I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
I hope that this Bill will shortly be made redundant, because if we leave the European Union we will have no more European Parliament elections. We will then be able to centre our democracy on this Parliament, rather than having to defer to the Parliament of a supranational body. I will go no further than that, the Minister will be pleased to hear, in the debate about the European Union. In any event, those who are elected to the European Parliament should be properly accountable to their electors, but the existing system gives too much power to political parties and lists, and not enough to the people.
I am not sure that I do; if that is the situation, it is very unsatisfactory. Members of the European Parliament should be elected to represent their constituents, just as we are, but as soon as people become European Commissioners they have to give up their allegiance to their home country and do everything in the name of the Commission.
There are some good examples of Members of the European Parliament who are acting in their constituents’ interests. I hope that many more will do so. The Bill would help to facilitate that, as its purpose is to ensure that there is a system of open rather than closed lists. Anyone whose candidature was put before the electors could have a cross put beside their name and the elector would not just be ticking a list for a particular party membership.
At the moment, someone who wants to vote Conservative in the European elections in the south-west of England, where my constituency is, will have no say over the order of preferences for Conservative candidates. Someone who thinks that the fourth or fifth candidate on the Conservative party list is the best has no opportunity of voting for them because the list has been sorted out by the party in private sessions and a Conservative vote is deemed to be for the first candidate—and, if there are sufficient votes, the second candidate and so on. That is completely different from what most would see as a fair election, in which they can choose the candidate for themselves.
The present system gives a lot of undue power to political parties and makes it more difficult for strong and independent voices to get elected to the European Parliament. It also creates all sorts of perversities—for example, if someone elected on one party list to the European Parliament chooses to change party, as often seems to happen, they retain their position in the European Parliament, but for the different party, without any opportunity for the electors in their region to select somebody else.
It can work here, although my hon. Friend should remember the courageous move made by my hon. Friend the Member for Clacton (Mr Carswell). He said he did not wish to carry on as a Conservative Member and wanted to change his party allegiance. Before doing that, however, he sought the endorsement of the electorate in a by-election. That was a worthy approach. I hope that the mood is changing and that people will not feel that they can ignore the mandate given to them by their constituents and switch parties without reverting to their electors.
The Bill seems quite complicated in the sense that, although it has only three clauses, one clause has nine subsections, but I have been advised that that is the only way in which we can alter the existing system to introduce the open list system for elections to the European Parliament.
I look forward to hearing what my hon. Friend the Minister says. I expect him to preface his remarks by saying that he hopes we do not have any more European elections, but that, if we do, he can assure us that they are going to be more democratic than those we have had in the past.
As has been correctly said, the system of proportional representation that we now have for the European Parliament elections was first introduced in 1999, and one of its key hallmarks is the fact that it is a closed regional list system. It is also worth noting that there is a very complicated—some Members would say so—system of allocation of seats to the candidates under the d’Hondt system, which is in place in many European countries and in the European Parliament itself. It is named after a famous Belgian gentleman, I understand.
One of the key concerns, which is the subject of this Bill, is that we have a closed regional list system. It is worth pointing out that a such a system is not unique to the United Kingdom. Such systems exist in a number of European countries. In France, there is a closed national list, which is criticised by many people. Indeed, there are strong arguments against having a closed system. One of the key arguments is that it creates a very impersonal kind of election whereby people vote for political parties rather than individuals, and therefore the focus is very much on the message of the central political party rather than on that of the individual candidate, because there are no individual candidates, as such.
It is true that voters cannot pick and choose between candidates of one particular party. Their vote is for the party of their choice, and the party machine decides who is on the list and who therefore stands the best chance of being elected. As has been made clear, the system does not allow for an individual who is elected on one party’s regional list but changes political affiliation once elected to have to stand for re-election. However, that is exactly the same as our electoral system.
There are indeed strong arguments against the current system, and it is worth our having a serious debate about what preferred system of proportional representation may replace it. I say that because in 1999 the United Kingdom, as a matter of this Parliament’s choice, decided to adopt a proportional representation system, but now it is obliged under European law to have a proportional representation system, so if we are going to change it, we cannot simply turn back the clock to first past the post; we have to have a different form of proportional representation.
There are arguments in favour of our current system, one of which is that it helps to create a system of representation for the United Kingdom that is more reflective of the population as a whole. It is now possible to have a degree of gender balance among Britain’s representatives. The onus is on the political parties to ensure that they have that gender balance on their regional lists, if they wish to do so. Nevertheless, a responsibility is placed on the parties—my party, especially—to have that gender balance. The same applies to ethnic minorities: there are now more ethnic minority representatives than would otherwise be the case.
