HC Deb 24 February 1998 vol 307 cc190-272 4.32 pm
Sir Brian Mawhinney (North-West Cambridgeshire)

I beg to move amendment No. 46, in page 1, line 8, after 'Kingdom', insert 'and Gibraltar'.

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord)

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 7, in page 1, line 9, at end insert— '1A. For the purposes of this Act, the United Kingdom includes Gibraltar.'. No. 47, in page 1, line 9, at end insert— '1A. Wherever the words United Kingdom appear in this Act they shall be deemed to include Gibraltar.'. No. 57, in schedule 1, page 5, line 44, at end insert— '(e) the register of electors in Gibraltar.'. No. 45, in page 6, line 25, after 'London', insert 'and Gibraltar'.

No. 8, in page 6, line 26, after 'London' insert 'and Gibraltar'.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

Gibraltar has been a subject of debate, interest and importance to this country for at least 300 years. British possession took place in 1704 and was ratified by the treaty of Utrecht in 1713. Ever since, Spain has wanted it back.

I am aware that it is not in order to give a history of British-Spanish relations as they relate to Gibraltar, and I shall not do so for two reasons: first, I do not want to incur your ire, Mr. Lord; and, secondly, I do not want to create the impression that I am seeking to spin out the debate, as that is not our intention. We shall address the issues, but not filibuster, even though we have serious differences with the principles at the heart of the Bill.

Over the centuries, Spain has tried in a number of ways and with varying degrees of aggression to reclaim Gibraltar. That has constituted a problem for successive British Governments, who have attached importance not only to friendly relations with Spain but to Gibraltar's position.

In 1967, Mrs. Judith Hart, speaking for the then British Government, made it clear that there would be no change in control of Gibraltar without the freely expressed wishes of its inhabitants. That is reinforced by article 73 of the United Nations charter, which states that no decolonisation of any territory will take place unless the inhabitants of that territory agree: the inhabitants' wishes are paramount.

All hon. Members, from whatever party, will recognise that Spain has embarked on a long game to try to reclaim Gibraltar. There have been border incidents and Spain has exerted a variety of pressures, including on airline services.

It is worth reminding ourselves at the start of this debate that Gibraltar joined the European Community in 1973 with the United Kingdom—incidentally, that was 13 years before Spain joined. However, no one specifically looks after Gibraltar's interests in the European Union; British Ministers, of course, have a general oversight, but no specific responsibility.

The question we must ask is why the 30,000 inhabitants of Gibraltar are the only people in a Union of 400 million who are not allowed to vote in European elections. If there were an enclave in this country of British citizens who did not have the right to vote for a representative in the House of Commons, there would be much agitation among Labour Members to right what would be seen as a palpable wrong.

I am the first to recognise—as did the Labour Government in the late 1970s—that there were difficulties in accommodating Gibraltar in the system for direct elections that we chose in 1979. That system was based on parliamentary constituencies; the European constituencies were formed by bringing together a number of parliamentary constituencies.

The then Conservative Opposition did not take great exception to the exclusion of Gibraltar, as we recognised the difficulties, and, during the 18 years when Labour was in opposition, Labour Members did not go on about the matter. What is exciting is that the Government have decided—we believe wrongly, although we recognise that the Bill received its Second Reading with the express will of the House—to rip up the system that stood us in good stead for 20 years and introduce a new system which, because it is not based on parliamentary constituencies, gives us the opportunity, for the first time, to right the wrong.

The Government's position was set out by the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, Baroness Symons, who said in another place: The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, and the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, raised questions about voting rights in Gibraltar in the European Parliament elections. Gibraltar's lack of representation in the European Parliament results from Annex II of the 1976 EC Act on direct elections. The affect of Annex II on the 1976 Act is to restrict the application of the Act to the UK itself, to the exclusion of other UK territories such as Gibraltar, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, to which the EC treaty apply in part. Amending Annex II would require the unanimous agreement of all EU member states. However, the Government are aware of the strength of feeling in Gibraltar on that issue."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 November 1997; Vol. 583, c. 1058.] If the Home Secretary is minded to accept our amendment this evening, I have no doubt that on Report he will want to move further amendments to include the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. I give him an undertaking now that, if he does that, the Opposition will support him.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

With the greatest respect to the shadow Home Secretary, the issue is much narrower. The provision should relate exclusively to Gibraltar for one reason: Gibraltar is in the European Union, and the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are not. I would ask the Committee to concentrate exclusively on Gibraltar as it is a stand-alone case. The other two jurisdictions are not in the European Union and are not seeking that facility.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I entirely agree. The rest of my case concerns the uniqueness of Gibraltar. I was quoting a Foreign Office Minister in another place. It was she, not I, who widened the issue to include the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man.

