electoral system of the sort that operates in Belgium and Denmark, whereby voters can vote either for the party list as a whole or for an individual candidate from the party list—or, of course, for an independent candidate. Under that system, party votes and individual votes are combined to determine how many seats each party is entitled to, then seats are allocated to candidates by a method that adds party votes to those received by individual party candidates.

As with any other system, there are arguments both ways. The modification of what we propose in the Bill would provide some more direct voter preference and may assuage the concerns even of the right hon. and learned Member for Grantham.

I apologise.

On the other hand, that is marginally more complex than the present simple system that we propose, and it is possible for a candidate low down on a party list to receive many personal votes—perhaps more than those of his or her party colleagues—yet still not be elected, because the weight of party votes helps those higher up the list.

Nevertheless, I am prepared to listen to the arguments for adopting a Belgian-type system and to give them careful consideration. To help hon. Members, I shall arrange for a brief description of how the Belgian system operates to be placed in the Library, alongside a greater description of how the system in the Bill is intended to operate, and I shall be interested to learn how hon. Members on both sides of the House perceive the system. This will therefore be a subject to which we can return at a later stage of the Bill's passage.

I give way first to the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney).

I want to be clear as to what the Home Secretary has said. Has he just said that, having proposed the Second Reading of a major Government Bill, he is now signalling that he is willing to change one of the fundamental aspects of that Bill?

It may come as a surprise to the right hon. Gentleman, as a member of the previous Government, who did so badly, that we are a party and a Government who listen to argument.

I do not propose that we adopt the open list system that was in the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978, because there are all sorts of disadvantages in electors simply trying to rank candidates on a list and not being able to choose a party list if they wish to do so.

I shall give way in a moment.

However, I am willing to look—I do not say that we have signed up to them—at the proposals that we received after the Bill's publication from the Liberal Democrats and from Charter 88 for a modification of our simple list system. Under that modification, it will be open to electors to vote for the party list as a party list, if they wish to do so. It happens in Belgium. The majority—I think the overwhelming majority—of voters, offered that free choice, do so, but it will also be open to voters to vote, if they wish, for an individual candidate on the party list. When it comes to the allocation of seats within the total that a particular party has won, those personal votes are added to the votes that it received.

I hope that we can achieve—because I happen to think that it is the House that should decide these things—a serious debate on the merits of that proposal, as opposed to the proposal in the original Bill. I have not come to a firm view. I certainly believe that the old complicated system in the 1978 Act has many disadvantages, but I can see the argument in favour of this one. I am willing to have it discussed.

I thank the Home Secretary for taking this open-minded view after the long discussions that we have had. He should not accept criticism from those who, having criticised what he proposed, now criticise him for giving any hint of changing his mind. The merit of this system is that, although it allows the party to state its preferred order, it allows a large part of the electorate in that constituency to decide that they are not satisfied with that order and to produce what I might call the Tatton outcome.

I understand that point, and I am grateful for the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has been generous in response to what I have said. He has come to this in an open-minded way.

The Home Secretary said that he is considering the possibility of modifying the Bill. Obviously, all the political parties and, indeed, the independents are concerned to know exactly when the legislation will be on the statute book. Does he therefore have a clear timetable as to when a final decision will be taken?

The legislation obviously needs to be on the statute book by the end of this parliamentary Session, which is October next year.

The elections are in June 1999, but I think that there is ample time within that period to discuss the matter. I shall assist the House and individual Members by ensuring that as much information as possible is made available about those different systems, before the House and the other place come to a conclusion.

As the Home Secretary did not mention it in his incredible discourse to the House, does he expect turnout to improve? It is now at the extraordinary low level of 36 per cent. and it has been around 30 per cent. Why on earth does he think that the incredible system being proposed should help induce people to come out and vote?

We are not a country that can lecture other European nations about turnout. Generally speaking, turnouts are higher in Europe. One argument in favour of change is the fact that turnouts are so low. It is difficult to argue that the current electoral system has gripped the electorate. It has not. My guess—and it can be only a guess—is that turnout will improve under the proposed system.

I should now like to make some progress. While I have been on my feet, the Chamber has filled up and many hon. Members wish to speak, so I shall refer to some more detailed points. Let me explain how vacancies will be filled. Schedule 2 empowers the Secretary of State to make regulations that will be subject to parliamentary approval by affirmative resolution. The regulations will provide that when a vacancy occurs in a seat that was originally filled by a candidate from a party list, it should be filled by the next eligible and willing candidate from that list. If, however, the list has been exhausted, or if the vacancy has been caused by the death or resignation of an independent MEP, a by-election will be held.

To work effectively, the electoral system that the Bill will introduce—or a Belgian-type system—requires political parties to be registered. We have already announced that legislation to establish a registration scheme for political parties will be introduced during this parliamentary Session. Once such a scheme is in place, only parties that have been registered will be able to put forward lists of candidates. Of course, independents will also be able to stand.

A registration scheme will have the added advantage that it will offer parties the protection from spoiler candidates such as the notorious case that occurred in the 1994 European elections, involving a candidate who styled himself a "Literal Democrat".

Introducing a new electoral system inevitably involves a good deal of detailed work. New nomination forms need to be designed, new rules about election agents need to be devised and many other practical points have to be covered. All that is consequential on introducing the new system, and will be dealt with in regulations which, of course, the House will be able to approve. Schedule 2 covers the power to make such regulations.

A new ballot paper will need to be designed. I have already produced—and made available in the Library—a sketch of what the ballot paper might look like.

The Bill also permits regulations to be made governing candidates' and parties' election expenditure. Clearly, the old rules, which are concerned solely with controlling the spending of individual candidates at constituency level, are no longer appropriate for a system that is based on the promotion of a party list, so there will need to be limits on parties' regional expenditure. However, as it will be hard to distinguish between parties' regional and national expenditure, we shall need to consider carefully the case for placing limits on national expenditure.

As it has been a matter of some debate since 16 October, when I published our proposals to legislate in respect of the funding of political parties, let me make it clear that paragraph 6 of schedule 2 provides regulation-making power to control national spending by political parties on European elections. I know that my right hon. and hon. Friends will welcome that.

Once again, I am grateful to the Home Secretary. As there will be separate lists for Scotland and Wales, recognising the nature of the four-party system in those countries, will limitations be placed on the unionist parties, so that they spend the same amount as other parties competing in Scotland and Wales?

The usual way to place limits on spending is to use a calculation based on the number of electors in the areas where candidates are standing, but, as ever, we are open to representation. We are a listening Government.

We said in our manifesto that we would introduce a proportional voting system for elections to the European Parliament. The system that we are proposing has many advantages. It is appropriate for the nature and functions of the body that is being elected. It will be simple for the electorate to use. It allows independent candidates to stand. It produces fair results so that in each region, a party or independent candidate will win a share of the seats proportionate to the share of the vote in that region. The Bill is another major step forward in the modernisation of our constitution. I commend it to the House.

6.4 pm

I congratulate the Home Secretary on one of the most impressive performances that I have seen in the House for a long time: for a man who did not believe a word of what he was saying, he said it with great aplomb. I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) that the Home Secretary delivered his speech with great charm.

The Home Secretary told us that the Government were elected to improve the democratic process and then signally failed to convince even his hon. Friends that the Bill would in any way achieve that aim.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) and I have had a number of friendly but robust exchanges during our time in this place, particularly when I was at the Department of Health. When I was at what was then the Ministry of Transport we became more like-minded. Today we are as one. The hon. Lady put her finger on one of the major flaws of the Bill—the severing of the link between a constituency and its elected representatives. From the expression on the faces of Labour Members, it was clear that many of them agreed with her, as we did.

I was intrigued by the Home Secretary's suggestion that because the single transferable vote works well in Northern Ireland and commands widespread support there, it does not need to be changed. I remind him that the first-past-the-post system works well in England and commands widespread support, so the logic of his position falls.

I was also intrigued by the circular nature of the Home Secretary's argument to the effect that we want a list system so we have to have big regions and that if we have big regions we have to have a closed list system. That argument did not convince the House and it certainly will not carry the Committee, just as the right hon. Gentleman did not carry the House when he failed four times to answer questions from hon. Members, including his hon. Friends, about how electors—and elections are about electors and not party apparatchiks—would get rid of a Member who they thought was doing a poor job.

The right hon. Gentleman said that electors are the most important consideration. Is he the same person who on 13 March 1996 said:

"Even in 1983 and 1987 when we won landslide victories, a good 58 per cent. of those who voted supported other parties. We do not need to win over everyone or even most people in order to win."?
Are those the right hon. Gentleman's democratic credentials?

It is interesting to reflect that the hon. Gentleman's party won fewer votes in 1997 than we won in 1992. That is the best answer that I can give him.

This evening, we are considering a Bill that has been introduced with no justification. Bert Lance said,
"If it ain't broke, don't fix it".
The Home Secretary has signally failed to convince the House that there is anything wrong with the present system. He cannot be suggesting that the system is biased in our favour because his party has the preponderance of seats at the moment. He cannot be claiming that the system is too complicated because everybody understands it and is able to go into a voting booth, put a cross on a piece of paper, see the votes counted and understand who has won.

The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich might have said that the Bill will not only break the link between constituencies and individual elected representatives but will prevent electors from electing individuals—which, thus far, has been another fundamental aspect of our electoral system.

It is worth recalling that most people in democracies around the world vote with the first-past-the-post system. I therefore wondered whether there was perhaps something intrinsically better about the Home Secretary's proposals. I reflected on the fact that, in 1993, after years of unstable government, Italy moved away from a system of proportional representation. After trying PR, France switched back to its second ballot system. The Swedes are changing their PR system, because they discovered that none of their elected representatives was responsible for developments or hazards in any sphere. After introducing PR last year, New Zealand had to wait for more than two months before a Government could be formed. I suspect that the Home Secretary realises, after his private talks with Irish TDs, how much they dislike the system under which they operate.

Therefore, there is no argument that proportional representation is intrinsically better. Consequently, the question is whether less problems—

whether fewer problems are associated with PR. I once read somewhere:

"I have not been persuaded that under PR"
one does not
"end up with a disproportionate power being wielded by small parties. There is no perfect electoral system. Each has its problems and I simply do not believe that the problems"
one gets
"with PR are less than those"
one gets
"with the existing system."
I see that the Home Secretary agrees with that statement. It is a good job that he does, because they are not my words but those of the Prime Minister, who uttered those words only a couple of years ago, making it clear that he is quite unimpressed with PR and with the argument that PR provides a system with fewer problems than our current system.

I have been following the right hon. Gentleman's speech with care; he is making an important argument. Does he accept that there is a profound difference between the Parliaments that he has described, which are national Parliaments elected to determine a Government, and a European Parliament that in no sense forms—or should form—a Government, and that is wholly and solely a representative body?

We are talking about the election of public representatives—that is the fundamental issue—which is a feature that is shared by the European Parliament and the House. As hon. Members and the Home Secretary know, the great unspoken aspect of the debate is that this Bill is but a dry run for another Bill which will eventually emerge, stating that the Government have decided to change the method of election to the House.

At the risk of upsetting traditionalists, I shall depart for a moment from the normal confrontational tone of our debates in the House and pay a genuine tribute to the Home Secretary. It was courageous and typically honest of him to state quite openly what he has stated frequently in the past, and what all hon. Members know to be true: when it comes to elections to the House, he has no great love of any form of proportional representation. Hon. Members will remember that fact, which I do not mention in any aggressive sense. I pay tribute to him.

I pay even greater tribute to the Home Secretary because of the nature of the Government. To understand the Government, one must understand two matters. The first is that the Government are determined to be re-elected—for the first time—for a second term, which is in itself a perfectly honourable objective, although it becomes much less honourable if the Government resort to changing the goalposts to achieve it.

The second thing that one must understand about the Government is that their driving emotion is a strong dislike—I shall be diplomatic in my phraseology—for Conservatives. Ministers are perfectly happy to link up with any other party with which they think they can do business, on this or any other issue, permanently to disadvantage the Conservative party. That is a perfectly obvious motivation for the Labour party, and it is why everyone understands that the Bill is but a dry run for what will come later. We will have to proceed on that understanding.

I should like to understand two aspects of the Conservatives' position. The first is why they accepted a treaty obligation to have an electoral system for Europe that is based on common principles, including proportionality. The second is why they have retained for all these years the single transferable vote system of proportional representation in Northern Ireland.

I was about to deal with that point. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) raised a point on article 138(3). I remind the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) that, although that was a treaty obligation—we signed the treaty and took on the obligation—it was one that was subject to unanimity. That aspect of the treaty was as important to us as the treaty obligation itself. I think that he will grant us that, over the years, we have consistently maintained that view.

The Home Secretary made an important point on unanimity. Thus far, because of the need for unanimity, we have not gone along towards a single unified electoral system in Europe. The Bill is a major step in that direction, as he himself acknowledged in his speech. Will he reassure the House that we will not move from any electoral system towards a harmonised European one without the House deciding on such a move and thereby legitimising it?

If I may, I will return to that matter.

Why are we considering the Bill when we know that the Prime Minister is not in favour of proportional representation? Who was pushing for it when the Prime Minister was against it? The answer is obvious—it was the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown), who realised that he and the Liberal Democrats would never be elected to govern. He realised that he had one thing in common with the Prime Minister and the Minister without Portfolio—a willingness to enter into any deal to do down Tories.

The right hon. Member for Yeovil was willing to contemplate any secret deal to achieve that aim, and that is what he and the Government did. Off into a secret room they went—probably, given the favourite genre of the Labour party, a smoke-filled room—and did a secret deal. We still have no idea what the deal was, except that it gave the right hon. Gentleman a seat at the Cabinet table, for an hour every two or three weeks, in return for a commitment to help pass legislation that he and the Prime Minister thought would be to their political advantage and to the political disadvantage of the Conservative party. We shall see.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department
(Mr. George Howarth)

The right hon. Gentleman is off on a flight of fancy, and I am loth to interrupt him. He accused my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister of having dreamt up the scheme, as if it has come out of the ether. I presume that he has read the House of Commons research paper on the Bill. Does he acknowledge that, on page 17, it quotes my right hon. Friend's party conference speech, of 30 September 1993? My right hon. Friend, then shadow Home Secretary, said:

"We will reform the voting system for the European Parliament".
Does the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman accept that there was some precedent for my right hon. Friend's decision on the subject?

I do not want to upset the Minister too much, but the quotation that I gave from the Prime Minister post-dated the one that he has given the House. Mine was from 1994.

For reasons that I well understand, the right hon. Gentleman is confusing arguments about PR systems for electing a Westminster Parliament with those for electing Members of the European Parliament, which is what the Bill covers. If he checks the quotation that he mentioned, he will find that it refers to the Westminster Parliament.

I am grateful to the Minister and to the Home Secretary because it has emerged from the debate so far—and we have been going for only an hour and 20 minutes—that the Labour party is perhaps moving further away from reforming elections to this House. That is a helpful development and I hope that it will continue. The Minister accused me of flights of fancy, but it is not a flight of fancy to say that the leadership of the Liberal Democrats and the Labour party met in secret and did deals on this country's constitution. That is a matter of record and we are now starting to see the results of those deals.

May I put it to the right hon. Gentleman that the reason why he is having so much difficulty—and attacking a Bill that does not exist to avoid discussing a Bill that does—is that he does not understand what is going on? The examples that he has given—one party having a civilised discussion with another to improve a measure, and a Home Secretary who accepts arguments about improvements to the Bill to improve voter choice—are examples of the sort of politics that people want. The politics that he is giving us are those that people wanted to boot out.

I shall assume from that that the hon. Gentleman is giving me a gentle rebuke and asking me to get on with my speech about the Bill. I shall be happy to move on to demonstrate its inadequacies to him.

The Bill will sever the direct link between the constituency and the Member. For the first time it will prevent the electors having a direct vote for their representatives. No one should be in any doubt about the fundamental changes in the Bill. It will break the constituency basis of British elections. It will break the individual basis of British elections, and it will break the democratic basis of British elections. It is not new democracy, new young Britain or new modern voting: it is new cynical political control, undreamt of by old Labour.

Let us examine the Bill. Constituencies will go and European-style regions will be in. In future, as the Home Secretary said, Members of the European Parliament will represent, say, Scotland or London, as if those were homogeneous areas. What do Swindon and Land's End by way of the Scilly Isles have as a unifying feature? That is to be a region. Hon. Members will have noticed that the regions are an amalgam of urban and rural areas. Given the Government's record, we all know that the urban voice will prevail at the expense of the rural voice. Who will argue the case for inner London or the west of Scotland? Who will argue the case for minority views in those huge regions? How can Members feel a sense of ownership of their regions or identify with them?

Those of us who spend time, as I suspect most of us do, talking to Members of the European Parliament will know that they are already frequently criticised by their electors for not being seen around. Given the size of their constituencies, they have to spread themselves thinly over a large area. That is already a source of irritation for the electors, but how much worse will it be when Members of the European Parliament have to cover a region that stretches from Oxford and Milton Keynes, via Portsmouth and Cowes, to Dover? The job will be impossible in any terms that we, as elected representatives, understand our job.

I do not think that the job is meant to be done in the terms that we understand. The purpose of Members elected under a list system is to do exactly as they are told by the people who decide their position on the list. As long as that is clear, there is no conflict of interest.

I hope that I will not wreck the hon. Lady's reputation, but I entirely agree and I shall come on to that point shortly. The Home Secretary told the all-party electoral reform group recently that, for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly, it was important to maintain a constituency link, but that it was not important to do so for the European Parliament. Indeed, the Home Office's press release states:

"People do not enjoy, or need,"—
I emphasise that word—
"the same close links with their MEP as they do with their MP, so it is possible to elect MEPs on a regional basis."
It is clear that the Home Secretary is determined to sever the link that has stood this country in good stead for hundreds of years.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that although Members of the European Parliament have a smaller constituency case load, they deal with some constituency work involving personal cases? Under the list system, it is difficult to know to whom an individual could turn.

My right hon. and learned Friend is correct and I agree with him. He might have added that, increasingly, businesses make representations on European matters and I know that MEPs for the area that covers my constituency spend a fair time dealing with those matters.

The second point that arises from the Bill is that it will bring party politics into what has hitherto been a representational role. As a Member of Parliament, I act for all my constituents, whether they voted for me or not. I know that that is true of the Home Secretary, because I recently heard a complimentary story about action that he took on behalf of some constituents who probably did not vote for him. I also suspect that it is true of most hon. Members. It is certainly true of Robert Sturdy, the MEP for Cambridgeshire. However, in future, such representatives will be more indebted to their party than to their electors.

The third point is that the Bill will throw away the personal and individual basis of our electoral process. Every vote I have cast has been for a person—a name on a ballot—to represent my interests. I have voted for an individual with strengths and weaknesses, with skills and experience, with a family and a job history. Now I will get to vote only for a party. That is a profound difference and a profoundly backward step. Of course I am proud of my party, just as the Home Secretary is proud of his. I am proud of its history, its achievements, its statesmen and women and its beliefs. Obviously, I want people to identify with those party aspirations, but I want to vote for a person whom I can test, examine and get to know. The Bill will prevent me from doing that.

