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European Parliament

11.10 am

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. John McWilliam): May I apologise to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for taking 10 minutes from his debate? The situation was unavoidable. I shall report the circumstances to the House at 3.30 pm or thereabouts.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I fancy that we may not need all the time available, so the otherwise unfortunate circumstances of this morning may not be disastrous. By good fortune, our debate is relevant and topical because we must decide relatively soon how the next European parliamentary elections should be handled, what system should be used and what the criteria should be.

I remind the House that on 10 November 1998, during the passage of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, the then Home Secretary—the present Foreign Secretary—gave an explicit assurance that the system would be reviewed in light of the 1999 experience and also moved a Government amendment, which I shall quote in full, because it is extremely important:

The right hon. Gentleman went further, telling the House:

He also promised:

In the event, the amendment was not accepted.

Hon. Members will recall the to-ings and fro-ings between the two Houses before the Bill finally reached the statute book, but the review was entirely internal to the Home Office—the Government looking at their navel, not an independent, outside review inviting evidence from other interested groups or parties. It was not completed in the six months specified, and there has been no debate until this morning.

The internal review used unequivocal terms:

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Incidentally, that completely negated the statement of the Minister in the other place in answer to my noble Friend Lord Greaves on 4 December 2001. Will the Minister confirm that, as yet, there has been no independent, objective and comprehensive review of the system?

Almost immediately after the 1999 election, a number of myths were peddled by opponents of representative electoral systems. First, Labour reactionaries blamed their poor performance on the system. By a curious coincidence, there was on the same day a by-election under the first-past-the-post system in Leeds, Central. That election had a much lower turnout. In the European election, there was a gap between the parties that reflected the gap in the country, which, had first past the post been used, would have given the Conservatives 60 per cent. of the seats for only 36 per cent. of the vote.

Some Conservatives naturally preferred a system that would have given them that undeserved advantage, although I must say, in fairness to the hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May), that Conservative Front Benchers argued strongly for open lists during the latter part of the Bill's passage. I anticipate that that will remain the position of their party.

Others claimed that the system caused the low turnout—23.1 per cent. However, it can hardly be said that such a poor turnout was the result of the system, given that, on the same day, the turnout for the Leeds, Central by-election was a disgraceful 19.6 per cent. So, on a day on which two systems were used, that for the European election was marginally more successful.

However, everybody in the House must take low turnout seriously, particularly because we have experienced further disappointments, so I would like to refer to research done since the European election. Official research undertaken on behalf of the Home Office identified a number of factors accounting for the poor turnout—lack of campaign activity during the European election, electoral fatigue after the Scottish, Welsh and council elections, less media coverage, a general trend towards apathy and a feeling of remoteness from the political process—but failed to find any substantial resistance to the system. For example, 89 per cent. of voters found the ballot paper easy to use and the proportion of spoilt papers, which is a good indicator, was lower than in the 1997 first-past-the-post general election. In an Office for National Statistics survey, 95 per cent. of respondents said that the new voting system had no bearing on their decision as to whether to vote.

Research by NOP found that voters were doubtful about the system for a different reason: they saw the regional closed list as evidence that candidates would put party loyalty before loyalty to the electorate, which might have been a material factor in increasing scepticism and discouraging voting. That view was reflected in debates on the Bill. All in all, the official research concludes that the electoral system had a neutral effect on turnout.

Nothing in the subsequent report by the Independent Commission on Alternative Voting Methods, which is more to do with the mechanics of voting, suggests that

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changing the arrangements on postal voting, e-voting or telephone voting or other tinkering with the traditional polling arrangements can compensate for the perception that voting does not make a real difference. That is the biggest single factor on the issue of turnout.

In parenthesis, interesting evidence from the 1999 European parliamentary elections came from the experience in Northern Ireland. Electors were already familiar with a representative system, as they have had the single transferable vote for some time, and turnout on the same day in the same election was a comparatively respectable 57 per cent.—two and a half times that in the rest of the UK, which suffered from the closed list system.

In those circumstances, it is no surprise that the Labour party's national executive committee accepted soon after the 1999 European parliamentary elections that the closed regional list was unsuitable for elections in Britain.

I hope that the Government, with the non-party Electoral Reform Society, to which I pay tribute, will now consult widely on a voting system for the 2004 European parliamentary elections, which must achieve the following three essentials. First, it must allow voters to choose candidates, not just parties. Secondly, it must be broadly proportional and avoid wild distortion. Thirdly, it must maintain a link between MEPs and areas of the country, presumably in multi-Member constituencies.

The most voter-friendly system, best able to meet those criteria, is undoubtedly STV, as used in Northern Ireland. It enables voters to rank all candidates within and across parties and to take account of all the factors that they think important. Each candidate, not just those lucky enough to be at the top of the list, has a reasonable chance of being elected. All candidates, including those who think that they might be marginal, would have to work for their support before, during and after the election.

The STV system also reduces the power of the party hierarchy and rebuts accusations of control freakery, which have become part of daily comment on politics in recent years. Under the STV system, success depends on the candidates' appeal to the wider electorate, not on rewards for party loyalty. The system also offers opportunities to independents. Most important, however, no vote is wasted. If the first-choice candidate is knocked out, the vote is transferred to the next preference and so on. Voters need not choose among a list of candidates whom they do not support, and their wishes will not be completely wasted.

