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

Volume 703: debated on Wednesday 2 July 2008

rose to move, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the European Parliament (Number of MEPs and Distribution between Electoral Regions) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2008.

The noble Lord said: The order relates to the European parliamentary elections to be held in the United Kingdom in June 2009, and forms an important part of the Government’s preparations for these elections. Its purpose is to provide for the reduction in the number of United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament from 78 to 72 as a result of the accession of two new states, Bulgaria and Romania, to the European Union. The order also sets out how the new number of MEPs is to be divided between the electoral regions in the UK. The new number of MEPs, as distributed by the order, will apply to the elections that are to be held in 2009.

I shall go as briefly as I can into some of the background to why this order is necessary. The treaty of Luxembourg, which entered into force on 1 January 2007, provides for the accession of Romania and the Republic of Bulgaria to the EU, resulting in an enlarged European Union of 27 states. It was agreed after negotiations, in which we played a full part, that the European Parliament would have a maximum number of 736 MEPs and that the number of MEPs allocated to the existing member states would be reduced to accommodate the new accession states.

The treaty of Luxembourg gives effect to the intent of the treaty of Nice that 12 new states would join the European Union, resulting in an expanded union. Ten of the 12 candidate states joined by virtue of the Athens treaty, which entered into force on 1 May 2004. The Luxembourg treaty provides for the accession of the remaining two.

The Government fully support the enlargement of the EU, but I am sure noble Lords will agree that it makes sense to put a limit on the total number of MEPs elected by EU states so that the European Parliament does not become too unwieldy. A necessary consequence of that is that the number of MEPs elected by existing member states, including us, needs to be reduced in order to accommodate the new member states. Parliament has given its approval to the Luxembourg treaty. The order implements the revised allocation of 72 UK MEPs provided for in that treaty.

As I have explained, the UK currently has 78 MEPs. Under the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002, for the purposes of elections to the European Parliament the UK is divided up into 12 electoral regions. England is divided up into nine, and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each constitute a single electoral region. The 2002 Act specifies how many MEPs each region has.

The European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003 provides a mechanism for implementing any change under community law in the total number of MEPs to be elected for the United Kingdom. Where there is such a change, the Secretary of State for Justice will ask the independent Electoral Commission to make a recommendation to him about how the new number of UK MEPs should be distributed between electoral regions. The 2003 Act specifies that in making a recommendation, the Electoral Commission must ensure that each electoral region is allocated at least three MEPs, and the ratio of electors to MEPs is, as nearly as possible, the same in each electoral region. The Act provides that the recommendation made by the Electoral Commission must be reflected in the order that implements the change. There is no discretion to reject or modify the recommendation.

In January last year, the Secretary of State asked the Electoral Commission to make such a recommendation in respect of our reduced number of seats. The Electoral Commission made its recommendation at the end of July 2007 and, in accordance with the 2003 Act, the commission’s recommendation was laid before Parliament in November 2007. The method used by the commission, the Sainte-Laguë method, was fully explained in its report, and I need not go into details here. However, the method was supported by a number of expert sources such as the Royal Statistical Society and the Office for National Statistics. The recommendation was that in six electoral regions—eastern, north-east, south-east, Yorkshire and the Humber, Wales and Northern Ireland—the number of seats remained unchanged, while the other six regions all lost a single seat.

I do not think that I need to go through the details, unless of course I am asked to do so. I remind noble Lords that the order applies to the United Kingdom and Gibraltar, because Gibraltar was enfranchised for the purposes of European parliamentary elections from June 2004 and has been combined with the south-west region to form a new electoral region for the European parliamentary elections.

We have consulted the Electoral Commission on the order and it has given its support. The commission has made a fair and reasonable recommendation as to how the new number of MEPs should be distributed across the electoral regions in accordance with the 2003 Act.

The order is necessary for the effective running of the European parliamentary elections to be held in June 2009. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the European Parliament (Number of MEPs and Distribution between Electoral Regions) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2008. 22nd Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.—(Lord Bach.)

I thank the Minister for introducing the order. I had not come across what he referred to as “Sainte-Laguë”, if I have my pronunciation right, but I will be coming back to d’Hondt, which he will remember, in due course.

I have two questions. First, obviously if the number of our MEPs is reduced from 78 to 72 as a result of the accession of the two countries mentioned by the noble Lord, that is fair enough and we have to make adjustments. Will the Minister give the figures on how many people each of the MEPs will now represent and what equality there is? For example, we now have three representing Northern Ireland, of which the population is X, and 10 representing the south-east, of which the population is Y. Will he tell the Committee what the variation is between the different regions in terms of how many people each of the MEPs will represent and what the level of fairness will be?

My second question relates to d’Hondt. I do this in memory of my late friend Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish, who taught us all we know about d’Hondt and the bogus, undemocratic, closed-list system that d’Hondt then worked on for electing our MEPs, which none of us were happy with.