It is unfortunate that many people do not easily relate to the European Parliament. Even when it had a first-past-the-post system—I was a Member of the European Parliament for 10 years and was elected under that system—it was not easy to build a personal relationship with the electors, and that continues to be the case under the regional list system. Perhaps we should not kid ourselves that a personal relationship will ever be that important in European elections. Perhaps it is more important to recognise that people vote for political parties, including domestic parties and others that may be affiliated to pan-European parties.
There is a debate to be had. This debate on the Bill promoted by the hon. Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) is a continuation of that on a similar Bill promoted in the last Session. The issue needs to be resolved and I welcome the debate. I look forward to hearing the Government’s response to the very good points made by the hon. Gentleman.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch (Mr Chope) for once again bringing to the House the issue of the voting system for European parliamentary elections. A similar Bill was debated in the final Session of the previous Parliament, so this is a good opportunity to explore the arguments and update the House on the Government’s position.
My hon. Friend clearly feels strongly about the issue and he has made his argument with persuasive force. The way in which we elect our representatives is a topic of great importance and it has a significant impact on the relationship between electors and their representatives. I thank hon. Members for their contributions and I assure those present of the seriousness with which the Government take such matters.
The Bill would make provision for an open list for elections to the European Parliament to be used in all electoral regions other than Northern Ireland. That would represent a change from the current closed-list system, whereby electors vote for individual candidates rather than political parties.
The voting system to be used for European parliamentary elections has been debated at length in both Houses of Parliament, and it is clear that there is a range of views on the merits of the closed list voting system. As my hon. Friend the Member for East Surrey (Mr Gyimah), the then Minister for the Constitution, said at the Dispatch Box in the previous Parliament,
“the closed list system is simple for electors, and it ensures that across a region seats are allocated in proportion to the votes cast.”—[Official Report, 9 January 2015; Vol. 590, c. 547.]
I know from that debate and the views expressed today, however, that there is some dissatisfaction with the closed list system. The fact that parties solely determine the order in which candidates are awarded seats achieved by the party has come under fire, as it is said that it puts too much power in the hands of the parties and results in MEPs who are remote from their electorate.
My concern is that the real electorate of MEPs are the members of their party. People spend their time canvassing at party meetings, trying to garner support so that their party will put them one or two places up the list or at the top of it. That is a clear lack of democracy for the people of this country.
That is clearly one of the criticisms made of the system. In any debate we would need to think about that carefully and take it into account as part of any changes. There is of course some substance in what my hon. Friend says. I will address some of those issues in further detail as I develop my comments.
At the end of the last Parliament, my hon. Friend the then Minister for the Constitution suggested that this issue might be one for consideration in the next set of party manifestos. As hon. Members will be aware, no party’s election manifesto addressed the issue directly.
We remain sympathetic to the arguments for moving to an open list system for our elections to the European Parliament, and we understand the rationale behind them. For example, we recognise that introducing an open list system might help to address some of the issues about MEPs being seen as distant from their electors. That said, it is important to remember that every electoral system has its pros and cons, and that the choice is wider than one simply between an open or a closed list system, because other systems, such as the single transferable vote, are also options for consideration.
As hon. Members will be only too well aware, the Government have a busy programme of constitutional reform, so this issue is not currently a priority. During this Parliament, we have already introduced rules for English votes for English laws and completed the transition to individual electoral registration. In addition, we are currently working to devolve further powers to Scotland and Wales, remove the 15-year time limit on the voting rights of overseas electors, update parliamentary boundaries and explore further ways to improve the process of electoral registration.
It is worth noting that there have not been widespread calls for change. The country recently voted against changing the voting system for Westminster parliamentary elections. In the 2011 referendum on the alternative vote system, electors overwhelmingly voted to retain first past the post for elections to this place. We remain sympathetic to the arguments for moving to an open list, but for those reasons we have no plans to consider such a change at present.
In all honesty and generosity, I say to the Minister that if the Government wish to alter their timetable for constitutional and political change—for example, to ditch the proposition about new parliamentary boundaries for the next election—we would be more than amenable to supporting this change to the electoral system for the European Parliament.
I note the hon. Gentleman’s comment, but I do not think we will be taking him up on his offer in the near future. The Government made a number of manifesto pledges in this area, and we are going to deliver on our pledges, including on all those involving electoral reform and boundary changes. I thank him, however, for his kind offer.