What am I offered in the Bill? I am offered one vote for a party, which could give me up to 11 Members of the European Parliament—from four in the north to 11 in the south-east. One vote for one party will produce multiple MEPs. Of course I would want all 11 in that region to be Conservatives. The Home Secretary would want them all to be Labour.

Of course he would. The House does not believe the Home Secretary. The voter will not have a chance to have some from one party and some from another, if that is what he chooses. The House should be in no doubt, that is a fundamental change to the way in which we do business.

First, under the present system, a voter cannot choose to have one Member from one party and one from another. Secondly, if he does not like the person offered by his party, as has happened to some Conservatives over the years, as well as to some in the Labour party and no doubt to some in my party, his only option is to reject the party's choice. He has no way of substituting another individual from that party whom he would prefer.

I understand that the right hon. Gentleman is in favour of the change. I understand that he has no prospect of getting into government unless proportional representation in Europe bounces across to this House. However, I do not accept the premise from which he is working and I am not impressed by his argument.

Our politics is often dominated by great issues. In the run-up to the European elections, economic and monetary union will be central. When there are different views on that great issue within all the parties, how can we identify those on a list who are for or against it? The apparatchik rule of central party control will confuse the electorate and reduce the number of votes cast.

My hon. Friend makes a strong point.

What is envisaged is even more restrictive than what we have talked about so far. The party, not the voters, will decide the order of people to be elected. Surely Ken Coates, Labour MEP for Nottingham, North and Chesterfield, was right to say that with such a system
"We will end up with a bunch of new Labour clones. The MEPs elected under this system will not be accountable to their constituents, but to Peter Mandelson—this will be nothing but a recipe for creeping."
Whatever Ken Coates's skills, he does not write editorials for The Times. Lest Labour Members are inclined to dismiss him, let me quote an editorial of 23 October, which says:
"The party's actions show all the worrying signs of a leadership that has become obsessed with control."
It continues:
"Whatever their personal interest, the dissidents are right to protest against an electoral system that puts the power of selection in the hands of the party's centre, leaving none for voters or party members. This is bad for democracy and will be bad, eventually, for the parties too. The Government plans to introduce the worst possible kind of PR for the European elections. Its 'closed list' system allows voters no say over which candidate they want: they can merely vote for a party, which will then appoint its own placemen to the Parliament."
It concludes:
"As it is, 1999's European elections promise to be a triumph of party manipulation over genuine voter choice."
The hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich put it at least as elegantly.

What was the reaction of new Labour to the dissidents in its ranks? Open? Tolerant? Transparent? Modern? It gagged them. They were told that they could not discuss the issue, that they could not criticise the party and that they could not complain. That is new Labour.

There is no point in the right hon. Gentleman shaking his head. That is his party. Ken Coates has further said:

"If an MP can be gagged and stopped, then democracy is on the way out."
Hugh Kerr, MEP for Essex, West and Hertfordshire, East said that the gagging
"shows that new Labour is increasingly authoritarian and centralised."
The Sunday Telegraph tells us that the national executive committee rushed through a new disciplinary code specifically banning MEPs from campaigning against proportional representation.

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), who is not in his place—I wish that he were—thinks that the whole thing is political suicide. The hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) has said:
"Many MPs are concerned about the loss of constituency identity by going for a regional list of candidates."
It is a pity that he is not in his place today. He would have found that more of his colleagues than he realised share that concern. According to The Guardian, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) is opposed to centralism and people being barred from voting for individuals. If he were in his place— [Laughter.]

I know. If he were in his place, as he is, I would give him an opportunity to confirm the accuracy of that quotation.

I know that I have shaved off my moustache, but I wonder whether the right hon. Gentleman did not notice me. I oppose the centralisation of political parties. That is why I welcome the receptiveness that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has shown to the representations that have been put to him and the co-operation that there has been on the issue. As the right hon. Gentleman is obviously so concerned about centralisation and intolerance in political parties, how does he relate what he has just said to the treatment given to the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris)?

The hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) made his own decision. I regret that he has left the party. I hope that that answers the question.

From Aberdeen to Eastbourne, from St. Ives and Bangor to Norwich, the message to anyone who wants to be a new Labour MEP is clear: "Don't worry about the voters; just mug up on the Mandelson mantra. Learn how to creep and surrender to Millbank thought control. Remember that the party always comes before the voters and that the party is always right."

How will all that come about? The Bill says:
"The system of election…shall be a regional list system"
and that
"A vote may be cast for a registered party".
The Home Secretary does not want the spin doctors to refer to it as a closed list system, but it is. It is closed to the public, but open to new Labour control freaks.

At the electoral reform meeting, the Home Secretary found it necessary to warn the Liberal Democrats not to have an argument in public about the closed list, because otherwise the Tories would capitalise on it. Now he knows that it is not the Tories who will capitalise on it, but the members of his party who are so dissatisfied with the Bill that they will want to examine it further.

What is the redeeming feature of the new system—a redeeming feature so strong that it overrides all the arguments against the Bill that have been aired tonight? Perhaps it is its simplicity. The present system is pretty simple: one voter, one candidate, one vote; count them up and there is one winner.

What is the new system like? I turned to the Home Office handout to find out:
  • "1. The first seat is allocated to the individual or party with the highest vote. Where the seat is allocated to a party it goes to the first candidate on that party's list.
  • 2. The second seat is allocated in the same way except that if the first seat has gone to a party, that party's total is divided by two.
  • 3. The process continues until all the seats have been allocated. At all stages party totals are divided by the number of seats that party has already been allocated, plus one."
  • Is that what I am supposed to tell my constituents? I wonder whether there is an easier, simpler way than one person, one vote, one winner.

    I turned next to the Library research paper:
    "The…system used aims to allocate each seat to the party which would at that point have the highest average vote per seat. The total votes of each party are divided by the number of seats it already has plus the next seat to be allocated. Thus the party totals are divided first by 1 [0 seats plus 1] then by 2 [ie 1 seat plus 1] then by 3 [2 seats plus 1] etc. The first seat goes to the party with the largest number in the table below, the next seat to the next highest number etc."
    Is that supposed to be an improvement? Is that supposed to be what the Home Secretary started by telling us was a simpler system? The House does not believe a word of it.

    The Home Secretary told the electoral reform group that he was thinking of holding the 1999 European elections on a Sunday. Perhaps in his winding-up speech, the Under-Secretary will tell us whether that is still likely.

    The Bill offers to so-called new Britain, new Labour's brave new world: no constituencies, no link between an individual MEP and an area, no individual to vote for, no choice of individuals to vote for, no way in which to buck the control of the party machine, and no understanding by most people of what they are doing or why.

    In truth this is just an old-fashioned political deal, based on political expediency, between the Prime Minister and the leader of the Liberal Democrats—at the expense of the British people and of the traditional British voter's link with his or her public representative, elected personally.

    So much for openness and transparency. So much for being modern and accountable. So much for the Home Secretary's reputation; he is introducing a Bill in which even he does not believe. Like him, we do not believe in it. Unlike him, we shall vote against it.

    6.42 pm

    I congratulate the shadow Home Secretary on an imaginative way of attempting to oppose the Bill. The only trouble was that he did not actually address what is in the Bill—and I found his unique interpretation of the term "secret deal" most interesting.

    I was under the impression that the hallmark of a secret deal was the fact that people did not know about it, yet the right hon. Gentleman appeared to be criticising the pre-election agreement between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats on constitutional affairs, which was not only published but announced at a press conference and mentioned in the party manifestos. If that was a secret deal, it was rather different from my normal definition of that term.

    I welcome the Bill. Such arrangements have been a long time coming. Several treaties and other agreements in Europe, some of which have been mentioned, have already urged a more common and compatible electoral procedure for the European Parliament.

    That is different from saying that all European Parliament electoral procedures in each member state must be identical. At present, no two systems for election to the European Parliament are identical. If we want a Parliament that will hang together as a representative body—as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said, it is not a Government body—it is important that the essential principles of the electoral systems by which Members get to that place should be compatible.

    That seems to me a fairly elementary point, but the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) did not mention it in his long speech. When Members of the European Parliament go to Strasbourg, the strength of the parties there should be broadly proportional to their voting strength in the elections. That fairly simple point seems to be lost on Conservative Members.

    The elections to the European Parliament now reflect that principle, in one way or another, in most member states—except Britain. Today, we have the chance to begin the process of putting that right.

    The system is based on regional lists, and there have been some criticisms of that in the debate. I shall return to the subject. It is important that we also examine the system that we already have in Britain, and the distortions that it produces.

    Few systems are wholly proportional. Indeed, these days few people would seriously suggest that an electoral system should be entirely proportional. That is very difficult to arrange. The first-past-the-post system goes to the other extreme.

    Labour as a party has often done fairly well out of that system. In the most recent European elections we got about 44 per cent. of the vote—a sizeable vote and a good success for the party. However, on that 44 per cent. share of the vote we secured 74 per cent. of the seats. The Liberal Democrats secured about 17 per cent. of the vote, yet ended up with 2 per cent. of the seats.

    I realise that Conservative Members may have difficulty with my argument, because I am not putting it forward on the basis of looking at the entire political process simply by asking what will be to our party's advantage. I am trying to address a democratic issue.

    The hon. Gentleman should look around at his own party's Benches, when they are occupied, because the concern about his argument is shared on both sides of the House. He should also remember that this is a highly controversial measure. He has already heard interventions by his hon. Friends who do not support the method of denigrating another argument in that way, by focusing it on us.

    The hon. Gentleman has an honourable record of looking for greater democracy and openness in the House, and I pay tribute to him for that.

    The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire did not address the argument that is most important for the debate—the principle that, if a party wins seats in the European Parliament, there should be some relationship between the number of seats won and its voting strength.

    I shall let the right hon. and learned Gentleman in soon.

    The distortions in this country's present system are extreme. No system is wholly proportional, but the distortions are so great as to require attention. The Bill attempts to deal with that.

    I do not think that for those purposes my right hon. Friend is trying to oppose—or, indeed, that I am doing so—proportional representation as a means of electing the European Parliament. Our objection is to a particular kind of proportional representation. The hon. Gentleman needs to focus on asking why we are to have a proportional representation system that does away with the constituency basis for choosing Members, while giving party bosses exclusive control over the candidates. That is the real issue that the House wants to discuss.

    If the right hon. and learned Gentleman is patient, I shall come to those points.

    In looking at the genesis of the Bill—and its importance to the House and to democracy in this country—it is important that we address the distortions in the present system. The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire said, essentially, "If it ain't bust, don't fix it." My view is that the present system of elections to the European Parliament is bust—or, if not bust, severely weakened by distortions.

    That is certainly the case in terms of seats won in relation to votes cast, but it also produces distortions within the European Parliament. The party group to which my party is affiliated in the European Union, the Party of European Socialists, is the largest group; that is absolutely right, given the number of votes cast. I admit that the numerical dominance of the group is out of kilter with the overall number of votes cast. The situation was reversed between 1979 and 1984, when the right-wing group experienced a similar dominance. That has developed because elections in this country have been an influence and because our electoral system is out of kilter in terms of votes cast and seats won.

    Some groups within the European Parliament are under-represented, and that will continue under the present system. I hold no brief for the Green party which, in recent elections, has secured very few votes. That was not always the case. In 1989, the Green party in this country secured one of the highest votes in a European election of any Green party in Europe—nearly 15 per cent. It has not repeated that share of the vote. Although the Green party achieved a high proportion of the vote, the UK did not elect one Green MEP. It is right that we address that problem.

    It is not as if Green parties are not represented in the European Parliament—about 27 Green MEPs were elected in that election, often on a lower proportion of the vote. It may be that the systems in other European member states are wrong. Their thresholds may be too low, which may lead to the over-representation of minority parties. I ask the House to consider whether our system—in which a party that gets a significant share of the vote does not gain one MEP—is right.

    The share of the seats won in European elections may be out of kilter with the share of the vote that a party secures. Does the British system have other compensatory benefits? In the main, it does not. One issue which could be looked at, and to which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary referred, is participation. Does our system encourage a closer relationship between the electorate and the MEP at the time of election? Is that reflected in a high turnout? It is not. At the last European election, Britain had the third lowest turnout. In 1989, Britain had the lowest turnout. That is not a great vote of confidence for our electoral system.

    Does our system provide a greater balance? For instance, does it ensure that the right proportion of women are elected as MEPs? It does not. At the last election, only two countries in Europe—Italy and Portugal—had a lower proportion of women MEPs elected than Britain. The argument, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it," does not stand up. There is a huge disparity between seats won and votes cast, but we do not have other compensating factors.

    Arguments have been made about whether the regions are the right kind of area from which MEPs should be elected, and these arguments deserve an answer. It is right in this House to pay tribute to the work of MEPs of all parties in Brussels and Strasbourg, as they do an excellent job. The fact is that the constituency basis for MEPs provides no great coherence. Until recently—fortunately, the name is changing as a result of the last boundary review—I lived in the Birmingham, East European constituency. That is a simple title, but there is one fundamental problem—my house is in west Birmingham. It is a strange situation.

    The constituencies are very large and the ability of MEPs to relate closely to individual constituents is limited. If we are looking for an appropriate area from which MEPs might be elected, the regional basis has a good deal going for it. In the economic life of our country, the regions are becoming more and more important.

    We are engaged in serious constitutional change in which the regional dimension in England will become increasingly important, and I look forward to the creation of regional development agencies and other initiatives. If they are to work, it is important that the economic system relates to the political system, and vice versa. The regional dimension is very important in terms of the distribution of European structural funds. Giving the European Parliament a direct relationship with the regions makes great sense.

    The new system will also be important in terms of subsidiarity. In my view, subsidiarity does not stop at a national level, and the objective of all parties should be to locate power at the lowest possible level appropriate for the functions through which any legislature or representative body exercises its power or influence.

    Whereas in most parts of Europe, the regional dimension has been recognised—regions have benefited from that recognition—this country has not done that sufficiently. We are now seeing improvements with devolution and the creation of a Scottish Parliament and a Welsh Assembly. That will devolve power from the centre here in London, and I look forward to the English regional dimension being promoted in the UK. If the European Parliament can be linked with that, it will be good for our economy and—more important, in respect of this debate—good for democracy.

    Before the Bill was published, concerns were expressed about what has been called the closed list system—in other words, the system whereby individual voters have the chance to vote for a party or an independent candidate, but not to express a preference for an individual candidate within a party. I had reservations about that as well. The British tradition of being able to vote for a person and not just a party is important, and we need to think seriously before we depart from it. It is not a one-way street.

    A multi-Member constituency system for MEPs has a down side. Different candidates from the same party campaign against each other and become involved in a kind of beauty contest to ensure that they get more votes than the other candidate from the party. That may or may not be healthy for democracy. I want to retain the voters' right to chose between candidates, but I should make it clear that there is a down side to the system.

    I welcome what my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said at the beginning of the debate. Legitimate concerns have been expressed about the closed list system. There need not be a straight choice between a system that is entirely open—in which it is left to the voter to chose between candidates, without any party role being involved—and a closed list system. I am pleased that my right hon. Friend has listened to the many representations made to him, and has said that he will reconsider. I look forward to the debates that will take place in Committee and outside.

    When they oppose the Bill, Opposition Front Benchers should take into account what was said by my right hon. Friend. It appeared from what was said by the shadow Home Secretary that he had not heard my right hon. Friend's recognition of some of the anxieties that had been expressed, and his undertaking to address them. I feel that my right hon. Friend's reassurance should be welcomed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, and I welcome the Bill.

    At times, today's debate has almost resembled a proxy debate about electoral reform of the House of Commons. I am known to support electoral reform of the House of Commons, as well as electoral reform of the European Parliament. It has been said that electoral reform of the House would inevitably destroy the link between Members of Parliament and constituencies, but that is not true. A number of proportional representation systems retain that link. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) shakes his head, but I can tell him that the "additional Member" system retains the link between a single Member of Parliament and a constituency. The retention of the link is entirely possible under a proportional representation system.

    Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that, under the "additional Member" system, there are two categories of Member of Parliament—those who represent constituencies, and those who are on a party list? That changes the nature of politics and representative democracy, because it involves people with different responsibilities.

    The hon. Gentleman is entirely right in that, under the "additional Member" system, Members of Parliament would arrive in the House of Commons, or whatever legislature was involved, by different routes; but I was making another point. It was said earlier that a proportional system would destroy the link between Member and constituency, and that is not so. Under the "additional Member" system, there is a link between the individual Member and the constituency. There may be another category of Members by virtue of the top-up system, but that is a different question. It may be desirable; the hon. Gentleman clearly considers it undesirable, but I believe that it could introduce a diversity and richness from which the House could benefit. I do not see why we need have any great attachment to the idea that Members of Parliament must all arrive here by one route.

    We can debate that when the time comes, of course, but I think that we need to be clear about our facts. It is erroneous to say that a proportional system inevitably means destroying the link between an individual Member and a constituency. Moreover, there are other proportional systems based on multi-Member constituencies that retain a link between Members and the constituency. The two systems are not in conflict.

    That, however, is a debate for another time. Suffice it to say now that I will welcome—my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary reaffirmed the commitment in our manifesto—the early establishment of an independent commission on voting systems, which will examine these questions in detail. I welcome the commitment, both in the manifesto and in the agreement with the Liberal Democrats that was made before the election, for the commission to be charged with recommending a proportional alternative to the first-past-the-post system. I especially welcome the commitment to ensure that it will not be politicians, but the people, who ultimately decide the shape of our Parliament and our parliamentary elections. That is why I am so pleased about the commitment to a referendum on the voting system for the House of Commons.

    That is not what we are talking about today. We are talking about the electoral system for the European Parliament, which raises different issues. As I have said, I support electoral reform for both Westminster and Europe, but it is entirely possible and logical to support electoral reform and proportional representation for Europe and to oppose it for the House of Commons. As my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary rightly said, different representative bodies have different functions, and there is no one ideal voting system that is appropriate to all circumstances. The idea that, in principle, there should be a single Member is not appropriate to all circumstances. At times, the shadow Home Secretary seemed to suggest that he considered that to be a principle; he should look at our current system of local government, which, in most parts of the country, is based on multi-member constituencies.

    One principle strikes me as important—a principle that 1 mentioned at the beginning of my speech. If we are to be taken seriously in Europe, and if we are to have a representative body in the European Parliament that will be credible both at home and in Europe, is it too much to ask that the seats won by parties should broadly reflect the support that those parties receive in the country?

    We are talking about representative systems, and I am mindful of what actually happens in Europe. I personally feel that this represents the degradation of democracy, but I will cite my reasons.