Let me give an example, in parenthesis, of what I mean. In the south-west, in 1999, a very popular, active and high-profile candidate, who had served as an MEP, was pushed down the list. The system did not register the fact that he appealed across parties, rather than, for example, simply to Liberal Democrats. Under the previous regime, Robin Teverson was seen as Cornwall and Plymouth's MEP, but that counted for nothing under the list system, because he could not appeal for support among members of other parties on a non-party basis. That was a tragedy for the system and for our part of the country.

STV is obviously the most voter-friendly system, and experience in Northern Ireland gives us a useful and demonstrably successful precedent. However, a fully

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open list system is worth considering, and the Conservative party took up that position in 1998. The open list system has some features of STV, and the determined voter can break away from the order of preference that the parties dictate. Votes count for the party of one's choice, however, so voters may find themselves helping to elect candidates whose views they do not support.

It must be absolutely clear that the closed list system is firmly discredited, and I hope that the Minister takes this opportunity to say that on the Government's behalf. Indeed, it was discredited to a considerable extent, even before it was used, in both Houses and among Members of all parties. It was accepted only reluctantly so that a measure could be placed on the statute book in time for the election. Unless the Government want to increase cynicism and contempt for artificial party discipline, they should say that the closed list system has been firmly rejected as inappropriate to this country.

Semi-open lists are not much better. To start with, they are incredibly complicated, but that is not the real problem. Voters put an X next to their preferred candidates on a party list, but, unless a lot of people do that and the list changes dramatically, the outcome will be no different. That means that only exceptional candidates have any chance of beating the rank that their party gives them. They would require strong individual support, which is almost impossible to achieve in large areas. Large constituencies are inevitable, and they are likely to become bigger when the EU is enlarged and the number of MEPs reduces. The electorate would be likely to view such arrangements as something of a confidence trick played on them by the parties. Let me give an example.

Let us suppose that 80 per cent. of a party's vote comes from loyal party voters over a wide area who simply put their X on the party list. The other 20 per cent. might come from voters who favour a candidate who is popular because he or she is something of an individualist. Even if that candidate has a much larger personal vote than candidates at the top of the ranked list, he or she simply could not be elected. That would be seen as cheating the voters.

It might be suggested that we should consider alternative vote plus, the system advocated by the commission headed by my noble Friend Lord Jenkins of Hillhead. Had the sequence of events been different—if the commission had been able to report well in advance of the devolution legislation—there might have been merit in adopting a standard system for Scotland, Wales, Greater London and so on. Frankly, that was not an option at the time, although it would be appropriate if one were trying to elect the same sort of bodies, as would have been the case.

AV plus is designed to provide a strong local constituency link and broad proportionality. The former, which would inevitably involve duplication and confusion with the roles of Westminster Members of Parliament, is not especially desirable. Indeed, there would be resistance in the House to a system that emphasised the constituency connection, and MPs would fight such duplication and confusion.

As the 2001 general election amply demonstrated, the most powerful turn off for turnout is the perception that one's vote does not matter. Much comment on that

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election has been about the average turnout, which was an extremely disappointing 59 per cent., but the perceived foregone conclusion is the big disincentive, as can be shown by disaggregating the figures. What matters is not only the average across the country, but what happened in different constituencies.

For example, in Winchester my Liberal Democrat colleague had a majority of only two in 1997, and every vote seemed to the voter to be extremely valuable. The turnout there last year was 72.3 per cent. In Liverpool, Riverside, a traditionally safe seat for the Labour party, there seemed to be little chance of change and the turnout was only 34.1 per cent. The average disguises such wide variations. Taken with the overall perception that the Labour Government were likely to be returned, the incentive to vote in apparently safe seats for all parties was at an all-time low. I can demonstrate that from my experience.

When I was first elected to the House in 1974, my majority was just nine. The electorate had seen that the result was likely to be close, and turnout was 83 per cent. I am glad to say that, last year, my majority was rather more comfortable and well in excess of 9,000. However, it was difficult to persuade my electorate that the result would be terribly close, and I am sad to report that turnout fell to 63 per cent.

In the next European Parliament, we want to ensure that our representatives have a respectable democratic mandate. If we are to achieve that, we must devise an electoral system that gives the voter real choice, minimises wasted votes and affords votes equal value. Such a system would put the people rather than the parties back in the driving seat.

11.28 am

Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield): I congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) on securing the debate and, as chair of the all-party group on electoral reform, I am grateful to be able to make a brief contribution. Before the debate, I heard the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) say, "Oh God, it's the pro-proportional representation lobby." I have to plead guilty, but it is important to make one or two points about debates on the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999 and what resulted from of it.

No doubt for the best of motives, it has been said that the system of election adopted under the 1999 Act was favoured and pushed for by Members of the House from all parties who, over the years, have supported the more proportional systems. As we discuss reviews of that system, it is important to state that that was simply not the case. If hon. Members read the debates on the legislation, including my contribution on 25 November 1997, they will see that those people said that there were problems with closed lists.

Ultimately, an amendment that called for a review of the system was tabled by hon. Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew), who have been notable in their support over the years for a more proportional system. There was concern among those who generally support such a system and those who support first past the post about the closed list system as drawn up in the Bill.

