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Public Bill Committee Debates

Draft European Parliament (Number of MEPs and Distribution between Electoral Regions) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2008

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Dr. William McCrea
Chapman, Ben (Wirral, South) (Lab)
Clarke, Mr. Charles (Norwich, South) (Lab)
Heppell, Mr. John (Nottingham, East) (Lab)
Hesford, Stephen (Wirral, West) (Lab)
Hewitt, Ms Patricia (Leicester, West) (Lab)
Howarth, David (Cambridge) (LD)
Howell, John (Henley) (Con)
Hurd, Mr. Nick (Ruislip-Northwood) (Con)
Khan, Mr. Sadiq (Tooting) (Lab)
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor (Epping Forest) (Con)
Michael, Alun (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Prentice, Bridget (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice)
Taylor, Mr. Ian (Esher and Walton) (Con)
Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab)
Wishart, Pete (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP)
Mike Clark, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Eleventh Delegated Legislation Committee

Wednesday 9 July 2008

[Dr. William McCrea in the Chair]

Draft European Parliament (Number of MEPs and Distribution between Electoral Regions) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2008

2.30 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice (Bridget Prentice): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft European Parliament (Number of MEPs and Distribution between Electoral Regions) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2008.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea—I think that it is the first time that I have done so and I look forward to it, as I am sure the rest of the Committee does.
The order relates to the European parliamentary elections to be held in June 2009 and is an important part of our preparations for those elections. It provides for the reduction in the number of UK Members of the European Parliament from 78 to 72, as a result of the accession of Bulgaria and Romania. The order also sets out how the new number of MEPs will be divided between the electoral regions in the United Kingdom. The new number of MEPs, as distributed by the order, will apply in the elections to the European Parliament in 2009.
May I give a little background on how and why the order is necessary? The treaty of Luxembourg, which came into force on 1 January 2007, provided for the accession of Bulgaria and Romania to the European Union and resulted in the Union being enlarged to 27 states. After the negotiations, in which the United Kingdom played a full part, it was agreed that the Parliament would have a maximum of 736 MEPs and that the number of MEPs allocated to the existing member states would be reduced to accommodate the new accession states.
The treaty of Luxembourg gave effect to the intent of the treaty of Nice that 12 new states should join the European Union. That has resulted in an expanded Union of 27 states. Ten of those states joined by virtue of the Athens treaty, which came into force on 1 May 2004. The Luxembourg treaty provided for the accession of the remaining two.
As I am sure that the Committee knows, the Government fully support the enlargement of the European Union. However, I am equally sure that hon. Members would agree that it makes sense to put some kind of limit on the total number of MEPs elected by states, so that the European Parliament does not become too unwieldy. A necessary consequence of that is that the number of MEPs elected by existing member states, including by us, must be reduced.
Parliament has given its approval to the Luxembourg treaty. The order implements the revised allocation of 72 MEPs, which is provided for in that treaty. Under the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002, for the purposes of elections to the European Parliament, the United Kingdom is divided up into 12 electoral regions. England is divided into nine electoral regions, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each constitute a single electoral region. The 2002 Act specifies how many MEPs each region has.
The European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003 provides the mechanism for implementing any change under Community law to the total number of MEPs to be elected in the United Kingdom. Where there is such a change, the Secretary of State for Justice will ask the independent Electoral Commission to make recommendations on how the new number of UK MEPs should be distributed between the regions. The 2003 Act specifies that, in making a recommendation, the Electoral Commission must ensure that each electoral region is allocated at least three MEPs and that the ratio of electors to MEPs is, as near as possible, the same in each electoral region. The Act provides that the Electoral Commission’s recommendation must be reflected in the order implementing the change. There is no discretion to reject or modify that recommendation.
In January last year, the Secretary of State for Justice asked the commission to make such a recommendation in respect of the reduced number of seats. The Electoral Commission made its recommendation at the end of July, in accordance with the 2003 Act. That recommendation was laid before Parliament in November 2007. The method used by the Electoral Commission was fully explained in its report and I do not feel that I need to go into the details of that report here. However, that method was supported by a number of expert sources, for example the Royal Statistical Society and the Office for National Statistics.
The recommendation was that in six electoral regions—eastern, north-east, south-east, Yorkshire and the Humber, Wales and Northern Ireland—the number of seats should remain unchanged, while the other six regions would all lose a single seat. As required by the 2003 Act, the order implements the recommendations as to the distribution of seats between electoral regions.
Article 1 contains the citation, commencement and interpretation provisions. The order will come into force on the day after it is made, although it will not affect the number or distribution of United Kingdom MEPs during the current term of the European Parliament.
Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): Looking at the list and seeing the regions that will lose a seat, does the Minister think that the reduction of one seat in Scotland is sufficient in the current circumstances?
Bridget Prentice: I am sure that my Scottish colleagues will feel considerable concern at the hon. Gentleman’s suggestion. The Electoral Commission examined the issue carefully and, as I have said, there was the statutory need to ensure that every region has at least three MEPs. The Electoral Commission has made recommendations that balance the difference in population across the different regions. However, the hon. Gentleman may wish to go into further detail on another occasion with our colleagues from Scotland on that provision.
