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European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 2018

Volume 788: debated on Monday 22 January 2018

Motion to Approve

Moved by

My Lords, I shall speak also to the draft European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 (Amendment) Regulations 2018. These instruments make changes to the existing procedure for filling MEP vacancies in Great Britain and Gibraltar in order to reduce the likelihood of any costly by-elections in the run-up to us leaving the European Union.

Following the EU referendum, the UK will be leaving the EU. However, while the UK remains a member of the EU, we are obliged to make arrangements to fill any MEP vacancies that may arise—for example, due to the resignation or death of a sitting MEP. Currently, electoral law provides that in Great Britain and Gibraltar a vacant MEP seat will stay with the party that won the seat at the previous European parliamentary general election and is filled with reference to the unelected candidates on that party’s list of candidates at that election in the region where the vacancy arises. If it is not possible to fill a vacant seat from the winning party’s list because there is nobody else left on it who is willing or suitable to take up the seat, a by-election is held to fill the vacancy. To date, no by-elections have been needed to fill a vacancy, as it has been possible to fill vacant seats from the relevant party list.

We consider, however, that in some areas there is now a significant risk of a by-election being necessary due to the number and circumstances of the candidates remaining on some party lists. For example, UKIP won a seat in Wales in 2014 and, although there are three persons on its reserve list, we think there may be difficulties, not least following the events over the weekend, in filling any vacancy that may arise, and this could lead to a by-election being necessary. The cost of a by-election in Wales would be about £7 million. Elsewhere, by-elections could cost up to £20 million. Existing MEPs may resign ahead of the end of the Parliament to pursue career opportunities elsewhere. Those lower down the list, drawn up some years ago, may no longer be as enthusiastic as they were.

The Government consider that, in the current circumstances, there is strong justification for taking action to reduce the likelihood of a by-election occurring before the UK leaves the EU. As I have indicated, there would be significant financial costs in holding a by-election, and given that the UK will be leaving the EU, the turnout at such a poll could be low and electors may query the value of holding the poll. These statutory instruments therefore make sensible, precautionary changes to the process for filling vacant MEP seats that will reduce the likelihood of any costly by-elections in Great Britain. The instruments provide that, if a vacancy cannot be filled from the list of candidates for the party that won the seat at the previous round of elections, the party that holds a vacant seat may instead nominate a person to fill the vacancy and be returned as an MEP for that party.

I turn briefly to the details of the proposed changes. The European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 (Amendment) Regulations 2018 amend the regulation-making powers in Section 5 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 concerning the procedure for filling vacant MEP seats. Then, using these new powers, the European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 2018 amend the European Parliamentary Elections Regulations 2004, which set out provisions governing the conduct of European parliamentary elections in Great Britain and Gibraltar.

The proposed changes in the European Parliamentary Elections (Amendment) Regulations 2018 address the position where a vacancy has arisen and it is not possible for the regional returning officer—the RRO—to fill the vacant MEP seat from the list of the party that won the seat in the region at the previous election. Under the proposed changes, where the outgoing MEP stood for a registered party, the RRO will still initially seek to fill the vacancy through approaching in turn the reserve candidates on the party’s list of candidates in the relevant region. If the RRO is unable to fill the vacancy from the party list because it is exhausted, this will no longer automatically trigger a by-election. Instead, the RRO must ask the nominating officer of the party that previously won the seat to nominate a person to fill the vacant seat and be returned as an MEP for that party. The person must meet the existing requirements to be an MEP, for example, in terms of age and nationality.

Under the proposed changes, the nominating officer must respond within 28 days to the RRO, giving the name of the person who is to fill the vacant seat. In the event that the nominating officer was unable to nominate a person within 28 days, this would cause a by-election to be held to fill the vacancy. We think it would be extremely unlikely that a party would not be able to nominate a person to fill the vacancy within the specified 28 days and so cause a by-election.