I was saying that, if the Government chose to accept our amendment and then, in sympathy with what the noble Baroness said, decided to table amendments to incorporate the other two jurisdictions, we would be willing to support them. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his courtesy. However, I know that the Government will not do that, because they are strangely reticent about anything relating to the Channel Islands, given the embarrassment that they have already suffered.

Let me focus the Committee's attention on Gibraltar. Gibraltar is an integral part of the European Union; if anyone doubts that, I refer him or her to article 227(4) of the treaty of Rome. As I have said, although Gibraltar is an integral part of the European Union, it is the only member state that does not have a vote.

I wondered whether that was true of other dependent territories and whether perhaps there was some quirk in the treaty of Rome denying dependent territories a vote, and I am indebted to the House of Commons Library for providing me with the information. I turned first to France. I found that French dependent territories fell into two categories. I cannot explain to the Committee why, so I hope that nobody will ask me that question.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Jack Straw)

The two categories in France are known as the DOM and the TOM.

4.45 pm
Sir Brian Mawhinney

We are deeply grateful to the Home Secretary for that penetrating insight. I guess that that is his bid to be associated with the DOM, not having been invited to the celebrations this morning.

France divides its overseas dependent territories into two groups. The first is the French overseas department. Guadeloupe elects its own MEP. It is not absorbed into another region of France and expected to vote for the MEP representing that region. The second group is known as the French overseas collectivité, including Mayotte and St. Pierre and Miquelon. Those territories, too, elect a separate MEP. Not only do French dependent territories have a vote, but they elect their own MEPs.

I turned to Spain and discovered that Spanish dependent territories in north Africa, such as Ceuta and Melilla, also elect their own MEP. We are left wondering, therefore, why only Britain's dependent territories appear not to have a vote for representation in the European Parliament.

France and Spain have extra MEPs representing their dependent territories which are not absorbed into continental France or Spain. Those are extra seats. Our amendment does not go that far. We are proposing not that Gibraltar should be treated as a separate region, but simply that it should be bound to the United Kingdom system.

Let me make it clear that the official Opposition are happy to support the amendment in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), my right hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor) and the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). We agree that the London region is the appropriate place to include Gibraltar. Had those right hon. and hon. Members not tabled their amendment, we would have tabled one to that effect.

The consideration of the Bill in Committee provides the House with a new opportunity to remedy a long-standing democratic deficit. The issue is becoming increasingly pressing. In Gibraltar, the feeling of injustice is heightened as Gibraltar becomes more than a trading area and seeks a more independent voice in the international community.

The Government have also heightened the pressure by their agreement to the Amsterdam treaty. The Amsterdam treaty greatly enhanced the co-decision-making role of the European Parliament. It is no great secret that we would not have taken that route, but the Government did. They acceded to the granting of new powers to the European Parliament. In other words, the Amsterdam treaty gave the European Parliament a more extensive role in the process of legislation that Gibraltar is required to put into its law and, subsequently, to implement. However, it does not allow Gibraltar any say in the formulation of that legislation. It echoes the sentiments of "no taxation without representation". It is almost saying, "No legislation without representation."

The time has come to enfranchise Gibraltar. We have a new system. We do not like it and we think that the Government will regret it. When it dawns on the British people exactly what the Government are doing in this legislation, the Government's popularity will take a beating, and I view that with equanimity. I can force myself to sleep at night with that prospect.

I am not sure that there is not a devious, Machiavellian plot by the Home Secretary, who has honourably, repeatedly and—I hope that I do not embarrass him—with increasing enthusiasm made it clear that he does not believe in proportional representation. I wonder why his fingers are across the Bill. I had a smidgen of a thought that perhaps the public reaction some time next year will be such that he will be able to safeguard the House from the ravages of Lord Jenkins and his machinations on behalf of the secret Lib-Lab pact, the nature of which is becoming increasingly apparent.

The Government are destroying all the links with the old constituencies and putting new regions in place. There is an opportunity to allow Gibraltarians—as part of the London region—to help elect members who would have a direct democratic responsibility for the Rock and the people who live on it. The Government cannot argue that they cannot handle the numbers. In my part of the country we are promised a region with 4 million voters. What sense of ownership they will have of their MEPs, or the MEPs will have of the eastern region, defies my ability to understand. Of the 30,000 who are resident on the Rock, my understanding is that perhaps only 18,000 would be eligible to vote. Those 18,000 have been denied the franchise. There can be no argument that the numbers will be destabilising. A 1985 European Parliament research paper suggested that Gibraltar could be added to the electoral roll in a United Kingdom constituency.

