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Electoral Reform

Volume 374: debated on Wednesday 6 October 1976

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2.35 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the event of electoral reform not being included in the terms of reference of the forthcoming Speaker's Conference and in view of the evidence that a majority of the electorate favour the introduction of some form of proportional representation, the Government will submit the issue to a national referendum.

My Lords, the Government do not consider that this would be a suitable subject for a referendum.

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he does not think that something like this, which is of great importance to the constitutional and democratic rights of the people—that is, the system by which they elect their Members to Parliament—is precisely something which should be referred by referendum to the people, and is the kind of subject for which the referendum process is ideal?

Yes, my Lords, certainly this is an important question, but I am by no means convinced that a referendum is the appropriate way of dealing with it.

My Lords, if a referendum is not the correct method, have the Government any specific approach to a reconsideration of this problem?

My Lords, a number of suggestions have been made, and one is that the Speaker's Conference should consider this matter. But in fact it was considered by a previous Speaker's Conference which decided to recommend no change in the electoral system, and at present the Government have no plans for changing the present position.

My Lords, on the evidence so far available, may we take it that in no circumstances will this Government introduce a Bill supported by a majority of the electorate?

My Lords, I am not quite sure why the noble and learned Lord, whose laughter, despite the problems of the amplification system, can be measured on this side of the Chamber, joined in that burst of laughter, because I suppose that the same comment could be made about Bills by a number of Governments in the post-war period.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a system of proportional representation would give us the worst of all worlds?

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord what was the date of the last Speaker's Conference, and whether he thinks that anything has changed since then?

My Lords, many things have changed since 1965 and 1968, which was the date of the last Speaker's Conference. But the Government do not take the view at the moment that a Speaker's Conference is the appropriate way of examining this problem. Indeed, I understand that some of those who favour a change in the electoral system in this country take exactly the same view, so far as the Speaker's Conference is concerned.

My Lords, while accepting that from the noble Lord, if a Speaker's Conference is not the right forum—and I agree with him—may I ask him once again what the Government have in mind as a method of dealing with this problem, which is becoming of widespread interest throughout the whole United Kingdom?

My Lords, there is undoubtedly widespread interest in this question at the moment. On that I entirely agree with the noble Lord. But saying that there is widespread interest is very different from saying that there should immediately be a change in the electoral system, and what I am saying this afternoon is that the Government do not consider that it is appropriate to change the electoral system at the present time.

My Lords, may we take it from the Minister's reply that the Government will not go for a referendum, because they know, or have every indication, that the decision of a referendum would be in favour of a change in the system and in favour of some form of electoral reform? In those circumstances, surely that is one of the reasons why the attitude of the leaderships in Parliament at the present time, particularly in the House of Commons, is causing so much concern and loss of confidence to the public at large.

No, my Lords, I believe that the noble Lord's assumption is wrong in that respect.

My Lords, can my noble friend remind me whether the Liberal Government, who were in power with a large majority many years ago, ever brought forward a Bill to introduce proportional representation?

My Lords, I am quite incapable of answering that question, but I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Byers, would be delighted to give an answer to it.

My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether he remembers that I said in the debate only this week that this is no longer a matter for the minority Parties? It is no longer a matter for the Liberal Party. It is a matter of the democratic constitution of this country and if we do not change the electoral system we shall be at the mercy of some minorities.

My Lords, I referred in my question to the period when the Liberal Party was the majority not the minority Party.

My Lords, I am not to know if the noble Lord does not understand the Questions and the Answers.

My Lords, is it not the essence of democracy that the will of the majority shall prevail? Is this not what we are insisting upon in Rhodesia at present and should not we insist upon it also in our own country where the will of the majority need not necessarily prevail and where it certainly does not prevail at present?

My Lords, this matter has certainly been debated for 50 years or more and the considerations which the noble Lord has just advanced have been argued as providing the reason why there should be a change in the electoral system. As I said to the noble Lord, Lord Byers, it is a serious matter and one upon which, quite reasonably, people take strongly conflicting views. However, I am saying today that the Government do not believe at this moment that this is the most appropriate way to deal with the matter. The Question that was put to me was whether there should be a referendum on this issue and the answer is, No, the Government do not think there should be a referendum.

My Lords, could the noble Lord be a little more constructive? If this is not the way to deal with the matter, could he suggest what is the correct way?

My Lords, this is a matter which will no doubt preoccupy the attention of those who are in favour of a change in the electoral system of this country. First, I have said that we do not think that a referendum is the way to deal with the problem and, secondly, that as a matter of substance the Government do not believe that the time has arrived when it would be appropriate to change the electoral system.