The regulations make similar provision for independent candidates and jointly nominated candidates. The changes are modelled on the process previously agreed by Parliament for filling MEP vacancies in Northern Ireland, and which has been successfully used to fill a vacant seat there. I should explain that the single transferable vote is used for European parliamentary elections in Northern Ireland, which differs from that used in Great Britain. Under STV, there are no party lists, and in the event of a vacancy, the nominating officer of the party that previously won the seat will nominate the person to be the new MEP, who will then be returned to the seat by the Chief Electoral Officer for Northern Ireland.

We have consulted on the instruments with the Electoral Commission and with others such as the Society of Local Authority Chief Executives, the Association of Electoral Administrators and the Government of Gibraltar. We have also consulted with a Parliamentary Parties Panel which advises the Electoral Commission. There is general agreement among those whose views were sought on the instruments that it would be desirable to avoid a European by-election across a region just before the UK leaves the EU.

I should also explain that our law provides that, if a vacancy occurs less than six months before the next European parliamentary general election, the seat remains vacant until that election and it is not necessary for a by-election to be held. We are maintaining this position. Without these changes, there would be a period for almost a year where it would be necessary to hold a by-election if a vacant seat could not be filled from the candidates on the relevant party list.

These statutory instruments make sensible and proportionate changes to the process for filling vacant MEP seats that are designed to reduce the likelihood for any European parliamentary by-elections to be held in Great Britain before the UK leaves the EU. I commend them to the House.

My Lords, these regulations are designed to avoid a situation, if possible, that has not arisen before, is most unlikely to occur in future, but which may happen anyway, irrespective of the passing of these regulations. If the Minister knows anything more specific about any political party which may have difficulties of vacancies occurring among its MEPs—including, perhaps, the Conservative Party in Scotland—perhaps he might enlighten us on why it is so necessary to introduce these regulations.

Since the introduction of proportional representation with the closed party list system in 1999, there have been 12 vacancies among our MEPs arising out of a death or resignation. Most of them have been as a result of an MEP being elected as an MP, or appointed as a Peer. All those vacancies for MEPs—five from the Conservatives, four from Labour, and one each from the Lib Dems, the Greens and UKIP, have been filled by someone from the relevant list of party candidates from the previous European parliamentary elections. I was the first person from any party to confirm the filling of a vacancy in this way. As the Liberal Democrats’ nominating officer at the time, I confirmed that my now noble friend Lady Bowles would become an MEP in 2005 when a vacancy occurred because she was next on my party’s list from the 2004 European Parliament elections. Because of arrangements such as this, there have not been any by-elections for MEPs in the past 19 years.

Some of us still hope that the UK will elect MEPs in 2019. As the Minister said, existing law provides that there would not be a by-election if a vacancy were to occur and a party could not fill it from its list in the six months before European elections were due. So the window in which we are anticipating the possibility of a vacancy and the potential problem of it not being possible to fill it from the existing lists of candidates is between the passage of these regulations into law and some time around December of this year—a very short window. It seems surprising to me, therefore, that they have been considered necessary.

On the longer-term issues, reference is made in the Explanatory Notes to work by the Law Commissions highlighting the need to modernise and codify the entire provisions of our electoral laws. Does the Minister accept the case for doing so, and do the Government intend making progress on this?

Will the Minister also agree in particular that these regulations should be reversed in the event that Britain does not leave, or rejoins, the European Union? Normal democratic provisions should allow voters to choose their representative in a by-election in the event that nobody on a party’s list accepts the position. The solution proposed to an unlikely problem may be acceptable in the short term, but such expediency, in which more power is handed to political parties rather than to voters, would not be acceptable in the long run, and it should not be extended or repeated wherever list systems are used.

In the meantime, political parties will of course still have the power to ensure that a European Parliament by-election occurs following a vacancy if nobody on their list is willing or able to accept the position and it refuses to submit a nomination for a substitute. So if the intention of the regulations is to prevent any by-elections for MEPs, they may still not succeed. This is considered in the Explanatory Notes to be extremely unlikely, but it is a tactic that could be employed by a party to force a by-election—or it may be that a vacancy occurs in an MEP’s seat held by a party that during the relevant period is no longer registered with the Electoral Commission. For example, I understand that Ladbrokes today is offering odds of 5-1 that UKIP will not be registered as a political party by the end of the year. Is this perhaps a factor in the Government’s thinking on these regulations?

