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Official Report of the Grand Committee on the

European Parliament (Representation) Bill

Thursday, 13th March 2003.

The Committee met at half-past four of the clock.

[The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Skelmersdale) in the Chair.]

The Deputy Chairman of Committees (Lord Skelmersdale): Before I put the Question that the Title be postponed, it may be helpful to remind your Lordships of the procedure for today's Committee stage. Except in one important respect, our proceedings will be exactly as in a normal Committee of the Whole House. We shall go through the Bill clause by clause; noble Lords will speak standing; all Lords are free to attend and participate; and the proceedings will be recorded in Hansard. The one difference is that the House has agreed that there shall be no Divisions in a Grand Committee. Any issue on which agreement cannot be reached should be considered again at the Report stage when, if necessary, a Division may be called. Unless, therefore, an amendment is likely to be agreed to, it should be withdrawn.

I should explain what will happen if there is a Division in the Chamber while we are sitting. The Committee will adjourn as soon as the Division bells are rung and then resume after 10 minutes. For the avoidance of doubt, the Chairman's watch is always correct, even when it is wrong.

Title postponed.

Clause 1 agreed to.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal) moved Amendment No. 1:

    Before Clause 2, insert the following new clause—

(1) In this Part "change under Community law" (in relation to a change in the number of MEPs to be elected for the United Kingdom) means a change made by—
(a) a treaty provision that is part of the Community Treaties; or
(b) any provision of a Council Decision, or of any other instrument, made under a treaty provision that is part of the Community Treaties.
(2) In this Part a reference to a treaty provision being part of the Community Treaties is to it being, or being included in provisions which are, specified in section 1(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 (c. 68) by virtue of an amendment made by an Act (whether passed before or after this Act).
(3) In this Part "treaty" includes any international agreement (however described) and a protocol or annex to a treaty or other international agreement."

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The noble Baroness said: This clause has been introduced by the Government to meet the concerns of the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee. In its report, it expressed the view that,

    "the scope of clause 4 should be expressly limited to changes arising out of Treaties which have already been the subject of an earlier Act of Parliament".

The Government have accepted that recommendation and this clause has been drafted to achieve that end.

Any treaty which itself provides for a change, or which authorises such a change to be made by a Council decision or other Community instrument, would need to be included in Section 1(2) of the European Communities Act 1972 by an amending Act before any change in the number of United Kingdom MEPs could be implemented in UK law under Clause 4.

The protocol on enlargement annexed to the Treaty of Nice has already been included in the list of Community treaties in Section 1(2). Therefore, any change made by or under that protocol may be implemented under Clause 4.

We believe that this clause will satisfy the recommendation of the Delegated Powers Committee and I commend it to the Committee. I beg to move.

Baroness Rawlings: We welcome the Government's amendment. We are very supportive of their efforts to build on the consensus reached in another place. I have a few questions that I would like to put to the noble Baroness the Minister later on in the debate. On Amendment No. 1, however, I welcome the clarification that Clause 4 should apply only to changes arising out of the existing treaties and we support it.

Lord Goodhart: We, too, welcome the amendment. We are pleased to see that the Government have accepted the advice of the committee.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Lord Rennard moved Amendment No. 2:

    Before Clause 2, insert the following new clause—

(1) Before making any recommendation as to the distribution of MEPs between the electoral regions under section 2, the electoral commission shall—
(a) review the methods of election of MEPs currently used;
(b) make an assessment of the efficiency of the methods of election in ensuring—
(i) proportionality,
(ii) accountability, and
(iii) effectiveness of representation;
(c) make such representations to the Lord Chancellor as it shall determine.
(2) Any representation under this section must be published by the Electoral Commission and laid before Parliament by the Lord Chancellor."

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The noble Lord said: Amendment No. 2 goes to the heart of the issue of Britain's representation in the European Parliament. It is a little more fundamental than any of the issues we might consider today. Therefore, if Members of the Committee will forgive me, I will spend a little more time on this issue than on others.

The amendment suggests that the Electoral Commission should have a significant role in determining the precise method of election, while Parliament has set the basic principle that it is to be a system of proportionality.

It is appropriate, in my view, that the independent commission looks at the detail in an impartial way—rather than leaving the matter entirely to politicians, who may be accused of acting in a partisan way when setting our electoral laws.

Three years ago, there was cross-party support for the establishment of the independent Electoral Commission. Noble Lords and Members in another place all argued it was right that recommendations about electoral laws should be made independently from politicians who may be dependant upon those laws.

It was agreed that the broad principles should be determined by Parliament, but that detailed proposals for their implementation should be made by the commission. Parliament retains its right to vote on the details, but at least people can see openly where politicians are departing from the recommendations of an independent commission.

The principle of proportional representation was accepted in 1998, although the precise system was not agreed in the House of Lords. Since then, the Electoral Commission has been created and it should be appropriate for it to consider some of the details.

It is, of course, very concerned, as all democratic politicians should be, with low and falling turnout in elections. The 23 per cent turnout in 1999 reduced the legitimacy of those elections. I do not believe that making every vote of equal value in those elections—in other words, introducing PR—was itself the problem. However, I believe that people bitterly resented the degree of party control represented by the closed lists. The system puts much power with the parties and not enough with the voters.

The principle of PR was included in the programmes of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties in the 1997 general election—parties that between them attracted well over 60 per cent of the vote and won over 70 per cent of the seats in the elected Chamber. So I do not think that it would be right to try to overturn the principle of proportionality. However, it would be right to allow the Electoral Commission to look at the details and perhaps conclude that, with minor adjustment to the system, we could make people feel a great deal happier about it.

The issue of open or closed lists or a compromise system in which parties recommend lists and voters have at least the theoretical power to vary them could

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be considered. Details such as the operation of the mathematical quota system to determine the allocation of MEPs would be much better looked at by the commission. I have no doubt that when this issue was dealt with in 1998 it was not dealt with satisfactorily by the then Home Office procedures. Therefore, let us see what the Electoral Commission might have to say and then let Parliament consider those recommendations. I beg to move.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: I cannot say that I am surprised to see this amendment, which was lost in another place, reappearing here. I sympathise and empathise with the reason that the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, felt it appropriate to raise it. I am aware of his anxiety to see a different voting system in place not just for elections in the European Parliament but for certain other UK elections. The new clause is an attempt to make a step towards that goal and it is therefore inappropriate in this Bill, whose focus is much narrower. Whatever the arguments for different voting systems, they go well beyond the scope of this Bill and, if they need airing at all, this is, in my view, neither the time nor the place to do that.

The effect of the amendment would be to mire the Electoral Commission in a long and complex review of a system which Parliament put in place only five years ago after protracted and detailed debate. I remind Members of the Committee that to date there has been only one election under that system. That was successful. If the amendment were passed, it would delay the work of the commission on the redistribution of MEPs to a point which would threaten its delivery in time for the elections in 2004. This new clause is misconceived and out of place and I ask the noble Lord to withdraw it.

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