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Before I move on to the changes that might be made to that system, we should go back a stage. The valid criticisms that people make of the electoral system that was adopted, especially the closed list system, sometimes lead them to look through rose-coloured spectacles at the system that existed before. Let us remember that, under the previous system for elections to the European Parliament, constituencies often did not reflect real communities and were often not generally known in their area. I lived in part of Birmingham that would have been described, geographically, as west of Birmingham, but the European constituency was called Birmingham, East. Such constituencies often did not reflect anything real.

There is logic in considering the region as the basic unit of election for the European Parliament, as that makes sense in terms of the way in which Europe operates, including the disbursal of European funds and programmes. The regional dimension is vital to that, so considering the link between the European Parliament and the regions is sensible. Whatever criticisms we may make of the precise form of electoral system adopted for the 1999 Act, a regional basis for elections should not be rejected out of hand. There is a great deal of merit in the idea.

I ask supporters of first-past-the-post electoral systems, who object to closed lists on the ground of democracy, to reflect on the fact that an electoral system based on first past the post also results in a closed list. The only difference is that the closed list has one name on it per party, rather than several. It is argued that, if there are a number of names on a closed list, voters are denied the choice that they have under first past the post with single-Member constituencies, but that does not stand up to close scrutiny.

My other point about those rose-coloured spectacles that people sometimes put on relates to turnout. The hon. Member for North Cornwall rightly alluded to the matter. If we consider turnout before the last European elections, we may make some interesting discoveries. It is often said that adopting a more proportional system that ties numbers of European parliamentary seats more exactly to votes cast for the parties has led to a drop in turnout, but the evidence for that does not exist.

Before the adoption of the proportional system, Britain was virtually unique in Europe in electing MEPs in first-past-the-post constituencies. If we consider turnout for the 1994 elections, we see that Britain did not come out well compared with other counties. Turnout was 90.7 per cent. in Belgium, 52.5 per cent. in Denmark, 60 per cent. in Germany, 59 per cent. in Spain and 52 per cent. in France. The percentage in the Netherlands was low at 35.6 per cent.—lower, just, than in Britain, where turnout was 36.4 per cent.

The argument that adopting a more proportional system leads to lower turnout does not stand up to scrutiny. Turnout was low in 1994 and appalling at the last elections under the changed system of parliamentary electoral arrangements, but, interestingly, the drop in turnout for those elections is roughly the same as that for general and local elections. Percentages are dropping across the piece. That is not meant to be comforting. The issue should and does worry all politicians, and the drop

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represents people's profound disconnection with the political process, but it is not related to the introduction of more proportional voting arrangements.

It is important to get those things on the record, but not everything in the garden was lovely during the last European elections. Turnout was appalling and people rightly had deep reservations about adopting a closed list. That has been given more graphic meaning in the past 24 hours. There is a problem with a list system that does not allow the voter to record any preference for specific candidates of the same party. What happens if circumstances change after the election?

A gentleman named Richard Balfe was elected a Labour MEP on a Labour list at the previous European parliamentary elections. We read, in a rather strange statement, that he has joined a different political party. Interestingly, he joined the Conservatives. It is no surprise that that has received a lot of media coverage—it does not happen often.

When the hon. Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham (Mr. Marsden) defected from the Labour party recently, there was an argument about whether, as one elected a Labour MP, he should stand and fight as a Liberal Democrat or resign his seat. It seemed to me that there was a good argument that he should pursue the latter course. However, at least he could argue that people voted for him personally. How far his constituents voted for him rather than the Labour party is an interesting question—perhaps we will see the results of his decision at the next general election—but he could say that people voted for the individual whose name was on the ballot paper, against which they had put their X. He played down the importance of the fact that his name had "Labour" printed next to it. I disagree with him on that, but we can resolve the issue in due course.

In the European parliamentary elections, however, although the name Richard Balfe was on the ballot paper, the individual voter could not record any preference whatever for him. There is a powerful argument that, when he decided, for his own reasons, to leave the Labour party and join the Conservatives, the voter became disfranchised. Mr. Balfe was not elected as an individual, but because he was on the Labour list. He probably needs to consider his position as a result, but his situation says something about the operation of closed list systems that we need to consider seriously.

There is also the issue of fairness. The relationship between the individual voter and people seeking elective office of any kind is important, and there is a great tradition in British democracy of retaining that link so that the voter can acknowledge the importance of party, but connect on an individual level. It is rather fanciful to suppose that political systems can operate in this day and age without organised political parties, but political parties are made up of people. Not all candidates have the same qualities or views, even within the same party. We should protect the voter's right to recognise that and to express preferences, particularly in multi-Member systems. The credibility of the electoral arrangements adopted for the European parliamentary elections suffered from that link being broken.

In the run-up to passing the 1999 Act, several alternatives were proposed. The hon. Member for North Cornwall alluded to the fairly minimalist idea that became known as the Belgian system. In most cases,

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it achieves proportionality on the basis of parties and it usually ensures that the ranking of party lists prevails in elections, but it does allow the voter to record a vote against a candidate if he or she wishes. The previous Home Secretary was greatly exercised about naming famous Belgians in that debate, and about Mr. d'Hondt, whose name frequently appeared.

