§ 6.57 p.m.
§ The Lord Advocate (Lord Mackay of Clashfern)
My Lords, I beg to move that the draft European Assembly Constituencies (Scotland) Order 1984, which was laid before this House on 22nd March, be approved. With the leave of the House, I propose to speak also to the draft orders for England and for Wales which were laid before the House on 28th March and 6th March respectively.
These orders will give effect to the final recommendations contained in the reports of the Parliamentary Boundary Commissions for Scotland, England and Wales on their reviews of the European Assembly constituencies created for the first European elections in 1979. Article 2 of each order replaces the existing European Assembly constituencies in the country concerned with the constituencies described in the schedule. All three orders have been considered by the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments and approved in another place. If they are approved by your Lordships tonight, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland will submit them to Her Majesty in Council on 11th April to be made. The orders will come into operation immediately and will therefore be effective for the next European elections on 14th June.
The reviews of the existing European Assembly constituencies had to be undertaken immediately after the making of the Parliamentary Constituencies Orders in March 1983 and have taken less than one year to complete. During this period, the commissions have had to formulate their provisional recommendations and to hold local inquiries into them. The English and Scottish commissions have also had to publish revised recommendations and invite representations upon them. These are vital but time- 855 consuming tasks and the commissions and their small staffs are to be congratulated for managing to complete them and submit their reports in time for their recommendations to be implemented for the elections on 14th June.
The rules which the commission must observe in conducting such reviews are set out in Schedules 1 and 2 to the European Assembly Elections Act 1978. These rules differ from those for the redistribution of parliamentary constituencies, in that they do not require the commissions to take account of local government boundaries or the inconveniences attendant on alterations of constituencies and of local ties which would be broken by such alterations. If I may summarise these rules for your Lordships, paragraph 1(2) of Schedule 1 to the 1978 Act provides that England, Scotland and Wales have 66, 8 and 4 constituencies, respectively. Paragraph 9 of Schedule 2 to the Act states that each Assembly constituency shall comprise two or more whole parliamentary constituencies and that no parliamentary constituency shall be included partly in one Assembly constituency and partly in another. Paragraph 10 of Schedule 2 provides that the electorate of each European Assembly constituency shall be as near the electoral quota as is reasonably practicable having regard, where appropriate, to special geographical considerations. The electoral quotas for these reviews were 539,155 in England, 491,929 in Scotland and 534, 904 in Wales.
All three commissions were thus required to realign the boundaries of the present European Assembly constituencies with those of the parliamentary constit-uencies created in 1983, and to make any further changes necessary to produce electorates as close to the appropriate electoral quota as was reasonably practicable. This task seems to have caused least difficulty to the Welsh commission, who concluded that the electorates of the existing constituencies were sufficiently close to the electoral quota to allow them to leave the North Wales constituency unchanged and to recommend comparatively minor changes to the other three constituencies. The English and Scottish commissions, on the other hand, faced a more difficult task because the present European Assembly constituencies divided many parliamentary constituencies and because of increases in the electorate or shifts in the population since 1977, which had increased the disparities between the electorates of the existing seats and the electoral quota.
The English commission in particular found itself in an unenviable situation where the present constituencies divided 119 parliamentary constituencies and had electorates ranging from 15.2 per cent. below the electoral quota to 15.4 per cent. above. This meant that some disruption was inevitable and that the commission had some difficult and unpopular decisions to make. However, the fact that the commission held nine local inquiries and published revised recommendations for 16 European Assembly constituencies demonstrates the care it took in formulating its final proposals. These leave the present Hereford and Worcester, London East and London North-East constituencies unchanged and make a minor boundary alteration to the Cornwall and Plymouth, and Devon constituencies.
856 The remaining constituencies would be altered to varying degrees. Three counties—East Sussex, Norfolk and West Sussex—would form separate constituencies, while Essex and Kent would each form two whole seats. The commission has also been successful in minimising the division of counties, districts and London boroughs between constituencies and the division of constituencies between those areas.
