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3 Feb 2003 : Column 80—continued

'(4) In determining what recommendation to make for the distribution of any total number of MEPs, the Electoral Commission must ensure that—
(a) each electoral region (other than Northern Ireland) is allocated at least four MEPs;
(b) Northern Ireland is allocated at least three MEPs; and
(c) the ratio of electors to MEPs is as nearly as possible the same in each electoral region.'.

Mr. Deputy Speaker: With this it will be convenient to discuss the following:

Amendment No. 2, in page 2, line 29 [Clause 2], leave out 'and'.

Amendment No. 3, in page 2, line 29 [Clause 2], at end insert—

'(aa) Scotland is allocated at least eight MEPs;
(ab) Wales is allocated at least five MEPs; and;

Amendment No. 4, in page 5, line 5 [Clause 8], leave out 'and Wales'.

Amendment No. 5, in page 5, line 11 [Clause 9], leave out 'and Wales'.

Amendment No. 6, in page 9, line 36 [Clause 19], leave out subsection 2.

Amendment No. 7, in page 10, line 38 [Clause 21], leave out 'and Wales'.

Mr. Heath: The amendment returns us to an issue that we discussed in Committee: the impact of the electoral system for Members of the European Parliament on regions that have a smaller number of MEPs to elect. You will know, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that when the original European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999 was introduced we had long and conflicting arguments about the precise way in which the Government's decision to introduce a system of proportional representation for European parliamentary elections was implemented. My colleagues and I took the view—indeed, I believe that I was speaking for my party on the issue at the time—that a closed-list system was not preferable to an open-list one. I think that subsequent events have proved us right. The country has not been persuaded that a system that gives people the opportunity to vote not for individual candidates, but on the basis of a party list, gives them the latitude that they would like to exercise in deciding who represents them.

With a reduction in the total number of MEPs, an issue has come to light regarding the position of parliamentary regions—only one region, the north-east, will be affected by the change in question, as a result of the treaty of Nice—that elect a limited number of MEPs. One of the perverse effects of the electoral system that the former Home Secretary, now the Foreign Secretary, chose to implement is that proportionality reduces markedly when there is a limited number of MEPs to be elected. The north-east elects four MEPs, and it is anticipated that that will reduce to three once the Bill takes effect and the changes to the constitution of the European Parliament are in place. That will result in a very imperfect match between the votes cast for each candidate and the proportionality of the result. That

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does not apply in the case of Northern Ireland, which has only three MEPs at present—that will continue under the Bill and my amendment would not change that position—because, uniquely among the regions and countries of the United Kingdom, it has a provision for a single transferable vote system, which is proportional even in small numbers. I fear that I will lose the attention of the House completely if I go into detail about the relative merits of the d'Hondt and the Sainte-Lague methods of calculating arithmetical progressions for the purpose of determining proportionality, and you will be relieved to hear that I do not intend to do so even if tempted or prompted, Mr Deputy Speaker. However, I would point out that the d'Hondt formula exacerbates that problem.

7.30 pm

I speak from a position of disinterest, because my party would not necessarily be the beneficiary of any change of the kind that I propose in amendment No. 1. That may not be the case in the future, given present trends in the opinion polls, but on past political performance in the north-east we would not necessarily benefit. However, as a matter of principle, if we claim to have a system that is proportional across the country, it is both perverse and wrong to introduce an anomaly by design. That is why my amendment would provide a floor, so that each region, with the exception of Northern Ireland, would have at least four MEPs.

Lady Hermon: Given that thousands of people who left Northern Ireland during the appalling troubles that we endured for 30 years have returned since the Belfast agreement, why would the hon. Gentleman's amendment deprive that increased electoral roll of an additional seat at European elections?

Mr. Heath: That is not the intention of the amendment, nor is it what it says. The figure of four for other countries and regions of the United Kingdom and three for Northern Ireland would be the floor. If the Electoral Commission determined that it would be right and proper for Northern Ireland to have an extra MEP, it would not be a problem. I hope that I have allayed the hon. Lady's fears in that respect.

I am trying to achieve at least a broadly proportional system across the country. That would be disturbed if representation in the north-east were reduced to three MEPs, and that would be a retrograde step to which there are alternatives.

Mr. George Osborne (Tatton): Surely the only way to achieve a more broadly proportional system—the hon. Gentleman's words—would be to distort the system so that the north-east would have fewer voters for every MEP. Is that the correct approach?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman must know that that happens already. Under the regional system, parity is achieved only in the broadest terms between the number of electors and the number of MEPs in a region. He is right that my amendment would mean a subsequent distortion for the rest of the country, because it would be marginally less represented than it would otherwise be, but it would be a matter of percentage points only,

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not whole numbers. It would not have a retrograde effect on the rest of the country compared with the effect on the north-east of having a distorted representation under the Government's proposals.

There are other ways of addressing the problem. We could change the voting system across the whole country to extend to other regions the advantages of the single transferable vote system in Northern Ireland. The Government do not accept that proposition.

John Robertson (Glasgow, Anniesland): Thank goodness.

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman says "Thank goodness", but if he talked to people in Northern Ireland he would find that they recommended their system because they find it to be appropriate to their needs. There is a strong argument for extending that system to other parts of the country.

That would be one way of dealing with the anomaly. The other way would be to have flexibility in the boundaries of the English regions so that they could accommodate any changes by extending their areas. Again, the Government are not prepared to accept that. They want the boundaries of the English regions to be set in stone along the lines of the administrative boundaries that were set some time ago by a previous Government. I am not sure that they are right, but that is their view.

Having cut off those alternative ways of dealing with the problem, the only way that is left is through the proposal that I make in amendment No. 1. It would not be a perfect solution. As the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Osborne) says, it can operate only with a small detrimental effect on the rest of the country in terms of its representation. I accept that, and I hope that he recognises that it is not the system that I would choose. Nevertheless, it would be one way of addressing an problem that further suggests that the closed list system is not the best way of administering a European parliamentary election.

Angus Robertson (Moray): I am pleased to be able to speak in the debate, specifically on amendments Nos. 2 to 7, which are tabled in my name and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price).

I sincerely hope that the House will have the opportunity to express its views, especially on amendment No. 3, which deals with an issue of great importance to people in Scotland and Wales—namely, that of fair representation in the European Union. Given earlier contributions, to which hon. Members will have listened with close interest, I appreciate that there are issues of concern for people elsewhere, including in certain regions of England. My point has particular relevance to the representation of Scotland and Wales, in that they are nations, not regions. European law recognises representation for member states, but not for nation states that do not have the status of member states. We should remember why it is important that parts of the European Union have a fair and adequate level of representation in the European Parliament. It is fashionable to say that the European Parliament has no powers, so what is the point? However, when one looks

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at the growing role of the European Parliament, irrespective of whether one is a fan, it is clearly important to retain a fair and equitable level of representation—not merely because of the electoral system, but because it is important that a minimum amount of representation be guaranteed for Northern Ireland, which is recognised in the Bill. However, it is not recognised with regard to Scotland or for Wales.

It is clearly important to have a fair and equitable level of representation in the European Parliament, especially when one understands the importance of co-decision—that is, the role that the European Parliament plays in the legislative process, among other things, with regard to the free movement of workers, the establishment of the internal market, research, technological development, education, the environment, consumer protection and the like. Fair and equitable representation in the European Parliament is also important because of the role that it plays in budgets. The Parliament and the Council are the two arms of the budgetary authority, so they share the power of the purse just as they share legislative power. That is why it is important to have fair and equitable representation for Scotland, Wales and everywhere in the European Union.

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