D’Hondt works in a curious way and, I suspect, works better in larger constituencies. In the old days, the smallest constituency had four MEPs, but now it is down to two; the north-east now has three, as does Northern Ireland. Does d’Hondt still work as effectively—if it ever did work effectively—when you are down to a constituency that has only three MEPs, or would it be better if we thought of some other system? The Minister probably would not like to go back to the debates we had on closed lists, open lists, d’Hondt and so on, but I would welcome his comments on the matter at this stage.

We are grateful that Wales retains four seats but we feel that we are not properly covered. I would be interested to know what the proportion is for Wales compared with, for example, the south-east and other areas in the United Kingdom. In particular, we feel that four seats for the population in Wales does not accord with Northern Ireland’s three. Rather than have other areas reduced, we feel that Wales should have one more seat. I would be grateful for the noble Lord’s comments.

I am afraid that it is not within my power to give seats to Wales or even to my beloved East Midlands—I cannot do it, much as I might wish to. I can say a word or two about the Sainte-Laguë method, if the Committee will bear with me. I very much invite noble Lords who have a huge interest to look at the document, Distribution Between Electoral Regions of UK MEPs, which was published in July 2007 by the Electoral Commission. Appendix A provides the detailed workings of,

“Full iterative working: the Sainte-Laguë method”.

I do not claim for a moment that I understand it, but it is absolutely fascinating.

André Sainte-Laguë was a professor of applied mathematics at the Conservatoire National des Artes et Métiers in Paris. He devised a mathematical formula for apportioning seats in elections where a proportional voting system is used. We use that system in the European elections. The Sainte-Laguë method is a division method with standard rounding and is similar to the d’Hondt method. The whole Committee will agree with the noble Lord, Lord Henley, who said how much we miss Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish; d’Hondt was completely his. It is used to distribute seats to parties at European parliamentary elections, as well as in the selection of additional member seats to the Scottish Parliament, the National Assembly for Wales and the London Assembly.

Noble Lords will recall with pleasure that under that method, seats are allocated one by one at each stage to the region with the highest number of electors, after that number has been divided by the number of seats already allocated—wait for it—plus one. The Sainte-Laguë method is similar, but uses different divisors. The regional electorates are divided by two times the number of seats already allocated, plus one. Whereas the d’Hondt method uses one, two, three, four and so on as successive divisors, the Sainte-Laguë method uses one, three, five, seven and so on. Given that I have explained that so brilliantly, I know that noble Lords will absolutely understand at once how the system works, but just in case they may have missed the finer points, I strongly recommend that they look at Appendix A of the document. The system is fascinating, and is how it has been calculated that the six seats that we lose are taken away from six areas, while the other six areas retain the existing number of seats. I have spoken for quite long enough.

I apologise, but another Division has been called. The Committee stands adjourned until 4.58 pm or earlier, if all participants are content to continue.

[The Sitting was suspended for a Division in the House from 4.48 pm to 4.53 pm.]

I shall continue with the question I sought to put to the Minister before the Division Bell rang. It is very simple: how does the electorate compared with the number of seats vary from one region to another. Are some regions being dealt with better than others? Obviously there has to be some variation because you cannot get these things exactly right, but I would be interested to know the degree of variation between the best represented and the least represented.

I am grateful to the noble Lord. The minimum number for any region has to be three; that is the bottom line, and it is important to understand that.

Let me set out the electorate in round terms for each region and what the recommended seats are for them. The East Midlands has an electorate of 3,286,000 and five seats. The eastern region has 4,199,000 and seven seats. London has 5,105,000 and eight seats. The north-east has 1,943,000 and three seats. The north-west has 5,188,000 and eight seats. The south-east has 6,120,000 and 10 seats. The south-west has 3,947,000 and six seats. The West Midlands has 4,039,000 and six seats. Yorkshire and the Humber has 3,775,000 and six seats. Wales has 2,243,000 and four seats. Scotland has 3,877,000 and six seats. Northern Ireland has 1,070,000 and three seats. That is a total of 72 seats. One MEP equals a certain number of electors in each of these regions, and it is true that Northern Ireland has a slightly better ratio than other areas have. I would be happy to show the noble Lord the full figures after the regulations have been passed.

I am grateful to the noble Lord, but he was rather coy when he said that Northern Ireland has a slightly better ratio. I would be interested to know what the ratio is. I would also like to know what the variation is between Northern Ireland, which he describes as having the best ratio, and the worst. What is the worst? It must be a very simple little sum, which he and I could work out on a calculator, to see that the ratio in one area is X and in another X minus whatever. If he cannot give it to me straightaway, I would be grateful if he could write to me and place a copy of that letter in the Library in due course.

In very broad terms—everything that I have given has been in broad terms—Northern Ireland has one MEP for 350,000 electors, and Wales has one MEP for 560,000 electors.

On Question, Motion agreed to.