In Scotland, the boundaries of all eight Assembly constituencies had to be realigned with those of the new parliamentary constituencies. Leaving aside the Highlands and Islands where special geographical considerations apply, the 1983 electorates of the present Assembly constituencies ranged from 4.3 per cent. below the quota in the South of Scotland to 15 per cent. above in mid-Scotland and Fife. The electorate of the Highlands and Islands seat was 36.1 per cent. below the electoral quota. This meant that the average electorate of the remaining Assembly constituencies would have to exceed the electoral quota. In general, the final recommendations of the Scottish commission make the minimum changes necessary to comply with the statutory requirements and cause the least disturbance to the present pattern of European Assembly constituencies. In addition, the changes reduce the number of districts which are divided between Assembly constituencies from more than a dozen to fewer than half a dozen.
The ultimate test of progress is whether each commission has achieved a better standard of parity than it did in 1978. The answer to that question must be in the affirmative because the relevant electorates range from 7.4 per cent. below the electoral quota to 6.4 per cent. above, compared with 9.7 per cent. below to 10.4 per cent. above in England; from 1 per cent. below the electoral quota to 11.6 per cent. above, compared with 5.9 per cent. below to 17.2 per cent. above in Scotland, excluding the Highlands and Islands; and from 3.9 per cent below the electoral quota to 6.6 per cent. above, compared with 5.2 per cent. below to 6.3 per cent. above in Wales.
In all these circumstances, the Government consider these reviews to be a job very well done. I therefore commend all three commissions' recommendations to your Lordships. I beg to move.
§ Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 22nd March be approved.—(Lord Mackay of Clashfern.)
§ 7.4 p.m.
§ Lord Underhill
My Lords, the House is grateful to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate for so clearly explaining these orders. The House will be pleased to know that I have no intention of dealing with individual European constituencies, except where it is necessary to refer to a principle. There are other reasons, too. First, there is the time factor. It is now 5th April. On 14th June the European Assembly elections will be held. Therefore it is impossible to attempt to seek changes, even if that were constitutionally permissible. We realise that the time factor is mainly in consequence of legislation that we passed, which provided that there should be no review of European constituencies until the United Kingdom parliamentary constituencies' reports had been accepted. At that time we expressed our apprehension 857 that we could rind ourselves faced with a last minute rush before the European Assembly elections. I should like to join the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate in thanking the commissions and their staff for the fact that we have received their reports at least two months before the elections are to be held.
The second factor is that we cannot amend the orders. I do not know what happened in the other place last night. The orders must have been approved, although by the time Hansard had reached its printing cut-off point the reports had not been reached. I doubt, therefore, whether there could have been detailed discussion of the reports.
As the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate has said, the recommendations in all three reports have been submitted without modification. He explained the simple rules by which the three commissions had to carry out their work. May I draw attention to three paragraphs in the Scottish report. In paragraph 59 the assistant commissioner reported that in considering all the submissions made to him he was not inclined,to place great weight on arguments concerning the presence or absence of local ties or community of interest between different areas. There was no statutory requirement to take such matters into account, and in view of the size of assembly constituencies it appeared inevitable that in most cases they would include areas of quite diverse character and circumstances".I shall now read a short extract from paragraph 67:The council"—which in this case is the Cunningham district council—complained that while the assistant commissioner was not inclined to place weight on arguments concerning the presence or absence of local ties or community of interest, because there was no statutory requirement to take such matters into account, he did place considerable weight on the argument that continuity of electorate should be preserved where possible, although there was not a statutory requirement to take that matter into account".I turn now to a short extract from paragraph 70:The assistant commissioner accepted that the division of Cunningham district is a disadvantage, but having considered the submissions of the inquiry he concluded that this disadvantage was outweighed by the advantage in preserving continuity of assembly constituency electorates".I recognise that there is nothing in the rules which provides that a district council area shall not be divided; nor is there anything in the rules about preserving continuity of European constituency electorates. Nevertheless, considerable emphasis is placed in the report on that point.
It is strange that the term "continuity" should have been used. There has been only one election. It took place in 1979. If my memory serves me correctly, no local inquiries were held for the 1979 European constituencies; the commissions were not bound to hold local inquiries under certain circumstances, whereas in the case of the 1984 elections local inquiries have been held. Therefore the use of the word "continuity" seems to me to be wrong. I emphasise these points not in an attempt to change the present position, because we cannot do so, but in order that these factors may be borne in mind in the future.