It was decided not to adopt that voting system, but if we are reviewing arrangements for European parliamentary elections we should at least consider it. However, I agree with the hon. Member for North Cornwall that it is not the only option we should examine. A range of electoral choices and systems are available, and he is right to say that, at this stage, we must consider the principles on which the system should operate.

One principle that we should support is a voter's right to vote for a candidate as well as a party. That can happen in different ways. The second principle appears radical when suggested in this place, although one would not think that it should be. The system adopted should broadly reflect the number of votes cast for a party in the number of seats it secures. That might be thought to be common sense, but it is all too often seen in this Parliament as radical and outlandish. It is a principle that should be upheld in any review of European parliamentary electoral arrangements.

The third principle is the most difficult, but perhaps, in a way, the most important. The arrangements that we adopt must reflect, support and encourage a reconnection of voters with the political process. That is the real challenge for us all. No electoral system in the world, whether that of Mr. d'Hondt or anyone else, will alone ensure a reconnection of voters with the political process. Electoral arrangements alone do not do that. They can help, but I put it no more strongly than that.

If we provide that help, we must ensure that we move on to the next task. If we are elected to the House on an ever-dwindling proportion of the vote, we shall all suffer. More importantly, democracy will suffer. When democracy suffers, the whole political system, voters and citizenship suffer too. That possibility is faced not only by this Parliament, but by the European Parliament, for whose elections turnout is already low and worsening, to judge from recent examples. We need to turn our minds to the issue.

Wisdom on this subject is not the monopoly of any one political party. All too often we need to examine how we go about our affairs in this place and in political debate, and consider how we contribute to the disconnection.

It seems to me that all too often the press contribute to the disconnection of politics from the citizen. If the press wish to promote real debate, they should examine some of the ways in which they go about their affairs. The issue is partly about making voting easier in all kinds of ways, although on the basis of experiments that have been carried out so far, the impact of that approach seems limited. We can all do something, but that reconnection is most vital. I hope that the review of European parliamentary electoral arrangements will take place promptly and will reflect the principles of voter choice and representation, broadly linking the

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numbers of votes cast to seats gained. Most important of all, it should contribute towards reconnecting the citizen with the political process.

11.45 am

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): It is a pleasure to engage in this debate—a debate that I remember fondly from the previous Parliament. I congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) on raising the matter. He made the important point that if there is a review, it should be open and the subject of widespread debate, rather than being an internal matter for the Home Office or the Department for Transport, Local Government and the Regions. One factor in that decision may be the Government's embarrassment about how things have turned out.

I remember the European Parliamentary Elections Bill ping-ponging backwards and forwards between the House of Lords and the House of Commons, and certain phone calls being made by the then leader of the Liberal Democrats to Downing street to say how important and totemic the issue was, and that it should form the basis of co-operation between Liberal Democrats and the Labour Government. Eventually, the Government pushed through the legislation, and I can remember a cheer on the Floor of the House, not from the Labour or Conservative Benches, but from about 20 Liberals, who waved their Order Papers as if the Bill were a milestone to be welcomed.

Listening to the debate today, one gets the impression that people are defensive about the system that has been pushed through. The tone of the debate has been to try to explain why turnout is so low and to argue that it is apparently not the fault of the system. The key point is that European elections are different from every other election. When people turn out for a general election, they turn out to elect a Government. If people turn out for a council election, in most cases, they turn out to elect an administration to run a local authority. I am unsure what people think that they are doing when they turn out for a European election, because the division of seats between parties does not have a dramatic effect on people's lifestyles. I am not sure that people connect politically with the system of government in Europe, which is why low turnouts are inevitable.

In addition, I suspect that the general antipathy towards Europe means that there will always be low turnouts, although it is clear that the turnout under a closed list system was lower than under the original first-past-the-post system. I like first past the post. It is simple and ensures that a Member is linked to a geographical area. Although the European Parliamentary Elections Bill was much criticised when it went through the House of Commons on the basis that the constituencies were large and unwieldy, I thought that it worked quite well.

In my constituency, there was a Member for Dorset. In the next-door county, there was a Member for Wiltshire. That meant that there was a county council, half a dozen local authorities, branches of the National Farmers Union and the Women's Institute, and a definite link between organisations and the elected representative. On the whole, people knew who their Member was, and if there was a problem, they knew who to get hold of. There was also a link between the Member elected to the European Parliament and the

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half a dozen Members of Parliament for that area who would discuss problems and correspondence among themselves.

The then Home Secretary—the present Foreign Secretary—said that the constituencies were far too large and not sufficiently representative, but the Government then managed to give us a system of constituencies with millions of voters. If there was any logic in saying that a Dorset or Wiltshire constituency was too large, there is little logic in having Cornwall, Devon, Somerset, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Dorset lumped together. I do not believe that it is possible to act as a representative of such an area.

We have gone backwards. Having introduced the 1999 Act and abolished those large European constituencies, the Government introduced the Greater London Authority Act 1999, which, under an additional member system, created large first-past-the-post constituencies in London that meant twinning London boroughs. If that size was unacceptable for Europe, it is inconsistent to have first-past-the-post representatives for two London boroughs, because they are similar in size to the former European constituencies. I suspect that the Government's views change depending on what objectives they have at the time. First past the post worked pretty well.

The hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) is right about the closed list of one, but that allows people to vote for individuals. The hon. Member for North Cornwall made a good point about Mr. Teverson. It is ironic that, had the system been first past the post in the west country, it is likely that at least two Liberals would have been elected. Changing to a list system, in the west if not in the country as a whole, was a disadvantage to them.

I raised another subject with the then Home Secretary several times. If the principal driving force of the system is proportionality, and if people have ticked the box that says, "Conservative", "Liberal Democrat", "Labour", "UKIP" or whatever, what happens when someone switches party? Those Members will not have been voted for personally; they were on a party list. I asked the then Home Secretary about that before the Bill went through the House, but he did not want to address the issue.

The first Member to switch party was Bill Newton-Dunn; he was elected as a Conservative but switched to the Liberal Democrats. The second Member to switch was Michael Holmes, who was leader of the UK Independence party but fell out with its two members and decided to become an independent Member in the south-west. We come next to the far-sighted and extremely principled decision of Mr. Richard Balfe to join the Conservative party, which brings our proportionality back to what it was before Bill Newton-Dunn left us.

It is a poor system if although people have voted for a party, the Member can switch sides. I believe that such a person should be disqualified. Otherwise, it makes nonsense of proportionality. Because by-elections are not held, if Mr. Bill Newton-Dunn, Mr. Michael Holmes or Mr. Richard Balfe were to die, they would be replaced by someone else from the party list that the

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Member was on at the time of the election; someone would automatically move up the list. Proportionality would thus be restored.

The dilemma with a closed list system is that allowing Members to switch parties at will makes nonsense of it. I agree with the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield that if someone has been elected as Member for Shrewsbury and Atcham, and it was his name on the ballot paper, it is a respectable position to argue that people voted for him—expecting him to use his judgment. However, that argument is less respectable when people have simply voted Labour, and it would be interesting to see what would happen.

The only Member to have switched parties in my lifetime who thought it reasonable to go to his electorate after having changed party was Bruce Douglas-Mann, in the constituency of Mitcham and Morden. He switched to the Social Democratic party, and decided to stand again because he had gained a small majority in 1979 with the help of his Labour activists. Having done the honourable thing, however, he lost his seat to my former colleague Angela Rumbold. Those who switch parties may not necessarily wish to follow that precedent.

There is a general problem with the closed list system. I believe in first past the post, because the rules have been adequately drawn up. Turnout under the closed list system will inevitably be low; unlike the first-past-the-post system, in which candidates had to get their party workers out on the streets, the large regional area constituencies probably led to a lower turnout.

Today the Liberals trotted out their policy for a single transferable vote in multi-Member constituencies, except where there are natural geographical boundaries. I have never been a great fan of STV. We used to use it a little for university elections, but I do not think it is used by any country apart from Malta and southern Ireland.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the single transferable vote is now used for the election of some Members of the European Parliament in the United Kingdom, because it is used in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Syms rose—[Interruption.]

Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. There seems to be an electrical fault of some sort in the microphone system, or a loose connection somewhere. I can give hon. Members that professional advice free.

Mr. Syms : So long as you assure me that it is not the Iraqis, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

I seem to remember that the Australian Senate uses STV to some extent. The biggest problem is that the system requires competition between candidates of the same party. If we moved to an open list system or STV, a great change of culture would be required, especially if the constituencies were geographically large. Also, individuals rather than parties would have to run campaigns. In terms of expense, and in terms of our culture in the UK, that would not go down especially well. In Ireland, individuals' children or grandchildren

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often inherit constituencies, because party machines have been built up in specific areas to win STV contests. I am not sure that I am a great fan of STV.

There is a respectable argument for the German system, and if we were to depart from first past the post—my first love—and use it for London, Scotland and Wales, it would be sensible to stick to that one system. People would at least have a chance of understanding it. The proposals for the European election were unacceptable, and the system has proved to be poor. Most people would prefer change. My preference would be for first past the post, but moving to smaller regions and open lists might increase public choice. Electoral systems must ultimately be for people, not for party machines.

Another problem caused by closed list systems for large regions was how the parties selected candidates. None of the parties felt happy about the manner in which we had to select and then rank candidates for specific contests. That left a nasty taste in most of our mouths. We ought to review and change the system so that it is more publicly acceptable.

The Government have given us an unacceptable system that needs reform. Change will best be provided by open debate and dialogue between members of parties in the House, rather than internally and quietly. I hope that the Minister will assure us that the Government will be far more open about the electoral system that our people deserve.

11.58 am

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) on securing the debate, which is exceptionally timely. He drew attention to the fact that Opposition parties should not have to bring this matter before the House. Instead, the Government should seek the views of the House and lay their proposals before us. When the Minister replies, I hope that he will make up for the deficit of the failure to carry out the promised review.

In lieu of that, and before we consider what we should do in future, it is worth being realistic about the good and bad points of the 1999 election. For the first time, an election was held across the whole United Kingdom using proportional representation. The implementation of that system throughout the UK was a close-run thing. Hon. Members suggested that it was by no means certain that it would happen at the time. However, it did happen. The Liberal Democrats unashamedly welcome that, and hope for a widening of the application of proportional representation to our electoral systems—for this place among others—in the years to come.