    The European Parliament voted on the Maastricht treaty. All the various systems pulled together with their representatives in Strasbourg, and voted on the treaty. It was almost a hallelujah performance. They acclaimed the treaty—but what happened in the electorates that they supposedly represented when it was put as a direct proposition? The hon. Gentleman will have noted what happened in France, where the result was 49 per cent. to 51 per cent., and Denmark actually rejected the treaty. The system that the hon. Gentleman proposes is no more representative than a dance on a drum.

    The hon. Gentleman's views on Maastricht are well known, but I have witnessed debates in the European Parliament. I should point out that, although the vote in France was close, it was in favour of the Maastricht treaty.

    Although there is some strength in the way in which the House conducts its affairs, it could learn one or two things from other legislatures. The confrontational "one gang against another" style that we have seen here—I am pleased that the present Government are trying to do something about it—does not feature to the same extent in the European Parliament. Of course, the European Parliament has all sorts of weaknesses—it does many things of which I do not approve, and many things that could be done better—but, if we are to improve the workings of the House of Commons, we can learn a good deal from what happens elsewhere. I know that the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) wants to do that, as he has commented on these matters many times. We should not dismiss the traditions of other legislatures quite so quickly.

    Let me return to the central part of the Bill. The point is to ensure that the number of seats won reflects the number of votes cast. I welcome the commitment of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to look again at some of the details, and I am convinced that, in the context of the wider constitutional agenda—of devolution for Scotland and Wales, the expansion of the regional dimension here in England, the creation of a Greater London authority and the ability of the people to decide the voting system that is best for the House of Commons—the Bill will prove a boost and a boon to democracy.

    7.8 pm

    The Liberal Democrats welcome the Bill. It gives us an opportunity to provide fair voting for Europe. It fulfils a commitment that successive British Governments have made through treaty obligations, and it implements an agreement that was made publicly between my party and the Labour party before the election and put to the voters at the election—an agreement that we would reform the system for European elections. Although we would suggest some improvements to the Bill, the Home Secretary has already said that he has an open mind on the key point. We applaud the determination with which the Government have produced the Bill in sufficient time to ensure that the next European elections are fought according to a fair system.

    I was amazed to hear the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) first attacking the Home Secretary for appearing to change his mind, and then revealing that his main criticism of the Bill was the very point on which the Home Secretary had said that he was willing to listen to arguments. At no stage did the right hon. Gentleman suggest that he might actually vote for amendments, such as those that we shall table, that would achieve his objective by introducing a system with more voter choice within the regional list structure.

    At the moment, we have a closed list system of one, with no proportionality. The total outcome is nowhere near proportional, and people who strongly disapprove of their party's one candidate can effectively express that disapproval only by voting against their own party, and perhaps bringing about the election of a candidate from another. Many people are not willing to do that.

    Much as many of us like to promote the idea of the individual in politics, there is no doubt that most people, at every opportunity, make a party choice. That is a fact of political life, from which many of us often gain. There is a myth surrounding the British political system, pretending that voters have nothing to do with parties. Party names used to be kept off ballot papers on that principle, but that is long gone. Parties are central to the British political system.

    We value the opportunity that can be given to voters to affect the way in which parties determine who is to stand on their behalf, and to express their views directly, as they will be able to do in the referendum on the electoral system for Westminster. We welcome the Government's commitment to that.

    The first-past-the-post system as used in the European Parliament elections produces the most outlandish outcomes, bearing no relation to the votes cast. The system applies only in England, Scotland and Wales. The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire, who comes from Northern Ireland, never explained why it was acceptable for Northern Ireland to have a proportional system, when it was anathema to him for England, Scotland and Wales to have one.

    What has the system produced in Great Britain? In 1984, the Conservatives won 45 seats on 38.8 per cent. of the vote, while Labour won just 32 seats on only 4 per cent. fewer votes. At that stage, British seats made up about one fifth of the Parliament, so misrepresentation of the votes cast in Britain could have a significant effect on the political balance.

    It is as if one county in England suddenly decided, of its own accord, to run a completely different electoral system for Westminster from that of the rest of the country, and had enough seats to make a profound difference to the balance of the parties. That clearly could not continue. We have a treaty obligation to make a change.

    Had the votes in 1984 been counted on a proportional basis, the Conservative representation in the European Parliament would have been reduced by almost one third. We won no seats at all, despite winning more than half the number of votes obtained by Labour. In the 1989 election, the Green party won 15 per cent. of the votes— a respectable tally for a party that came from nowhere, and has since returned there—and got no seats. That is not a fair outcome. The Conservatives won 32 seats on only twice as many votes as the Green party, which got none.

    In 1994, Labour got 74 per cent. of the seats on 44 per cent. of the votes. That is 25 more seats than it would have won on a proportional system. The Tories got 28 per cent. of the votes and 21 per cent. of the seats. We got 16 per cent. of the vote and 2 per cent. of the seats. The system produces the most ludicrous results in terms of the number of representatives sent to the European Parliament by each party.

    To claim that the system is retained in order to preserve a sacred link between the voter and his representative in Euro-constituencies simply flies in the face of reality. If any hon. Member goes out into the street and asks any passer-by to name his Member of the European Parliament—or, better still, to name his European constituency—he will get a pretty low tally. It can sometimes be embarrassing to do that for Westminster Members of Parliament, but we would get a much better total for them than for Members of the European Parliament, for whom the results would be derisory.

    The system does not work in single-Member constituencies, because they are too large to be treated as we try to treat Westminster constituencies. Legitimate questions can be asked about the role of the voter in relation to the candidate. For example: how does one get rid of a Member whom one does not want? Earlier, I called that the Tatton question. It is significant that, in those circumstances, to avoid putting people in the dilemma of being only able to elect someone of a different party, two parties stood down.

    The scale of European constituencies is such that it is almost impossible to get rid of someone of whose financial dealings one disapproves or who represents a point of view that is completely alien to that of most of the party. That has not happened in any European constituency since the system was introduced. Members of various parties are most critical of their Members of the European Parliament, but they have never yet mounted a successful campaign to get them unseated by the electorate.

    It would be better to introduce some voter choice into the regional list system, as some other countries do. By doing so, we would involve the voters more fully in the election. We must try to increase the participation of British people in European elections. We shall not do that by giving them a system in which the outcome in most constituencies is certain, giving them no chance of securing representation for their favoured party, which is what happens now.

    Proportionality should increase the attractiveness of taking part in an election, and it would be increased further if we allowed people to use their votes to change the order of candidates. That was attempted in 1977, when options were put before the House to allow voters to have one vote only, which they would give to a candidate but which would also count as the party vote.

    The disadvantage of that system from the Government's point of view is that it does not involve the party in setting out a preferred choice. It is reasonable to say that a party should be allowed to put to the electorate its view of what the order should be, even if the electorate can then modify or disrupt that view.

    We have proposed a compromise, given our known preference for the single transferable vote system, in which people cast a party vote but can, if they prefer, choose which candidate should be ranked highest. If enough people do that, we can ensure that someone lower down the party's list has the best chance of being elected.

    It has been argued that, in such a system, it is possible for someone to get many—indeed a majority—of the preference votes and still not be elected, but that is because the majority of people have declared themselves content with the party choice by voting the straight party ticket. A successful rebellion, as it were, involves a majority of the party's voters seeking to overturn its choice. That opportunity should be there.

    I hope that the consideration launched by the Home Secretary today will lead him and his hon. Friends—and, indeed, Conservative Members—to accept that the regional list system would be better with that element of choice. We shall certainly table an amendment to that effect and, if the Government want to improve its wording or tighten it up, we shall welcome that.

    The Home Secretary launched, perhaps unwisely, in some detail on the subject of the relative merits of different divisor systems. Suffice it to say that the Sainte-Lague system helps to ensure a more proportional result, particularly if many of the constituencies each have a relatively small number of MEPs. That is because the standard Government regions and nations have been chosen. For example, we have a five-seat constituency in Wales and a four-seat constituency in the north of England.

    It should be fairly obvious to hon. Members that a high vote would be needed to get a minority candidate elected in a four or five-seat constituency, so the way in which we deal with surplus votes is crucial. The Sainte-Lague divisor would ensure that, on the basis of the general election results, there would be at least a third party representation in Wales, for example. Representation would not be confined to the two largest parties. On the general election results, in Wales Labour would get a disproportionate share of the seats—80 per cent.—on just over 50 per cent. of the vote.

    Overall, the Home Secretary is right to say that, given a sufficient number of constituencies of sufficient size, there is not much difference between the two systems but, on the scale of the smaller constituencies, the difference is significant. That may be important, especially in Wales, northern England or other smaller constituencies. We shall press the Government to reconsider by tabling an amendment.

    I welcome the Bill's reference to a cash limit on the amount that parties can spend nationally during the European elections. In a way, a change was inevitable because we are no longer dealing only with single candidates. It is absurd that candidates in elections to Westminster are strictly limited on what they can spend— their agents can go to gaol, as happened to a Labour agent in a constituency that neighbours mine—but nationally, parties can spend as much as they can raise, by whatever means they can raise it. That must change for Westminster. We support the Government's moves in that direction and welcome the inclusion of this provision in the Bill.

    Through this Bill, or through electoral registration legislation, we may have to address the legal position of measures that parties might take to get more women on to lists. It is up to parties whether they choose to adopt the methods that Labour has used in the past, or that we have considered, to try to ensure that voters have a fair choice of both sexes, but there are legal problems, as Labour found before the general election. We should define the position more clearly to avoid legal tangles.

    We cannot go on running European elections on a system that produces outlandishly disproportionate results or go on pretending that there is some mystic union between Members of the European Parliament and every one of their 200,000 constituents. That is not the real world. We want to elect to the European Parliament Members who broadly represent the proportion of votes cast for the various parties and to ensure that, in the process of electing them, voters have as much choice as possible. I believe that the Bill is the right vehicle to do that. If it can be improved by more open lists in the way that we have suggested, it will be a very good Bill and we shall certainly support it.

    7.21 pm

    This is an important debate that shows us along an important path towards electoral reform. As one who has long opposed the arrogance of first past the post, I find it pleasing that, on the back of Scotland and Wales, we are prepared to change our European electoral system. That is long overdue. I strongly welcome the move towards proportionality as a means of achieving that.

    I also welcome the approach of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, which I imagine will now be called the "Straw compromise". He is open to considering different approaches to the issue. That is important in its own right, because the history of electoral reform in Britain has been one of listening to people from different political persuasions and of no party political persuasion. That shows the strength of the movement.

    I declare an interest as a member of Charter 88 from its inception. The strength of the electoral reform movement has been borne out by the way in which we have managed to pull together across the political divide and produce a coherent strategy. What may technically be called the part-open list approach offers us the best of both worlds. We shall get a regional list system, which involves a vote for a party but offers the electorate the ability to choose the people whom they most want to represent them. I hope that we shall consider—as the Government have apparently done—how we can put together the best possible way of electing representatives by a system which I believe will be fairer and more representative, and will bring to the fore a regional perspective.

    One reason why I have always supported electoral reform is that I strongly believe in using the appropriate method for the different electoral challenges that we face. I am more than happy, and open-minded enough, to believe that we can have our cake and eat it. At the outset, we could have considered the single transferable vote. We have come down in favour of a regional list system, one of the strengths of which is that it allows checks and balances. It allows us to do things differently for Scotland and Wales from how we do things for our Westminster Parliament and our European Parliament. That is a strength of the electoral reform movement.

    I have listened with interest to my hon. Friend. If he is prepared to consider a single transferable vote, would it not be sensible to use it within existing European constituencies? That would retain the link between Members and constituents while keeping some idea of proportional representation.

    I welcome my hon. Friend's comment. As with anything, we must plump for the appropriate system for the assembly concerned. For all sorts of reasons, the regional list system was chosen. I would not have been unhappy to consider STV for the European elections but we have chosen an alternative system. More important than the particular system that we have chosen is the fact that it provides checks and balances in respect of the different ways in which we elect our representatives for different assemblies. As long as we can run that on a fair-minded basis, and recognise that the electorate will now get a choice of person as well as of party, we can have the best of all worlds.

    I welcome the Bill because of the checks and balances that it offers and because I represent a south-western constituency. All too often, we have ended up in the south-west with one party, or one and a bit parties, dominant. That is neither fair nor reasonable when people want to know that their vote counts. Understandably, because their vote counts for both a party and a person, they want to have some knowledge of whom they are voting for, even though they may not get that person elected under the present system. With the alternatives that are being made available, they can make their votes count. That is why proportionality is such an important principle.

    People in the south-west will be able to vote Labour on the understanding that they will elect Labour representatives. While we may have been fortunate in the roll of the dice in the May general election, we must find systems that have checks and balances and that allow people to know that their vote counts. That is why I support this approach, which brings together alternatives that mean that people know, when they vote in different elections for different bodies, that, while their votes may count in different ways, they will bring forth a true representative democracy. I believe that that will lead to increased turnouts. People will know that their votes are being collected and used properly. Unlike previous European elections, I expect that more people will vote when we go to the polls next time because people will see that their vote counts. I welcome that.

    Finally, I should like to say something that might sound strange coming from a Labour Member. In 1989, it was a scandal that, although 14.9 per cent. of the electorate voted for the Greens—a party I have fought at parliamentary and local level, and whose principles and policies I do not support in many respects—no one from that party was elected to the assembly in Europe. The most recent election was the first in which Liberal Democrats were elected under our bizarre first-past-the-post system. Looking at my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), who is nodding, I can say that it is wrong that, in the past, people's votes did not count. At least we have remedied that in part, albeit not well enough.

    I warmly welcome the direction in which the Government are moving. We have bitten the bullet and demonstrated that we are prepared to consider alternative ways to elect members to different assemblies. On the question of the loss of a constituency, how can anyone pretend that an MEP has a constituency? Given that the number of people an MEP represents is so large, it is a meaningless concept. On the basis of the proposals in the Bill, an MEP will represent a region and advance a regional agenda—a form of regionalism that will take forward the debate in the south-west and every other part of the British Isles. We are considering a system that is fairer, more representative and more efficient and will lead to higher turnouts. I hope that the compromise offered by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be taken up so that we can find the most appropriate system—a system that the people will support.

    7.31 pm

    The Home Secretary announced that the Bill was designed to improve the democratic process, and promptly almost collapsed in a fit of giggles. That clearly sums up his attitude to the legislation, which is redolent of lack of belief. Had he come to the Chamber and said, "Don't blame me, Guv—I'm only here to read the speech," we would have entirely understood the attitude he displayed. He set off at a funereal tempo and became even slower as his speech progressed—it was one of the few speeches that came to a halt before it started. He also demonstrated that he understood the nature of neither the American Congress, nor the European Parliament. To be ignorant of one is remiss, but to be ignorant of both is positively inspired.

    Some of the speeches tonight have caused the House to resemble a set of engineers who are fascinated by what lies under the bonnet of the bus, but occasionally forgetful of the fact that there are passengers on the bus and that their prime concern should be to deliver the passengers to their destination, rather than to be preoccupied with the state of the plugs. We must not become completely fascinated by electoral systems.

    Although I enjoyed the Home Secretary's cheap jibe about the Belgians—I should point out that Monsieur d'Hondt was almost certainly a Fleming, rather than a Walloon, and that the correct form of address is Mynheer d'Hondt—we should address ourselves more precisely to the nature of the system we are trying to sustain and to how the electors benefit from that system, rather than simply enjoying its intricacies.

    I spent 10 years in the European Parliament and would accept that the role of an MEP is not the same as that of a Member of Parliament. The people an MEP deals with tend to be more institutional, in the sense that one's three major client groups tend to be local government and public bodies, education, and business.

    That is the nature of the European Parliament—as an organisation, it has powers to amend and now to prevent legislation, and those tend to be the groups most affected by such measures. One does not wish to ignore the important individual cases that arise, but they do not rank in the same order as they would for a Member of Parliament in the surgeries to which the Home Secretary referred. Incidentally, he is jolly lucky if his surgeries are thinly enough attended to let him get through them on a Friday evening.

    It is also slightly discouraging that the role of MEPs in their current constituencies has been simply dismissed as wholly ineffective. One of my colleagues in the European Parliament was the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin); I am not sure whether she feels that, during her 10 years' service as an MEP, she was wholly ineffective in representing Tyne and Wear.

    I am not sure whether the hon. Member for Cynon Valley (Ann Clwyd), who represented Mid and West Wales, feels that she wasted her time. I am not sure whether Mrs. Glenys Kinnock thinks that she is ineffective in representing the people of her Welsh constituency. The presumption with which we started the debate—that the present system is indefensible, by definition—is not one that we can accept if we are to have a sensible debate.

    If we introduce a regional system that produces, say, four MEPs for one party, two for another and two for yet another in a 10-seat area, whom should the local council—for example, the metropolitan borough council of St. Helens, which I represent— approach for assistance in obtaining inward grants for roads and other infrastructure projects? Whose advice should be sought? At the moment, the council has an MEP who very adequately performs that service.

    That is exactly one of the points I shall address. The council might find that there is no one it can approach, because no one has been elected who has the faintest interest in St. Helens, which would be the worst possible scenario from the council's viewpoint. If individual constituencies are so ineffectual and unable to establish some sort of identity with their MEP, it is curious that our remedy is to base the system on a region with which there would be no identity of any description.

    We ask what those regions will consist of, so let us take as an example the south-west. Everybody knows that someone who lives in the Thames valley or in Wiltshire is light years from the preoccupations of the residents of Devon and Cornwall. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) will know that people who live in Cornwall think that the other side of the Tamar is a different country. Being lumped together in a south-west region with no MEP who is identifiable and linked to that part of the world is, as my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said, a negation of representative democracy.

    We are told that the new system will boost the turnout, but turnouts for elections to a European Parliament will be lower than those to a national Parliament, because nothing is at stake in the same sense as it is for a national Parliament. One votes in a national Parliament election to produce a Government; but the rules of the European Parliament and its constitutional position require weighted majorities, resulting in a need for the major parties to get together across the spectrum to build a consensus. Therefore, the impact of choosing different parties is less obvious, and the incentive to vote is a lesser one, irrespective of the nature of the electoral system.

    The right hon. Gentleman has made interesting and valid points about the reasons why we might have lower turnouts, but in what way does that argument add to his defence of constituencies?

    At least in a constituency, electors are voting for a specific Member of Parliament, who will retain that constituency link and to whom they can go. I shall outline shortly how, under the regional system, constituents will not have the faintest idea who is supposed to represent them, and will have to take pot luck as to which MEP they end up with.

    How are we to get proper coverage in a region? The hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) mentioned the possibility of the people elected—the top few in each list—representing only a particular part of a major region. In my own area, I would be fearful of all the MEPs elected tending to represent only the interests grouped around the large metropolitan areas of West and South Yorkshire; I would fear for the fate of North Yorkshire.