The old system was difficult. The proposed new—but deeply flawed—system provides us with an opportunity. The Government will tell us that Spain will not like it. That will cut no ice with the Conservatives and, I suspect, precious little ice with Labour Members. If the Government are prepared to deny voting rights to 18,000 Gibraltarians because Spain will not like it, the Minister should get up, look the world in the eye and say so. We shall all draw our own conclusions.

Baroness Symons said that giving voting rights to Gibraltar would be possible only with unanimous agreement in the Council of Ministers. Of course we believe that a good relationship with Spain is important. However, the Conservatives believe that the relationship between Gibraltar and this country is also important. Gibraltar is part of the United Kingdom. Spanish dependent territories have a vote and representation in an additional seat. We are not asking for that.

We know that the Government are already tentative in their relations with Spain. I happened on a report of the Justice and Home Affairs Council of 4 and 5 December last year. It says: The Spanish delegation blocked three decisions which were ripe for agreement, over the status of Gibraltar. One decision concerned a proposed joint action for the creation of a European legal contact network. Spain, which does not recognise the independence or the autonomy of Gibraltar, did not want the British Government to appoint a magistrate or prosecutor to Gibraltar. To mollify the Spaniards, the Presidency asked all the Member States to notify their contact points—judiciary authorities and magistrates specialising in the fight against large-scale crime—to the Secretary General of the Council, so that this joint action could be implemented immediately once adopted at a future session. The UK delegation announced that it did not plan to create a contact point on Gibraltar. The Government have already proved pretty weak on relations with Spain over Gibraltar when push comes to shove.

For the sake of the nation, eschewing partisan advantage, we do not want the Government, who are already becoming known as soft on crime, to be thought of as soft on democracy as well. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, North (Mr. Henderson), said in an answer on 9 December that the Foreign Office was keeping the issue under review. Now is the time to end the review. Now is the time to put up or shut up.

The new Labour Government tell us that they are creating a new Britain, a new Europe, a new world and a new millennium, that they are making new friends in Europe, have new influence in Europe and have the presidency to boot. Let us have a small test of all that newness—all that new influence, all that new power, all that new persuasive charm, all that new democracy, all that "let the people decide" attitude, all that determination to put the people first, foremost and always. What about the people of Gibraltar?

This may cause some hurt among Labour Members, but some of us have been sceptical about some of the Government's claims. Today provides them with a chance to prove us wrong. I want the Minister to rise to the challenge on behalf of the people of Gibraltar and the democratic accountability about which she and her right hon. and hon. Friends talk so much. Let us have a little openness on Gibraltar.

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to intervene, because it stops a flood of tears springing to my eyes about the situation in Gibraltar. Did the outgoing Conservative Government intend to include Gibraltar in this Bill on the European elections?

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I have two things to say to the hon. Gentleman, whom, as he knows, I hold in the highest possible regard. First, had he been able to organise his timetable to join us a little earlier than he did, he would have already heard me deal with that point at considerable length and to the general approval of the Chamber. Secondly, had we won the election last year, we would not have dreamed of bringing in such a rotten Bill.

Of course the Foreign Office will be against our amendment; it will not like anything that upsets the relationship between the United Kingdom and Spain. But this is a Home Office Bill. The Home Secretary is already in danger—I put it as gently as I can—of creating the impression that his freedom of movement is only as great as that permitted by the Chancellor of the Exchequer. It would be damaging if the Home Secretary's freedom of movement were seen to be constrained by the Foreign Secretary as well as by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.

I ask the Minister to give serious consideration not to doing something for the Opposition but to doing something of huge importance for the people of Gibraltar. I commend the amendment to the Committee.

5 pm

Mr. Mackinlay

I support the amendments. I formally apologise to the shadow Home Secretary for interrupting and misunderstanding him. We were at one on the point that he was making. The amendments relate exclusively to Gibraltar. They relate to a self-standing case. It needs to be borne in mind that no other territory is relevant to the issue. The word "territories" is in all European legislation and treaties, and it is an accident. The treaties should specifically refer to Gibraltar since there is simply no other "territory" falling into that category.

I wish, though, that the shadow Home Secretary did not pick a fight on every occasion. It makes it more difficult for people like me, who are in enough deep water as it is, to agree with him almost entirely. He sometimes over-eggs the partisan case, as he has on this self-standing matter of fundamental right. The people of Gibraltar are in the European Union. They are British, and by virtue of the Maastricht treaty, they have European Union citizenship. Whatever our views on that, it is enshrined in British law and must have some value.