My hon. Friend said that in the 2011 referendum the people of the United Kingdom overwhelmingly endorsed the first past the post system. Does he share my regret that the European Union is now preventing us from being able to reintroduce first past the post for European Parliament elections? What business is it of theirs? Why can we not decide that for ourselves?
As my hon. Friend will know, this country agreed to change the electoral system at European level from first past the post, and having done so it would be fairly disingenuous for the Government to go back on it at this stage. Although we may move to another system, we could not now go back to first past the post. I will make a few more comments about that in a moment.
It may help hon. Members if I set out some information about the history of the voting system used in UK elections for the European Parliament. As they will know, direct elections for the European Parliament first took place in 1979. From 1979 until 1994, such elections in Great Britain were held under first past the post. I am very keen to support that system, and I certainly supported it at the referendum in 2011. Great Britain was divided up into a number of single Member constituencies. At each election voters had one vote, and the candidate in each constituency who received the most votes was returned as the MEP for that constituency.
Since the first elections in 1979, the single transferable vote has been used in European elections in Northern Ireland. That reflects the long-standing practice of using proportional representation and specifically STV in Northern Ireland for elections other than to the House of Commons. My hon. Friend’s Bill proposes no change to the type of voting system used in Northern Ireland at European elections.
The Labour party manifesto for the UK general election in 1997, as the hon. Member for Caerphilly (Wayne David) said, gave a commitment to introduce proportional representation for European parliamentary elections. Upon taking office, the new Labour Government announced that they intended to introduce a regional list system for the European parliamentary elections. The European Parliamentary Elections Bill was introduced in Parliament by the then Government in October 1997.
That Bill proposed a system where a voter in each region would have one vote which could be cast for either a party or an independent candidate. Hon. Members may be aware that debate in Parliament centred on the type of list system to be used, with a number of attempts made to introduce a form of open list system, where voters would be able to vote for individual party candidates. The then Government’s preference was for a closed list system. Their concern about the open list system, as suggested by the then Opposition, was that there might be individual candidates who were not elected, while others from another party with fewer individual votes were elected because their party was more successful overall. In other words, voters’ preferences for individual candidates may not necessarily be translated into electoral success. This might call into question the legitimacy of some elected representatives.
I feel convinced that in years to come the Minister’s speech today will be studied as part of constitutional history and will be the reference point. It is a magnificent piece of work. May I tell him that in Northern Ireland the reason why we use the alternative vote, why we use the d’Hondt system and why we even use the rather exotic Droop quotient on occasions is that there was a disconnect under the brute simplicity of first past the post? Although first past the post has its attractions, it cannot claim to proportionally represent the electorate. That is the problem. Does the hon. Gentleman not realise that there is a genuine difficulty with first past the post in very, very large constituencies when it comes to representing the whole of the electorate?
That is the first time I have heard of the Droop quotient. Obviously, it is something the hon. Gentleman is very familiar with. We are not proposing to restore first past the post at European elections. This is a debate about a closed and an open system for candidates, so we will not be proposing that we go back to the first past the post system.
Helpful research, which the hon. Gentleman might be interested in, was produced by the House of Commons Library, explaining that at Lords Third Reading a Conservative amendment based on an open list system modelled on the Finnish system was successful. Members of the other place pressed this amendment and eventually the Government used the Parliament Act to take the Bill through in the following Session. The result was the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, which introduced a closed list system. This was used for the first time in the June 1999 European parliamentary elections. The European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 superseded the 1999 Act and made provision for the closed list system to be used for elections to the European Parliament in Great Britain.
I should also explain that, following the Matthews case, the European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003 extended the franchise for UK elections to the European Parliament to Gibraltar. The Act provided for Gibraltar to be combined with an existing region and, following a recommendation from the Electoral Commission, Gibraltar has been combined with the South West region for the purposes of European parliamentary elections.
It is important to note that under European law Council decision 2002/772/EC, which amends the 1976 Act of the European Parliament concerning the election of Members of the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage, Members are now required to adopt a proportional voting system for elections to the European Parliament. The decision was made with the agreement of all member states, including the then UK Government. As I have indicated, the current system for European parliamentary elections in the UK was put in place by the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999 before the requirement in European legislation for a proportional system was introduced.