Turning to the Welsh report, emphasis is placed upon geographical considerations as they affect Brecon and Radnor in relation to local community ties, whereas the rules make it quite clear that special 858 geographical considerations should be taken into account only where this is necessary in order to create electorates which are as equal as is practicable. Naturally, I shall not refer in detail to the position in England. The commissioners had a massive task to undertake. I noted in particular in Chapter 4 that 92 per cent. of the European constituencies are now, according to this report, within 6 per cent. of the electoral quota compared with only 73 per cent. of existing constituencies; and that 46 counties and London boroughs are undivided now compared with 37. Therefore, there is a great improvement in the proposals in the English report.
I should again like to refer to two paragraphs in the England report. The first refers to the inquiry conducted in Area 9:The assistant commissioner who held the inquiry reported that the main issue was the interpretation of the statutory requirements in Part II of Schedule 2 to the European Assembly Elections Act 1978. Some of those attending the proceedings supported our proposals and endorsed our view that the main task of the commission was to achieve parity of elections".Then we find in paragraph 14.13:We considered the commissioner's advice in the light of the legal arguments which had been made at the inquiry. We confirmed our earlier conclusion, however, that if Parliament had intended us to have regard to local government boundaries, local ties, the inconvenience attendant upon the alteration of constituencies, or any one of these factors, when considering parity of representation, as it did in drafting the rules for the redistribution of seats in the House of Commons Acts, then that would have been drafted accordingly".I completely agree that that would have been the case. But it will be seen quite clearly that undue emphasis has been placed on, first, the continuity of European constituencies; secondly, on the question of special geographical considerations—when I believe we ought carefully to take a look at the other points which have been excluded from the rules. There is nothing we can do about them in the orders, but I make these points so that these aspects may be examined for the future.
§ 7.12 p.m.
§ Lord Mayhew
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate—who I am sorry is not present just at the moment—introduced this order in his usual clear and pleasant manner. But, of course, he entirely ignored the most important, unique feature of these constituencies; namely, that, unlike any constit-uencies in any of the other countries of the European Community, these constituencies are absurdly small and elect only one Member of Parliament. He did not mention that fact at all. We are looking forward to hearing from the noble Lord, Lord Elton, because I wish to question what the results will be of the Government's decision and to speculate as to which considerations of public interest led the Government to make this decision.
Let us take the results. The first result will be that this decision is likely to give the Conservative Party many more seats. Psephologists tell us—and there is no need to doubt their calculations—that if the Government's share of the poll is the same in the European election as it was in the general election, then the Conservative Government will win 43 per cent. of the poll and will be rewarded with 74 per cent. of the seats. If the Alliance were to achieve the same 859 percentage of votes in the European election as they did in the general election—namely, 26 per cent. of the votes—they will secure only 1 per cent. of the seats. If the Conservative Party secure 43 per cent. of the votes, they will win 74 per cent. of the seats; if the Alliance win 26 per cent. of the votes, they will secure 1 per cent. of the seats.
I am sure that when the noble Lord, Lord Elton, rises, he will explain that that would be just an unfortunate accident; that nothing could be further from the purpose of the Government than to use their parliamentary majority to gain an unfair electoral advantage. I am sure he will try to explain that the system I have described is less unfair than the systems of proportional representation adopted by all the other members of the European Community.
The second result of the Government's decision will be to upset the political balance of the European Parliament. This happened after the election of the last European Parliament. A flood of Conservative MEPs, far out of proportion to the votes that they gained, made the European Parliament unrepresentative. This caused a great deal of resentment and derision. Everybody knew how it had happened. Everybody understood the motivation of the Conservative Government. It really tended to depreciate the high reputation of the British Parliament on the continent of Europe.
The third result of the decision will be that the outcome in so many constituencies will be such a foregone conclusion that British electors will not go to the polls. In the last election, only 32 per cent. of the British electorate voted—far less than in any other member country of the European Community. In Northern Ireland, where, as an exception, they have a fair electoral system of proportional representation for the European Parliament, the proportion of the electorate voting was 57 per cent. Let the noble Lord explain why only 32 per cent. of the voters went to the polls in Great Britain whereas 57 per cent. voted in Northern Ireland. The answer is, of course, that one has the first-past-the-post electoral system and the other has a proportional system.