I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Treasury Bench extend me the courtesy of listening to my remarks. I shall certainly want to interrupt them when they start trotting out flawed arguments which the Foreign Office is peddling to them. If my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Wavertree (Jane Kennedy), the Assistant Whip, asks me to move on, I will do so as quickly as I can, although I want to complete the important arguments. Such arguments are very serious to 17,000 potential electors who are denied rights.

The Labour party has a long tradition of ensuring enfranchisement. I find it difficult to reconcile that powerful tradition with the apparent refusal to recognise that the people of Gibraltar have a right to vote in European elections—and I do mean a right. I hope that there might be some more mature reflection on the matter.

The shadow Home Secretary advanced the idea that the British Government would not extend the franchise because they were somehow frightened of the reaction of Spain, and so on. My fear is that that view is endemic at official level in the Foreign Office. Over the years, the Foreign Office has badly failed the people of Gibraltar. That is reflected in its flawed briefs to Ministers.

Reference has been made to arguments advanced in another place by Baroness Symons that, somehow, there is an impediment to altering the law without unanimity among EU member states. That is simply wrong in law. It is nonsense, but it is indicative of the kind of stuff that is peddled at an official level in the Foreign Office. Even if I am wrong, it is up to the British Government to challenge such a premise. I am quite confident—I say this with as much humility as I can muster—that I happen to be right, and that the Foreign Office is wrong. I invite the Minister to consider that, if the point is conceded, the right of this place to determine categories of citizenship is conceded.

It is within the competence of any EU nation state to legislate on who its citizens are and on the various categories of citizenship. I shall not go into the question of the citizenship of the people of Gibraltar and the nature of their passports, suffice it to say that it is in our competence, within the EU, to include them in a category of citizenship. We could do so under this Bill or some other measure.

The shadow Home Secretary referred to the fact that, throughout the world—on islands in not only the Atlantic ocean but the Indian and Pacific oceans—EU citizens vote in European elections. He referred to the territories of France, Spain and the Netherlands. There is a wider issue in that people in such territories may also vote in national assembly elections. That matter should be addressed, too, but I will not go down that road today. Such countries have sensibly incorporated the people of their territories in their supranational territory. In the treaty of Utrecht, which I know the Minister looks at frequently, she will find that it is within our competence to do the same for the people of Gibraltar. The Spanish could not challenge it in the courts, because such a competence is four square within the terms of the treaty.

The shadow Home Secretary referred to people around the globe who will vote in European elections by virtue of citizenship of other European nations, but United Kingdom citizens in every corner of the world will also be voting due to legislation which, rightly or wrongly, was passed under the Conservative Government, who extended the franchise to people who have lived in other countries for up to 20 years. From central America to south America, and in every corner of the globe, folk will be able to vote and will vote in European elections.

I return to the moral argument, to which I ask the Minister to address herself. If we had gone to war this week, Gibraltar would have gone to war. When EU common foreign security policy decisions are made, Gibraltar is bound by them. The Prime Minister is Gibraltar's Prime Minister. Of course, Gibraltar has a Chief Minister, but the Prime Minister represents Gibraltar on world councils. The Foreign Secretary is also the Foreign Secretary of Gibraltar. I hasten to add that, in relation to a number of detailed aspects of the constitutional relationship between Gibraltar and the UK, the Home Secretary is the Home Secretary of Gibraltar.

The fortunes of the people of Gibraltar are ultimately determined in this House, but they are denied a vote here. Decisions are being taken in Brussels and the European Parliament which affect them, yet they have no right to have a say. That is demonstrably wrong and completely flouts the Labour party's tradition of extending the franchise.

The very least that I would expect of the Government is to incorporate in the Bill the ability to include Gibraltar, and then to test that ability in the courts, if challenged. As I said, if I am wrong, and we lose the case in both the United Kingdom courts—which is inconceivable—and the European courts, so be it. But that will not be so. The Government are not going to test that, because they will shun the amendments.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I am sorry if I made it more difficult for the hon. Gentleman on a partisan basis. I was not trying to do that. He has just made an important and realistic point—that, if the Bill were amended to include Gibraltar, it is conceivable that, between it receiving Royal Assent and the 1999 elections, the Government might not get the agreement of Spain. That might take a little longer. In which case, were the Government to indicate a willingness in principle to incorporate something along the lines of the amendments, I would be very happy to withdraw our amendment, as I am sure he would withdraw his, to give the Government the opportunity on Report to table a more enabling amendment.