The most obvious of the good outcomes of the change is that a much more proportional result, in party political terms, was achieved than ever before, whether for European or other elections. Secondly, regional balance was provided. I make that point because the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) alluded to the situation in the south-west. That is fine, but I come from the north-west, where the chances of a Liberal Democrat being elected in a non-proportional system are approximately zero. We now have a fair representation of all the parties in all the regions.

I would not want the House to misunderstand the importance of such fair representation. It is no good for democracy if all the Conservatives come from the

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south-east of England, all the Labour Members come from the north of England and all the Liberal Democrats come from the south-west. We need the benefits that regional balance has brought.

Another result of change, although perhaps not everyone would agree that this is a positive outcome, is that it has allowed a measure of gender balance in representation. There has certainly been an opportunity for my party to attend to that in a conscious and determined way, resulting in an exact 50:50 split between the sexes. The vagaries of first past the post, for instance, often make that difficult to achieve.

Changing from first past the post to the closed list system that was used in 1999 brought about some clear good outcomes. However, some other effects that are sometimes assumed to be negative have proved, on examination of the evidence, to be neutral. Certainly, the effect on turnout was neutral. There was a substantial fall in turnout between the 1997 general election and the 1999 European election. One could draw the conclusion that that had something to do with the system. However, study of the figures for the 2001 general election shows that that fall was part of an overall pattern of decline.

The Minister might want to reflect on the idea that a reduction in turnout between the 2001 parliamentary election and the next European election equal to that between the 1997 general election and the 1999 European election would imply national turnouts in the low teens for the next European parliamentary election. The Home Office's internal report makes the point that there is no evidence of an impact on turnout as a result of the change that we are discussing.

The second way in which the impact of the change has proved to be neutral is related to the question of whether the electorate were confused, whether they could discriminate, and whether the new arrangements affected the way in which they cast their votes. The Home Office report contains useful figures, and its finding is that voters were not confused. Only a small minority said that they failed to understand the system. The proportion of spoiled votes was lower than in the preceding general election, and there was little evidence that any voter failed to go to the polling booth because of confusion about the voting system—still less because of worry about a very large ballot paper.

My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall made a point about the Leeds, Central parliamentary by-election, which took place on the same day as the European election. Some myths have been built around that event, but it is worth examining the facts. Almost exactly 13,000 votes were cast in the by-election, and, to within 20 votes, the same number were cast in the same constituency for the European election on the same day. There is every indication that it was the same 13,000 voters who went to the polling station in Leeds, Central, were given two ballot papers, and put them in separate boxes.

Interestingly, the outcome was not the same in the two elections. The voters of Leeds, Central did not vote for the political parties in the parliamentary by-election in the same proportions as they did in the European election in the same constituency area. Those figures are on the record and easy to find. In other words, the voters of Leeds, Central went into the polling booth, were

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given two papers and deliberately voted differently in the parliamentary by-election, in which they were sending a new MP to Parliament, from the way that they voted for their Member of the European Parliament.

That is interesting and should dissuade us from the view that the electorate does not know what the hell it is doing. The electorate is quite smart. I will make a point that is not particularly to the advantage of my party: in Leeds, Central our result for the parliamentary by-election was substantially better than our result for the European election. In all conscience I must say that that was because the voters of Leeds, Central were less impressed with our approach to European policy than they were with our approach to national policy.

I am not revealing any great state secret there—one can see the evidence in any MORI poll—but my point is that, far from being confused by having two voting systems and separate programmes put in front of them, the voters were able to discriminate. I want to nail down the argument that, by introducing a proportional system, we have somehow confused people into not voting, or putting their vote in the wrong place.

Having said something about the good outcomes, and having, I hope, dispelled some of the myths about the neutral outcomes, I should say that there have been some poor outcomes. The hon. Member for Poole says, quite rightly, that there was much waving of Order Papers on the Liberal Democrat Benches when a proportional system was introduced, but it is no secret that we argued strongly that that system should have been better. The system that was introduced is, comparatively speaking, fair to political parties, but it is not fair to voters. The voters, who, as I said, are quite smart, know that well.

All the matters under discussion today could have been presented in the form of an official Government report for consideration by the House, in preparation for the next election. It is a matter of great regret that a full review has not taken place. The Home Office conducted a review that said some useful things, but did not collect evidence in a proper consultative way. There has been no opportunity to debate the outcome. My hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall very properly made the point that, had things gone to plan, such a review would have been a legal requirement under the Bill. It appears to have been a fluke of the timing of the second Bill that that requirement was not built in. It is disappointing that the Government have not felt able to hold such a review.

The Liberal Democrats would like to see the single transferable vote extended from Northern Ireland to the rest of the United Kingdom. That would provide the opportunity to choose between new and old Labour candidates, pro and anti-Euro candidates, men and women, Lancashire and Cheshire, and between Merseyside-based and Manchester-based candidates, in a way that is not open to electors under a closed list system.