I ask the question: what are the Government's reasons for imposing this electoral system upon the voters? The voters do not want it. All the public opinion polls show that the voters want proportional representation. So why do the Government impose the other system on the voters? We all know the familiar stock reply: "Proportional representation means coalition government which means weak government". That is not true. Proportional represent-ation does not necessarily mean coalition government. There are a number of countries having proportional representation—such as Germany and Ireland—which elect a single-party government. But those single parties do, of course, have to win the majority of the votes to form a single-party government. If one wins 51 per cent. of the votes under proportional represent-ation, one secures 51 per cent. of the seats. One can then form a single-party government and secure 100 per cent. of the jobs. What the British Government are saying when they oppose PR on these grounds is that they want 100 per cent. of the jobs with less than 50 per cent. of the votes. That is what it comes down to.
860 In any case, there is no evidence that coalition governments are weaker than single-party governments; rather the opposite. There is no evidence that the voters do not like coalition governments; public opinion polls suggest the opposite. But all this is irrelevant, as we know, because the great reason why the Government and the Conservative Party oppose proportional representation does not apply in the European elections, because the European Parliament does not produce a government at all. So what answer will the noble Lord give? What grounds of public policy justify this absurd and unique imposition on the British voters?
The noble Lord may say, "Ah!—but a MEP in a single-Member constituency can keep personal contact with his 500,000 constituents". I am in the rather unusual position of having fought two elections for the European Parliament. The first was the general European Parliament election and the second was a by-election. Indeed, I believe that I am the only person in the world who can say (because it is only here that we have by-elections for the European Parliament) that he has lost two elections for the European Parliament.
One of the truths I learned when canvassing was the total impossibility of a Member with 500,000 constituents keeping personal contact with them all; it is just nonsense and cannot be done. This is especially true because the constituencies which the Government are seeking to push through this evening correspond with no area of any significance: no area of regional government; no area of local government; no area with any historic importance; no area corresponding to the organisation of political parties; they are entirely artificial abstractions. The idea of a MEP really making personal and local contact on that basis is ridiculous.
Perhaps the noble Lord would consider this. Let us suppose that we had to have single Member constituencies for some reason. It is still possible to have a single Member constituency without biasing the election in quite so absurd and distorted a manner as the Government are proposing. There is nothing to stop the Government, if they really insist, having a single Member constituency but allowing in each of these constituencies the electors to rank each candidate in order of preference—one. two, and three. There is nothing to prevent that. It is perfectly simple. It would lessen the amount of injustice. If an elector votes for an Alliance candidate and that candidate loses, his second preference goes to a Conservative, Labour, or some other candidate.
The Conservative Government, of course, refuse to do that. They say they want a single Member constituency but refuse even to make the electoral system within a single Member constituency fair. Why do they do this? On what ground of public interest do the Government insist on the single "X" vote in the one Member constituencies? Unless the noble Lord puts forward his theory I must hazard a guess. My guess is that surveys show that many people would vote for the Alliance, but do not do so because they are afraid that if they do not vote Tory they might let in the Labour man, or if they do not vote Labour they might let in the Tory. That is a dark suspicion: but my suspicion is that the Government oppose the idea of what is called 861 the alternative vote in a single Member constituency for the same reason as they oppose proportional representation; namely, although the first-past-the-post system limits the power of electors and helps towards unfair and absured results, it has one overwhelming advantage in Conservative eyes—it produces more Conservative seats. That is the truth. Everyone here knows that that is the truth.
We shall hear a lot of arguments from the noble Lord and I shall come back a little later, after I have seen how he reacts. We have three debates. I know that the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate said that he was speaking to the three Motions. Quite right. Who shall stop him if he so wishes! But there are three Motions on the Order Paper, and if we wish we shall speak on each Motion. These are very important matters. What the Government are proposing is very convenient for the Government and it is also convenient for the Opposition party. But what the Government are proposing is not convenient, or may not prove to be convenient, for the minority parties, and it may not be just for the minority parties. If the minority parties want to speak at length on each of the three orders, we shall do so and nothing will stop us. Therefore, in the light of the noble Lord's reply on the first debate we shall be able to ask him further about his position on the second and third debates if we wish to.
I am sorry that not only is the noble and learned Lord the Lord Advocate not here—that is a little unusual—but that the Leader of the House is not here, either. It would have helped a great deal to have had his advice because when he was responsible for Northern Ireland he presented a fair and democratic electoral system for the Northern Ireland Assembly. Indeed, I bet he shares responsibility for the fact that, alone in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, only in Northern Ireland will there be a fair electoral system for the European Community. I wish he were here. He invented the great slogan: "One, two, three is as easy as ABC." That was the slogan he used in order to present to the people of Northern Ireland this admirable electoral system which is fair and just which they like and which, of course, the Leader of the House warmly supports. If he were here he would support us. I have no doubt whatever that he would be supporting us and explaining the unjustice of what the Government are proposing.