It might be helpful if I set out briefly the key features of the closed list system that has been used for European parliamentary elections in Great Britain since 1999. Elections to the European Parliament are currently held every five years. For the purposes of European parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom, Great Britain is divided into 11 electoral regions. Each region must have a minimum of three MEP seats. There are nine regions in England: East Midlands has five seats, Eastern has seven, London eight, North East three, North West eight, South East 10, South West, which includes Gibraltar, six, West Midlands seven and Yorkshire and the Humber six. Scotland, which has six MEP seats, and Wales, which has four, each form an electoral region for the purposes of the European parliamentary elections.
In Great Britain, under the closed list system, electors have one vote, which they may cast for a party or an independent candidate. The seats in each region are allocated to parties in proportion to the number of votes they receive, using the d’Hondt formula.
I will in one minute.
There is no threshold of votes that a party or candidate must achieve to win a seat in a region. The seats are assigned to party candidates according to the order in which the candidates are displayed on the ballot paper. That order is predetermined by the party before the election. I give way to the hon. Gentleman.
It might be helpful if I outline briefly the d’Hondt method that is used to allocate the seats in electoral regions for European parliamentary elections in Great Britain. Under the d’Hondt formula, seats are allocated singly, one after another. The basic idea is that, at each stage, a party’s vote total is divided by a certain figure, which increases as it wins more seats. The divisor in the first round is one and, in subsequent rounds, the total number of votes for a party is divided by the number of seats it has already been allocated, plus one. I can see that everyone is clear about the d’Hondt formula as a result of that explanation.
The number of seats for Northern Ireland is three, just to answer the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound).
Obviously, the d’Hondt system is named after the Belgian lawyer who devised it as far back as the 1870s. It is what can only be described as a complicated system. It is certainly somewhat complicated for a simple layman like me. However, I would be very happy to arrange a seminar with officials for any hon. Member who seeks to understand the system in more detail than my remarks in the Chamber today have allowed. I hope that that satisfies the House.
I knew that if I mentioned the d’Hondt system I would get questions, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will be delighted to come to the seminar that I am arranging, and questions of that nature will be answered in great detail. We could arrange a two-day seminar if that would help.
Yes, and that is one criticism made of the system. If I have time, I hope to come on to that point.
I know that the hon. Member for Ealing North is keen to hear about Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland uses the single transferable vote for European elections. The Bill will make no changes to the voting system used there, although I will say a few words about the STV system so that hon. Members can compare it with the list voting systems that we are debating today.
STV has been used for European parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland since 1979. There is a long record of STV being used for elections in Northern Ireland, and it is used for Assembly and local government elections. That is for historical reasons, and it helps to ensure cross-community representation. Under STV, electors rank the candidates on the ballot paper in order of preference, marking one next to their first-choice candidate, two next to their second choice, and so on. Electors can rank as few or as many candidates as they wish.
First preference votes are counted first, and any candidate who reaches a set quota is elected. Any votes received over the quota are not needed by the elected candidate and are transferred to the second preference on each ballot paper. The value of the transferred votes is based on a formula. If not enough candidates have reached the quota, those with the lowest number of votes are eliminated, and all their votes are passed to the next preference on the ballot papers until the quota is met and the seat is filled. The process is repeated until all seats have been filled.
It may be helpful if I set out some details about how European parliamentary elections are administered, focusing on arrangements in Great Britain, given that the Bill would change the voting system for elections in Great Britain, although not in Northern Ireland. Each of the 11 electoral regions in Great Britain has a regional returning officer, and Ministers are responsible for designating an RRO for each electoral region. In England and Wales the RRO must be an acting returning officer for UK parliamentary elections, and in Scotland they must be a UK parliamentary election returning officer. Broadly, RROs are responsible for the overall conduct of the election of MEPs in their electoral region, and for liaising with and co-ordinating the work of local returning officers.
The RRO’s specific duties in each region include giving notice of the European parliamentary election, the nomination of procedures for parties and candidates wishing to contest the election, the calculation of votes given for each political party or candidate, and the allocation of seats in the region. The Bill would impact on the counting of votes at European elections—I shall say more about that later—and on the declaration of results. The RRO has power to give general or specific directions to local returning officers relating to the discharge of their functions at the election.
No. Independent candidates are self-standing. They are treated in the same way as a political party, so there should be no reason why it would distort the system. The system has elected independent candidates in places across Europe, so I do not think that that would be the case.