Mr. Mackinlay

I agree. I hope that Ministers are listening to the suggestion that there should be further reflection on the matter at least to enable the UK Government to extend the franchise. That is fair and sensible. If they do not accept that, the onus is on them to advance the reasons why they are unable to. I use the word "unable" deliberately, because, if they cannot advance such reasons, we must conclude that they are unwilling and we are entitled to ask why. I think that the smoking gun goes back to the Foreign Office, which has significantly failed the people of Gibraltar for a decade or more. I ask the Home Secretary to consider re-examining the matter.

There is abysmal ignorance about the matter. I intervened on the Shadow Home Secretary because I get so irritated by people thinking that the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man are part of this. I know that such flawed thinking often emanates from Foreign Office officials. The issue must be addressed. It is not going to go away. We will have this debate time and again when dealing with Bills on representation of the people for the House of Commons. No doubt there will be further legislation relating to elections to the European Parliament. As sure as night turns into day, some Government—I hope that it will be a Labour Government—will concede the point. After that, people will wonder what all the fuss was about. Some things are inevitable, and this place makes itself look silly by not listening to arguments that have been won. We stand rigid and try to use the whipping system to let a silly situation prevail.

I hope that the Minister will reconsider the matter. If I show anger, it is because of the prevailing attitudes to which I referred. An hon. Member, who, unlike me, holds office, referred to Gibraltar in my hearing as being "abroad". When I challenged him, he again said that it was "abroad". That underlines the nonsense that we hear about Gibraltar. I will not embarrass the hon. Member concerned but he was of some note. It is time that a line was drawn. I hope that we will start to stand by these people who have done us proud and are morally entitled to be represented in democratic institutions.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

This is an important debate. Extending the franchise to people who should have a way of representing themselves democratically is very important. I listened carefully to the points made by the right hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

North-West Cambridgeshire

Mr. Heath

I apologise; I was misinformed. The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) had five or six minutes of good points and it was good to hear them extended to 28 minutes. He is right to say that it is an old question. Arguably, it goes back to the treaty of Utrecht, which was in some ways an imperfect document, but it was of its time. Nevertheless, it creates anomalies that have yet to be rectified.

One of today's newspapers carries the obituary of a distinguished former Member of the House, Sir David Crouch. One of his earliest activities was arguing for the democratic rights of the people of Gibraltar against the Government of the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Sir E. Heath). The matter has exercised hon. Members for many years.

It is an anomaly that Gibraltar is treated, uniquely, as a European Union territory that does not have access to the democratic structures of the European Union. The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire is right to draw a distinction between Gibraltar and the French départements and territoires d'outre-mer and the Spanish enclaves on the north African coast. He was perhaps disingenuous in not making clear how that anomaly came about. Those territories had democratic representation in their domestic Parliaments at the time of accession to the European Union, whereas Gibraltar has not had that right of representation, nor has it been accepted by this Government or previous ones that it should have that right. It is perhaps something that we should address. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) and I have been considering that carefully in the Foreign Affairs Select Committee when examining the affairs of our dependent territories, which are now the British overseas territories.

5.15 pm

There is also the argument, which I believe no longer holds true, that Gibraltar is not fully part of the European Union territories, in that some parts of the acquis communautaire do not apply to the territory of Gibraltar. Indeed, there was an argument that the Government of Gibraltar had not implemented the parts of the acquis communautaire that did apply to it. Mr. Caruana and the present Government of Gibraltar have made considerable strides in bringing Gibraltar into line with its obligations. It is therefore clearly right and opportune that we consider citizenship and the extension of the franchise to Gibraltar.

I disagree with the hon. Member for Thurrock, because I believe that there are difficulties in law. Annexe 2 of the 1976 EC Act on Direct Elections is an impediment. It clearly forms part of the treaty; we have a treaty obligation. I would not be happy if we passed into domestic law something that was clearly not in line with our treaty obligations.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I did not quite understand the hon. Gentleman's last point. My understanding, which was reinforced by the quotation from Baroness Symons that I read out earlier, is that such action is not outwith the law, and that the difficulty was the need for unanimity. Knowing Spain's attitude to Gibraltar, that would be a difficult task. Is he saying that there is a genuine legal impediment, as opposed to what I might call a handling problem?

Mr. Mackinlay

Test it.

Mr. Heath

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. The hon. Member for Thurrock says that we should test it. It may need to be tested. I understand that the current advice of the Foreign Office—

Mr. Mackinlay

It is wrong.

Mr. Heath

It may well be wrong, but it is borne out by my reading of the annexe and the treaty. The treaty would have to be amended, and it is that, rather than the treaty's interpretation, which would require unanimity among member states. That advice is not cast solid. A letter from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to the Foreign Affairs Committee on behalf of Baroness Symons offers to ask legal experts to look again at ways of getting around that apparent difficulty. That is right, but we cannot simply wish it away and say that there is no impediment.