    The hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Campbell-Savours) asked the Home Secretary about the particular status of Cumbria. Cumbria is wholly different from the regions that lie to its east or its south. It has a strong sense of identity. Its people need to feel that one of theirs is representing them in the European Parliament and is able to respond to their particular needs. How would proper coverage be achieved?

    How would the candidates be selected? That is the crucial issue. Is it to be one man, one vote? Are 30 or 40 candidates from Yorkshire and Humberside or the south-east to parade around moots throughout the region offering themselves to the electorate? Will there be party hustings? If there is a restriction on those who can present themselves to be chosen, who will choose the people who are eligible to present themselves to be chosen? Will the party apparatchiks choose them? That is what we all fear, of course. Will the electorate somehow choose them? Will electors spend a whole week interviewing person after person? Will they listen to 15, 20 or 30 candidates? Once candidates are elected, whole parts of the region could find themselves without someone to represent their interests.

    How is the order on the list to be determined? Once the list is drawn up, most of the election will be over. One might as well be realistic about it. I know that the Labour party wishes to indulge in some ethnic cleansing of its MEPs. We know that some of them have been rather difficult. Perhaps the Government will devise a system that will enable that purge to take place.

    Let us take the south-east, which has the largest number of MEPs—11 are to be elected. In the normal course of events, the first four to five Conservatives on the list will be elected. The first two or three Liberal Democrat and Labour candidates on their list may well be elected. Those at the top part of the list will be able to spend the entire election on holiday in Barbados, or go ahead to Strasbourg to sniff out the best restaurants and offices. They will not need to campaign, because they will be certain of being elected.

    Nor will the ones at the bottom of the list need to bother turning up, because they will not be elected. They may as well not take the time off work and lose pay. The only contest that will matter will be between the two or three people in the middle of the list. The real argument will be about them. Everyone else will have been elected by the party apparatchiks who decided where people were placed on the list.

    Is not the argument that the right hon. Gentleman makes precisely the same as that which used to apply to his party in the south-east of England? I appreciate that that is a long time ago— we have had several events such as Winchester since then.

    If a candidate was selected for the Conservative party for the constituency of South Downs West, he might as well go out and buy the restaurant guide for Strasbourg. The same applied in south Wales. If someone managed to get the Labour nomination for a single-Member constituency, the result was a foregone conclusion. Is not the precise defect of single-Member constituencies the fact that the power resides with the selectocracy—the people who put forward the candidate under the party name—not the people doing the voting?

    There is a difference that the hon. Gentleman has not identified. At one minute to 7 o'clock on polling day in a Westminster election, every candidate has zero votes. Everyone starts exactly the same. We are moving to a regional list.

    The Home Secretary did not answer the question that was put to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills and others. If I happen to like very much the person who is first on the Conservative list and dislike the person who is second on the list—the same applies to the Labour or Liberal Democrat list— how do I ensure that I get my man elected, not t'other one? That is the crucial issue. The Home Secretary may have given us some way forward, and we wish to explore that.

    Is there not another answer to the question put by the hon. Member for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock)? The constituency associations—for example, in Westminster seats, but also in Euro-seats—choose the candidate they think is likely to be most attractive to the electorate in that constituency. Accordingly, if there is considerable antipathy to a candidate, it is likely that either the candidate will not be selected in the first instance or that he will be elbowed out by the association responsible for choosing him.

    I agree with my right hon. and learned Friend. The associations are often very particular in the requirements that they lay upon their candidates. Even if the candidate is not an original of that part of the world, they make jolly sure that he quickly establishes an identity with it. That is such an important part of the relationship.

    The Government are setting up a complicated paraphernalia to govern the way in which the vote is to take place. There is a much easier solution, and the Home Secretary hinted at it. It is to let each party compile a list of as many candidates as there are seats available, and let each elector have that number of votes. If necessary, the elector could vote the ticket as well.

    Such a system would not be particularly complicated. The elector could vote across the lists if he wished to do so. Instead of the cabal choosing the people who were elected, the electorate would choose them. That would still be far from perfect, because the problem would remain of who represented which part of the region and with whom people would identify, but at least it would get us off the bizarre, mechanistic approach, and would allow the electorate to make the ultimate decision, which is what our politics should be about.

    When I looked in my files, I discovered that the Home Secretary had written to colleagues a little while ago a letter with a breathtaking arrogance to it. It says:
    "The Government believes that this system is the most appropriate".
    Always beware the word "appropriate". It is the word that people use when they cannot think of any other word. In my years as a Minister, I refused to sign any letter that included the word "appropriate". Perhaps the Home Secretary meant that it was the right system.

    The hon. Lady may well check her fishing file. I think that she will find that I had a particular aversion to that terminology. The Home Secretary said that the system was the most appropriate for elections to the European Parliament because

    "MEPs' links with their constituents are not as close as those of MPs and the public, for the most part, lacks the detailed knowledge which would enable them to make an informed choice between candidates on a party's list;".
    That is a blindingly patronising, paternalistic form of authoritarianism. The Home Secretary said that his system
    "has the virtue of simplicity,"—
    anyone hearing his explanation will immediately have grasped its simplicity—
    "requiring voters only to put a single cross on the ballot paper".
    I am sure that voters will be grateful for having democracy made easy. They might well resent having to use their brains in order to cast a vote. The Home Secretary's arrogant little dismissal of the electorate's capacity to think for themselves is particularly offensive. It may be a touching desire to help the poor, bemused voter, but why not trust the voter instead?

    Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that such a system also destroys the chance of the individual? Unless voters can vote across a regional list and choose candidates of different parties and flavours, the individualistic person who is sometimes a breath of fresh air in politics—not the machine man—has no chance whatever.

    I agree with the hon. Gentleman. The eccentric has always played an important role in politics and in defending constituents. If we moved to a machine-operated system, we would risk the quality of the people we elected, as well as the quality of the representation they offered to the electorate.

    Clause 1(3)(2) states:
    "A vote may be cast for a registered party, or an individual candidate, named on the ballot paper."
    Are those exclusive choices? As the Bill is drafted, could an elector vote for a name on the party list? This is supposed to be an accessible system, but to whom does the poor constituent write? Does he stick a pin in the list of MEPs? Does he write to all 11, or nine, or seven? Will the territory be divided up by the MEPs, like a colony, into districts? Will each MEP have a little parish or bailiwick? Will all electors write to the Minister or the Commissioner on the same subject?

    It is a recipe for either massive overkill or nothing whatever. I fear that it might well be the latter. Does the elector simply give up? Does the MEP disappear into cyberspace, leaving only a slowly vanishing dot behind?

    We then come to by-elections. The Bill envisages the promotion of the next candidate on the list, unless, I presume, a single independent has been elected and that independent has to be replaced. The measure does not recognise the changing mood of the electorate, and it provides a lovely insurance policy for a party that happens to be in government. Politics needs what my party and all parties have felt from time to time—the sharp dose of purgative that by-elections give, reflecting the changing mood in the country.

    This is a fundamentally bad Bill. I find it patronising in concept, undemocratic in its probable operation and open to cabals, cliques and cartels. It is politics by remote control, and I do not like that type of control.

    7.49 pm

    As you will appreciate,Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am disappointed that the amendment that I and my hon. Friends tabled has not been selected for debate, but I accept Madam Speaker's decision.

    The Bill is about proportionality; I believe that all hon. Members recognise the importance of that principle. I doubt that there is a perfect system of proportional representation. I suspect that many hon. Members, like myself, have received countless letters from school or university students, asking their opinion on PR and the most effective way of introducing it.

    I believe that the amendment that I tabled addressed the issue of proportionality. The idea that Scotland should have an additional seat in the next European elections is not new—indeed, we discussed it in 1993, when additional seats were being awarded to the United Kingdom as a whole.

    When we discuss the principle of proportionality, it is important to consider Scotland's position. Ministers should read the debate in Committee on the 1993 European Parliamentary Elections Bill, in which the current Prime Minister argued a very strong case that there were three effective reasons why Scotland should have an additional seat. He accepted the strong geographical case for increased Scottish representation, asserted that Scotland was not currently over-represented, and rejected claims that such a move would be unacceptable from an English point of view. The Labour party saw fit to back our amendment in 1993, and I am interested to know the present Government's view, now that Labour has changed sides in the House.

    At the end of that debate, the then shadow Secretary of State for Scotland, now the Minister for Film and Tourism, said:
    "the arguments presented today by the hon. Member for Moray and…by the Labour party are unanswerable."—[Official Report, 6 July 1993; Vol. 228, c. 198.]
    I wonder why it is not possible, for the purposes of proportionality, to have an additional Member of the European Parliament for Scotland under the new system.

    The arguments that were propounded from both sides of the House must be debated and explored. A great deal has been made of the link between a Member of the European Parliament and his or her constituency; that link is important, but the House must examine its conscience on that subject. The first direct elections to the European Parliament were held in 1979, and for years many of us campaigned for a much closer link between MEPs and Members of Parliament, yet only in the past two or three years have we been able to telephone Brussels and Strasbourg directly and had access to fax machines, enabling us to receive material from MEPs and to forward material to them, making possible a real dialogue between the two institutions, which take so many decisions affecting our constituents.

    The links between the House and the European Parliament are deplorable. MEPs continue to turn up in this place as "Strangers", and must wait in Central Lobby until their Member of Parliament meets them. Unlike every other Parliament in Europe, we have no effective joint committees.

    When hon. Members use the link between the MEP and the constituency as an excuse to avoid the prospect of proportional representation in future elections, they fail to take into account their past actions. The guilt lies especially with the Conservative party, which was in government for 18 years but did nothing to create a closer connection with European institutions.

    It was ridiculous that I had to wait so long before it was possible for me to send material to my MEP in an envelope provided by the House of Commons with a European stamp on it, without having to pay out of my pocket, as I did for many years. I object not to the finance but to the fact that the House did not foster these contacts far earlier, and create a more effective link.

    The links of the House with constituents are far from perfect. I hope that the Government will put that issue on their agenda and consider creating joint committees in which MEPs can join us in debates on the series of issues that we are discussing as we look to the next European elections and to a closer union and the expansion of the Union.

    I say to hon. Members who speak about their fear of apparatchiks in Millbank, Smith square or, I suppose, North Charlotte street in Edinburgh, which is where my party's headquarters may be found, that the choice of candidates for a list system is a challenge to all the parties. Four or five people sitting in smoke-filled rooms—or, to be politically correct, non-smoke-filled rooms—must not decide the names on the list. We should have enough confidence in political party activists to allow them to help decide the candidates.

    I know that that would be difficult for the Conservative party because, as we well know, it has undergone deliberations even on how it elects its leader, about how decisions are taken about the management or design of conferences, and on how individuals can introduce resolutions so that real debates take place at the party conference. Internal democracy in parties will be under scrutiny.

    The Minister nods in approval. He must know from his experience at this year's Labour party conference that the apparatchiks did not always get the results they want in the national executive committee elections. This is where the right of each member of a party to help decide which names appear on the lists is extremely important. This is not a question of "control freaks"; it is about democracy within parties, and we must look at ourselves to choose the best way to proceed.

    The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) suggested that the Government were considering holding elections for the European Parliament on a Sunday. May I make a particular plea against that thought, if that is what it is at the moment?

    My constituency lies in the Highlands and Islands European constituency, and we do not even count on a Sunday. It is a fairly nail-biting process waiting from the close of the poll at 10 pm on a Thursday until Monday before we get on with the count. That is done in recognition of the feelings of people in our area who have strong Sabbatarian views, and I am sure that there are many other areas in the United Kingdom where people would object to the concept of voting on a Sunday. It happens in continental Europe, but it has never been our practice in the United Kingdom, and I would make a special plea that it is not considered.

    Secondly, the time scale of the legislation should be clarified. I have read the Charter 88 material. I have listened to the Home Secretary's interesting and erudite comments, the details of which I shall study when I have the Official Report tomorrow, because none of us would claim to understand all the niceties of what he was talking about. I welcome the possibility that he is considering a more open list rather than a closed list system, but it is important that we have a clear idea of the time scale.

    The Home Secretary said that he expected the Bill to be on the statute book by October 1998. I am sure that you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will appreciate that, in 1999, we in Scotland and Wales will also be facing elections for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. In Scotland, we shall also have all our council elections because every seat is competed for in 1999. There may be a possibility of voter fatigue, but there may also be a possibility of political party fatigue.

    It is important that we have a clear time scale to ensure that all the mechanisms are in place; we need to have more than just a vague promise that October 1998 is the deadline—that leaves little time for those of us who are involved in the work of the elections. The pressure on the democratic body politic will be immense over the next 18 months, and I seek further clarification on that.

    I now turn to the financing of the elections and the campaigns. We shall come to the money resolution later, but there is to be no debate on it. When I intervened on the Home Secretary, he said that he was part of a listening Government. It is important, in all the regions of England and in Wales and Scotland, where individual campaigns will be run by the parties on behalf of their policies, that we know what the expenditure levels can be.

    For example, will Scotland and Wales have separate budgets for the campaigns, with all parties being equal, or will we have to face additional expenditure from Millbank or Smith square on behalf of the Labour and Conservative parties that will be seen as state expenditure? If we are talking about proportionality and equality, the subject of finance in these elections is important. I hope—my party and I shall certainly make representations—that the Government will look seriously at that matter.

    My party welcomes the Bill in principle, although—for obvious reasons, given the number of seats in Scotland— we tabled an amendment declining to give it a Second Reading. We think that it is a step forward. Over many years, the Scottish National party and Plaid Cymru have campaigned on the issue of proportional representation. People say that we have done so because we are minority parties. Existing figures show that my party achieved almost a quarter of the vote at the last general election, but won only one twelfth of the seats in this place.

    It is important that all voters should feel that their votes count; they should be able to go into the polling booth in their locality and feel that they are making a determined mark for democracy and for the representation of the beliefs they hold dear.

    8.2 pm

    This evening, I am faced with a dilemma. I am a democrat; I believe in the right of election. I believe that many systems are sometimes better than the first-past-the-post system, but I do not believe that the system suggested tonight moves democracy one inch further forward. I say from the outset that I shall not vote against the Bill, but I have already given notice to those in my Whips Office that when the Committee stage of the Bill is taken on the Floor of the House, I propose to table certain amendments.

    Why do I take that view? I gave one of my reasons in an earlier intervention. I represent a small town called St. Helens; we have not had an easy time of it, with the loss of glassworks and the subsequent loss of jobs, the closure of our coal mines and the removal of our chemical industries. We have needed help. Where has it come from? It certainly did not come from the Conservative Government. The only help that we had came from Europe. How did we get that help? We went to our Member of the European Parliament—a very fine man called Mr. Wynn. He is from the same party as me, and he has been a very good MEP. The Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), will know, because he is in the same Euro-constituency as me, that Mr. Wynn has fought time and again, not just for my metropolitan borough, but for my hon. Friend's.

    We knew whom to go to, but what shall we be left with in future? We shall be left with a regional list that will cover 10 seats. I have looked at the voting figures. I know a little about voting: I have stood in national and local elections since the 1970s and I have participated in a few, some of which I have won. In fact, I have won most of them and lost only one in 1979. In all those years, when I went to seek election, I went to an elector; I went on behalf of myself and my party and I was either accepted or rejected. In 1999, on behalf of whom shall I go to the elector? Do I go to him on behalf of the first on my party list? What happens if I find a good Member at the top of the party list and, at the bottom of the list, I find a chap or a lass who is superb and who I know, from experience, will make a jolly good representative for my area? How do I ensure that he or she gets elected? How do I fight? We have been given one solution tonight, but there is a much simpler and easier way: the Euro-seats exist.

    I shall explain another of my worries. I represent a small town. To the east is a rather large city called Manchester and an equally large city called Salford. To the west is Liverpool and to the north there is farmland with different interests. Who will represent me? Will it be someone with the interests of the major conurbations at heart? Whom do I go to? Whom do my electorate go to— my small companies, unions, various groupings, Churches and other bodies? We are suggesting that they will have to go to a representative who may not even be of the same political persuasion—that frequently happens now. Conservatives come to me in respect of matters in St. Helens, but at least they know to whom to come.

    I warn the House that if we adopt a regional system, the first port of call for anyone with a Euro-problem will be the local Member of Parliament. We must not kid ourselves. At present, I know exactly where to shift the problem so that it will be dealt with properly and efficiently, but if we adopt the new system, which one of the area MEPs should I contact?

    The constituencies exist. Should we have a first-past-the-post system? Our election manifesto states that there will be proportional representation for the European elections. I thought long and hard about that— for Westminster, I have always been in favour of first past the post. I know that the Westminster first-past-the-post system has been described as arrogant, but it leaves us fighting for every vote—it does not matter if someone has a safe seat. Safe seats can suddenly become unsafe, as the Conservative party knows only too well. My own Labour party knew that only too well some 14 years ago, when even my seat teetered on the brink of marginality. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State also knows the problems that we encountered when we were despised by the electorate, which we were—let us not kid ourselves about that.

    The essence of democracy is serving the electorate, and that cannot be done from the extremes of left or right. That is a lesson that I hope all of us in the House have now learnt.

    There is no arrogance in the first-past-the-post system, but I agree that it is not the fairest. I have looked long and hard at the systems that exist in New Zealand, on the continent and in the land of my birth, Ireland. The system there, with multi-Member constituencies, is interesting, but I can see problems with that.

    It would be fairest to say to an elector, "You have a choice. You choose which candidate you want. If you can't have him or her, choose the next one—your second choice, your third choice and your fourth choice. If you don't want to use those choices, it is a matter for you." I regret to have to admit, and I admit when I am wrong, that that system—the alternative vote system—would reflect much more broadly the wishes of the area.

    Such a system, applied to single-Member constituencies, would produce a far fairer result, and would achieve the object of the exercise of ensuring the representation of the area by someone on behalf of the area.

    To those who say to me that the constituencies are too big, I say, "Try Merseyside area. Try Cheshire. Try the rural parts. Try Manchester." My hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Blackley (Mr. Stringer), who was formerly leader of Manchester council, used his MEP time and again to the benefit of the city of Manchester. That has been proved to work.

    Everyone says that the constituencies are very big. "Ever been to America?" say I to the critic. "Ever seen the congressional districts? Not very small, are they? However, they have one representative. Try the Senate. The areas represented are whole states. Admittedly, they may have two or sometimes three Senators, but the system works."

    When one looks across the world, one sees large tracts of land that are represented by a single person, who reflects the interests and represents the nature of the area.

    The one great check and balance is that where there is single representation for an area, whatever size it might be, there will ultimately be accountability. Regardless of party, if the person fails to represent the area, as we have all seen in this place, out he goes. After all, politics is not made for politicians. Politics is about representing the interests of the single elector.

    Therefore I urge the House, while accepting the Second Reading of the Bill, to bear it in mind that some of us have our own view about what democracy means, and about how we should select and elect the person to represent our town, village or country area in the Parliament of Europe.

    8.12 pm

    It is a pleasure to follow the speech of the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham). The only difference between us is that I shall vote against the Bill, and he will not, but our views are very similar.