Finally, to sum up as far as this debate is concerned—of course, we reserve our right to speak if we wish at any length on the other two Motions, because they are important to us—the Government have misused their majority in Parliament to impose on the electors a voting system which public opinion polls show they do not want, which ensures that millions of votes will be wasted, which is grossly unfair and undemocratic, which will distort the balance of power in the European Parliament, and which is not used by any other European Community country. But, in Conservative eyes, it has the one overwhelming advantage that it promises them a larger number of seats. In sum—and I am not exaggerating—we are faced here with a form of barefaced political corruption, and we invite the noble Lord, Lord Elton, to reassure us on the points that I have made.
§ 7.27 p.m.
§ Lord Mackie of Benshie
My Lords, I feel that there is not a great deal I can say after that concise and true exposition of the facts, but I should like to say something about the myth that one man can really represent a Euro-constituency. I fought the North East Scotland constituency at the last election and was greatly helped by the fact that it is heavily populated by my relations throughout the length and breadth of the constituency. Even so, I found it quite impossible to run a normal campaign and to keep in touch with people. I came to the conclusion that there is no question but that we would have had a fairer and a better choice for the electors if we had the whole of Scotland as one constituency with proportional representation.
I listened with interest to the noble Lord on the Labour Front Benches who was, if I may say so, cosily nibbling away at small points in the great hope that he, too, would have his turn when he could benefit from the unfair system which we have adopted. With regard to this system, I think that the Boundary Commission is a little unwise in the North East constituency of Scotland in that it has made the parliamentary constit-uencies run across the tops of the glens. If there is one thing in Angus and other places that we know it is that a river is a natural course to follow. The people who live at the top of one glen really associate with the people further down. That is a natural route. The Boundary Commission took the tops of all the glens and said, "This is the same sort of area and, therefore, we will make a constituency called North Tayside which stretches from Glen Esk right along, up to Pitlochry and beyond to Blair Atholl". The result is that the North East constituency is now even more unmanageable in that, instead of going from Fraserburgh to Dundee, which is quite a long way and covers quite a variety of people, industries and country, one now goes from Banff right up to Blair Atholl, through Pitlochry. To call this a homogenous sort of constituency is, in my view, absolutely ludicrous and the case that one has direct contact is not made at all. The electors get little choice.
I advise the Labour Party to have a look at the system because at the last election the Conservatives got a shade—just a few points; point something above a per cent.—over 50 per cent. It was marginal. But they got 60 seats, the Labour Party got 17 seats, the Nationals got one, and we got none. The split and 50 per cent. was 60 to the Tories and 18 to us. This is not a great division even for the Labour Party. I do not think that it can stand up in any justice whatsoever.
I have only one criticism of the speech of my noble friend Lord May hew. He spoke of the high reputation of the British Parliament in Europe. I doubt whether that is true. I think that our reputation in Europe is at an all-time low due to the actions of this Government and the Prime Minister. It is scandalous that we should sign the Treaty of Rome which at Article 138.3 says:The Assembly shall draw up proposals for election by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States".I should very much like the Minister to tell us what we are doing to conform with that very clear article in the Treaty of Rome.
863 I could go on for some time. The facts are self-evident. The system is grossly unfair and has produced grossly unfair results. The electorate do not like it and know that it is unfair. Only 32 or 33 per cent.—a minute percentage—have voted. For the Government to sit complacently, ignoring the treaty, ignoring our members, making themselves unpopular at every hand and bringing the Community to the verge of break-up by their actions, is not good enough. The Minister now sitting on the Front Bench, who is unaccompanied by the Minister who opened the debate, is well known for his courtesy, brains and logic. He will need to exercise them to the full to satisfy our complaints.
§ 7.31 p.m.