Will the Minister introduce a review? Even if he does not, will he abandon the closed list—and if he abandons the closed list, will he ensure that we adopt the single transferable vote? Will he and his Government, for goodness' sake, let go of the candidate selection

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procedure, so that the popular conception that politicians are in control of the voting system can be ended and the people put back in control? We also need to raise awareness of the significance of the European Parliament and ensure that voters understand what it does.

The hon. Member for Poole made a number of highly relevant points. However, in reply to his point about by-elections, closed lists and standing down, I should point out that the system works for the lower House in Australia, where the Chief Whip of every party holds a letter of resignation from every Member, and may submit that letter if a Member changes party.

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): Do not give them ideas.

Mr. Stunell : For every illness there is a cure, and for every cure there is an illness. When we make our claims, we must be careful how we proceed.

12.11 pm

Mrs. Theresa May (Maidenhead): To follow what the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) has just said, I agree that we should be careful, especially when we make suggestions that Chief Whips might be listening to. One never knows where one will end up.

The last time the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler), the Minister and I debated electoral issues was during proceedings on the Sex Discrimination (Election Candidates) Bill. I am pleased that that legislation has been enacted. I mention it because at that time, there was much unanimity of view on the importance of that legislation. The hon. Member for Hazel Grove commented on how proportional representation systems have enabled parties to achieve a better gender balance. However, parties should not rely on proportional representation to improve gender balance. It is essential that all parties in this House—especially mine, given its record—work hard to ensure that more women enter the House, so that women are better represented.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall has raised a valid subject. Like other hon. Members, I want to comment on some of the issues relating to individual electoral systems for the European Parliament and elsewhere. However, the core issue that the hon. Gentleman has raised is the fact that the Government gave a commitment to review the electoral arrangements for the European Parliament, but so far have not done so.

I refer hon. Members to a written answer that the Minister gave the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) on 26 February. The hon. Gentleman asked the Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions about

The Minister replied:

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The next round of the European parliamentary elections will be in 2004, so the Government will have to get their skates on if they are to conduct an open review of the type that every hon. Member will welcome. They will have to act swiftly if there is to be a genuine assessment of the voting system that was introduced before the last European parliamentary elections, and changes are to be made if the review implies that they are necessary. Yet again, I fear that the Department is too taken up with other matters, and is not addressing the real issue.

There is a need to review. This is not just about closed lists; I hope that the Minister will respond to a report from some months ago in a national newspaper that the European Commission was considering the introduction of transnational party lists as a voting system for the European parliamentary elections. Those of us who do not like the concept of party lists for the elections in the United Kingdom believe that transnational party lists are even more likely to alienate the electorate from wanting to vote.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall suggested in passing that those who opposed proportional representation did not believe in representative systems of election. In fact, the first-past-the-post system, which I believe in, is a representative system, although it does not fall within the category of proportional representation. I would not want the debate to go by without challenging the suggestion that systems other than proportional representation are not representative.

The hon. Gentleman commented on the impact that the closed list system had had on the Conservative party's results in the 1999 European parliamentary elections. He acknowledged that those who were on the Opposition Front Bench during the passage of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill had argued for an open list system. He added that our party would have won more seats under the first-past-the-post-system—but our concern is to support the system that we believe will provide the best representation for the electorate and the best means of developing a Government who can govern and take decisions in the interests of the electorate.

My party has both gained and suffered as a result of the systems of proportional representation in different parts of the country. We continue to oppose proportional representation for the European Parliament and to support the first-past-the-post system, as my hon. Friend the Member for Poole made clear.

My hon. Friend also said how bad the system that the Government had introduced for the European parliamentary elections was. They introduced a closed list system, which increased the control of political parties over the electoral system and reduced the feeling among the electorate that they were connected to those who represented them in the European Parliament.

I accept the evidence, such as it is, as regards the low turnout in the European parliamentary elections. The quantitative research carried out by the Office for National Statistics did not show that the turnout was

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connected to the voting system, as anyone who reads the Library note on the subject will see. On the face of it, that was the result of the research, but I wonder whether it is true. When I was canvassing during that election, people would ask, "Who is my candidate?" When I explained that there was a different system and they did not have an individual candidate, they immediately turned off, saying, "I want to be represented by an individual who I know and who I can go to."

One fact that became apparent from the low turnout in the European parliamentary elections was that people did not feel connected to the European Parliament and did not, therefore, feel a desire to vote for it. I suspect that the closed list system that the Government introduced will lead to increasing apathy and to an increasing lack of connection between the electorate and the European Parliament, whose Members they elect. Turnout could be adversely affected if we continue to use that system. Indeed, people still ask me, "Who is my Member of the European Parliament?" I have to explain that the Conservative party has allocated individual MEPs particular geographical areas, such as the county of Berkshire, so that they can build up a relationship, and people can feel connected. The system goes against the building of such relationships, however, and does not provide the electorate with the same degree of connection.

My party continues to believe that the first-past-the-post system is the best way to enable members of the electorate to feel that they are voting for an individual who will represent them, whatever the elected body. That system requires a party to have a wide appeal across the electorate, rather than simply to gain votes on the back of appeals to narrow sectional interests, as is the case in some proportional representation systems. This is not only about the individual, but about the need for a party to have a set of policies that appeal widely across the electorate.

