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

[back to previous text]

The Chairman: Before we proceed, I think that it would not be out of place to welcome the hon. Member for Henley as a new Member of the House, as this is the first Committee on which he has sat.
2.47 pm
Lembit Öpik: May I add my welcome to the hon. Member for Henley, whose election to the House I worked hard to try to prevent? Now that peace has been restored, I am happy to welcome him to the Committee.
Mr. Taylor: I thought that it was the efforts of the Liberal Democrats in Henley that ensured my hon. Friend’s election.
Lembit Öpik: In that case, the hon. Member for Henley owes me a pint, which I shall look forward to getting at some point in the future. In the spirit of cross-party decency, I welcome the hon. Gentleman. He might find the place somewhat jocular, but it is also a pretty warm place in which to work. I have no doubt that he will enjoy his time here.
The hon. Member for Epping Forest said that she was not the antithesis of Margaret Thatcher, but if Margaret Thatcher is the Medusa, the hon. Lady is the Joan of Arc. With regard to the quality of the country, there is no comparison, as the hon. Lady would have saved this country during the Thatcher era. Unfortunately, Thatcher wrecked it, but I digress.
The Chairman: Perhaps the hon. Gentleman would return to the order.
Lembit Öpik: Turning to the order, I also have a declared personal interest as the European Union has now expanded to include Bulgaria and Romania. Romania is a country that I know and love dearly.
Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): Tell us more.
Lembit Öpik: The hon. Gentleman asks me to tell the Committee more, but I think that he knows the reasons to which I refer, and I shall pass on his best regards to Gabriela when I see her later.
The inevitable consequence of the order is a change in the numbers for us and other countries, but curiously Germany seems to maintain its 99 MEPs. The debate is not therefore whether we reduce the numbers, but how we do so. I observe in parenthesis that, if the Lisbon treaty had been ratified, we would have lost none, or one MEP. That not being the case, we have to look at the changes as they apply to the United Kingdom.
Wales is not included in the reductions, but it suffered a loss of one MEP at the last turn of cuts, reducing the quota of MEPs for Wales from five to four. While accepting the inevitability of the reduction, the hon. Member for Epping Forest may be surprised that I share one of her concerns and have raised it within my party. Since I am alone today, I cannot be stopped from saying that it is difficult for a small number of Members of the European Parliament to represent colossal geographical areas. The hon. Lady is right to raise such a point.
I spoke to one of the Wales MEPs, who expressed almost a lament and said with a sense of despair that it takes him seven and half hours to drive from one end of the area that he represents to the other. I generally share the hon. Lady’s concern about making MEPs more accessible, psychologically and physically, to their constituents. I accept that that is a matter for another occasion but, in fairness, we should return to it.
I shall leave other members of the Committee to make specific points about the regions that are losing their MEPs. But, in anticipation of what the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire might say, I imagine that the reduction of one MEP in Scotland will cause the same added pressures on the remaining MEPs as has been the case in Wales. In her summation, perhaps the Minister will speculate on whether additional resources are available, and on what strategies can be put in place so as not to detach further MEPs from their constituents.
Alun Michael (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op): Does the hon. Gentleman accept not only that MEPs must spread themselves thinly across major territories, but that the identification with a number of constituencies, as occurred in the past, has been reduced? Although the system produces greater proportionality, the reduced identification with constituencies is a considerable loss in terms of identity, and in terms of local authorities and Members of this House being able to identify and work with MEPs.
Lembit Öpik: Although it is probably not productive for us to debate the electoral system in too much detail, it being somewhat separated from the matter at hand, I agree with the right hon. Gentleman. I harbour an ongoing concern about multi-seat, single transferable vote systems, whether for Europe or elsewhere. It is not an issue that has been resolved. Although I have asked the Minister to provide some perspective, in fairness to her, I do not think that she can give many words of comfort because the system makes a geographical necessity of expansive travel and thin access to MEPs as a whole. In addition, people tend to go to one particular MEP, perhaps for party or personal reasons. Therefore, with regard to Wales, we are talking about one MEP having to service people across a population of 2.9 million. That is difficult because, in essence, the detachment means that there is no real, easy regard for surgeries, and the MEP becomes reactive to matters that are brought their way.