European parliamentary elections are administered on the ground at a local authority level by local returning officers. At European elections, each electoral region is divided up into counting areas. A counting area will represent a local government area—for example, the London Borough of Southwark forms a counting area for European elections. Electoral law provides for an LRO to be appointed for each counting area within the electoral region. The LRO will be the person who is the returning officer for local government elections in the local government area. That comprises the counting area. The LRO will therefore act for a particular count within the electoral region. To summarise: the RRO has overall responsibility for the conduct of the election in their electoral region; the LRO is personally responsible for the administration of the election in their counting area. In administering the election in their counting area and discharging the functions for which they are specifically responsible, LROs will have regard to any guidance issued by the RRO and must comply with any directions they have given to them.
I will certainly try to do that. If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will finish the section on returning officers first and then return to that point later.
The functions for which LROs are responsible include the printing of the ballot papers, unless the RRO directs otherwise. The Bill will impact on the design of the ballot paper at European elections. They also include: the appointment of presiding officers and poll clerks; the management of the postal voting system; and the verification and counting of votes. The Bill will have an impact on the counting process at European elections. LROs may appoint one or more deputies to assist them in carrying out their functions, although they cannot delegate their personal responsibility for delivering the election in their counting area. The chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland is automatically the regional returning officer for Northern Ireland and is responsible for running the poll there. I know the hon. Member for Ealing North is very keen to hear about Northern Ireland.
I should also say a few words about the roles of the Government and the Electoral Commission in running the elections. The Government are responsible for the legislative framework within which elections are run. For important reasons, the Government have no role in the administration of elections on the ground. Rightly, that is the responsibility of independent returning officers and the electoral administrators in their charge. The Government also have a role in the funding of elections, which I will come on to later. The proposals in the Bill would have an impact on the funding of European elections. The Electoral Commission’s duties include: providing guidance to electoral administrators to help them to carry out their functions in relation to the administration of elections; the setting of performance standards for these elections; and to report on elections once they have taken place.
Turning to the most recent European elections in 2014, the House of Commons Library research paper on the 2014 European elections in the UK, published in June 2014, provides the following summary of results on those elections as follows:
“The UK elections were held concurrently with council elections in England and Northern Ireland on 22 May. The UK now has 73 MEPs, up from 72 at the last election, distributed between 12 regions. UKIP won 24 seats, Labour 20, the Conservatives 19, and the Green Party three. The Liberal Democrats won only one seat, down from 11 at the 2009 European election. The BNP lost both of the two seats they had won for the first time at the previous election. Across Great Britain, UKIP were first with 27.5% of the vote. Labour came second with 25.4%, ahead of the Conservatives with 23.9%.”
It is good to see Labour coming second again—I could not resist that, I am sorry. It continued:
“Labour won the popular vote in Wales, while the SNP came first in Scotland. UKIP came first in six of the nine English regions, with their strongest performances in the East, the East Midlands, the South East and the South West. Sinn Féin won the most first preference votes in Northern Ireland. UKIP’s share of the vote increased by 11.0% points, while Labour’s increased by 9.7% points. The Conservative and Liberal Democrat shares fell by 3.8% points and 6.9% points respectively. UK turnout was 35.4%, slightly higher than 34.5% in 2009, but lower than 38.4% in 2004, when four regions held all-postal ballots.”
Let me comment on the features of the open list voting system, which is central to today’s debate. Under open list systems of proportional representation, electors still elect MEPs to multi-member electoral areas or regions, and will have one vote. However, the key difference between open list and closed list voting systems is that under an open list voting system, electors may cast their vote for an individual party candidate as opposed to a particular party, as happens under the closed list, or indeed an independent candidate.
The seats in each region are still allocated to parties or independent candidates in proportion to the total number of votes they receive—namely, for a party. The total sum of votes given to all the candidates standing for the party in the region will determine the total number of seats allocated. Under an open list system, seats are assigned to party candidates in the order of those receiving the highest number of votes. In some open list systems, voters may choose whether to vote for a political party or a particular candidate within that party’s list. The Bill, however, does not provide for that.
At this point, it may be helpful to inform our consideration of the Bill by saying a few words about the earlier review of the balance of competences, which addressed the voting system used for UK European parliamentary elections. Under the coalition Government in July 2012, the then Foreign Secretary launched the review of the balance of competences. It comprised an audit of what the EU does and how it affects the UK, and it was based on evidence from a range of stakeholders. The voting, consular and statistics report of the review was published in December 2014, and the call for evidence was open for three months from March 2014, while submissions of evidence were received from a range of stakeholders, including electoral administrators, academics, relevant non-governmental organisations and other organisations, and the devolved Administrations.