§ Lord Grimond
My Lords, I apologise for delaying the Minister. I do not want to speak at any length, partly because the case has been so admirably argued by both my noble friends. I should like to make three points extremely briefly. I wonder whether the Government understand with what contempt and astonishment Europeans regard their behaviour. This is a serious point. We are the only country in Europe which pursues this extraordinary electoral system. As my noble friend Lord Mayhew said, all the arguments that might be advanced against it in a particular country have no relevance at all when it comes to electing the European Parliament. If one travels abroad one realises that it is a matter of extraordinary astonishment, not only among Liberals but among Christian Democrats and Social Democrats through-out Europe, that we continue with it in defiance of the wishes, and indeed the customs, of the European Assembly. It makes Europeans think still more that we are totally out of tune with the advance towards co-operation in Europe.
Secondly, the point is sometimes advanced against the Liberal Party that it did not introduce that system when it was in power. The answer to that is that in those days the major parties did not fight every seat. The Liberal Party deliberately stood down in many seats so that the minority Labour Party could have proper representation in Parliament. Those days have gone. Now certainly the Labour Party, the Conservative Party and indeed the Alliance fight every seat at elections.
The third point that I want to make is also a serious one. I believe that there is a real danger in this country of Parliament—and I speak in the strict sense of both Houses and the whole parliamentary system—being brought into contempt. This is by no means entirely due to the electoral system. It is due to the way in which we conduct our affairs and the effectiveness of extra-parliamentary activities which very often appear to influence governments more than argument. But among the factors which I believe are at work are the obvious factors that Parliament is entirely unrepresentative, that no government since the war have had a majority and that large sections of the public are grossly underrepresented. I ask the Government to consider very seriously that it is harming the whole conception of parliamentary government to go on with this grossly unfair system 864 and that any of the arguments which might have some weight within the country are totally invalid in Europe.
§ Baroness Seear
My Lords, I do not apologise for delaying the House still longer. This is a matter of very considerable importance. It is clear from the attendance in the Chamber that it is not realised on all sides of the House how significant this is. I am bound to say that in the speeches of the Lord Advocate and of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, I had rarely heard a better example of straining at a gnat and swallowing a camel. The defence of the re-drawing of the boundaries was so elaborate, as was the discussion of Lord Underhill as to how those boundaries had been drawn. It is utter hypocrisy to go into details of that kind when large sections of the electorate are being disfranchised in this election, as they were disfranchised in the election of 1979. It leaves one with little but contempt for the way in which this whole debate is being conducted.
It also shows the contempt of the Government for the European Parliament. There have been continuous and justified complaints that the balance of power in that Parliament was entirely effected by the way in which we in this country conducted our elections. The under-representation of Liberal and Alliance opinion and the over-representation of Conservatives of course disrupted what should have gone on inside the European Parliament. We have been determined to continue with this, despite the fact that we are supposed to be having throughout the Community a uniform system of elections this time. We had excuses last time as to why it could not be done. Those excuses could possibly have been justified in the first election. There can be no justification whatsoever in this election.
I hope that we shall not be told by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, that the Liberals of course want a system of proportional representation because it would be good for the Liberal Party. I believe it would be good for the Liberal Party. But we can equally return the remark by saying that the maintenance of the existing system is extremely good for the Conservative Party and, to a lesser extent, for the Labour Party. The difference between us is that, whereas the Conservative Party and the Labour Party defend this electoral system solely in terms of the interests of their party (which of course is a perfectly proper thing to consider), we have logic, reason and democratic principle on our side, whereas they have none of those in defending the system which they are once again putting forward for elections to the European Parliament.
§ 7.38 p.m.
§ Lord Elton
My Lords, may I at the outset of my part in this interesting and colourful debate on behalf of my noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate present his apologies for being at this moment boarding an aeroplane, the business of your Lordships' House having taken a great deal longer than anticipated. I shall reply to the points addressed to him. I start by thanking the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, for his reception of the orders. He properly gave his recognition, and that of many of your Lordships, to the hard and effective work of the commission in getting the orders available in time. He 865 rightly said that the report of the debate in the other place, owing to the time of the debate, has yet to be printed; but I assure him that the orders were passed.