Alun Michael: As I represented the vast area of Mid and West Wales in the Welsh Assembly for a time, I can confirm the nature of the challenge to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I take it that the greater reality that he brings to the debate about the nature of representation will follow on into an appreciation of the disadvantages of proportional representation, if applied without thought to the way in which representatives connect to communities.
Lembit Öpik: I have said what I am about to say in public as well, so it is not a great revelation. On an ongoing basis, I see the multi-seat, STV challenge as having to reconnect those individuals to the constituents whom they represent.
There is a slight difference in the questions—that of proportionality in the voting system, and that of large STV seats. It is the latter that we have an issue with, not the former. There are ways around the former, whereby one could have a fair system without necessarily breaking the link with constituents.
As for the proposals before us, we have to make the decision in some way. There will inevitably be losers in various constituencies. It looks to me as if the losers on this occasion are the list as described. I hope that the Minister can provide some comfort on the issues that I and the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth have raised, but I am not holding my breath. If the Minister is so minded, will she also reassure us that the potential paralysis that could ensue following the Lisbon debacle in the south of Ireland will not be allowed to thwart the concrete benefits of the European Union as a whole? In welcoming Bulgaria and Romania into the European Union, and accepting the necessity for such change, I hope that we consider some of the process issues raised.
2.56 pm
Pete Wishart: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Dr. McCrea. It is always good to see a representative of a minority party chairing a Committee. I extend a Caledonian welcome to the hon. Member for Henley, who is a new kid on the block, although he will only have that status for two weeks, as he will be joined by a Scottish National party Member when we overturn that 13,500 majority in Glasgow, East.
I oppose the order. We in the Scottish National party, and I personally, are totally opposed to any further reduction in Scotland’s voice in Europe. Even now, we recognise that Scotland is perhaps the poorest served nation in representation in the European Union. If the cut goes through, Scotland will have the same number of MEPs as Yorkshire and the west midlands. No disrespect to those wonderful parts of England, but they are regions, without a national Parliament, without a Government and without national institutions. They are regions. Unlike the west midlands and the north-west, Scotland is a nation.
Scotland is a nation with a challenging geography. I listened to the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire on some of the issues in Wales and the difficulties that Members have representing parts of Wales. However, Scotland occupies one third of the UK land mass.
Mr. Charles Clarke (Norwich, South) (Lab): Will the hon. Gentleman clarify what role population should play in the decisions taken? As my hon. Friend the Minister indicated, the advice of the Royal Statistical Society, the Office for National Statistics and the Electoral Commission must be based on population in such matters. Does he think that population has a role to play in such decisions? If so, what is it?
Pete Wishart: Absolutely. The right hon. Gentleman makes a good and pertinent point. I shall give him a perverse example of how population applies. Luxembourg has a population that is less than that of Edinburgh, but has six MEPs. Scotland will have the same number of MEPs as Luxembourg—when it comes to population, that is totally perverse. Population issues have a great game to play in all such proceedings.
I come back to Scotland’s particular challenge of geography. As well as occupying a third of the land mass of the United Kingdom, we have the vast, lion’s share of the coastline of the United Kingdom. We have most of the inhabited islands. Currently, seven MEPs are expected to serve a third of the total land mass of the United Kingdom. They are already overstretched. To have that reduced by another one, to six, will undoubtedly make representing Scotland all the more difficult and perilous.
Mrs. Laing: I wish to support the hon. Gentleman, not specifically on the numbers in Scotland, but because his case deserves some sympathy. The situation is that one person is expected to look after a constituent in Dumfries and a constituent in Wick at the same time. That is impossible. To expect someone to do that is bad for democracy. It must be possible for us to construct a system that is fairer, more efficient and more democratic.
Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the hon. Lady for those remarks, but it is even worse than that—an MEP must look after constituents not only from Dumfries to Wick, but from Dumfries to Lerwick. The Shetland isles are closer to Norway than to Edinburgh. That is a situation that MEPs from Scotland find themselves in, so any further reduction would make the job more difficult and should be opposed. We will therefore oppose the order.