Well, that is of course my hon. Friend’s opinion, but if we are to debate the issues in depth, I think it important to get everything out in the open and on the table, so that if the Bill goes any further later in this Parliament or in the next Parliament, we will have solid grounds on which to discuss these issues. I would therefore like to put these matters on the record.
On the voting system for the UK European parliamentary elections, the majority of respondents felt that introducing open list systems for those elections would be “a positive step”, although in view of what my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch said earlier, he might not want me to say that. Some respondents also felt that a move to an open list system might be of benefit in better engaging electors. For example, this view was expressed by the Electoral Reform Society in its submission of evidence to the review.
Let me read out an extract from chapter 2 of the voting section of the report, which covers the voting system used for UK European parliamentary elections. [Interruption.] I can see the excitement coming from the hon. Member for Ealing North. He has sat up in his seat, bolt upright and to attention, desperate to hear what chapter 2 says. So, here goes:
“At the time of the introduction of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1999, there was considerable debate in the UK Parliament on the issue of moving from the previous, constituency- based, first past the post system, to the closed list system in use for UK European Parliamentary elections today. The majority of this debate focused on the planned move to a closed rather than open list system of proportional representation.
Respondents expressed mixed views regarding the EU requirement for MEPs to be elected in accordance with the principle of proportional representation. One reason given for this was the potentially weaker electoral connection between MEPs and the electorate. Some attendees at a stakeholder event held in Brussels to discuss the issues in this report felt that the move from first past the post to proportional representation had weakened this link because voters did not select an individual to represent them directly. It was also noted that, given these arrangements and although MEPs do receive a significant amount of casework, electors were more likely to contact MPs in the first instance.
In contrast, the Electoral Reform Society stated that ‘it is correct that the EU only allows countries to use a proportional system…additionally, it is correct that an institution such as the European Parliament, which runs on consensus and scrutiny, should reflect the broad swathe of the British public’. The Scottish Government was also of the view that the requirement that all Member States adopted a system of proportional representation was reasonable. They felt that whilst it was sometimes suggested that first past the post systems created a closer link between candidates and the electorate, equally there was strong support for a proportional system which ensured that voters were more likely to see a candidate from their selected party elected.
The majority of respondents did, however, criticise the closed list system used in England, Scotland and Wales. A few attendees at the stakeholder event in Brussels saw the closed system as an advantage because ‘it gives voters some certainty as to the candidates most likely to represent them on behalf of a party, if that party was elected’. However, the general opinion across respondents was that the closed list system failed to ‘engage voters to the same extent as an open list system’. As the Electoral Reform Society highlighted, ‘polls suggest only around 7-10% of the public can name their MEP’. For this reason, some attendees at a stakeholder event held in London expressed a preference for the Single Transferable Vote (STV) system used in Northern Ireland, or for further research to be undertaken in this area. The Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland noted in his evidence that ‘there are no real concerns about the lack of constituency links with regard to…MEPs’ in Northern Ireland.
The majority of respondents considered that to introduce open list systems (used elsewhere in Europe) for UK European Parliamentary elections would be a positive development; for example, the Electoral Reform Society felt that such a move to an open list system would be a ‘vast improvement’ This argument is reinforced in an article published in 2009 by academics Professor Simon Hix and Dr Sara Hagemann, which found that in those countries using open list systems electors were 20% more likely to be contacted by candidates or parties than in those states which used closed list systems. Electors were also 15% more likely to say that they felt informed about elections and 10% more likely to turnout. However in the main it was felt that a change to the current balance of competences was not necessarily the most effective way to achieve stronger links between individual candidates and electors”.
A number of respondents to the call for evidence expressed concerns about the current closed list voting system used at European parliamentary elections in Great Britain. However, as I said earlier, there have been no widespread calls for a change in the open list voting system; certainly, my postbag is not full of such requests. Also, this country recently voted against a change to the voting system used for Westminster parliamentary elections in the 2011 referendum on the alternative vote system. There does not appear to be a great appetite for change on the part of the public across the country, and we have to take that into account when we consider this issue.
As hon. Members are aware, EU legislation stipulates that all member states must adopt a proportional voting system for the European parliamentary elections using either a list system or single transferable vote. I understand that a small number of member states use the single transferable vote for European elections. The Republic of Ireland and Malta are examples of this. However, most member states use a form of list system, with both closed and open list voting systems being used to elect MEPs across the member states.