I agree with the hon. Member for Thurrock that there is no clear impediment to representation of the people of Gibraltar here. That is a matter for the will of the British Parliament. The case of the European Parliament is clearly written into a treaty, and we have to find ways either of interpreting it differently from how it has been interpreted so far or of amending it, which would require unanimity.

My last point is a small difference with the right hon. Member North-West Cambridgeshire, who seeks to put Gibraltar into the London region. Those of us from the south-west of England have always felt that, if Gibraltar is to be anywhere, it should be in the south-west. It lies in the western approaches. Like the Scilly Isles, it is a natural extension of the south-west peninsula: keep going and one eventually arrives at Gibraltar. That view has been promoted by my friend the Member of the European Parliament for Cornwall and Plymouth, who sees Gibraltar as naturally part of his territory. We shall not fall out over whether Gibraltar, if it ever accedes, should be part of the south-west region or part of the London region, but it is necessary that I should make the case on behalf of my own region.

In short, if the Committee divides, I and my right hon. and hon. Friends will support the amendment. That is not because we believe that it is perfect—we do not; there is still much legal and diplomatic work to be carried out before its aims can be achieved—but to indicate our preference that the people of Gibraltar should have the democratic representation that every other citizen of the European Union has by right. If we can demonstrate that desire to the Government today, perhaps they will do as the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire suggested, look at the matter again and return with workable proposals to make that democratic representation a reality.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

I support the three amendments in my name, and those tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) and others.

In September of last year, I was privileged to visit Gibraltar with a delegation from the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association. Chief among the many points we noted during our visit was the people of Gibraltar's enthusiasm to remain British and to retain their British nationality. Not the least part of their claim is that they have played an important part in this nation's history and, as the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) said, they continue to play an important part. The ships sent to the Gulf during the recent confrontation with Iraq were refuelled and, in some cases, restored and reprovisioned in Gibraltar.

The people of Gibraltar feel strongly that they accept many burdens as a result of their membership of the European Union, but do not necessarily get all the benefits. The subject under discussion this evening is one of the benefits that they are not getting.

I should clear up one misunderstanding—the common belief that the people living in Gibraltar are actually expatriate Spaniards. That is not true: the people living in Gibraltar are generally of Italian extraction, many of whom can trace their ancestry back to Genoa. They are, by any reckoning, European peoples, and they feel aggrieved about the current situation. The whole of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation recognised their concerns and understood them. I hope that tonight there will be cross-party support in the Lobby for the amendments. It is an issue on which the whole House can unite without fear of establishing any precedent, because Gibraltar is in a unique position.

One of the few redeeming features of the Bill—which, in other aspects, my colleagues and I will oppose—is that it gives the House an opportunity to address a wrong, or to correct what might have been an oversight 25 years ago. As my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire has pointed out, the Bill represents a new beginning, with new constituencies, new methods of election, a change in the candidate selection procedure, and opportunity to include Gibraltar. I hope that the House will bear with me as I read an extract from a letter from the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, which was sent to me in November last year. It states: 30,000 British Gibraltarians, and other EU Nationals resident in Gibraltar, are the only EU Nationals who have no right to vote at Euro-Elections. This is in stark contrast to citizens of Spanish territories in North Africa, and some French territories even further away, who do vote. The people of Gibraltar have long felt aggrieved by this serious democratic deficit. The position is now even more anomalous following extension of the co-decision procedure, which gives the European Parliament a far more extensive role in the process of legislation which Gibraltar is subsequently required to transpose into our own laws and to implement. The Gibraltarians are the only European nationals who do not have the vote in European parliamentary elections, but there are other factors to be considered. Gibraltar is geographically part of Europe—that is indisputable; it is ethnically European, as I have already demonstrated; administratively, it has been linked either to this country, or, further back in history, to another European country; and currently, it is treaty-bound in membership of the European Union. Gibraltar's constitutional position within the European Union is defined by article 227(4) of the treaty of Rome—Amsterdam article 299.4, page 227, Cm 3780—which states: The provisions of this Treaty shall apply to the European territories for whose external relations a Member State is responsible. The amendments do not propose that Gibraltar should be a new constituency. Many hon. Members recognise that if that were the proposal, it would be necessary to amend the 1976 EC Act on Direct Elections. The amendments simply propose that Gibraltarians should be added to the electoral rolls in the new London electoral region. Any other region could have been chosen, but it seems to me that, for practical and commonsense reasons, it would be more sensible for Gibraltar to be connected with the City of London. Most people travelling from Gibraltar to this country arrive in London, and most people travelling to Gibraltar start their journeys in London. There is therefore a good argument in favour of linking Gibraltar with London, although I acknowledge what the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) said in that respect.

