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10 Dec 2002 : Column 174—continued

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): The Minister lays great stress on the need to ensure that the electoral system is working as best it can for all citizens. Does she accept that the system that the Government use for the elections—the so-called closed list system—is supported only by the control freakery tendency in the Labour party? Why is she not taking the opportunity offered by the Bill to reconsider the system so that we can have open lists that give each elector a real influence over the outcome of the election?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman knows that Parliament has debated open and closed lists extensively. We have no proposals to change the system. A series of other countries in Europe use the closed list system, which has the advantage of being clear, simple to operate and easy to understand. It also delivers a proportionate result.

Mr. William Cash (Stone): Did the Minister note the suggestion in the European Scrutiny Committee's report in June that it would be better to return to the first-past-the-post system for European elections rather than relying on proportional representation?

Yvette Cooper: The hon. Gentleman has a long history of arguing about such things. He knows that the provision for proportional representation is supported across Europe and, as I said, has been extensively debated in the House and the other place. We have no proposals to use the Bill to change the voting system for European elections.

Part 1 changes the total number of UK MEPs. The House knows that the European Union is preparing for the accession of new member states. The treaty of Nice was signed on 26 February last year by all EU member states and provides for the EU to be enlarged, eventually to include 12 new nations, so bringing the membership to a total of 27. EU enlargement will bring immense benefits in terms of regional stability, economic security, the economy and the environment.

Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells): I am surprised that the Minister has so far glossed over the allocation of the seats. She must be aware that the number of MEPs allocated provisionally to each country is a matter of controversy and dispute. Not all member states have accepted it. So why, according to the explanatory notes,

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does clause 4 accept that the European Commission will inform the UK of its representation and that the Lord Chancellor will then act on that information? Indeed, he can anticipate the numbers required. That appears to remove from the House the ability to debate the number of MEPs that we should have. I am aware that we will be invited to agree to an order, but why is the House not given an opportunity to debate and agree the number allocated to the United Kingdom when the procedure starts to roll under the Electoral Commission?

Yvette Cooper: I have been on my feet for about six minutes, in which time I have taken about four interventions. I intend to deal with the number of seats in just a few paragraphs, if the hon. Gentleman will be patient, and I hope to address his concern then. To suggest that I have glossed over the allocation is a little premature.

The benefits of enlargement will flow across Europe. We should strongly welcome the gains that that will bring for the accession states, which have worked hard to meet the criteria for joining the EU. Enlargement is in the direct interest of the UK as well. The widening market will bring long-term economic gains for British companies and British investors, and the environmental benefits that will result from accession states tackling pollution will be experienced here too. The benefits of regional stability have direct consequences for UK citizens as well as people across Europe.

Drawing the accession states into the EU means ensuring that they have proper involvement in European institutions and decision making. In particular, for the purposes of the Bill, it means ensuring that they have fair representation in the European Parliament. During preparations for EU enlargement, it was agreed by the treaty of Nice that an enlarged European Parliament with a maximum 732 MEPs was necessary. Existing member states are obliged to make reductions in the number of MEPs to make space for accession states and ensure that they have fair representation, while keeping the European Parliament at a manageable size.

The Bill sets up a framework for reducing the number of MEPs representing the UK to a final maximum of 72—a reduction of 15 seats from the current 87. The current number of British MEPs is specified in the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002, which is amended by the Bill. Along with France and Italy, the UK will continue to have the second-largest number of MEPs in the European Parliament.

Mike Gapes (Ilford, South): Can my hon. Friend confirm that the change in the number of MEPs to 732 is a great opportunity for us to move away from Strasbourg once and for all? We could have one location that was not expensive, inefficient and a waste of time and resources.

Yvette Cooper: As my hon. Friend will be aware, there are strong views in other European countries about that. It has been debated extensively across Europe, and I do not anticipate progress on the matter in the near future.

The number of seats that we have in the European Parliament will not be reduced all at once. It was agreed by the treaty of Nice that the reduction in existing

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member states' representation will take place as new states accede. It is intended to implement some reductions to account for the accession of the first group of accession states—probably 10 of the 12 candidates—in time for the 2004 election. Final decisions about which countries will accede and the number of seats to which each existing member state will be entitled with the first tranche of accessions will be made later this week at the European Council in Copenhagen.

Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham): I guess the Minister's refusal to answer the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) about our influence over the matter is a reflection of the fact that the Government have no influence. Does she agree with the Portuguese Government that as long as we stay outside the euro, we cannot possibly hope to provide a lead on or influence over such issues?

Yvette Cooper: Is the right hon. Gentleman advocating early membership of the euro? That would certainly be a startling change. I sense a shifting position—any minute now, the right hon. Gentleman will be telling us that the five economic tests have been met. As I have explained, the issues are decided by negotiation across Europe. Opposition Members must accept that that is the case—discussion and negotiation are essential. We must ensure that the European Parliament is an effective size and does not grow ever larger with the accession of each new country. It is important that it is of manageable size and that there is fair representation for all members of the European Union. Opposition Members seem to be suggesting that our Parliament should be able to pick numbers out of a hat and toss them at the European Parliament and that every other country should do the same. However, it is important that the issues are debated.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Instead of caricaturing our position, I wish that the Minister would answer my question. These matters are occasionally the subject of controversy and dispute, as she knows, under the Nice allocation. Why, therefore, does clause 4, according to explanatory notes, allow the commission to inform the United Kingdom what its allocation will be? Apparently, we have to accept that allocation without a debate or decision in our Parliament. I urge the Minister to amend the clause to give member states additional influence over that important matter of democracy. That is a rather modest request. I hope that she accedes to it in the light of her Government's professed desire to give member states' Parliaments additional authority.

Yvette Cooper: As I have made clear, the proposal for a reduction to a final maximum of 72 seats was part of the negotiations of the treaty of Nice. There will be further discussions at the Copenhagen European Council later this week to discuss which states will accede to the European Union this week. It is important for us to recognise that the pace of change towards that maximum of 72 seats will be determined by the pace of accession of other countries. That needs to happen and it will depend on the discussions that take place across Europe, not just this week, but in future.

There is an important issue about how those reductions are to be incorporated into the European parliamentary election system. We believe that the

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fairest way to decide where the reductions should occur is to ask the independent Electoral Commission to examine the issue and make recommendations. The commission will report to the Lord Chancellor the results of its review and present recommendations about the new distribution of MEPs across the UK. Clause 2 establishes a mechanism for such reviews. It gives the Lord Chancellor the power to require the Electoral Commission to undertake them within a specified period, and according to the number of MEPs necessary at that time.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): There is a great deal in the Bill about the Electoral Commission and Government Ministers, but there is nothing which states that the Electoral Commission must refer the matter to the boundary committee for proper scrutiny and due process. Will that be the case? There may be disputes among regions about the number of seats—on grounds of sparsity, for example. Does the hon. Lady expect a proper process to be undertaken?


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