Seats in the European Parliament are allocated to member states on the basis of degressive proportionality. This is the principle that the distribution of seats to member states should, as far as possible, reflect the range of populations. Larger member states have a higher number of MEPs than smaller member states, but in turn, those MEPs represent a larger number of citizens. There is a minimum allocation of six MEPs for a member state and a maximum of 96. Germany is the member state with the largest number, with 96, while Estonia, Cyprus, Luxembourg and Malta each have six.
For the record, the current number of MEPs for each member state is as follows: Germany 96; France 74; United Kingdom 73; Italy 73; Spain 54; Poland 51; Romania 32; the Netherlands 26; the Czech Republic 21; Belgium 21; Greece 21; Hungary 21; Portugal 21; Sweden 20; Austria 18; Bulgaria 17; Denmark 13; Finland 13; Slovakia 13; Ireland 11; Croatia 11; Lithuania 11; Latvia 8; Slovenia 8; Cyprus 6; Estonia 6; Luxembourg 6; and Malta 6.
No, it’s not the Eurovision song contest.
Prior to the 2014 European parliamentary elections, the Lisbon treaty provided that at those elections the total number of MEPs should be reduced from 766 to the current total of 751, including the President of the European Parliament. However, the UK’s allocation was increased by one, so it is not nul points for the United Kingdom.
The UK’s allocation was increased from 72 to 73 seats under the Lisbon treaty, slightly increasing our proportion of seats in the European Parliament.
An area that I think is relevant to today’s debate is voter turnout at European elections. One argument that can be put forward in support of an open list system is that it gives the elector a greater choice and more say over which candidates are elected. This could lead to electors feeling more engaged in the electoral process. It is not clear whether a change to an open list system would impact on turnout for European parliamentary elections in Great Britain, however, as turnout at any election is affected by a range of factors in addition to the voting system.
Since the first European parliamentary elections in 1979, turnout at UK European parliamentary elections has consistently been lower than the average turnout across other member states. The average turnout at European parliamentary elections across all member states has steadily decreased since the first direct elections to the European Parliament in 1979. With the exception of the 1999 UK European parliamentary elections, which were not combined with local elections as is usually the case, turnout in the UK under the current closed list system has been broadly comparable with the levels of turnout seen at the UK European parliamentary elections held under the first-past-the-post system between 1979 and 1994.
The figures that I have on turnout for past European parliamentary elections, rounded to the nearest whole number, are as follows: 32% in 1979; 33% in 1984; 36% in 1989; 36% in 1994; 24% in 1999 when, as I said, the were no local elections at the same time; 39% in 2004; and 35% in 2009. At the 2014 European elections, according to the House of Commons research paper, turnout across the UK as a whole was 35.4%, compared with 34.5% at the previous election in 2009, so the figures were roughly the same.
Turnout in 2014 across the European Union was 43%. The paper notes that turnout in some of the newer member states was relatively low. For example, in Slovenia it was 23%, Croatia 25%, Czech Republic 18%, Poland 23% and Slovakia 12.7%. I should explain that the open list system is not currently used in any statutory elections in the UK. Introducing an open list system at European parliamentary elections in Great Britain would require both primary and secondary legislation, and that requirement should be factored in when considering a possible change to the voting system for European parliamentary elections.
In addition, there are a number of practical and logistical implications that would need to be considered when changing the voting system for the European elections. Political parties, candidates, electoral administrators and electors would all need to receive guidance and instructions on the workings of the new voting system, which would be novel and potentially complex for electors. In particular, a public awareness campaign of some sort would be necessary to ensure that voters understood the requirements of the new voting system and that their votes were correctly cast at elections.
The design of the ballot paper would change quite significantly under an open list system. On the ballot paper, under the current closed list system, there is a box against the name of each party and each independent candidate, and the voter puts a cross in the box next to their choice. The names of the party candidates are shown on the ballot paper underneath the party for which they are standing, but they are printed in a smaller font size than the name of the party, and there is no box against the name of each party candidate, because the voter will cast a vote for a party under the closed-list system.
Will my hon. Friend expand on what he has just described? In the south-west, there was a ballot paper for a European election on which there were about 32 different candidates or parties. If we added to the ballot paper the names of the party representatives, we could end up with a ballot paper that was about a metre long.
A ballot paper that is a metre long would be extraordinarily complicated and very difficult to understand. I certainly do not want to see any ballot papers that long, and neither, I am sure, does my hon. Friend.
However, under an open list system, the ballot paper would need to be redesigned to allow voters to cast a vote for individual party candidates, which is why it would need to be so long. As a result, the ballot paper would be expected to be longer and more complex than that used under the current closed list system, in particular in those electoral regions with a greater number of MEPs.