    The Bill is small—six clauses, four schedules and 11 pages. Despite that fact, it is a Bill of far-reaching significance. It is therefore not surprising that from both sides of the House, considerable anxiety has been expressed about it. There is a sense on both sides of the House that the Bill strikes at the accountability that elected representatives ought to have to those whom they represent, and a feeling, too, that it gives far too much power to the party machine.

    I shall amplify those points in a moment, but against that background, I make two preliminary remarks. First, it is a great pity that there has been no widespread consultation about the contents of the Bill. It is true that the Plant committee established it, but the Plant committee was created by the Labour party and was part of the Labour party. There has been no Green Paper, no White Paper and no public debate.

    On a matter of great constitutional significance, that is lamentable. It is lamentable, too, when one considers that the Labour Government purport to be a listening Government. That is what the Home Secretary said in his speech, but the plain fact is that the Bill has been introduced without any substantial prior consultation and without any pressing need, now or at all.

    Secondly, it is worth reminding ourselves that the noble Lord Williams of Mostyn said on 11 June that he had no plans this Session to introduce such a Bill. That changed, but it makes the point that there is ample time to consult, and that there is no pressing need at this time. Indeed, there is no pressing need at all. While it is true that the European institutions of various kinds have expressed a view in favour of harmonisation, there is no requirement for us to implement that.

    I personally would object to harmonisation in this field. Why should we harmonise? If subsidiarity is to have any real meaning, surely we should determine our own electoral methods. We are under no existing requirement to introduce the Bill. It was hastily put into the programme, and introduced without prior consultation and without any requirement. That is evidence of the arrogance of a Government with an overweening majority.

    The Bill greatly confuses the electoral methods that we have in this country. It provides for a list system. The first-past-the-post system operates for Westminster. The single transferable system is used in Northern Ireland. There are to be devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales, where there will be an additional member system, or something like it. Which system will be adopted for the election of a mayor for London? I understand that it will probably be the second ballot.

    Five or six different electoral systems will be in operation. That diversity of electoral systems is unlikely to reinforce the confidence of electors or encourage them to vote. I entirely agree with what my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) said on that point.

    On the detail of the Bill, I have no objection to proportional representation as a means of electing the European Parliament. For that matter, I have no objection to PR as a means of electing the second Chamber, should ever we be required to do that. My objection is not to PR as such, for those assemblies. I would die in a ditch in the case of Westminster, and I may be called upon to do so, because I deeply suspect that the Labour Government will ask us to have PR for Westminster. I will die in a ditch for that.

    For the European Parliament and for the second Chamber, there could be a PR system that retains the constituency base. The alternative vote system, the single transferable vote system, the additional member vote system and the second ballot system all, to some degree, retain a constituency member base, although it might be a multi-member base. The one system that inevitably involves the destruction of at least small constituencies is the one proposed by the Labour Government.

    Let us focus, first, on the destruction of the constituency base, and secondly, on the power given to the political parties. The hon. Member for St. Helens, South argued strongly the case for retaining the constituency base for electing Members of the European Parliament. Doing away with the constituency base would disadvantage the represented, the representatives and the body politic. I shall give one example in respect of each category.

    The represented need to know to whom to turn—the hon. Member for St. Helens, South made that point graphically. Under the list system, the people will have no idea to whom to turn. The representatives need to have the authority and the status that come from direct election, otherwise, in the end, they are but nonentities and creatures on a list. All Members of Parliament in this place represent people who know of us and who have chosen us. We have the status of representatives who speak for our areas. The list system does not permit that.

    As to the body politic, what damages accountability and makes it difficult for people to become engaged in a process will also damage democracy. A system that does not have accountability between the representative and the represented and that gives undue power to the party machine—which means that, ultimately, the representatives stand for nothing—is not likely to be regarded with respect by the electorate. If people regard institutions with contempt, they will not vote in elections.

    Another issue is the power of the party. Let us be absolutely clear: the candidates will be chosen not by constituency associations, but by the party machine. I ask myself and the House, rhetorically, what kind of person will be chosen by the party machine. I can tell the House that the party will choose the safe pair of hands—the conformist who will not rock the boat. It would not choose someone like my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who has always been a thorn in the side of the party, which, in many ways, is a very good thing. We shall see represented on the candidates' list not broad churches but political hacks. If the representatives do not start life as political hacks, they will surely end up that way, because their only chance of re-election will be to please the party machine.

    I ask my right hon. and learned Friend to consider another proposition. A great strength of the British democratic system is that Members of Parliament are not dependent upon their party, but are sustained by the people who elect them. My right hon. and learned Friend will be aware of the circumstances surrounding the withdrawal of the party whip from me and several other colleagues which, under the party list system, would have been the end of our careers. However, we were sustained by our constituents. The great strength of the British democratic system is that there is belt and braces to ensure that the people's voice is heard.

    I agree with my hon. Friend's point. I do not conceal from the House the fact that he and I have had the most appalling rows; we disagree quite a lot. However, I believe that parties need diversity, and I welcome broad churches. Diversity brings independence and independence brings quality—or, to put it differently, if we remove diversity and independence, we shall not attract quality. People will not offer themselves as party candidates if they will be under the thumb of the party bosses, on whichever side. It is disruptive.

    I am confused by the right hon. and learned Gentleman's argument. It is surely for the parties to choose the most democratic method of selection. The Labour party believes in exhaustive ballots: we ballot for the national executive committee and for parliamentary candidates. Who is to say that the Labour party will not decide to conduct regional ballots in order to choose its candidates? That is the proper democratic method, and it is far better than some of the stitched-up processes that existed in the past.

    That may or may not be so, but we are discussing the Bill. The Bill severs the territorial connection between the elected representative and those whom he or she represents. What is more, it gives absolute power to the party machine as to the choice of candidate. It may be that parties will choose to temper that absolutism through some system that they dream up. However, I have been in the Whips Office and I know that elected representative bodies want a safe pair of hands who will do what he or she is told. I am sure that the Government Whip agrees: the parties want Members of the European Parliament who will do what they are told. However, the electorate do not want that because it undermines democracy fundamentally.

    Why has the Labour party produced a Bill that is so obviously untenable? My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) suggested one reason: there has been a deal. Most Liberal Democrats have gone home, but that is one explanation. There are two other possible reasons. The first is that the Labour party knows that it will be humiliated in the 1999 election under the first-past-the-post system, and it can temper that result through proportional representation based on the single transferable vote. It can do a great deal more to reduce that potential humiliation through the list system. That is gerrymandering.

    What is the other reason for the Bill? The Government are afraid of their own party. Labour is afraid of those who would select its candidates: its voluntary party. It is also afraid of its prospective candidates, so the party bosses will choose them. Labour is afraid of the people who would be returned, so it has created a system that ensures that Members of the European Parliament will be firmly under the thumb. The truth is that the Bill is an affront to democracy. If the House were truly concerned about democracy—we are; the Government are not—the Bill would be rejected.

    8.27 pm

    It is a great pleasure to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) and his flights of fancy. If we strip away the layers of his argument, we find the cri de coeur of an unreconstructed Whip who sees the opportunity of controlling the system and having no democracy in his own party. He knows perfectly well that, unlike other political parties, the Conservatives would impose regional candidates if they were given that opportunity. As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, it will not be up to the associations or the Members. We shall see a rerun of the Conservative leadership election in which the Leader of the Opposition was elected by a mere 169 votes—he has even less support now, as the hon. Member for Leominster (Mr. Temple-Morris) no longer sits with the Opposition.

    That was another act of an unreconstructed Whip. Some of us have slightly more faith in the structure of our parties and the way in which they will exercise their power and responsibilities under the Bill.

    Much has been said today about the identification of MEPs with their constituencies. I must disagree with those who suggest that, when MEPs walk down the average high street, they are instantly assailed with concerns about 5b status, European grants and the like. The truth is that there is limited identification between the 500,000 people in a Euro-constituency and the MEP, however hard he works, and I come from a region with an exceptionally hard-working and effective MEP. I am sure that, despite all his hard work, he would be the first person to agree with me.

    I have a column in my local newspaper through which I regularly communicate with my electors. Every time I say anything remotely controversial, I receive a lot of mail in response. So there is communication. The MEP does not have and cannot have that. I pick up on the point made by the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who explained that an MEP focuses mainly on working with institutions, businesses and schools.

    There is nothing wrong with having a panel of MEPs who represent a region. That provides the answer to the question that hon. Members raised about how electors get rid of an MEP. At present, with the first-past-the-post system, it is extremely difficult, but if electors have several MEPs and one is particularly knowledgeable on grants, that is the MEP to whom electors can go to ask about grants. If they have a problem in the agricultural sector and an MEP within their list is particularly knowledgeable about agriculture, he or she will be their port of call.

    A Member of Parliament has to be a jack of all trades, and that is not a reflection on my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. We have to deal with everything. Under the proposed system, MEPs will have the opportunity to provide a better and more specialised service for constituents in a larger constituency, so the criticism levelled against it does not bear proper analysis.

    There is a further reason why the system is to be preferred. The first-past-the-post system forces all parties to target their resources on that small group of marginal seats where control is likely to change, as happened at the general election. In some places, votes do not count. Under the proposed system, the vote will count everywhere. That is a considerable improvement on the present system.

    It is a feature of British political life that support for proportional representation tends to rise and fall in inverse proportion to a party's strength. The more seats a party has in the House of Commons, the more converts it has to the first-past-the-post system. On that basis, and following the results in Winchester and Beckenham, I expect many Conservative Members to convert to proportional representation. However, I suspect that they have not quite grasped the position that they are in.

    The Bill makes a considerable stride forward in one particular respect. It provides for the first time for the registration of political parties. Political parties are powerful creatures in our democratic society and they are largely unregulated. It is one of the ironies of the previous Government that they provided for excessive regulation of trade unions but for no regulation whatever of political parties. The political party regulation system, which, under the Representation of the People Act 1983, is largely ignored, is more like a system designed to regulate a tennis club than a system to regulate a vital organ of democracy. The time has come to recognise the position of political parties within our legal and democratic structure.

    That will get rid of the scandal whereby if a "Literal Democrat" candidate runs and confuses the electorate, there is no remedy because there is no legal registration of political parties, and whereby, at the last election, Madam Speaker, not being opposed by any of the major parties— as is traditional—was faced by a "new Labour" candidate and could do nothing about it. The registration of political parties to provide clear descriptions will go some way towards alleviating that problem.

    I welcome the cap on funding. However, I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to examine one aspect in particular. At present, funding is triggered when the election is called or when a party begins a campaign. In reality, one way or another, campaigns are fought for many months before the election formally begins. A cap on party funding nationally will have no effect if it can be sidestepped in the first six months of a campaign. All the posters, whether paid for by the party or by tobacco companies, have to be taken into account if the cap is to be meaningful, and if the limit is to be observed properly and effectively.

    Subject to that small point, I strongly welcome the Bill, through which the representation of our MEPs will reflect far better the wishes of the electorate, who vote for parties in the main, not for individuals, and who are entitled to vote on a party's manifesto and to expect their views and votes to count, wherever they happen to be.

    8.35 pm

    When I hear the twaddle that has been advanced, I think that I must be an unreconstructed, old-fashioned Member of Parliament. Where does the notion that there is an imperative to introduce the Bill come from? I listened carefully to the Home Secretary, who bedazzled me with his knowledge of Dutch pronunciation and all manner of contrived and other systems. He advanced the proposition that the Bill was based on a manifesto commitment, and I note that one or two Labour Members agree that the Labour party manifesto mentioned the introduction of proportional representation for European elections. However, the manifesto did not talk about a closed list.

    I am genuinely bemused by the Labour party's constitutional change programme—which is fundamental to its concept of the modernisation of Britain—because its approach is essentially piecemeal. The approach for Scotland is different from that for Wales and for London. No Bill is ever in front of anyone and there are no regulations; it is all up in the air.

    Let us consider what a manifesto commitment amounts to. I have to confess—and I have done so for many years—that I have not always read the Conservative manifesto. It confuses me and I would not want to confuse the electorate with all its aspirations and promises. I suspect that my approach to a manifesto is not so different from that of most hon. Members. Few could attest to the contents of their party's manifesto, or pass even an O-level on its contents.

    Central to the Welsh Labour party's manifesto was a commitment to have a devolved assembly—it was the primary argument in the general election—but to show us that this was the will of the people, the Government invoked a referendum. And what was the resounding result? Seventy-five per cent. did not support the proposals. The Government's response was, "We have had a victory." Notwithstanding the fact that 25 per cent. voted for, 25 per cent. against and 50 per cent. did not vote, the Government said that it was an endorsement of their manifesto commitment. It is laughable—risible.

    The most profound objectors and commentators were Labour Welsh Members. They were harried and hounded by the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, who reminded them all the time of their election commitment. It does not matter a row of beans. In the end, we shall throw the straws into the air and unsettle something that has been pretty settled and has worked to the benefit of our country. Wales contributed to the great Labour victory of 1945 and the huge social change that commanded our nation for nearly 30 years thereafter.

    We now move to the Government's extraordinary proposal. I join my hon. Friends and Labour Members who have the greatest reservation about the profound change that the new Labour Government are setting in motion. Much has been made of the fact that the Home Secretary himself does not really have his heart in it. I am unable to comment on that, but I can well understand why that might be the case.

    The Government's proposal would break something that I consider extremely important. One of the commanding facts of our constitutional arrangements throughout British history—even in the post-war era—is the association and identification of an individual with an area and the electorate within it. First and foremost we are representatives not of a party machine but of an area.

    It used to be said—and Churchill invoked it to save his own skin before the second world war when Conservative central office was trying to unseat him for being awkward and difficult—that the duties of a Member of Parliament were first to his country, second to his constituency and third to his party. The Bill reverses all that. Now, the first duty of a Member of Parliament is to his party. I hear hon. Members asking, "But isn't that the reality of the world?" The world may sometimes have rotated on its axis but the odd Member—the individual supporting a cause and standing against the great guns of his party— remains extremely important.

    Therefore, the question, "How do we get rid of a Member?" is extremely pertinent. The Government can well advise us on that subject as they did so spectacularly well at the general election.

    Identifying an individual and what he stands for—or fails to stand for—has always been a deep and important part of our process. Given the huge geographical regions proposed in the Bill, I wonder how I can go and see my MEP. According to the Bill, my region—the West Midlands—comprises the counties of Herefordshire, Staffordshire, Stoke-on-Trent, Shropshire, Warwickshire, West Midlands, The Wrekin and Worcestershire. There are eight counties and there will be eight MEPs. Where can I meet them? The first relationship for a representative is the ability to meet, argue and try to impress his constituents. I do not know where I could possibly meet the MEPs representing my area.

    I know the gibes I have made about the shortcomings of MEPs in my own area. We hardly ever see them, but I accept that it may well not be their fault. The very nature of the area makes it extremely difficult for them to serve their 500,000 potential electors. It is not impossible, but it may be difficult.

    Under the proposed arrangement, who will be responsible? Whom do I lobby and where in that vast range of counties do I go as a constituent and as a citizen to lobby my MEP? I find it an extraordinary arrangement. What happens about the individual election address? At every national election—including European elections—every candidate makes a personal address that identifies his nature and character and why one should vote for him. Under the new arrangement, that is absolutely meaningless.

    How does one encourage the sensitivities and the reflections that develop during a Parliament? How we start on day one is not always how we end up on the last day of our term of office. Experience, circumstances and other factors may change our approach, yet I do not know who the anonymous people are who are elected by a list.

    I raised another question that was not really answered. Every right hon. and hon. Member, and all those elected to represent us in the European Parliament, will have to have a position on the single currency. It is an important issue that will confront all parties. There are profound reservations within the Labour party about what amounts to a change in British democracy. Although the Liberal Democrats are 100 per cent. for everything, the polls tell us that the overwhelming majority of their supporters are against a single currency. Their manifesto will doubtless proclaim the merits of a single currency, but what about the hearts and judgments of the millions of people who believe in the Labour party yet have reservations and doubts about the single currency? What about the millions of Conservatives who do or do not believe in the merits of a single currency? In the June 1999 European election, how will they make a choice under the closed list system?

    I welcome the Home Secretary's generosity in saying that he will consider suggestions. However, my experience of the parliamentary system is that a Minister's good intentions are often overcome by the rigours and demands of the timetable and programme of the House and the other Departments' need for legislative time.

    I make a plea to the huge majority who support the Government. We are not all nodding donkeys; we reflect on these matters. In the end, the expression of our country and our liberty has been through the individuals who represent us—often against the tides of opinion in their own parties. In the Labour party it used to be almost a mark of honour to have the whip withdrawn. One of the former leaders of the Labour party suffered that indignity. The father of the national health service also had the whip withdrawn. Are the souls and the characters that moulded our political life to be denied representation in an anonymous list system covering, in my area, all those counties—unreachable and inaccessible?

    I was schooled in part in Italy where I did postgraduate work. One of the features of the Italian political system that has marched with me all the years of my life has been the attention to impossible party lists, which were the doing down of a great country for many years. The people of Italy could never get to grips with the corruption, the back-room dealing and the favouritism.

    My hon. Friends the Members for Stone (Mr. Cash), for Rochford and Southend, East (Sir T. Taylor) and for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) all had the whip withdrawn as those then in charge of the party could not weigh up the seriousness and earnestness that huge numbers of Conservatives—and not only Conservatives—felt about the nature of the surrender of our democracy in the advancement of European treaties.

    Might some of the hon. Gentleman's worries be dispersed by the fact that a new system could give every member of the Conservative party and every member of the Labour party a voice in the selection process for the list? Would that alleviate the problem? Although the hon. Gentleman has raised an important issue, it can be addressed by the way in which the system is put together.

    Yes, I am sure that we can contrive other ways of doing things. I have always believed that anyone standing for election must be accessible. I am not knocking improvements on the current system; I am trying to address the Bill which, in my view, is contrary to our traditions and our democracy and against the interests of the people of these islands.

    8.48 pm

    I very much enjoyed the speech of the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) and appreciate his enlightening the House on how Conservative Back Benchers deal with their manifestos, especially their manifesto commitments. His comments went some way towards explaining how, in the previous Government, Conservative Members managed to break so many of their commitments without a twinge of conscience. We now know that it was just plain ignorance.

    It is a shame that the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) has left the Chamber. He said that, in all his time as a Minister, he never signed a letter with the word "appropriate" in it. As the leader of a local authority for a couple of years, during which time he was the Minister with responsibility for local government, I do not remember ever once in his letters seeing the word "appropriate". It was always something along the lines of, "After careful consideration, the answer is no." As the current Minister with responsibility for local government is pursuing the same policy, however, I shall not pursue that argument.

    I welcome this debate. The hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said that a lot of twaddle was spoken in it, but I do not think that that is true. It never ceases to amaze me how, in our debates, hon. Members start with the same facts but reach different conclusions, but surely that is the nature of the democratic beast. I have not thought that any of the speeches in this debate were twaddle, and I found all of them illuminating.

