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European Parliament

Volume 735: debated on Monday 5 March 2012


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they will bring forward proposals for revising the system for electing British Members of the European Parliament in 2014.

My Lords, does the Minister recall the very serious controversy in 1999 over the introduction of the closed-list system for electing Britain's MEPs? Does he agree that while Britain is under an obligation to use a proportional system for choosing MEPs, there are much better ways of doing so? Could not consideration be given to using, for example, the transferable system already in use in Northern Ireland for electing MEPs, which is in use in Scotland for local elections and which the Government propose for future elections to the House of Lords? Failing that, will the Government at least consider using an open-list system, which would give more power to voters and less to political parties?

My noble friend has a point. The present closed-list system was introduced in 2002; it was the general principle of PR that came in in 1999. My noble friend is right that the closed system gives considerable weight to parties and that a different system might give greater weight to candidates. For the moment there are no plans to make a change, as I indicated. However, the Question makes it clear that issues lie ahead about changes in voting procedures and constitutional reform, and that it might make sense for a future Parliament, or in future in some other way, for these matters to be reopened and considered.

My Lords, is not the clear lesson from the experiment in proportional representation that has been used in the European Parliament for the past 15 years that it leads to a lower turnout, far more spoilt ballots and a far weaker connection between the Members of the European Parliament and their constituents? Is it not time that we listened to the people and the overwhelming vote 12 months ago by a majority of two to one in favour of first past the post and against fancy electoral systems, and recognise that the simple change that we should make in Europe is to scrap the existing system and revert to first past the post?

That is certainly a viewpoint. My query would be whether it is the system that produces the low turnout or the cause. One could make an argument either way. The noble Lord has his views on matters of voting procedure and no doubt we will have many opportunities in future to debate them.

My Lords, is not the splendid point made by the noble Lord, Lord Grocott, more than a viewpoint? Did not the British people emphatically reject PR last year, and is it not absurd that either House of the British Parliament should consider continuing this in Europe or, worse still, introducing it for any elections to a second Chamber?

The difficulty with that is that in 2002 there was no rejection of the closed-list system that was introduced. There was agreement by the Government of this country and many other countries in the European Union—in fact, all of them—to go for a PR system of some kind. How that will work in future in relation to this place is quite another debate, one on which obviously there will be strong feelings all round. As far as concerns the STV system in Northern Ireland, or the closed-list system for Europe, they were adopted and signed up to by this country, and if we want to unsign and change the system we will have to have a lively debate about it—as I suspect we will.

Would not the European Parliament be more relevant if the people there were Members of the national parliaments of the countries of the EU, rather than the unaccountable people who are there at present?

We are getting into matters about the virtues of the European Parliament on which a number of leading Members, including from the noble Lord's own party, have expressed quite ripe views recently—one of which was that the whole thing should be abolished. Given that we need to spend a lot of time thinking about our own future as an institution, perhaps we should be cautious about going round recommending that others should be abolished.

Is the noble Lord aware that for the past few minutes, he has been listening to some rather elderly politicians, of whom I am also one, who are looking to the future firmly marching backwards? That is not a persuasive position, especially when they neglect the fact that the only international, directly elected Parliament in the world, which represents part of the progress of the European Union and its associated democracies, is a directly accountable Chamber, unique and very effective in its work. Whatever the future of this Chamber, arguments about it will not be enhanced by giving the impression that the European part of the democratic procedures of this country introduce a lack of representation and accountability, which is not true.

I shall steer clear of the ageism aspect of the question. I see exactly what the noble Lord feels with his considerable experience in these matters, but what we have not yet resolved in relation to the great European Parliament is the remoteness worry. The trouble is that when you have great central institutions, accountable although they may be, they are inclined to be a bit remote and further away than our own parliamentary procedures or, indeed, local government. This is an age when people want to have contact—close relations, as the Laeken declaration said—with their representatives to make them accountable. There is still a problem that the European Parliament yet has to address about its remoteness from voters.

My Lords, the European Parliament is a great institution, but will the cohort of MEPs who will arrive there in 2014, which my noble friend asked about, still be required to go to two locations, or can they just go to Brussels and greatly increase the reputation of the European Parliament by having only one seat and save the European budget some €200 million?

It has been the view of Her Majesty’s Government under successive Governments that this is a very elaborate, expensive and out-of-date arrangement, but unfortunately there is one considerable and powerful country in the European Union that takes a very different view. Until it can be persuaded otherwise, I fear that this double-hatting and double-travelling will have to go on.

My Lords, is the European Parliament not merely a democratic fig leaf for the whole ill fated European project because it cannot even propose legislation? So, if we have to have elections to it, should we not keep the existing system which, after all, allowed UKIP to beat Labour and the Liberal Democrats at the most recent election? UKIP came second; therefore it must surely be an excellent system.

I think that slightly echoes the comment I made earlier that one must not associate the outcome of certain elections with the procedure of the election. I do not know whether UKIP would have done better under first past the post or any other system. Who knows?