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The Electoral System And Government

Volume 416: debated on Wednesday 21 January 1981

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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 they will set up a Royal Commission to consider the electoral system used for election to the House of Commons in relation to the principle of one vote, one value and to consider the advantages or otherwise of a single chamber form of Government.

My Lords, as the Government are firmly committed both to a bicameral form of government and to the present system of elections to another place, they do not think that any useful purpose would be served by setting up a Royal Commission to examine these matters.

My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for his somewhat disappointing reply, may I ask him two questions? First, would the Government agree that the dual principles of "one man, one vote" and "one vote, one value" are essential to our parliamentary democracy? Secondly, would there not be an advantage in setting up a Royal Commission to look at the question of unicameral government, in view of the possibility that it may be an issue at the next general election and the electorate would then have in front of them the learned comments of a Royal Commission in addition to party political propaganda?

My Lords, the Government believe that our present simple majority system is most appropriate to the elections to another place. It is well understood by the electorate and provides close and correct constituency representation. Regarding the noble Lord's second supplementary question, I really think that the work of your Lordships' House speaks for itself. We revise, but we also initiate. I think that anyone who listened to the debate held on Wednesday of last week which was initiated by the noble Baroness, Lady Masham, would agree that important matters can be discussed here, giving rise to independent views being voiced. Doubtless a Royal Commission would draw attention to these advantages as well as warning against the dangers of single chamber government, but I suggest to the noble Lord that the electorate is very well seized of these points already.

My Lords, may I ask the Minister whether he does not consider it to our country's advantage to have Members of your Lordships' House of great experience such as the late Lord Amory, whose presence we shall miss a great deal and who was appreciated and thought of with great affection by Members on all sides of your Lordships' House?

My Lords, I am sure the whole House would want to join with my noble friend Lord Balfour in what he has just said. Lord Amory was distinguished not only for the achievements of his career but also for the regard and affection in which he was held by all who knew him. Many of us believe that his gentle manner, his sense of humour and also his support for this House are now going to be very sorely missed.

My Lords, while all Members of this House might think that this House is a good thing, is it not also a fact that all parties have said that some measure of reform is required? Would there not be some considerable advantage in having the issues involved considered in the sort of atmosphere which a Royal Commission could generate?

My Lords, I am not quite sure what sort of reform the noble Lord has in mind. The Government are carefully considering various proposals for legislation designed to protect the constitutional powers of this House, but so far as the general question of House of Lords reform is concerned the Government have not yet made up their minds.

My Lords, in view of the fact that the present Government are likely to be succeeded at some unpredictable date in the future by another elected dictatorship given over to the abolition of this House, does the Minister not consider that the surest way to preserve dual chamber government and a reformed House here is to have election to the House of Commons by some sort of proportional representation?

My Lords, I have already made it clear that I do not follow the right reverend Prelate down that particular path.

My Lords, the reference to "elected dictatorship" does not bear much resemblance to the experience of this country of very successful Labour Governments which have done nothing but good to the country.

My Lords, will the noble Lord not agree that a Royal Commission such as that proposed by the noble Lord, Lord Aylestone, would be well placed to consider the merits of the view that in the long run an electoral system based on the principle of "one vote, one value" would contribute greatly to an improvement in our industrial relations and performance?

My Lords, the question is about the method of election to another place, and we must each have our point of view. The Government's view is that the present system of election to another place is the one which has the greatest advantages. Therefore, we would not support the setting up of a Royal Commission to inquire into this particular subject.

My Lords, as no Royal Commission ever reports for several years, would not a Royal Commission perhaps stop all the discussion on these subjects, to everyone's satisfaction?

It might, my Lords. But there are some people who will not leave this subject alone.

My Lords, it might be agreed that the present electoral system has great advantages for the two major parties. Would the Minister not agree that electoral reform might benefit the country a great deal more?

My Lords, I can well understand that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and that to the Liberal Party there are certain reasons why proportional representation is desirable. This does not necessarily mean, though, that proportional representation in the system of elections to another place is in the best interests of that House.

My Lords, although I see the point of my noble friend Lord Derwent, I think perhaps we should impose upon ourselves a self-denying ordinance.