Let us look at how other nation states handled their national assemblies and legislatures. A good example is devolved Wallonia in Belgium, which has a population of 3 million. I go back to the issue of population, which the right hon. Member for Norwich, South rightly raised. Scotland has a population of 5 million. However, Wallonia will continue to have six MEPs—the same number as Scotland. Then, of course, there is the Rolls-Royce of European representation: normal nation status, which is what we aspire to in Scotland. If we look at Finland or Ireland, they continue to have 13 MEPs, compared with Scotland’s six. We have the same population as Finland, at 5 million, but we have a larger population than Ireland, and a larger geography and land mass too. Those countries will continue to have fantastic representation, a Rolls-Royce representation, whereas we will have inferior representation as a result of the order.
We are making progress and becoming a normal, self-governing nation, but we recognise that we are where we are and it is up to the UK Government to look after Scotland’s interests. I have been disappointed with the way that the Government have engaged in this debate. They have not listened to the clear case that Scotland has put forward.
Why is Scotland a special case? As well as having our own Parliament, our own Government, and challenging geography, we have our own national institutions: a legal system, trade unions, industry bodies. All of those particular Scottish interests need a particular and specific Scottish voice to put their case to the European Parliament. The Scottish Government also have European obligations as part of their devolved powers, so as well as having a relationship and partnership with Members of this House, Scottish MEPs also have to have a relationship and partnership with Members of the Scottish Parliament.
Every single MEP from Scotland is opposed to the reduction. They have all written to Lord Falconer of Thoroton and the Lord Chancellor, and a delegation met the Minister a few weeks ago to try to put the case again. I think that the words “cold comfort” were the best summing up of that exchange. The Scottish Government are totally opposed to any reduction. Linda Fabiani, the Minister for Europe, has also written to the Lord Chancellor and the Minister, putting the case that the Scottish Government believe in the strongest possible terms that this reduction is wrong. There are no Scottish Labour Members here today—perhaps they are used to doing as they are told on these issues—but it is interesting to note that the two Labour MEPs from Scotland are also opposed to the reduction.
We have been told that the reduction is inevitable, that primary legislation is required for it to be changed, and that there is a process that has to be gone through. If a process has to be gone through to reverse this, let us do it, for goodness’ sake. Let us accept that Scotland is a special case, acknowledge that and do what we can to reverse the reduction. Only 10 years ago we had eight MEPs. We lost an MEP in 2004 when the accession states came in; we are now set to lose another one because of Romania and Bulgaria coming in. That means that Scotland’s representation in Europe will be cut by 25 per cent. in the course of 10 years. That is at a time when we have acquired a Parliament, when we have stronger institutions in Scotland and we have started to be recognised as a proper nation within the European Union.
I come back to the point that I made when the right hon. Member for Norwich, South made his intervention. The most outrageous examples are countries such as Luxembourg and Malta. Luxembourg is smaller than Edinburgh and has six MEPs. That is an MEP for every 78,000 citizens, which is like having a parliamentary constituency here. Malta, with a population of 402,000, has five MEPs—a ratio of 80,000 citizens per MEP—and yet the number of MEPs for the nation of Scotland is to be cut by another one, in order to fulfil the obligations.
Neither of the countries that I cited are scheduled for any further reductions, which makes it even more perverse. Even examining the breakdown within the UK, there are a few anomalies suggested in the order. You are very lucky in that respect, Dr. McCrea, as Northern Ireland is to have its three MEPS. That is the deal and there is nothing wrong with that whatever. Wales is not to be touched and the English regions such as the eastern region, the north-east and the south-east, and even Yorkshire and the Humber, will suffer no cuts in their representation whatever. Scotland has been dealt a hard and heavy blow by the Electoral Commission’s recommendations.
I hope that the Government will review the statutory criteria for making these cuts. I cannot support any measure that cuts Scotland’s voice in Europe. I will ask the Committee to oppose the order and will certainly oppose it myself.
3.5 pm
Previous Contents Continue
House of Commons 
home page Parliament home page House of 
Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 10 July 2008