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Lord Rennard: I thank the Minister for that reply. I regret the narrow focus of the Bill. What has changed since 1998 is the establishment of the Electoral Commission. It is a shame not to use the commission to look at the first elections under the system in 1999. However, as a result of the procedure in this Committee, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 [Recommendations by Electoral Commission relating to changes in number of United Kingdom MEPs]:

Lord Rennard moved Amendment No. 3:

"( ) Northern Ireland is allocated at least three MEPs;"

The noble Lord said: Amendments Nos. 3 and 4 deal again with maintaining a degree of consistency with the principle of proportionality and also with the effective representation of smaller regions.

In the European Parliament, the number of MEPs allocated to each member state reflects largely the number of voters in that member state. But special provision is made for the smaller member states to have slightly greater representation than their voter numbers alone would suggest is their entitlement.

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This is necessary to ensure that the voice of smaller regions is not lost and that the basic principle of proportionality can be sustained. For this reason, it is right that Northern Ireland should continue to have three MEPs with only 1.2 million voters. With the STV system in Northern Ireland, this will ensure reasonable proportionality and allow Northern Ireland's voice to be heard effectively in the European Parliament.

But the current proposals in the Bill could see the northern region, with almost 2 million voters, left with the same number of representatives in the European Parliament as Northern Ireland, but with a different voting system. The voting system that applies in the remainder of Great Britain is unlikely to maintain fair representation and proportionality within the region if there are only three seats. That could have a distorting effect on the proportionality of the result throughout the remainder of the country.

Either the Labour Party, the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats could lose out as a result—but, more importantly, the region would lose out and the principle of having MEPs broadly representative of the voters in the region is put at considerable and unnecessary risk.

Four MEPs is the barest minimum number to have a reasonable chance of ensuring proportionality within a region. The problem of ensuring proportionality is made more difficult by the quota system. I do not propose to deal with the matter in detail, but let us refresh our memory of the debate in 1998.

In determining which of the various quota systems that could be used for turning the votes cast into seats allocated, the then Home Secretary, Mr Jack Straw, chose the d'Hondt system and made much of the fact that this was the system used in many other member states using list systems and that it delivered a proportional result for them.

In these members states, however, the lists are generally much larger than they are in Great Britain and much larger than the three to which the northern region could be reduced. This quota system certainly should not be used for list elections for as few as three elected places. So, if the quota system remains as at present, the minimum number of MEPs in each list should be four. That is the simple and fair purpose of these amendments.

I would again ask the Government to consider them in the light of these comments and in particular my remarks on quota systems. I appreciate that this is a technical issue. I would therefore be very happy if the Government might agree, by way of a further amendment, to let the Electoral Commission determine how best to sustain the agreed principle of proportionality within and across the regions, as well as the effective representation of each region. I beg to move.

Baroness Scotland of Asthal: The clause sets the minimum representation for any region after a redistribution exercise to three MEPs. The purpose of that is to ensure that there is fair representation while

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preserving a minimum amount of proportionality. The amendments to the clause raise the minimum threshold for representation in any region—except for Northern Ireland—to four MEPs. I recognise the intention of the amendment to ensure that representation in any region—except Northern Ireland—does not fall below four. However, in my view, the amendment strikes at the principle of fairness which underscores this part of the Bill.

Of course, we will have to wait to see what the Electoral Commission recommends when it completes its review, but I think it is fairly clear that the north-east region of England is the most likely region to be affected by this, at least for 2004.

The North East—with an electorate of just under 2 million—currently returns four MEPs and this figure may well reduce to three under the Bill's provisions, depending on the Electoral Commission's recommendations. But if the noble Lord's amendment were to be accepted, the North East region would continue to return four MEPs at the expense of an MEP from another region. The North East would therefore be over-represented and that other region under-represented. Electoral equality—that is, the ratio between MEPs and electors—would diverge even more across the regions of the UK and the job of the Electoral Commission in trying to equalise that ratio would be increased in difficulty. The amendments would also significantly cut down the Electoral Commission's flexibility.