    I apologise to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for not being in the Chamber for the start of the debate. I watched my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on the monitor in my office and welcomed what he said. For what it is worth, I believe that it is time that we began to modernise the British constitution. Traditions are all well and good, and their history is important, but tradition by itself is no reason to stick with an electoral system. If we are to modernise Britain and our role in the wider world, surely electoral reform of some of our institutions must have a part to play.

    This is not the first time that a Labour Government have tried to implement electoral reform and proportional representation for the European elections. Some hon. Members may have been Members of Parliament when the previous Labour Government tried to do so. Even in those days when there were official Lib-Lab pacts, we failed in our attempt to implement reform, because a coalition of the Conservative party and dissident Labour Back Benchers managed to destroy it. In these more enlightened times, however, in which we have a much smaller Conservative party and Labour Back-Bench dissidents are virtually unheard of, and certainly unheard, it is unlikely that reform will be wrecked.

    The European elections give us the ideal opportunity to try to modernise the constitution and to examine different systems and ways of improving democracy.

    In this great "spirit of modernity"—that grotesque new phrase—how can the hon. Gentleman gel modernisation with the Bill's proposals, which will give the British electorate less choice? They would no longer have a choice of candidate; they would have purely a choice of party and an approved party list, devised by some anonymous party machine. How is that modernising the electoral process?

    I am grateful for the hon. Gentleman's intervention and, as I develop my argument, I will deal with that point. I hope that he will stay in the Chamber to listen to it, as I am sure he will think that it is deeply persuasive.

    The Home Secretary made the point that reform will give us a system that is similar to that used by most countries that elect Members of the European Parliament. Surely such convergence would in itself be an extension of democracy. I believe that MEPs across Europe should be elected by a common system. As that matter is neither the subject of this debate nor something that we can control, I will not develop it.

    European constituencies, which are extremely large, have difficulties in links between MEPs and electors. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), who has left the Chamber also—I seem to have an effect on people; it is like a Le Mans start to the exit when I speak—spoke about the difficulty of getting rid of unpopular MEPs. I do not know whether that was a reference to the Conservative party. The difficulty with getting rid of unpopular MEPs in European elections, however, lies in the links in the electoral system.

    It would be welcome if many electors knew who their MEP was, let alone formed a conclusion on whether their MEPs are worthy of being popular or unpopular. I make no criticism of MEPs, some of whom are very good friends of mine and some of whom helped me to get elected. I do not criticise them as individuals—although we now know that they are looking forward to extremely large pay increases. As the advertisement says, "I'm not bitter."

    The size of constituencies makes it difficult to maintain the constituency link that hon. Members know and love. It is that lack of a local link, combined with first past the post that makes current arrangements so unacceptable, despite the fact that currently there is no list system and there are constituencies. Current arrangements provide a major disincentive for the electorate to vote. Electors often do not know for whom they are voting, and they are stuck with a first-past-the-post system. The results are often predetermined, irrespective of how voters cast their ballot. Turnouts in European elections have reflected those disincentives.

    A few years ago, my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan)—who, the House will not be surprised to hear, is not in the Chamber—was my candidate for the York Euro-seat. I remember seeing him speak at a public meeting, when he said that the public perception of an MEP was someone who was elected but was not seen again for five years, by which time he or she was five stones heavier. I hasten to say—in case any MEPs are listening—that those were his words, not mine. Nevertheless, he gave some credence to the difficulties of keeping MEPs accountable.

    Whatever the election, electors often need little incentive to stay away from the polls. They need only a small disincentive and they will stay away. Recently in Beckenham, a combination of formula one and formula Hague made most people decide to stay at home rather than to cast a ballot. We have to do all that we can to encourage people to cast a vote and to make them believe that their vote will lead to something.

    Local government has the closest constituency link of all. Often those constituencies, depending on the type of council, consist of only a couple of thousand people. I served on a local authority for eight years, and I am proud of the two years that I served as its leader. In the three local government elections that I faced, however, the highest—not the lowest—turnout was 36 per cent. Despite all my personal appeal and charm and constituency work, that was the turnout—[Interruption.]

    My vibrator is going off. Obviously I am too off message at this point. I should have a quick look to see what I am supposed to be saying. It says, "Carry on"; that is okay. It is my mother watching us on cable television.

    Despite all the work that others and I put into doing very hard constituency work in a very small constituency, where many electors knew who we were, it did not lead to participation or to good democracy. Why? Because too many seats were perceived to be safe for one party or the other, and that was a deterrent to voting and to participating in the political process.

    In my glorious past, I was an executive member of the Scunthorpe Labour party. [HON. MEMBERS: "Ooh!"] Yes, heady days. I remember going to a selection meeting for a candidate for Scunthorpe borough council. The seat was very safe for Labour and the quorum of members required to choose a candidate was five. Two—a husband and wife—turned up and, under the rules, we added three executive members to make the meeting quorate. The three executive members immediately asked the two members whom they wanted. They said, "John's doing all right; we'll stick with him." John was selected as the candidate, but the seat was so safe that the Conservatives and the Liberals—and even the Monster Raving Loony party—did not bother putting up a candidate and it was a walkover.[Interruption.]I cannot believe it, but I am vibrating again—I must be seriously off message now. In safe seats, under the first-past-the-post system, there is a major disincentive for people to cast their votes, because they know that they make little difference.

    I am fascinated by the hon. Gentleman's discourse, but on that logic why was the turnout in seats such as Kensington and Chelsea and Huntingdon as high as it was in more marginal seats in the general election? What is so different in a Westminster election from a European election? Is the hon. Gentleman resigned to the fact that being a Member of the European Parliament is a complete waste of time because of the lack of connection to the electorate whom one is supposed to represent? If that is so, Members of the European Parliament can be as anonymous, detached and unmotivated as they choose.

    I covered one of those points earlier when I mentioned the difficulties that Members of the European Parliament face and the sheer impossibility of getting feedback from the electorate. People in European elections vote on party lines, certainly more so than in local elections, because they do not know enough about the candidates or the constituency, which often has little relevance to them.

    The hon. Member for East Worthing and Shoreham (Mr. Loughton) asks why the turnout is lower in local government elections than in general elections. It is because local government seats are often very safe, and because the electorate perceive that local government is overcentralised. They think that it does not matter whom they elect because all the decisions are taken in Westminster and, under capping, local politicians have to impose Government policy.

    I led North Lincolnshire council for two years after it was formed recently. The budgets and capping regime imposed by the previous Government were so precise that both the Conservative and Labour parties had the same budget, not because we suddenly agreed on policy but because there was no room for manoeuvre.

    People do not vote if their votes do not make a difference, which they often do not in local government elections or in European elections; but, by gum, their votes made a difference on 1 May, because the Government changed hands. That is why turnouts were higher in May than for local government elections and for European elections.

    On that logic, the hon. Gentleman appears to have resigned himself to the fact that people will not vote in European elections because their votes will not make any difference. The European Parliament and the Commission will do what they like and impose their policies on our people. That is what he is saying. Is he in favour of that?

    No, I am not in favour of that and it is not what I am saying. What will make people vote is the belief that their vote counts. Too many people in too many constituencies—especially European constituencies—feel that their vote counts for nothing. Our aim must be to increase participation and thus to increase democracy.

    One of the strongest arguments in favour of a regional list system, to which I alluded earlier, is the need to create a regional identity. If regional identities are created, people will vote and take an interest in whom they are electing. Two issues already have a regional dimension—agriculture and fishing—and I can think of no better examples for the south-west, which is my part of the world. Another idea would be—

    Does my hon. Friend agree that concentration on such issues would increase turnout?

    I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. The argument that the electoral arrangements in this country are beyond criticism is beyond belief and stunningly complacent. We should consider reforms that would encourage participation and make votes count, because increased participation improves democracy. A more open list would give the maximum incentive to participation at the next European elections. I am pleased to commend the Bill to the House.

    9.4 pm

    We have heard some good contributions from hon. Members on both sides in this important debate. There will be many more debates on electoral reform. The next few years will be a psephologist's dream. Many of those wrote obscure books many years ago will make a fortune selling books on various electoral systems.

    I am pleased to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd). I had the honour of fighting Walsall, North in 1992, which is the constituency next to his. I can honestly say that he is regarded with respect and irritation by people in his area, because he is an independent-minded Member of Parliament. He is a perfect example of a party member who represents his constituency well in the Chamber. He is not the sort who would naturally be put on a party list. I mean that as a compliment. Any Parliament ought to have a broad range of opinion.

    The first-past-the-post system has evolved over the past 150 years. It has suited us well because it suits the temperament of the British people. It is simple, it is quick, it delivers effective democratic rule and, most important, it has a strong constituency link. At every selection committee, the first question that a candidate is asked is whether he or she will live in the constituency. People put a high premium on having their Member of Parliament as part of the community.

    In many respects, first past the post is the most accountable system. Every time we vote, we are accountable. Every time we write a letter to a constituent, we are accountable. If we are not here, we are accountable. If we cannot go to the annual general meeting of the local Women's Institute this year, we know that we must go next year because people hold us to account. We are meant to represent our constituencies and we are meant to be there. That is a tremendous strength of our system.

    The Bill proposes a proportional representation closed list system. Despite what the Home Secretary said earlier about looking at other options, that is what is proposed. That will give electors no choice but to pick a political party—or an independent. They can exercise no judgment about whether the first, second, third or fourth candidate on a list has particular merits. That is bad for democracy. As has been said earlier, the first on the list could go on holiday to the Caribbean and have a lovely time while the No. 3 was working extremely hard to ensure that he or she was just above the line to be elected for that region.

    The Home Secretary has said that the size of European parliamentary seats provides a stronger argument for moving away from first past the post, but we are creating such vast regions that there will be no strong link between MEPs and their electors. Current MEPs are all linked to towns, cities or counties.

    Most of us have certain loyalties. We have loyalties to our country and sometimes to our county or the borough that we grew up in or represent. Those links are important. Most MEPs have strong links with their local authorities because, irrespective of their political character, those authorities will regularly contact their MEP for information, advice and support. As a Member of this Parliament, it is useful for me to know who represents Dorset and East Devon in the European Parliament. The seven or eight Members of Parliament in that area know him. That is what accountability is about.

    Political parties have never played a predominant role in the way in which we have organised our affairs. Only in 1969, under the Representation of the People Act, when the voting age was reduced to 18, did we put the political labels on ballot papers for both local and national elections. The suggested system will put political parties directly into the political process as never before.

    Moreover, that would lead to bad practices. We all represent our constituencies, as Members of the European Parliament do. People go to their representatives with their problems, whether they voted Labour, Liberal Democrat or Conservative, or even if they did not vote at all. In my surgery I find people of all political persuasions, so I have to see the problems that people from all walks of life have.

    If a region has two or three Conservative Members, plus some Labour, some Liberal Democrat and an independent, people with problems will go to the representative who shares their political point of view. That is not necessarily progress, and is not the best way of improving political representation.

    There is also an important argument concerning the size of regions. Inevitably, however we divide the vote, the larger the region the more likely a minor party is to achieve representation. If there are 10 or 11 Members and the minor party crosses a threshold of 9 or 10 per cent., it will get representation. If there are three or four Members, minor parties will need 20 or 25 per cent. of the vote to achieve representation.

    It would be fairer if we picked an electoral system in which every constituency was the same size. The differential sizes of regions will mean that more independents will stand in some than in others. If a gentleman with deep pockets wants to stand for the European Parliament, he will inevitably go to the South East region, because the threshold for being elected will be far better there than in Wales or the North East, for example.

    That will lead to unfairness within the system. In the North West and the South East, we shall find more odd bods and a greater range of candidates, simply because the sizes of those regions will mean that such people's chances of election are far better. Meanwhile, life for candidates from the major parties standing in Wales or the North East will be relatively easy.

    The Irish experience in the middle part of this century was that under the single transferable vote system, with large constituencies of nine to 12 Members, it was almost impossible to form a Government without a mass coalition of three or four parties. Ireland reduced the size of the constituencies so that each had only three to five Members, because the arithmetic then gave the prospect of getting much nearer to a majority in the Dail. De Valera's party, which was the largest, could command an overall majority on occasions, because the size of the areas had been reduced.

    I hope that the Government will consider seriously the size of the regions that they propose. It would be beneficial if some of the larger regions were split in two, to keep at least some link with the locality, and to diminish the size of the constituencies.

    The general question of by-elections has not been much raised, although the Home Secretary talked about by-elections in certain circumstances. No doubt, under the STV system in Northern Ireland there would have to be a by-election. In regions, there would be a by-election unless the place could be filled through the list, and certainly if it was an independent who had happened to die.

    I know that we are going into new territory here, but I believe that that is an important issue. Under the Bill, regulations on such matters, although laid before the House, would not be debated. If we are to move towards a new system, we need to set out clear ground rules governing when a by-election would and would not be called.

    At present, under the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978, the only discretion that the Government have is to set the date of a by-election. Under the existing system, that is all that they need. However, after the proposed changes there may be some discretion about whether there is to be a by-election at all. For example, whether Scotland has to turn out for a by-election on a particular Thursday—under the first-past-the-post system, presumably, if there is only one vacancy—may depend on the good will of a particular Home Secretary. That would be wrong.

    This is a bad Bill and sets a bad precedent. I do not agree with the hon. Members who have said that we should have different electoral systems for different tiers of Government. We should have some regard to the electors, who have to turn out and get to know which system they have to exercise at the ballot box. We should also have some regard for the returning officers. We are sentencing them to many days in motels being lectured on how the new system will work, so that individuals can operate the various different systems that we propose. It would be far simpler to keep the first-past-the-post system.

    The Government are proposing to spend some £4 million on training, but it has been reported in the press that perhaps £20 million might have to be spent on advertising to inform people how to operate the new system. The real strength of the first-past-the-post system is its simplicity and its link with the MEP. We are moving from that down a slippery slope towards worse representation.

    9.14 pm

    Electoral reform and changes to the voting system can sometimes be an acquired taste, and I agree with the Home Secretary that it is not the prime topic of conversation in Kingsbury Episcopi or in his constituency. Despite that, we have had a largely well-informed debate this evening. The Home Secretary was almost unnervingly flexible, accommodating, understanding and pluralistic—it quite took my breath away to hear the extent to which he was prepared to compromise his initial position to accommodate others. That is a good sign for the future. The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) talked about the "Straw compromise". I hope that it will be called the Straw poll, which seems appropriate.

    There was a feeling that the tectonic plates of the body politic were moving a little, and that we were seeing signs of the development of a truly modern system. The only problem with that analysis was the response from the Conservative spokesman, the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney). Some movement in the tectonic plates may have occurred, but the Conservative party still seems stuck in permafrost—it was a Jurassic response to the debate.

    The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire started by saying that the first-past-the-post system could not be described as indefensible, but it is indefensible in the context of European elections. We heard about the constituency link of MEPs, but any genuine link between one individual and the 500,000 electors he or she represents remains to be proven.

    We heard how the new system would restrict voter choice, but I am at a loss to understand that argument. If one is presented with a list of possible candidates, rather than a single candidate from a party, there is, by definition, an extension of choice. We heard the argument about whom an individual elector would go to if he had a problem. At the moment, the voter has one option—to go to the one person who represents his European constituency. Under the new system, the voter will have a choice of MEP. One might meet an MEP with greater empathy with the problems, say, of lone mothers than another. One might meet an expert on agriculture, or an expert on industry. The voter will have increased choice.

    We heard a comprehensive rubbishing of the region system. I find it difficult to reconcile that with the fact that the Conservative party set up those regions. The Conservative Government set up the Government office for the south-west—indeed, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) was once the Minister responsible. We used to enjoy the occasions when he trundled along the A303 and the M5 and down our country lanes to find out what was going on in the south-west.

    The most astonishing element of the Conservative argument was the patronising assumption that the voter would not be able to understand the change in the system. Never mind that every other voter in Europe can understand a different system; or that voters in Northern Ireland can do so. The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire was asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) about the situation in Northern Ireland, and he signally failed to answer. I believe that what is good for every other citizen of the European Union may perhaps have something to commend it to citizens of the United Kingdom.

    We heard a level-headed argument from the hon. Member for Stroud. He said a lot of the things that I wanted to say, which is not surprising as he comes from a similar constituency.

    The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) spoke of a distortion that had taken place in the European parliamentary groups as a result of the present system—of the fact that those groups fluctuated massively in terms of strength because of the first-past-the-post system in the United Kingdom. He could have gone on to say that the representation of the United Kingdom within those European parliamentary groups also fluctuates massively on exactly the same basis. That means that the United Kingdom is often under-represented in the Socialist group—or the Conservative group, or the European Liberals, Democrats and Reformers group—in the European Parliament.

    I appreciate that to be too interested in, and to express too great a knowledge of, different electoral systems displays an acquaintance with anoraks that it may not be wise to admit to in all circumstances. We could have gone on to discuss the other systems that exist—for example, the Hagenbach-Bischoff and the Hare-Niermayer systems. I feel that, in Committee, we need to return to the argument about the relative merits of the d'Hondt and Sainte-Lague systems.

    Earlier, the Home Secretary expressed the view that Sainte-Lague was probably not a Belgian but a Frenchman. He was, in fact, a French mathematician who developed, in 1910, a system that has been used successfully ever since. Opposition Members still believe that that system has something to commend it. We do not think that there is any great difference between an arithmetical progression that goes one, two, three, four, five and one that goes one, three, five, seven, nine. Similarly, one system produces a more proportional result than the other.

    I believe that a much more important debate concerns the relative merits of the open and closed systems. I was gratified to hear in the Home Secretary's speech that the closed system was, at the very least, ajar. We shall want to press that. We believe that there is a great deal to commend an open system in which we give the electorate that extra dimension of choice that means that different candidates—not just the candidates selected by the party machine—are presented to the electorate, and can express their view.

    I shall end my speech shortly, but I should like to leave one more thought with the Ministers. The Committee of the Regions is not part of the European Parliament, but we have criticised it many times over the years for its lack of democratic ability. At present, it is a quango appointed by the Government, not properly reflective of proportionality. Could it be that this regional system, and this regional proportional representation, might perform the additional duty of providing a template enabling a better representation for the Committee of the Regions, so that local government could be properly reflected in those who were sent to represent the country?

    We welcome the thrust of the Bill. We shall debate the detail in Committee. We particularly welcome the cap on party spending on a national basis, which is long overdue. We shall strongly welcome a Bill that will provide for party registration in due course, especially if it prevents the "passing off" that we have seen in recent elections. It should not be necessary for a party to win with a majority of 21,000 in a particular constituency to avoid the distortions that a rogue candidate might introduce into the system.

    If the Government can deliver all those things—if the Government can honour their pre-election promises, and the accords that have been worked out between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats—they may be assured of our support in the Lobby tonight, and our support as the Bill proceeds through its legislative stages.