My Lords, I wonder whether my noble friend can help me. I think that I heard him say that the cost of a by-election in Wales is £7 million but that it is very much greater elsewhere—I have a feeling that he gave a figure of either £12 million or £20 million. I do not understand why there is this difference. Can we not learn something from Wales, so that costs can be brought down elsewhere?

My Lords, we should be told about that one for sure.

The Minister is having an exciting time. On Thursday, he welcomed the President of France to this country on behalf of Her Majesty the Queen. Today he is bringing forward perhaps the only coherent piece of European legislation we can expect from this Government over a long period. However, like the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, I remain to be convinced that it is entirely necessary.

As the Minister explained, under the regulations, when an MEP vacancy arises and it is not possible to fill it within the existing procedure, the party that holds the seat may instead nominate a person to be an MEP, so that a by-election is not required. I can see that, on the face of it, that seems a sensible provision, since a by-election in the short period between now and 2019 might be regarded as a pointless exercise. However, some points need to be made here.

First, I am always wary of giving too much power to political party machines, and this seems to do that in spades. It is an open invitation to a party to say that it has lost the confidence of the people on the list and to nominate instead whoever the leader of the party wants. The noble Lord, Lord Young, mentioned UKIP, but the Conservative Party has form in this regard. The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, referred to the kerfuffle last summer in Scotland and the north-east when, as I understand it, the Conservative Party passed over the first two people on the list. It was alleged that, in Scotland, this was because that person had opposed Ruth Davidson becoming Scottish Tory party leader. I do not want to intrude on party grief, but I wonder whether the Government’s alacrity in bringing forward this order is to save them from any further embarrassment.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, mentioned UKIP, which does seem careless in losing its MEPs and leaders, although I note that the current leader of the party—I think he is the current leader—has apparently lost confidence in the national executive committee and intends to remove it. Does UKIP have a nominating officer? If not, what on earth happens? The regularity with which UKIP MEPs have to resign their positions, for one reason or another, might make this more than an academic point.

More seriously, I have a question about the situation arising when an MEP elected under a party label decides, during his or her term of office, to leave the party or is expelled from it. We have seen an example of this recently. They are expelled from a party, or leave it by their own volition, and become an independent. They subsequently resign as an MEP. What is the position? Does the replacement come from the original party under the banner of which they were elected? Paragraph 4.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum says that the regulations provide for substitutions to be made in the case of independent candidates. Will the noble Lord explain how that works?

My Lords, I am grateful to all who have taken part in this debate. I will try to answer the various questions that have been raised.

I start with the relative costs of by-elections. My noble friend was quite right: I mentioned a figure for Wales, where the total cost of a by-election would be £7.1 million. If there was a by-election in the south-east, it would be £19.585 million. The difference is accounted for by expenses for delivery of the poll. In Wales, this would be nearly £5 million, but in the south-east £13.4 million. I suspect that is because there are more electors in the south-east and it has more MEPs than Wales, which has three. There is a slight increase in the cost of relevant services supplied by the returning officer and a significant difference in the cost of delivering the mailings at public expense—£2 million in Wales and nearly £6 million in the south-east. The difference is, basically, related to the number of voters.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, asked me a question which he has asked me before about the Law Commission review. I am afraid that the answer is the same as I have given him before: the Government continue to work with the Law Commission on taking forward its review of electoral law.

I return to some of the main issues raised in the debate. I welcome all the contributions. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Rennard, that this is most unlikely to happen and it is a small window, but it is quite a large sum of money. We therefore believe that this is a proportionate and sensible step to take in order to potentially save a significant amount of public money.