In the south-east region—not just the south-west region— there are 10 MEPs and each political party would therefore have the option to list up to 10 candidates on the ballot paper. As I have indicated, the ballot paper would need to be redesigned so that a box appears against the name of each candidate on the ballot paper to enable the voter to indicate their choice of candidate.
The counting of votes under an open list system would also be expected to take longer and be more costly, as the votes cast for each party candidate would first need to be added up to establish the total votes cast for the party and the number of seats that they are entitled to be allocated. That compares with the closed list system where votes are cast for parties only, and establishing the total numbers of votes for each party would be expected to take less time than under an open list voting system.
Moving to an open list system would also raise cost issues and, given the Government’s central role in funding European elections, we would wish to look at that very carefully before we did so. Although the issues might not be insurmountable, they would need to be carefully considered and assessed before any decision is made to move to a new voting system for European parliamentary elections.
I should like to finally conclude by recognising that this issue has generated some lively debate and discussion in this House and elsewhere.
The Minister has spoken a lot about the importance of raising turnout in European elections, which is at the heart—partly—of what he has been describing. Does he think that it would be useful for electors to be more aware of where MEPs do actually make a difference in local areas—I know this is a rather unfashionable view—and make an impact for local people?
Order. I hesitate to take up any of the time left to the Minister because I appreciate that he has a lot to tell the House on this complicated subject, but it would help if he would not mind facing the Chair as he does so, because the Chair is also fascinated by what he has to say.
There is no variation. Gibraltar has its own local returning officer. I do apologise; I was going to come to that before I moved to my closing remarks, but time is moving on and I have taken up rather a lot of the House’s time. I know that one or two Labour Members are desperate for me to continue, but I feel I must now bring my remarks to a close.
The closed list system was first introduced for the 1999 European elections and has been used at successive European elections since then. It is simple for voters to understand, and ensures that across a region seats are allocated in proportion to the votes cast. We should therefore think very carefully before making any changes to the current voting arrangements. That said, from the debate and other debates, and from the views expressed here and elsewhere, I know that there is some dissatisfaction with the closed list system. It can be seen to give parties too much power in determining which candidates are elected and does not create a strong link between MEPs and the electorate.
However, as hon. Members will be aware, the Government have a number of priorities in the area of constitutional reform, such as, as I mentioned, English votes for English laws, individual electoral registration, more powers to Scotland and Wales, implementing the commitment to removing the 15-year time limit on the voting rights of overseas electors, updating parliamentary boundaries, and so on. That is quite a constitutional package to put through this House.
In addition, it is worth noting that outside of this House there does not appear to be a great appetite for this change. For those reasons, we remain sympathetic to the arguments for moving to an open list but we have no plans to look at this at the present time.
It has been a pleasure to listen for so long to my hon. Friend on the Front Bench. I think that he will be a worthy nominee to the European Commission, because he has today shown his capacity to make a bureaucratic mountain out of a veritable molehill. He has also, in the course of his speech, set out a number of very good reasons why we would indeed be better off leaving the European Union, for which I am grateful. He pointed out that even when all the United Kingdom’s MEPs vote in the same lobby, they have fewer than one in 10 votes, which means we will always be in a minority. We will always find that our national interest cannot be protected in the European Parliament because of the system we have. I hope that the Government will be saved the burden of having to examine the issue any further when the people decide to leave the European Union on 23 June. In anticipation of that result, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Your distinguished predecessor, the right hon. Baroness Boothroyd, once ruled me out of order one a Friday morning, during a debate on offshore oil platforms, because I had listed the full names and Latin names of every single species of marine life to be found in the vicinity. She said at the time that the House will not accept tedious and needless repetition of irrelevant facts. Do you agree that listing the voter turnout in 28 European nations and the number of MEPs comes within the aegis of the Boothroyd ruling?
The hon. Gentleman makes an excellent point, as ever, and I am very glad that he has drawn the matter to the House’s attention. I am well aware of the ruling made by Baroness Boothroyd when she occupied this Chair. She was absolutely right—I would never disagree with her—and indeed I feel strongly about upholding her ruling. Were a Minister or Back Bencher to make a speech that included tedious or repetitive information, I would certainly call them to order. This afternoon the Minister read out a fascinating list of results of a very important election. Had I considered it to be tedious and repetitious, I would certainly have taken the action that the right hon. Baroness Boothroyd once took in respect of the hon. Gentleman. However, that was not the case today. Therefore, grateful as I am for his point of order, I will take no further action thereupon.