The noble Lord also acknowledged that there were improvements, as both he and I see it, in the arrangements for England. He raised a number of points which were for the most part general points to be considered, as he put it, before the next time round the course. I think that there was only one specific illustration of the impact on what has happened this time, and that I do not regard as being as trivial as perhaps those who sit on the Benches to his right may think. He did not like the commission's decision to adopt revised proposals for the south of Scotland—Strathclyde East and Strathclyde West—which have the effect of dividing Cunningham and Strathkelvin districts between Assembly constituencies. The commission took the view, however, that the balance of advantage lay in achieving greater continuity of electorate in the Assembly constituencies under the revised proposals. I know the noble Lord's view of that, and of course it will be noted. However, the Boundary Commission is the independent body appointed by Parliament to determine the boundaries of constituencies, and I can only say that we see no reason to dissent from the view that it reached on the best solution for these seats.
Perhaps I may now turn to the battle squadrons of the Liberal Party which hove over the horizon and are turned, as under Admiral Nelson, each to fire their broadside at what no doubt they regard as the burning deck on which the single boy is left. I have to say that the tone of what they said was certainly very hostile, and I do not expect much comfort from them when I resume my seat.
But I have to remind your Lordships that what we are debating are the orders made as a result of the reports of the Parliamentary Boundary Commissioners for England, Scotland, and Wales, respectively, and we are not debating the electoral system which those orders are devised to implement. It is in fact the electoral system which was laid down in the European Assembly Elections Act 1978 to which the noble Lords and the noble Baroness on the Liberal Front Bench are addressing their ire. Perhaps that explains to some extent why the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, and I are rather closer together than are the noble Lords, the noble Baroness and I. But the fact is that is what we are debating, and therefore I do not propose to enter into a full-dress debate on the merits of the proportional representation system. I can answer only briefly if I am to observe the conventions of the House.
The commission is required only to recommend seats which comprise two or more whole parliamentary constituencies and which have an electorate as near the electoral quota as is reasonably practicable, having regard, where appropriate, to special geographical considerations. It is not obliged, as it is during a review of parliamentary constituencies, to take account of county boundaries and the effect of any alterations on existing seats and local ties. That is in keeping with the recommendation of the all-party Select Committee on direct elections to the European Parliament in 1976 that the number of electors for the constituencies in each part of the United Kingdom should be approximately equal, subject only to the 866 making of some allowance for variations made necessary on geographical grounds.
On the specific issue of proportional representation, I regret not only that my noble and learned friend the Lord Advocate was not present to hear himself being accused of flagrant hypocrisy by the noble Baroness; I regret also that my noble friend the Leader of the House was not present, as he could have brought a very much heavier calibre than can I to answer the charge by the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, of barefaced electoral corruption. Those are strong words. I do not know that the noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, has it in him to repent of them, and I would not ask him to apologise. But they will stand on the record and they will be noted by my colleagues, both here and in another place.
It was, I think, in 1911 that the Liberal Party last achieved a parliamentary majority, and it was, I think, in the 1920s that the Liberal Party first espoused the cause of proportional representation. The noble Lord, Lord Mayhew, says that it is patently the case and patently unacceptable that the Conservative Government should perpetuate a system which gives them more votes than it gives to the Liberal Party—more seats, more votes in Parliament—but I should think that the converse is also true, and the noble Lord is complaining of a system because in part it gives his party fewer votes in Parliament and fewer seats therein.
Except in Northern Ireland, the elections will be fought under the simple majority system, and I have in fact addressed your Lordships' House on this issue on several previous occasions. It is not proper for me to do so at length now. I shall say merely that the Community treaties require the European Parliament to submit to the Council of Ministers proposals for a uniform electoral procedure for its elections through-out the Community. The Parliaments submitted proposals of this kind in March 1982. They involve a list system of proportional representation with regional constituencies of between three and 15 members each, an extension of the franchise to all nationals of a member state resident within the territory of the Community, and for polling to take place on either a Saturday or a Sunday. These proposals raise substantial difficulties for several member states, and no immediate progress seems likely.
In May 1983 the Council resolved that, although agreement could not be reached in time for the 1984 elections, efforts would be renewed to reach agreement in time for the 1989 elections. As I have said before, parliamentary time is at a premium and to construct an elaborate system in conformity with some of those proposals and not with others and then have to dismantle it and reconstruct it for the next round does not seem to us a profitable use of parliamentary time.
I do not think that the interests of your Lordships' House will be served if I reply in kind to the sort of descriptions of this Government's parliamentary activities and the parliamenary conduct of the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, that have been passed across the Floor of this House. I hope that your Lordships will see that we have to do a pragmatic job, which is to ensure that we are able to have these elections, and I commend this order to your Lordships.