Article 2 amends section 1 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002. The order inserts into the 2002 Act the new total of 72, and substituted subsection (3) provides for the distribution of MEPs between the regions according to the Electoral Commission’s recommendation. The order will apply to the United Kingdom and Gibraltar. As hon. Members will know, Gibraltar was enfranchised for the purposes of European parliamentary elections from June 2004 and has been combined with the south-west electoral region to form a new electoral region for European parliamentary elections.
The Electoral Commission has given us its support on the order; the 2003 Act required us to ask it for support. Therefore, as I said to the hon. Member for Esher and Walton, the Electoral Commission has made a fair and reasonable recommendation. It is never easy for colleagues to see the reduction in representation across the UK, and a personal feeling is almost always expressed. However, hon. Members know that the Boundary Commission, for example, regularly considers our boundaries, and we all take a clear and close interest in that issue. In this case, the Electoral Commission, understanding the difficulties that reducing the number of MEPs creates for individuals and political parties, has come up with a fair and reasonable recommendation. On that basis, I commend the order to the Committee.
The Chairman: It is helpful to remind the Committee that this debate will not revisit the principle of the reduction of the total number of UK MEPs. It would be in order for Members to ask why certain electoral regions rather than others have been selected to lose an MEP, but we will conduct the debate within those parameters.
2.39 pm
Mrs. Eleanor Laing (Epping Forest) (Con): Thank you, Dr. McCrea, and I echo the Minister’s words and say that it is a pleasure to serve under you for the first time on this Committee. In the same vein, I hope that the Committee will welcome my new hon. Friend the Member for Henley, who is serving on his very first Statutory Instrument Committee. His 40-minute speech on this matter has taken some preparation, Dr. McCrea, and I am sure that you will look forward to it.
I fully accept the parameters that you have set out, Dr. McCrea, and I would not wish to question such matters in detail. Indeed, I agree with the Minister that the Electoral Commission’s recommendation is fair and reasonable. We accept and fully support the fact that this order comes before us as a necessary consequence of the Luxembourg treaty, the terms of which we agree with. I agree with the Minister that the proportional reduction in the number of MEPs for EU member states as a result of the accession of new member states is proper—which is just as well, because we cannot disagree, as the law has already been passed in that respect. Nevertheless, I have no complaint.
Will the Minister say why, when negotiating the Lisbon treaty, the Government abandoned the principle under discussion and allowed the number of British MEPs to fall to 73, while there were, for example, to be 74 French MEPs? That is not a big difference, but, in principle, why should there be fewer representatives from the United Kingdom and Gibraltar than from France? What are the Government’s reasons for the French having greater representation than Britain in the EU? In practical terms, France might have only one more MEP, but as all Committee members know one vote can often be the deciding factor. Therefore, it matters in principle.
There is a worrying disparity between the representation of small countries and large ones, with the populations of small nations being significantly better represented per capita. What justification would the Government make for that situation? oes the Minister agree that the people of the United Kingdom and Gibraltar—as I will refer to it properly in this context—should be at least as well represented in the EU as any other nation, however large or small?
The elegant nature of the Luxembourg treaty provides an unfavourable comparison for the Lisbon treaty. How can the formula for the expansion of the EU to include Romania and Bulgaria be so simple and uncontroversial, when the Government pretend that future expansions demand a treaty on the monstrous scale of Lisbon? Is it not a fiction that Croatia’s accession to the EU cannot be managed in a similar manner? We agree with the Government on the provisions of the Luxembourg treaty, which has worked perfectly well. Why cannot the Lisbon treaty be modelled on the Luxembourg treaty?
Finally, our discussion raises the issue of the unpopular proportional representation system that the Government imposed on European elections, probably because they wanted to keep the Liberal Democrats happy during the negotiations on this matter in 1998. I say to the Liberal Democrat Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire, with whom I usually agree on many matters, that the system by which our MEPs are now elected is undoubtedly unpopular, because there is no proper, direct relationship between the elector and the elected. One of the principles of democracy is that people must know what they are doing when they vote. When they put their cross or a number on a piece of paper, they must know what the result of doing so will be. They must have a choice. The choice is made at present by political parties, not by the electorate.
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): I do not want to digress too far, but the hon. Lady will of course be aware that even under the leadership of that ghastly woman Margaret Thatcher—the antithesis of the angel who speaks for the Conservatives today—the Conservatives supported proportional representation in the 1970s but junked it as soon as they gained a majority in 1979.
Mrs. Laing: Although I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, I am not sure that it is a compliment to me to be called the antithesis of Baroness Thatcher. I know that he intended no personal insult, but I am afraid that it is not my dream to be the antithesis of Baroness Thatcher. The policies of the Conservative party in the 1970s, I am pleased to say, were not my responsibility, and they will not be resurfacing.
It is a serious point that the people casting their votes and making a decision in an election ought to know what it means when they fill in their ballot paper. The proportional way in which European elections are currently constructed in our country means that people do not have a choice, because that choice has been made by the political parties. That puts the power in the hands of political parties, rather than in the hands of the people. If democracy is to work properly, the power to choose or get rid of representatives must be simply exercised by the people and the electorate and not by political parties. I accept that EU law demands that that system has an element of proportionality, but it would be possible to have a different system in the UK that restored some of the link between the constituency and the representative and made the elections to the European Parliament more meaningful.
It is always my intention to try to improve the democratic system, so that it gives the people more of a say, takes power away from the state and political parties and ensures that democracy works properly. Having said that, on the narrow issues on the numbers of seats, I agree with the principles that the Minister laid down and will not seek to oppose the order.
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Prepared 10 July 2008