Following on from other remarks made by the hon. Gentleman, may I draw his attention to the opinion of Michael Llamas, who is an advocate resident in Paris? Mr. Llamas presented an opinion to the European Court in connection with the case of a Gibraltarian who went to the court on the precise issue of whether or not she was being denied her democratic rights by not being allowed to vote in European elections. It was the opinion of Mr. Llamas that: The United Kingdom can unilaterally extend the right of franchise to the European Parliament to Gibraltar if such an extension can be put into effect without the need to amend Annex II. That confirms the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire. Mr. Llamas continues: the United Kingdom can unilaterally extend the right of franchise to the European Parliament to Gibraltar because:

  1. (a) the Act on Direct Elections is applicable to Gibraltar by virtue of the operation of Article 227(4) EC Treaty;
  2. 202
  3. (b) for EC purposes, Gibraltar is considered to be an integral part of the Member State, the United Kingdom."
In addition, Mr. Llamas argues that the right of franchise to the European Parliament for Gibraltar can be given effect in two further ways: either by the integration of the Gibraltarian vote in the vote of European Parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom"— which is what is proposed in the amendments; or by the grant of a European Parliamentary seat to the territory of Gibraltar. He continues: in the former case, the United Kingdom can … act unilaterally whereas in the latter case it cannot do so. I hope that that answers the question posed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome.

Mr. Llamas also states: it is possible for the Gibraltarian vote to be integrated into the vote of a European Parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom. This solution would maintain the exclusion of the territory of Gibraltar from the Act on Direct Elections, as interpreted by the United Kingdom, but would allow the citizens of the European Union who reside in Gibraltar to exercise the rights protected under Article 3 of Protocol No. 1. Since this vote would be expressed in the context of a European Parliamentary constituency in the United Kingdom there is no need to amend Annex II. The problem would be solved internally and unilaterally by the United Kingdom. I hope that the Minister will take that point on board and respond to it when she sums up the debate.

The Government profess their determination to create greater democracy—in fact, the whole United Kingdom constitution is being turned upside down on the pretext of securing greater democracy. This Bill is part of that process. Even in Committee this evening, the Government seem determined to resist giving 30,000 British subjects the right to vote. Those people are British nationals. The 1972 Act of Accession defined the term "nationals" in the context of Gibraltar as follows: Persons who are citizens of the United Kingdom and Colonies by birth or by registration or naturalisation in Gibraltar, or whose father was so born. There is no doubt that those people are British nationals and that Gibraltar is a special case. There is no doubt, either, that Gibraltar is in a unique situation. The Minister need have absolutely no fear about creating any sort of precedent by agreeing to the amendments tonight. I hope that the Government will respond generously this evening. More to the point, I hope that the Government will take advantage of a unique opportunity to grant the people of Gibraltar their full democratic rights.

5.30 pm
Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

I support the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Mr. Taylor), who have tabled amendment No. 7, for various reasons. I remember my first visit to Gibraltar, when the Chief Minister and Members of the Council were socialists. We are dealing with the full spectrum of political opinion in Gibraltar when we discuss this matter.

A few years later, in London, Mr. Bossano told me, "Remember that the mandarins in Madrid and in London have more in common with one another than they have with their political masters." He said that with a twinkle in his eye because he was transposing Madrid and Dublin in my case. The people of Northern Ireland have an empathy with the people of Gibraltar. Several years ago, when some said that it would be difficult to fit 30,000 people into one United Kingdom constituency, I suggested that we might consider linking Gibraltar with North Antrim as a fair number of Gibraltarians were born around Ballymena—hence Ballymena house in Gibraltar.

I understand the views expressed by the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath). Gibraltar holds the Mediterranean approaches and the hon. Gentleman might consider that it should also hold the western approaches. On the other hand, I support the argument for linking Gibraltar with London. People often travel from Gibraltar to London, communication with London is easy, and Gibraltar has a fine office in London that keeps us informed about events.

I support my colleagues who have said that we are not dealing simply with an overseas territory or arguing the case for territories outwith Europe: we are dealing with an injustice that was done to Gibraltarians allegedly because we defended the concept of the treaty of Utrecht. We did not argue the case of Gibraltar as an individual entity within Europe sufficiently strongly when the annex was added. Without changing that pattern, it is now time to give the people of Gibraltar their democratic rights within the European Union.

I support the amendments, and I trust that the Government will move speedily to accept them in the interests of natural justice and democracy. The people of Gibraltar are part of us; they have been with us in good times and in bad. When we gave Gibraltar greater independence, it acceded to all our requests to reform its own political and banking systems in order to achieve the best British standard. We should support the people of Gibraltar now and grant them their proper place within Europe.