    9.23 pm

    Although he described my party as Jurassic and coated in permafrost, I agree with the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) that we have had a largely well-informed debate with some interesting contributions. Among Government Members, we have heard from the hon. Members for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Burden) and for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who made an honourable attempt to put the general case for proportional representation, although I do not agree with them.

    We also heard from the hon. Members for Wyre Forest (Mr. Lock) and for Brigg and Goole (Mr. Cawsey) and, representing the Liberal Democrats, from the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome.

    We have heard some excellent speeches from Conservative Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) made some telling points. My hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd) is the voice of constitutional integrity and he made some important principled observations that should be borne in mind by hon. Members of all parties, especially as—some new Members may not know this— he always says what he thinks, regardless of whether it brings comfort to his own party or to others.

    My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) made a powerful speech that chimed in with that of the hon. Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham), in which there were some important points to which the House should pay attention. My right hon. and learned Friend hit the nail on the head when he talked about the rushed way in which the matter had been introduced. We have witnessed some of the consequences of that, beginning with what the Home Secretary said about reconsidering part of the Bill.

    I take as a starting point the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). His outstanding speech was made, as the House will recognise, with the benefit of 10 years' experience as a Member of the European Parliament. He was right to talk about his time as an MEP, working with organisations and individuals on a Euro-constituency basis, and about how he was able to identify with those organisations and how much more difficult it would have been for him to provide a service for his constituents if he had been merely a name on a list as part of a much larger region.

    My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon asked whether the proposed system would be better for the electors. The answer is clearly no. There are at least three objections. First, it is more complicated than the present system; secondly, as it stands, and is likely to remain, it will bring about more centralised party control and rob individual MEPs of their independence; and thirdly, it will create much larger constituencies or regions, in which the MEP will inevitably be much more remote from his constituents.

    The hon. Gentleman is talking about complexity for the elector. Under the proposed system, the elector would put a cross on a ballot paper, which is precisely what happens under the current system. How is that more complicated?

    For reasons that I shall go into in a moment, the elector is given a simple choice as between parties, but if he tries to understand the new system, heaven help him. I agree with the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), who said that she would like to take a closer look at the Home Secretary's analysis in the morning; it will bear careful study.

    At the moment, I am clear about only three things arising from the Home Secretary's speech. First, Mr. d'Hondt was a Belgian; secondly, Mr. Sainte-Lague was not a Belgian, but if he had been in America he would have been called Webster; and thirdly, in Sweden the divisor would be 1.4.

    Following the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon, we found out that the Home Secretary was wrong in at least one of those, because Mr. d'Hondt should have been Mynheer d'Hondt, because he was a Fleming. The Home Secretary made various comments about Belgians. I am cautious about following him down the road of national stereotypes. The Home Secretary asked whether we could think of any other famous Belgians. The first name that sprang to my mind was that of Hercule Poirot, although even his powers would have been suffocated if he had tried to understand this system.

    My hon. Friend the Member for Poole has helpfully told me that there are at least two other systems, the Hagenbach-Bischoff system and the Hare-Niermayer system. I am grateful to the Home Secretary for not mentioning them, although we have been threatened with them in Committee. My hon. Friend also tells me that a Mr. Hare has invented a British system.

    The Liberal Democrats know about him; he gave rise to the expression "hare-brained scheme". The proposed system is far from straightforward. The Home Secretary's claim that it has the virtue of simplicity takes a lot of swallowing.

    More seriously, there is the problem of closed lists. The Home Secretary made some comments on the course that he will take. He is wise to take that course because, to judge from the debate, there was no support, from any party, for the closed list system. The complete lack of enthusiasm among Labour Members was noticeable. Given that Labour's manifesto committed it to introducing proportional representation for the European elections— it was a bald commitment with no details—why did the Government plump for the closed list system, which can be only a recipe for central party control? That was widely commented on at the time of its unveiling. My right hon. Friend the shadow Home Secretary rightly quoted The Times saying that it would be bad for democracy and would put power in the hands of the party machine and take it away from individual MEPs.

    We are entitled to an explanation of why the Home Secretary plumped for the proposed system from all the systems that could have been adopted. Can the decision be entirely unconnected with what my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon described as the ethnic cleansing going on among Labour Members of the European Parliament? Is it a complete coincidence that the Labour party was trying to impose a gag on its MEPs? Labour Members would do well to consider the terms of the gag that was put on their colleagues in the European Parliament by the code of practice, which stated:
    "Members will support party policy as defined in the Labour party manifesto, including the commitment to proportional representation, and no member shall give statements to the media about any aspect of the party selection procedures, which are a matter for internal party discussion and decision."
    That was the gag. So much for open government.

    Now the Home Secretary has backed down in the face of all the adverse comments about closed lists and said that he is prepared to put in the Library a document setting out details of the Belgian and Danish systems. We await that with interest. Having taken that step in the face of a lack of support for his proposals, the Minister owes it to the House to say whether we will be allowed a little longer to consider the matter and a fuller debate. If the Government are sincere about consultation and debate, will they allow longer debate, and put off the Committee stage until after Christmas?

    I bear in mind the comment of my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham about the way that the Government rushed in. As recently as June, Lord Williams of Mostyn told the Lords that the Government had no plans to bring forward this legislation. [Interruption.] I hear the Whips saying no. Perhaps that is not a good omen for an open debate. In those circumstances, can we have more time for reflection and consultation? That would be in the Government's interest as much as anyone's, given the situation this evening.

    The next deficiency of the Bill is the breaking of the link between individual MEPs and constituencies, on which several Labour Members commented. Like the Liberal Democrats, they said that it is difficult for MEPs at present to represent constituencies of 500,000 electors. How much more difficult will it be for them to represent those vast regions, coming as one on a list of Members representing 4 million or 5 million people? The hon. Member for Northfield said that his Euro-constituency of Birmingham, East was too big. Is it more difficult for an MEP to represent Birmingham, East than to represent the West Midlands region, in which 5 million electors reside in Birmingham and the counties of Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Staffordshire, Herefordshire and Shropshire?

    My point was that I found it somewhat curious that I live in the European constituency of Birmingham, East when my house is in the west of Birmingham. As for the West Midlands, it is acquiring a major identity as a region and it is an economic unit. There is a regional agenda and Europe should be part of that regional agenda.

    Does working in such a vast area make it any easier for the MEP to do justice to his constituents?

    The hon. Gentleman says yes, but I am doubtful. What about the South East region, stretching from Milton Keynes and Oxford down to Kent and Dover? Why stop there? It would make about as much sense to go on to Calais and take in part of northern France. My Hertsmere constituents will find themselves part of the Eastern region, with a total of eight MEPs on a list representing 4 million people. Would it be easier for those MEPs to represent that vast region than for my constituents to remain in the Hertfordshire European constituency, close to Hertfordshire county council, the local health authorities and all the relevant authorities? That is true up and down the country.

    As the Bill stands, electors will not even be told whom they are voting for, because there is no authority in the Bill for the names of MEP candidates to appear on the ballot paper, although I notice that they appear in the Government press pack. How can it be possible for independent candidates to attempt the feat of representing whole regions, but not for candidates representing parties? I note that the Liberal Democrat candidates appear in the press pack unzipped—by which I mean that ladies and gentlemen do not appear next to each other—and that independents are represented by David Sutch of the Monster Raving Loony party. I take that to be Screaming Lord Sutch, who will have been deprived of his peerage under the new arrangements—presumably he will be standing for the people's Monster Raving Loony party in future.

    To use the words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon, it is a piece of arrogance on the part of the Government to say that electors do not need a constituency MEP. We are told in the Government's question-and-answer document that:
    "People do not enjoy, or need, the same close links with their MEP as they do with their MP, so it is possible to elect MEPs on a regional basis."

    That is exactly my question. What have all the Labour MEPs been doing all these years of going around their European constituencies? Are they poor deluded souls who have spent years labouring under the misapprehension that they are doing something useful? All their work has been dismissed by the Government's sleight of hand. We are told:

    "MEPs' links with their constituents are not as close as those of MPs and the public, for the most part, lacks the detailed knowledge which would enable them to make an informed choice between candidates on a party's list".
    What a piece of arrogance on the part of the Government: wiping away the constituency system just like that; wiping away the link between individual MEPs and their constituents; creating a system of remote party placemen miles away from their constituency; and denying electors any opportunity to bring to account MEPs of whom they do not approve.

    The system is a bad one. It is complicated. It is a recipe for centralised party control. It breaks down the constituency link that is a valuable part of our country. The Bill is bad for democracy and, without hesitation, we endorse all that my hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills said. This is a bad Bill, which will undermine our system of democracy. It is bad for the country and we should not entertain it.

    9.39 pm

    The hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) has just accused the Government of arrogance. Some accusations I am prepared to answer in detail and in full, but I am not prepared to accept an accusation of arrogance from the Conservative party, given its record in the past 18 years and even since the general election. The accusation comes from a party that has never yet revealed where one penny piece of its party funding comes from. It says that it still cannot reveal its funding for the past two general elections.

    The Conservative party cannot work out a way of electing its leader, which in some way involves the party electorate. Yet the Conservative party accuses the Labour party of arrogance, when the Labour party has devised an electoral college system to elect its leader. So we will not take any lessons from the hon. Gentleman or his party. The Conservative party has a long way to go in its internal democracy before it will be in a position to lecture anyone in the House or elsewhere on party democracy.

    We have had an interesting and, for some hon. Members I suspect, educational debate. The hon. Member for Hertsmere conceded that the more he listened to my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, the more he understood the d'Hondt system and its variants. I have to tell the hon. Gentleman that I have sat through my right hon. Friend's explanation of the matter on four occasions now and I am becoming, next to him, the most undisputed expert in the House on all the aspects of the lists that may be used.

    It has been a useful debate. In a moment, I shall try to deal with some of the specific questions that have been raised, but first I want to express satisfaction that at long last a system for electing Members of the European Parliament, which is appropriate, on its own merits and because it fulfils our obligation as members of the European Union, is about to be delivered. Some hon. Members—admittedly, one or two Labour Members—are concerned that the Bill is the thin end of the wedge and that once we concede the point for the European parliamentary elections, we shall end up with a system of proportional representation for the House of Commons. It is too early to say that.

    We made a commitment to set up an independent commission—not a Labour party creature, as the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) suggested—to examine the most appropriate voting systems and proportional voting systems for the House of Commons. Once the commission has made recommendations—this is the important point— it will be up to not the House of Commons or the Government, but the electorate, to decide in a referendum on the most appropriate way of electing Members of Parliament.

    If the hon. Gentleman is prepared to set up an independent commission and put the result to a referendum, why not adopt the same procedure for the European Parliament?

    The right hon. and learned Gentleman should have listened to what was said earlier and what I said a few moments ago. Perhaps at this point I should bring in the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire. The difficulty for Conservative Members is the fact that we are in the process of delivering a manifesto commitment. I know that that concept is alien to them. They stand for election on a set of promises and pledges and abandon them immediately after the election, but the Labour Government have a clear understanding that we made promises to the electorate. We did not make long lists of promises. They were focused. They were promises that we knew we could deliver. The promise to introduce a new voting system for elections to the European Parliament was one that we knew we could deliver.

    The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) is well respected in the House. During the period of office of the previous Government, he contributed a great deal to our understanding of regional policy and how regional boundaries were drawn. He made an interesting point in his speech—he said that he always worried when someone used the word "appropriate", which my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State had used. He went so far as to say, perhaps injudiciously, that as a Minister he never allowed the use of the word "appropriate" in correspondence. If someone digs around, they may prove him wrong on that.

    I take the right hon. Gentleman's point that he is uncomfortable with the use of the word "appropriate". Wondering why the right hon. Gentleman was so concerned, I looked up the word in the Collins dictionary and found out why. The dictionary says: "Suitable; proper; right; fitting." Of course, the right hon. Gentleman does not like anything that is appropriate. He does not like anything that is suitable, proper, right or fitting, as my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said. The concept of the Bill is proper, right and fitting. We believe that, for the type of assembly that we are discussing, that is an appropriate way to proceed, and I do not apologise for using the word "appropriate".

    In the debate, confusion has arisen between the nature and functions of this Parliament—although my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary explained them clearly—and the fundamentally different functions of the European Parliament. In establishing an independent commission to consider possible voting systems to the House, it is our intention to study a range of systems, but those systems should be ones that are considered most appropriate for the House of Commons.

    My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary explained that the difference between the House of Commons and the European Parliament is that our system of government is drawn from the democracy of the House of Commons. Ministers either sit in the House of Lords or, in overwhelming numbers, whichever party is in power, are drawn from the House of Commons. Of course, there will be a difference and of course constituencies play an important part in that function. I shall say something about that later.

    The issues raised are important, and I shall try to deal with them in order of priority. If I miss anything out because of the time available, I am sure that hon. Members will write to me or let me know, and I shall try to make up for any deficiency at a later date.

    The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire fell into the trap of confusing the application of proportional voting systems for electing Parliaments from which Governments are drawn with proportional systems for electing representative assemblies, such as the European Parliament. I believe that he came into the Chamber with a speech against proportional representation in general and decided, even though my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary explained the considerable difference between the two cases, that he had to soldier on with the speech that he had brought, although it was not appropriate to the Bill. However, he raised some points that warrant a reply.

    The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire said that the Bill was a dry run for one to introduce a system of proportional representation for the House of Commons. He believed that a secret deal had been struck behind closed doors by an unspecified person—the Prime Minister, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary or someone else—and that the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) was involved.

    There is no hidden agenda—no dry run. An investigation will be carried out by an independent commission, and at the end of that process a referendum will be held. If we had struck a secret deal with the Liberal Democrats, it would have been right for us to bring the entire electorate into the secret, because in the end they will take that decision. There is no such conspiracy. The right hon. Gentleman may search for conspiracies as much as he likes; they do not exist. We believe that the electorate are the most appropriate people to choose the system for electing the House of Commons, and we intend them to take that decision.

    There has been a great deal of debate on both sides of the House about constituencies. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South (Mr. Bermingham) was one of those who spoke on the subject. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg) made a passionate and at times eloquent—

    When the independent commission comes up with an alternative PR proposal to put to the electorate in a referendum, will the Government support that proposal?

    The right hon. Gentleman will have to wait and see what the commission comes up with. Let me be clear about this: I do not think that any Minister standing at the Dispatch Box or—if they were responsible—any Opposition spokesman would sign a blank cheque without knowing the precise terms that an independent commission would come up with. I am not prepared to do that; it would not be sensible.

    The right hon. Gentleman and several of his hon. Friends mentioned constituencies. The right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham and my hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South both raised the subject. Let me make it clear that simply because we do not think that constituencies are necessarily the appropriate vehicle to represent us in Europe, we are not attacking MEPs. My hon. Friend the Member for St. Helens, South mentioned my MEP, Terry Wynn; I agree with my hon. Friend that Mr. Wynn is an excellent representative who has represented our area well. I do not think that if Terry Wynn were to succeed, find himself higher up the list and be elected on the North West list, he would cease to be as effective, or cease to be as concerned about issues in the north-west or about issues affecting Merseyside, which I represent.

    Some hon. Members, particularly Opposition Members, are confused. They believe that the respect in which they hold their own Members of the European Parliament is a direct product of those Members representing a defined constituency. Some of my hon. Friends may be making the same mistake.

    In terms of MEPs still being as effective under the new system, will my MEP still be as effective—his name is Ken Coates?

    My hon. Friend is always helpful. I can confirm that his current MEP will not be as effective after the next elections, as he has already announced his retirement. Perhaps during his retirement he can be effective in other ways.

    The shadow Home Secretary, the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire, said—and this was the high point of his speech—that the current arrangements of the constituency system had stood the test of time over centuries. That is an odd reading of history, because the European Parliament has not been in existence for that long and there were no European Members of Parliament until the late 1970s. Allowing for some licence in his interpretation of history—

    I shall give way to my hon. Friend, but this must be the last time, as I have to make some progress.

    I thank my hon. Friend for giving way to a near neighbour and a fellow Member in the same Euro-constituency. If there are perhaps three or four Labour MEPs in the north-west, who will look after the little fish such as St. Helens and Knowsley and who will look after the big fish such as Manchester and Liverpool?

    As my hon. Friend rightly says, my constituency is next to his. In fact, I live a few hundred yards from the border of his constituency, through which I often travel. I can tell him who will look after the interests of his constituents in St. Helens: he will and the local councillors will. Those who are elected on a regional list will continue to represent the interests of St. Helens, Manchester, Merseyside, Lancashire and Cheshire—there is no contradiction there. My hon. Friend is confusing his affection and respect for our MEP, which I share, with some magical connection with a Merseyside-wide constituency. The Euro-constituency in which both of our constituencies fall is Merseyside, East; it includes Garston in Liverpool and stretches to Wigan. I am not sure what the people of Garston think that they have in common with the people of Wigan, but I do not think that it is a great deal. Those issues of territoriality are already difficult, and will not be any more difficult if we move to a regional system.

    The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire said that the new system might in some way compromise the relationship that MEPs currently have with business interests in their constituencies. That is fair comment, and I do not believe that it was made for the purpose of point scoring. The right hon. Gentleman will know that Europe is increasingly a Europe of the regions. That sounds like a cliche, but it is true.

    The dialogue that takes place in Europe at Commission level, at Parliament level and at other levels is based on regions—the common characteristics of regions, deprivation and difficulties in regions, and subsidiarity. Of course, business has already responded to that. Probably in every region of the country, there is a regional Confederation of British Industry spokesperson or some kind of organisation representing the CBI. [Interruption.]

    Is the Minister saying that the system that he is proposing is simply different, or that it is better?

    Order. This is an important debate and the Minister is winding up. He ought to be heard in silence.

    I was saying that Europe is increasingly a Europe of the regions. The Liberal Democrats have just walked in and proved that this is a Parliament of the regions.

    The final point—

    I am sorry; I did overlook the hon. Gentleman. I do not believe that the arrangements that business already has at regional level will change greatly. I do not think that there will be an improvement or that they will be any worse. It is arguable that there could be an improvement, because regions will talk to business on a regional basis.

    The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) raised the matters of Sunday voting and of the amount of funding that parties will be able to spend on a regional basis. On Sunday voting, we are still open to arguments, but I accept the hon. Lady's point that in some parts of the country, most notably her own, that would raise difficulties. I am minded to take that into account.

    As regards finance for region-based elections, we would have to examine the matter closely. There are legitimate concerns about how that will operate, and we want to listen to arguments and consider how it might work out in practice.

    Several right hon. and hon. Members asked how individuals would find their way on to the list within the democratic structures of the various parties. I do not know how the Conservative party will decide who goes where on the list, if the Bill ends up on the statute book. That is a matter for the party to decide, but I suspect that it will not be by the most democratic procedure ever invented. An announcement has already been made by the Liberal Democrats. Within our democratic procedures in the Labour party, we are currently considering the most effective way of doing that. It is for individual parties to decide the most appropriate way to select their candidates and how people get on to the list.

