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

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Bridget Prentice: I knew that this would be a lively debate once I saw that there was Scottish representation. The reason why no Scottish Labour MPs are here is that they were not selected by the Committee of Selection. If they had been, no doubt they would have had something to say. I think that the selection is done by computer these days so it is even out of the hands of the Whips.
I apologise to the hon. Member for Henley. I should have welcomed him to the Committee at the outset. I share in the felicitations that he has received from other Committee members. I hope that he will serve on further statutory instruments and that he will find them equally mesmerising.
I am grateful to the hon. Member for Epping Forest for understanding and accepting that, despite the difficulties that come with any reduction in representation, this is a fair, reasonable and logical proposal from the Electoral Commission. The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire referred to the debacle of the Lisbon treaty in the south of Ireland. That was an interesting turn of phrase to describe the Republic of Ireland. I am not sure that the Irish consider it to be a debacle. I suspect they consider it to be a feisty debate that will no doubt continue for some time.
Lembit Öpik: I was making a morally neutral observation about the treaty. For the avoidance of doubt, I was simply pointing out that the vote in the south of Ireland has changed pretty much everything about it. While respecting democratic processes, we must not allow that vote to prevent the good work that is going on in the EU. I was simply asking for confirmation that there will not be paralysis on the basis of that one vote.
Bridget Prentice: I am grateful for that clarification. I assure the hon. Gentleman that there will not be paralysis in the debate. I spent yesterday discussing some important issues in the Justice and Home Affairs Council. The Irish made a helpful contribution in support of our position on the child rescue alert and achieving consensus across Europe on ways of highlighting child abduction. That will continue.
Most of my remarks should be addressed to the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire. I understand that he takes a fundamentally different point of view from the rest of the Committee. He does not believe in the United Kingdom, and the rest of us do. Scotland is not an independent nation, but a part of the United Kingdom. Long may it remain so. That is how the rest of us feel.
Pete Wishart: I accept that we are part of the United Kingdom. The Minister has responsibility for ensuring that Scotland gets its fair share. Does she recognise that Scotland is a special case as a region of the UK because it has its own Parliament, challenging geography and its own national institutions? She is from Scotland so she must know that it is different from other regions such as Yorkshire.
Bridget Prentice: I will speak about the relationship with the Scottish Parliament in a moment. I say to the hon. Gentleman that not only do I come from Scotland—I come from the east end of Glasgow.
Mrs. Laing: What are you doing here?
Bridget Prentice: Indeed; one may well ask that.
In response to the hon. Gentleman, of course Scotland has different national institutions. There were separate institutions before the United Kingdom joined the EU and that has not changed. We take seriously the position of Scotland when negotiating in the EU. In response his point about the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive, we make a conscious effort to involve the devolved Administrations in our policy formulation for Europe. It could be argued by people in the west midlands or other parts of the English regions that both Scotland and Wales get special treatment in terms of being involved in formulating the policy in some respects before we go to Europe to discuss it. We are all conscious of that.
I accept the point that the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Epping Forest made about the challenge in geographical areas. Sometimes even a smaller geographical area can have challenges. It is arguable that there are challenges in London just because of its sheer density, as opposed to the challenges the hon. Gentleman described in Scotland or in Wales, as described by the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire. Those are challenges and I am happy to discuss how we can best help MEPs deal with them, and whether there are resources or other ways and means of helping people to develop communications with their electorates in such areas. I am happy to look at ways in which we can enhance that relationship between the electorate and the MEP.
The cynics out there might well say that whether an elector is in Lerwick, Lewisham—
Ms Patricia Hewitt (Leicester, West) (Lab): Or Leicester.
Bridget Prentice: Or Leicester—their relationship with their MEP is tangential. Perhaps it is something that we should all consider in more detail on another occasion.
Lembit Öpik: I am encouraged by what the Minister is saying because we need to discuss this issue, which is not directly salient to the order today. I suggest that the essence of that future discussion will be to define the nature of the MEP’s role. It works if the MEP is not expected to do direct constituency work. It does not work if they are expected to represent millions of people on the same basis as we do in this House.
Bridget Prentice: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says. I am happy to facilitate those discussions at a later stage.
Mrs. Laing: Does that mean that the Minister and her colleagues in the Government will be reconsidering the way that the proportional system works for the next European elections?
Bridget Prentice: No, it certainly does not mean that we will be revisiting the proportional system for the next election. I have my own views on it, which I am not prepared to share with the hon. Lady in this debate, but perhaps on another occasion.
Alun Michael: While recognising that it is not sensible to look for major changes to the structure within that time scale, I encourage my hon. Friend to ensure that it is on the agenda for the longer term. The one thing that we can all agree on is that the present situation is not satisfactory. Rushed change is not a good idea. Both sides of the House would welcome the review that the Minister has hinted at.
Bridget Prentice: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for that, because he has reminded my that this Government, possibly more than any other in history, are keen on looking at how we can improve the governance of the country and at constitutional change. Perhaps, as he rightly says, we can look at the issue in a more reflective mode. As the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire said, we can look at exactly what we expect MEPs to do, in just the same way as we reflect regularly on how we expect MPs to respond to their constituents—we had a statement today about how we expect local government to respond locally. All those issues are worthy of debate and I am happy to help to take them forward.
In conclusion, I understand the difficulties that people perceive when reductions are made in representation, but given the statutory formulation under which the order is being made and the fact that it is the Electoral Commission’s recommendation, which it made in a fair and logical fashion, I commend it to the Committee.
Question put:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 11, Noes 1.
Division No. 1]
Chapman, Ben
Clarke, rh Mr. Charles
Heppell, Mr. John
Hesford, Stephen
Hewitt, rh Ms Patricia
Howell, John
Khan, Mr. Sadiq
Laing, Mrs. Eleanor
Michael, rh Alun
Öpik, Lembit
Prentice, Bridget
Wishart, Pete
Question accordingly agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft European Parliament (Number of MEPs and Distribution between Electoral Regions) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2008.
Committee rose at sixteen minutes past Three o’clock.
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Prepared 10 July 2008