The Government should keep their manifesto commitment to review the electoral arrangements for the European Parliament. The fundamental issue for the debate has been that the Government have failed to keep that commitment, but I continue to support the view that the best system for elections to that Parliament is first past the post.

12.20 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Dr. Alan Whitehead) : I congratulate the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) on securing the debate, which has produced some interesting contributions. Clearly the issue will not go away. I am grateful to all hon. Members who took part for their advice, although it will be no enormous surprise when I say that not all of it can be accepted.

In such debates, there is a sense in which we move towards having a philosophical seminar on the practical utility of Kant's categorical imperative as the basis of an ethical system. I am interested both in Kant's categorical imperative and in elections, so I welcome that. However, we need to ensure that we consider not only the philosophical basis of what we are discussing but its utility, as several contributions have emphasised.

In terms of utility, I was a little perplexed by the suggestion that a change in the system would put votes back in the hands of people rather than parties. I wonder

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what parties mean in such a view of the world. As my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Richard Burden) said, parties are collections of people who work within the democratic process for positions and ambitions. Parties are about people. We might paraphrase Voltaire and say that in a democracy, if parties did not exist it would be necessary to invent them. The idea that we could somehow produce a system that checkmated the influence of parties by offering a greater good than them does not have great bearing on the utility of electoral systems, which is what we ought to be thinking about.

Several hon. Members suggested that Members of the European Parliament could have a read-across from Members of Parliament in terms of their constituency responsibilities. I wonder about the genuine utility of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield reminded us that even under the previous system, MEPs were not exactly known by every member of every household. Indeed, it is difficult to see how they could have been. Hon. Members have pointed out that under the proposed expansion of the European Community, the number of our MEPs would be reduced to 72 from 87, but the idea that even 72 MEPs across the country could have similar individual connections with constituencies, as if there were a direct analogy with Members of Parliament, is fanciful.

My hon. Friend suggested that in terms of how Europe and its debates work, there was a strong philosophical case for allying representation in the European Parliament with some regional basis, and that has some salience. As hon. Members have pointed out, however, the issue is essentially political. I cannot see the immediate philosophical objection to different electoral systems for different forms of representation, for example. The idea that we must have the same system for Parliament, the Greater London Assembly and European elections does not have a great basis in fact.

One could say that the advocates of the single transferable vote are the Plymouth Brethren of the PR firmament, and tend to regard other forms of proportional or semi-proportional representation as lesser moral activities. However, there is something to be said for taking a pluralistic view of how systems work and considering the relationship between desired outcomes and representative institutions.

Mr. Tyler : Does the Minister not think that there is value in having consistency between the systems that operate for the same election in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Dr. Whitehead : I did mention the Plymouth Brethren element of the debate.

Certain factors associated with the electorate and the system in Northern Ireland enhance the value of using the single transferable vote in Northern Ireland. However, my general point was that for elections to a particular assembly that is directly related to the people whom it represents, and is seen to be making decisions immediately adjacent to those people, one might consider a system different from the one that is appropriate for electing a number of members to another assembly, other members of which are elected from elsewhere.

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As for utility, I was interested in the logic of the suggestion that there should be resignation notes in the Whip's locker, especially under a system in which people are elected through party lists. However, that leads us to the further philosophical question—Burke's question, in fact—of whether a person is a representative or a delegate. If people are representatives they should be able to change their minds—but that opens up other problems.

The hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) and others talked about declining election turnouts. Indeed, the Home Office review indicated that there was no direct connection between the new system and the decline in turnout. Many hon. Members have rehearsed the arguments about turnout. It is true that turnout for European parliamentary elections is distressingly low throughout Europe. As hon. Members have said, it is up to all of us to think more widely about how that decline can be reversed, but the idea that one method of electing people to one parliament will turn things around is fanciful.

The debate has concentrated on comparing the closed list system with the open list system but the first election that was held under the new system is not exactly ancient history; it took place only three years ago. At the time, we had extensive debates about the merits of the two systems. The system worked in the election. The publicity put out by the Home Office ensured that public knowledge—both of the fact that an election was to take place and that a new proportional system would be used—was high. About 57 per cent. of the electorate knew that they would be voting in a different way, and there was no suggestion that anyone did not vote because they preferred to vote using a different system. The closed list system is not discredited. Indeed, it continues to operate in several European countries, where there is no ferment of discussion about whether it should be abandoned.

The closed list system has several advantages for voters. It is simple and easy to understand. It relates well to previous systems with which the electorate are already familiar. One vote for the party of one's choice is a familiar scenario for most voters. It produces a proportionate result—an important change that the hon. Member for Hazel Grove (Mr. Stunell) has welcomed. Although some might argue that the complexities of the d'Hondt method might tax the best mathematicians, I suspect that members of the public are not especially concerned about what method will be used to count the votes. The electorate know that the top candidate from each party is likely to get in. It is, therefore, possible to defend the closed list system. So far, it has been used for only one election, which is hardly a fair trial. We adopted it only three years ago and have operated it only once.

The Labour party's manifesto commitment was to review the Jenkins commission recommendations for Westminster elections. The question from my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) included all elections, but if the hon. Member for Maidenhead reads the Labour party manifesto commitment, she will see—

Mr. Nigel Beard (in the Chair): Order. The next debate is on medical liability.

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