    The Bill properly represents what we said we would do. The Opposition have difficulty with it. We are in the process of delivering commitments that we made during the general election. The issue was determined by the Plant commission, passed by our conference and put in our manifesto. That is what we are delivering. It may be a novel concept for the Opposition, and possibly a first in the past few years, but this is a Government who deliver their promises, unlike the previous Government when they were in power.

    Question put, That the Bill be now read a Second time:—

    The House divided:Ayes 355, Noes 150.

    Division No. 98]

    [9.59 pm


    Abbott, Ms DianeAtherton, Ms Candy
    Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N)Austin, John
    Ainger, NickBallard, Mrs Jackie
    Alexander, DouglasBanks, Tony
    Allan, RichardBarron, Kevin
    Allen, GrahamBattle, John
    Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)Bayley, Hugh
    Armstrong, Ms HilaryBeard, Nigel
    Ashton, JoeBegg, Miss Anne

    Beith, Rt Hon A JDean, Mrs Janet
    Bennett, Andrew FDenham, John
    Benton, JoeDewar, Rt Hon Donald
    Bermingham, GeraldDismore, Andrew
    Best, HaroldDobbin, Jim
    Betts, CliveDobson, Rt Hon Frank
    Blizzard, BobDonohoe, Brian H
    Blunkett, Rt Hon DavidDoran, Frank
    Bradley, Keith (Withington)Dowd, Jim
    Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin)Drew, David
    Brake, TomDrown, Ms Julia
    Brand, Dr PeterEagle, Angela (Wallasey)
    Breed, ColinEagle, Maria (L 'pool Garston)
    Brinton, Mrs HelenEdwards, Huw
    Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E)Efford, Clive
    Browne, DesmondEllman, Mrs Louise
    Buck, Ms KarenEnnis, Jeff
    Burden, RichardEwing, Mrs Margaret
    Burgon, ColinFearn, Ronnie
    Burnett, JohnField, Rt Hon Frank
    Butler, Mrs ChristineFisher, Mark
    Byers, StephenFlint, Caroline
    Cable, Dr VincentFoster, Rt Hon Derek
    Caborn, RichardFoster, Don (Bath)
    Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth)Foster, Michael Jabez (Hastings)
    Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge)Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
    Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)Fyfe, Maria
    Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V)Galbraith, Sam
    Campbell—Savours, DaleGalloway, George
    Caplin, IvorGapes, Mike
    Casale, RogerGardiner, Barry
    Cawsey, IanGeorge, Andrew (St Ives)
    Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)George, Bruce (Walsall S)
    Chaytor, DavidGerrard, Neil
    Chidgey, DavidGibson, Dr Ian
    Chisholm, MalcolmGodman, Norman A
    Church, Ms JudithGodsiff, Roger
    Clapham, MichaelGolding, Mrs Llin
    Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)Gordon, Mrs Eileen
    Clark, Dr LyndaGorrie, Donald

    (Edinburgh Pentlands)

    Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
    Clark, Paul (Gillingham)Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
    Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)Grocott, Bruce
    Clarke, Eric (Midlothian)Grogan, John
    Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)Gunnell, John
    Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)Hain, Peter
    Clelland, DavidHall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
    Clwyd, AnnHamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
    Coaker, VermonHancock, Mike
    Coffey, Ms AnnHanson, David
    Coleman, IainHarman, Rt Hon Ms Harriet
    Colman, TonyHarris, Dr Evan
    Connarty, MichaelHarvey, Nick
    Corbett, RobinHealey, John
    Corston, Ms JeanHeath, David (Somerton & Frome)
    Cotter, BrianHenderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
    Cousins, JimHenderson, Ivan (Harwich)
    Cox, TomHepburn, Stephen
    Cranston, RossHeppell, John
    Crausby, DavidHesford, Stephen
    Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)Hewitt, Ms Patricia
    Cryer, John (Hornchurch)Hill, Keith
    Cunliffe, LawrenceHinchliffe, David
    Cunningham, Rt Hon Dr John (Copeland)Hoey, Kate
    Home Robertson, John
    Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)Hoon, Geoffrey
    Dafis, CynogHope, Phil
    Dalyell, TamHowarth, Alan (Newport E)
    Darling, Rt Hon AlistairHowarth, George (Knowsley N)
    Darvill, KeithHowells, Dr Kim
    Davey, Edward (Kingston)Hoyle, Lindsay
    Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
    Davidson, IanHughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
    Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)Humble, Mrs Joan
    Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)Hurst, Alan
    Dawson, HiltonHutton, John

    Iddon, Dr Brian Moonie, Dr Lewis
    Illsley, EricMoore, Michael
    Ingram, AdamMoran, Ms Margaret
    Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway)
    Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
    Jenkins, BrianMorgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)
    Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)Morley, Elliot
    Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
    Mountford, Kali
    Jones, Helen (Warrington N)Mullin, Chris
    Jones, leuan Wyn (Ynys MÔn)Murphy, Denis (Wansbeck)
    Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW)Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
    Murphy, Paul (Torfaen)
    Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C)Naysmith, Dr Doug
    Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak)Norris, Dan
    Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
    Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham)O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
    Jowell, Ms TessaOlner, Bill
    Kaufman, Rt Hon GeraldÖpik, Lembit
    Keeble, Ms SallyOrgan, Mrs Diana
    Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston)Osborne, Ms Sandra
    Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth)Palmer, Dr Nick
    Keetch, PaulPearson, Ian
    Kemp, FraserPerham, Ms Linda
    Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)Pike, Peter L
    Kidney, DavidPlaskitt, James
    Kilfoyle, PeterPollard, Kerry
    King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)Pond, Chris
    Kirkwood, ArchyPope, Greg
    Ladyman, Dr StephenPound, Stephen
    Lawrence, Ms JackiePrentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
    Laxton, BobPrentice, Gordon (Pendle)
    Lepper, DavidPrimarolo, Dawn
    Leslie, ChristopherProsser, Gwyn
    Levitt, TomQuin, Ms Joyce
    Lewis, Ivan.(Bury S)Quinn, Lawrie
    Liddell, Mrs HelenRapson, Syd
    Linton, MartinRaynsford, Nick
    Livingstone, KenReed, Andrew (Loughborough)
    Livsey, RichardRendel, David
    Llwyd, ElfynRobertson, Rt Hon George (Hamilton S)
    Lock, David
    Love, AndrewRooker, Jeff
    McAllion, JohnRooney, Terry
    McAvoy, ThomasRoss, Ernie (Dundee W)
    McCabe, SteveRoy, Frank
    McCafferty, Ms ChrisRuddock, Ms Joan
    McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)Russell, Bob (Colchester)
    McDonagh, SiobhainRussell, Ms Christine (Chester)
    Macdonald, CalumRyan, Ms Joan
    Mclsaac, ShonaSalter, Martin
    McKenna, Mrs RosemarySanders, Adrian
    Mackinlay, AndrewSavidge, Malcolm
    Maclennan, Rt Hon RobertSawford, Phil
    McNamara, KevinSedgemore, Brian
    McNulty, TonyShaw, Jonathan
    MacShane, DenisSheldon, Rt Hon Robert
    McWalter, TonyShort, Rt Hon Clare
    McWilliam, JohnSingh, Marsha
    Mahon, Mrs AliceSmith, Rt Hon Chris (Islington S)
    Mallaber, JudySmith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
    Mandelson, Peter
    Marek, Dr JohnSmith, Jacqui (Redditch)
    Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)Smith, John (Glamorgan)
    Marshall, David (Shettleston)Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
    Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)Soley, Clive
    Marshall—Andrews, RobertSouthworth, Ms Helen
    Martlew, EricSpellar, John
    Maxton, JohnSquire, Ms Rachel
    Merron, GillianStarkey, Dr Phyllis
    Michael, AlunSteinberg, Gerry
    Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)Stevenson, George
    Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute)Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
    Milburn, AlanStinchcombe, Paul
    Miller, AndrewStoate, Dr Howard
    Moffatt, LauraStott, Roger

    Strang, Rt Hon Dr GavinTyler, Paul
    Straw, Rt Hon JackWallace, James
    Stuart, Ms GiselaWard, Ms Claire
    Stunell, AndrewWareing, Robert N
    Sutcliffe, GerryWatts, David
    Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)Webb, Steve
    Welsh, Andrew
    Taylor, Ms Dari (Stockton S)White, Brian
    Taylor, David (NW Leics)Whitehead, Dr Alan
    Temple—Morris, PeterWilliams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
    Thomas, Gareth R (Harrow W)Williams, Mrs Betty (Conwy)
    Timms, StephenWillis, Phil
    Tipping, PaddyWills, Michael
    Todd, MarkWood, Mike
    Touhig, DonWray, James
    Trickett, JonWright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
    Truswell, PaulWright, Dr Tony (Cannock)
    Turner, Dennis (Wolverh'ton SE)Wyatt, Derek
    Turner, Desmond (Kemptown)
    Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)

    Tellers for the Ayes:

    Twigg, Derek (Halton)

    Mr. David Jamieson and

    Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)

    Mr. John McFall.


    Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey)Gibb, Nick
    Amess, DavidGill, Christopher
    Ancram, Rt Hon MichaelGoodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair
    Arbuthnot, JamesGray, James
    Atkinson, David (Bour'mth E)Green, Damian
    Atkinson, Peter (Hexham)Greenway, John
    Beggs, RoyGrieve, Dominic
    Bercow, JohnGummer, Rt Hon John
    Beresford, Sir PaulHague, Rt Hon William
    Blunt, CrispinHamilton, Rt Hon Sir Archie
    Body, Sir RichardHammond, Philip
    Boswell, TimHawkins, Nick
    Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W)Hayes, John
    Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs VirginiaHeald, Oliver
    Brady, GrahamHeathcoat—Amory, Rt Hon David
    Brazier, JulianHogg, Rt Hon Douglas
    Brooke, Rt Hon PeterHoram, John
    Browning, Mrs AngelaHoward, Rt Hon Michael
    Burns, SimonHowarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
    Butterfill, JohnHunter, Andrew
    Cann, JamieJack, Rt Hon Michael
    Cash, WilliamJackson, Robert (Wantage)
    Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
    Clappison, JamesKey, Robert
    Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington)King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater)
    Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh)Kirkbride, Miss Julie
    Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)Laing, Mrs Eleanor
    Lansley, Andrew
    Clifton—Brown, GeoffreyLeigh, Edward
    Collins, TimLetwin, Oliver
    Cormack, Sir PatrickLewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
    Cran, JamesLidington, David
    Curry, Rt Hon DavidLilley, Rt Hon Peter
    Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice)Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
    Day, StephenLoughton, Tim
    Donaldson, JeffreyMacGregor, Rt Hon John
    Dorrell, Rt Hon StephenMcIntosh, Miss Anne
    Duncan, AlanMacKay, Andrew
    Duncan Smith, IainMaclean, Rt Hon David
    Emery, Rt Hon Sir PeterMcLoughlin, Patrick
    Evans, NigelMadel, Sir David
    Faber, DavidMaginnis, Ken
    Fabricant, MichaelMalins, Humfrey
    Fallon, MichaelMaples, John
    Flight, HowardMaude, Rt Hon Francis
    Forth, Rt Hon EricMawhinney, Ftt Hon Sir Brian
    Fowler, Rt Hon Sir NormanMay, Mrs Theresa
    Fox, Dr LiamMoss, Malcolm
    Fraser, ChristopherNicholls, Patrick
    Gale, RogerNorman, Archie
    Garnier, EdwardOttaway, Richard

    Page, RichardTapsell, Sir Peter
    Paice, JamesTaylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
    Paterson, OwenTaylor, John M (Solihull)
    Pickles, EricTaylor, Sir Teddy
    Prior, DavidThompson, William
    Randall, JohnTownend, John
    Redwood, Rt Hon JohnTredinnick, David
    Robathan, AndrewTrend, Michael
    Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)Tyrie, Andrew
    Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)Viggers, Peter
    Ross, William (E Lond'y)Walter, Robert
    Ruffley, DavidWardle, Charles
    St Aubyn, NickWaterson, Nigel
    Sayeed, JonathanWells, Bowen
    Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs GillianWhitney, Sir Raymond
    Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
    Shepherd, RichardWilkinson, John
    Simpson, Keith (Mid-Norfolk)Willetts, David
    Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)Wilshire, David
    Soames, NicholasWinterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
    Spicer, Sir MichaelWinterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
    Spring, RichardYeo, Tim
    Stanley, Rt Hon Sir JohnYoung, Rt Hon Sir George
    Steen, Anthony
    Streeter, Gary

    Tellers for the Noes:

    Swayne, Desmond

    Mr. John Whittingdale and

    Syms, Robert

    Mr. Bernard Jenkin.

    Question accordingly agreed to.

    Bill accordingly read a Second time.

    Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 63 (Committal of Bills),

    That the Bill be committed to a Committee of the whole House.— [Mr. George Howarth.]

    Question agreed to.

    Committee tomorrow.

    European Parliamentary Electionsbill Money

    Queen's recommendation having been signified—

    Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 52(1)(a),

    That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, it is expedient to authorise the charging on and payment out of the Consolidated Fund of—
    (1) charges to which returning officers are entitled by virtue of that Act, and
    (2) sums required by the Secretary of State for expenditure on the provision of training relating to functions conferred on returning officers by virtue of that Act.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

    Question agreed to.

    European Community Documents

    With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to European Community Documents.

    Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(9) (European Standing Committees),

    Landfill Of Waste

    That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 6692/97, relating to the landfill of waste; and welcomes the intention to set high regulatory standards for landfill sites.

    Transmissible Spongiform Encephalopathies: Controls On Cattle, Sheep And Goats

    That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 10040/97, on the prohibition of the use of material presenting risks relating to transmissible spongiform encephalopathies; and supports the Government's position that such controls are necessary for the protection of public health and to avoid the risk of undermining the Single Market.

    Draft Budget For 1998

    That this House takes note of European Community Documents Nos. 10153/97, the draft general budget of the European Communities for 1998, and PE262.699, the European Parliament's proposed amendments to the draft general budget of the European Communities for 1998; and supports the Government's efforts to maintain budget discipline in the Community.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

    Question agreed to.

    Delegated Legislation

    With permission, I shall put together the motions relating to delegated legislation.

    Motion made, and Question put forthwith, pursuant to Standing Order No. 118(6) (Standing Committees on Delegated Legislation),

    Northern Ireland

    That the draft Industrial Pollution Control (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 28th October, be approved.
    That the draft Waste and Contaminated Land (Northern Ireland) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 28th October, be approved.

    Civil Aviation

    That the draft Carriage by Air Acts (Application of Provisions) (Fourth Amendment) Order 1997, which was laid before this House on 3rd November, be approved.—[Ms Bridget Prentice.]

    Question agreed to.

    Mt Gaul

    Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.— [Ms Bridget Prentice.]

    10.16 pm

    This debate will deal with an issue that is of great concern to the people of Hull. As I discovered this week, however, the issue strikes a chord across the country, particularly in seafaring communities.

    In this very short debate, I shall try first to make a case for reopening the inquiry into the loss of the Hull trawler the MT Gaul, which disappeared in February 1974 without trace and without sending any sign of distress. I shall argue also that the inquiry should be extended to cover the arrangements that were made to find the wreck of the Gaul. Finally, I shall ask the Minister to meet representatives of the families of the 36 men—the entire crew of the Gaul—who were lost. I know that the Minister appreciates that those families are the other victims of the tragedy.

    The Gaul was a so-called super-trawler, and it was state of the art in every respect. Its design and safety features included automatic steering, a dual radar system and high-quality radio and telegraphy equipment. It was almost the first trawler to have safety equipment that 50 people could use in automatically inflatable life rafts. It substantially exceeded recommended stability criteria, and was thought to be unsinkable. It was less than two years old, and it had an experienced skipper and crew. Like all Hull trawlers, it fished in Arctic conditions, and was built to withstand such extreme weather conditions.

    The Gaul disappeared in the vicinity of the North Cape bank in the Barents sea. There were fierce storms when it disappeared, but such storms were common. There were 17 other trawlers in the area, all of which rode out the storms on that dreadful evening.

    In November 1974, the formal investigation in Hull—I make no criticism of its conclusions—determined that there was no trace of the Gaul. There had been no distress calls; no oil had been found on the surface; and no wreckage had been discovered, other than a lifebuoy that appeared three months afterwards—posing another mystery, which I do not have time to explore in this debate.

    The inquiry, dealing with a hypothetical situation, did the best it could. It dismissed the theory that water had accumulated on the Gaul's factory deck—perhaps because a door had been left open, as tragically happened some years later on the Herald of Free Enterprise. Such an explanation for the Gaul sinking was dismissed because, had it happened, there would have been time to send a distress signal.

    In the end, the inquiry concluded that the Gaul capsized and foundered as a result of being buffeted by heavy seas, when it was broadside in the midst of a turning manoeuvre against the oncoming weather. A subsequent two-year study by the National Maritime Institute concluded that the ship was so stable that that could not be the only reason it sank. It concluded that there must have been a contributory factor, such as damage being caused to the bridge by a large wave, affecting the steerage and radio contact.

    Those were the results of an inquiry and subsequent examination that had only supposition and theory to guide them. I do not criticise that work, but I wish to draw attention tonight to a significant development.

    The wreck of the Gaul has now been found, 270 m down on the seabed and 60 miles off the coast of Norway, by a film crew working on a Channel 4 documentary. Using a remotely operated vehicle, the film proved three important facts. First, it established that the wreck was, beyond any doubt, that of the Gaul. Secondly, it established that there was no damage to the bridge— and, indeed, its windows were still intact.

    Thirdly, there appeared to be no damage to the superstructure of the ship, which would have been expected if it had taken a buffeting from heavy seas and fallen 1,000 ft to the bed of the Barents sea. One other fact emerged from the documentary—the wreck was facing almost directly into the weather rather than broadside, as the inquiry had concluded.

    We should be grateful to Channel 4 for finding the Gaul, but it is now the Government's responsibility to ensure that it is fully and properly surveyed. The new evidence that necessitates the reopening of the inquiry appeared in the Channel 4 documentary, and there is no good reason for delaying the announcement of its reopening.

    I turn now to the subject of the search for the Gaul, which should be part of a reopened inquiry. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for replying so quickly to my written questions on the subject. I asked how many reports had been received about the possible location of the Gaul, and in particular I asked whether the fishing protection frigate, the Mohawk, had made a report. The Minister replied that the Mohawk reported only on her involvement with the search and rescue operation, but that 13 other reports were received about the Gaul's location and they varied widely.

    It was on that basis that the Government refused to launch any search for the wreck of the Gaul. Indeed, least year, the Ministry of Defence stated:
    "because of the limited information about the Gaul's position when she went down it would be necessary to search hundreds, probably thousands, of square miles of sea bed."
    At the heart of the debate is the belief that the only thing that was l