The noble Lord also asked whether a by-election would still take place if the nominating officer was unable to nominate somebody as the list had been exhausted. All the MEPs elected at the last European election represented major registered parties. I think it is most unlikely that a nominating officer would not be able to find anybody from a party to take up a vacancy. I am sure that the Liberal Democrats would be able to find somebody to fulfil that role, and I am sure the same would apply to any other party.

As regards Scotland, I am not that familiar with what happens north of the border, but I understand that due procedure was followed. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, implied that if we pass these regulations, it would prevent that happening. It would not. We would still have to go through the list member by member before the provisions in this regulation were activated—namely, having exhausted the list, there would not be a by-election; there would be a nomination.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, tempted me to answer a hypothetical question: what would happen if, for whatever reason, we did not exit the EU? That is a hypothetical question which is beyond my pay grade to answer. However, these regulations would remain on the statute book unless they were revoked, which would be an option were that eventuality to arise.

It was implied in some of the remarks that it is undemocratic to allow the party machine—as I think the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, referred to it—to fill a vacant seat. These changes are modelled on the process that his Government agreed to fill MEP vacancies in Northern Ireland, and have been used already to fill a vacant seat there. I am not sure whether allegations of undue use of the party machine were made by the Labour Party at that point.

Another hypothetical question was asked: what happens if UKIP becomes unregistered, or if it does not have a nominating officer? If it does not have a nominating officer, the nominating officer cannot nominate somebody, by definition, and there would then be a by-election. That would happen if the party became unregistered.

I was asked what happens to a vacancy where the MEP has changed party. As I think I said from a sedentary position, the vacancy is filled by the next person on the list of the party that won the election at the previous election. I think that is the right thing to do democratically because that is how people voted at that election—they voted in those numbers for a Conservative Party or Lib Dem candidate. When that candidate is no longer fulfilling that post, I think it is right that the party that got the requisite number of votes at that relevant election should fill the vacancy.

As paragraph 4.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum states, the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 is being amended to enable the changes to be made to the 2004 regulations. This is, as it were, a paving Bill, if I can use that term, for the substantive regulations that we are debating.

I detected no fundamental opposition in principle to what the Government are doing. There were a number of very interesting questions which I have done my best to address.

My Lords, it would seem from what the noble Lord is saying that we are all prepared to accept a short-term solution to this problem. However, does he accept that in the longer term it could not be a solution? He described the question of my noble friend Lord Rennard as entirely hypothetical. Has he not noticed that an increasing number of people, even Mr Farage, think that Brexit might not happen? It may be, of course, that in his case, since he says he is skint, he is beginning to think that his continuing MEP salary might be rather desirable.

However, can the noble Lord, in his usual fashion, give us an undertaking that, if there is a possibility that this ceases to be a short-term problem and becomes a longer-term one, we should at least expect the Government to produce some form of contingency plan beyond March 2019? He surely must accept that this provision before your Lordships cannot be allowed to stand for ever. That is undemocratic. It does not even really meet the requirements that his party has set out in the past for truly democratic representation in the European Parliament. If, this time next year, we find ourselves still not sure whether we are going to be exiting from the European Union, surely a responsible Government should look again at what should be put in place of these regulations.

The noble Lord is very plausibly trying to tempt me further down a route that I embarked on, probably ill-advisedly, in responding to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard. I think that I can best shelter behind paragraph 7.1 of the Explanatory Memorandum:

“Following the EU Referendum, the UK will be leaving the EU and it is not expected that the UK will be participating in the next elections to the European Parliament in 2019 (the date of the poll has not been confirmed”.

It then goes on to say that, while we remain a member of the EU, we have to return MEPs. I can go no further than what I said in response to the noble Lord, Lord Rennard—that if these regulations are approved by both Houses, they will govern the position of any vacancies where a party list is exhausted. In that unlikely event, there are European elections next year and the list would be refreshed. However, as the Government’s policy is to leave the EU, I shall venture no further down that path or I will get into real trouble, except to say that these are sensible precautions given that, following the EU referendum, the UK will be leaving the EU.

Motion agreed.