The Bill is structured to achieve, as far as possible, equality of representation across the UK, with the proviso—a safety net, if you like—that no region should fall below three MEPs. I cannot see a strong argument to treat any region of the UK differently from any other. Indeed, I see strong arguments in favour of treating them all similarly. To single out Northern Ireland on the face of the Bill as specifically and uniquely qualified to receive lesser representation than any other region seems to me to be unjustifiable and we could not support it.

The basis of this Bill is equal treatment—as far as is possible—for each region, while preserving the safety net of a minimum number of three MEPs for all. There are compelling arguments to share the reductions equally between all the regions of the UK and not to let some regions benefit at the expense of others, while recognising a sensible minimum level of representation. We believe that the Bill strikes the right balance in that regard and I hope that upon consideration the noble Lord will see the wisdom of that argument and agree to withdraw his amendment.

4.45 p.m.

Lord Rennard: I thank the Minister for that reply. It seems to contain inconsistencies, however. While saying, for example, that every region should be treated equally, it is said that Northern Ireland should be treated differently. We appear to be saying that in Northern Ireland, with 1.2 million voters, three MEPs would be quite reasonable and each MEP would represent 400,000 voters. However, we are saying that

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as regards the northern region it would be wrong to suggest that there should be four MEPs for 2 million, where each would have 500,000 voters. There is clearly a difference between the treatment of Northern Ireland and the northern region.

As Northern Ireland has the STV system, three is sufficient to ensure proportionality within the region. But under the regional list system, especially with the d'Hondt quota, four is the minimum required to ensure proper representation of the northern region, irrespective of the number of voters per MEP. On the basis I explained earlier, I ask the Government to consider whether the Electoral Commission should look at these technical issues of quota and the minimum number on a list to ensure proportionality. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 4 not moved.]

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Order implementing changes in the number of United Kingdom MEPs]:

Baroness Scotland of Asthal moved Amendment No. 5:

    Page 3, line 33, leave out subsections (3) and (4) and insert—

"(2A) An order making an amendment to section 1 of the 2002 Act may be made before the provision making the relevant change has entered into force.
(2B) If the relevant change is made by a provision of a treaty, an order making such an amendment may also be made before that provision has become part of the Community Treaties and, if the treaty requires ratification, before it is ratified by the United Kingdom.
(2C) But no amendment to section 1 of the 2002 Act may be made so as to come into force—
(a) if the relevant change is made by a provision mentioned in section (References to changes in Community law)(1)(b), before that provision has entered into force; and
(b) if the relevant change is made by a treaty provision, before that provision has both entered into force and become part of the Community Treaties.
(2D) In subsections (2A) to (2C) "the relevant change", in relation to an order under this section amending section 1 of the 2002 Act, means the change under Community law being implemented by the order."

The noble Baroness said: The purpose of Amendment No. 5 is to enable action to be taken to debate and put in place, although not bring into force, the order necessary to effect the change in the number of MEPs and their redistribution in advance of the Community law provisions making the change coming into force. The order cannot, however, be made before the relevant treaty change or Council decision has been agreed or adopted.

This power is needed because the Treaty of Accession which will set the number of MEPs for 2004 will not come into force until 1st May 2004; only five or six weeks before the election. Furthermore, if one of the accession states should fail to ratify the treaty, a Council decision under the protocol on enlargement annexed to the Treaty of Nice will make a pro rata correction to the number of MEPs which could also

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enter into force at a similarly late stage. For the same reasons, Amendment No. 5 will also enable a Clause 4 order to be debated and made, but not to come into force, before the Act amending the European Communities Act to include a relevant treaty provision has come into force.

We expect, however, to know what the numbers will be shortly after all the referendums in ratifying states are completed in September 2003. Clearly, all those with an interest in elections will want to know what the position will be as soon as they can, so that planning for campaigning can begin and administrative arrangements can be made. We therefore expect to be able to debate and make the order well in advance of 1st May 2004, even though it will not come into force until that date.

Amendment No. 5 therefore solves a small timing problem, and will enable the political parties' candidates and electoral administrators to proceed on a firm basis early in 2004.

Amendment No. 6 simply moves two subsections displaced by Amendment No. 5 to a more logical place in Clause 5, consistent with similar provisions in Clauses 12 and 17. I beg to move.

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