Mr. Damian Green (Ashford)

I wish to put in an historical context the case for giving Gibraltar the rights that the amendments enshrine. It is significant that, in this short discussion, hon. Members representing four political parties have spoken in support of the amendments. That shows that this is one of the least divisive issues that Parliament has addressed in recent weeks. The Government would not lose face by accepting the amendments; there is widespread consensus in support of them, and I would welcome the Minister's acceptance of them when she winds up the debate.

It is important to consider the historical perspective, not least because the situation has changed a great deal since Britain's accession to the European Community—as it then was—in 1973. When Spain became a member some years later, there was a burst of optimism throughout Europe—particularly in this country and in Gibraltar—that, as Spain had been cemented as a member of the wider European democratic family, the centuries-old problem of conflict between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar might be resolved through reasonable debate and sensible negotiation between democracies that the European ideal is designed to promote. One of the great disappointments of the last couple of decades in the context of Gibraltar is that that has not occurred.

There has clearly been some relaxation of and significant improvements in the conditions that the Spanish Government apply to the people of Gibraltar, but I am sure that all hon. Members agree that the normalisation of relations between Gibraltar and Spain, which we hoped for when Spain acceded to the European Community, has not been realised. It is therefore appropriate for the British Government to say at this stage that we are prepared to stand up fully for the democratic rights of the people of Gibraltar. We have waited long enough for the problem to be resolved through negotiation. As that has not proved possible, the time is right for the British Government to make this significant gesture.

Since the accession of Britain—and therefore of Gibraltar—and Spain to the European Union, the concept of EU citizenship has been introduced. The European Union is presently running a Europe-wide advertising campaign pointing out that EU citizenship confers rights on the citizens of the Union. As it is explicitly a Union of democratic countries, every EU citizen can expect to have the basic right to vote and the basic right to representation, but all that is a charade if, in one small corner of the EU, those rights to do not apply.

The implications go wider. The problem of the democratic deficit clearly affects the European Union, and the European Parliament is meant to redress it. Nowhere is the democratic deficit more palpable than in Gibraltar, whose citizens have no democratic representation at all in European institutions. While we are addressing the democratic deficit, it is important that we start with the place for which this country has a direct responsibility and which is worst off in terms of democratic representation.

The suggestions in the amendments would be good not just for Gibraltar, but for the European Parliament. I am aware that some of my hon. Friends might greet with equanimity, to use the word of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), the fact that the European Parliament lacks a high public profile and is often regarded as a fifth wheel on the coach among European institutions.

That attitude is short-sighted. The institution exists and serves a purpose. It is gaining new powers as the years pass. It would be sensible for the Committee to give the European Parliament a useful and popular effect so that it can show itself to be capable of expanding democracy in European institutions.

As we have heard, Gibraltarians are not represented in a national Parliament, which would be this place. As they are citizens of the European Union and have not shown any great desire for representation in this place, the European Parliament would be the appropriate place for the democratic representation of such a British overseas territory.

I shall try to anticipate what the Minister will say in opposing these popular and sensible amendments. I imagine that the Government will say that the amendments would break the treaties and therefore be illegal. We have heard several learned comments on whether the Foreign Office legal advice is correct on that point. I always hesitate to enter a legal debate, but at the very least it is clear that there can be two coherent views as to the legality of the argument.

I am sure that, in their hearts, hon. Members on both sides of the Committee want to support the amendments, so let us test them. That is what we have a legal system and courts for. If the amendments are illegal, we can do something—we can start negotiating new treaties—but saying supinely that we have received legal advice suggesting that they are illegal so we shall do nothing would not reflect well on the Committee or on the Government.

I dare say that the Minister will be tempted to say that the amendments would be bad for relations between Britain and Spain. None of us wants to disturb relations with one of our friendly colleagues in the European Union, but I suggest to the Government that, when in doubt about prospective negotiations in Europe, they should always ask themselves what the French would do in the same circumstances. They are able to reconcile their national interest with a positive attitude towards relations with the rest of the European Union. It is inconceivable that a French Government, faced with an equivalent problem to the one before us, would not instantly give democratic rights to their own citizens.

Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath)

My hon. Friend suggests that the Government might take note of what the French would do in such circumstances. I am sure that, like me, he has read the interesting debate on Gibraltar in another place on 26 November last year. Does he agree that the Government should also take careful note of the views expressed in that debate by their former colleague in this House, now Lord Janner of Braunstone? Does my hon. Friend agree also that the Government would be wise always to take note of their former senior Back Benchers?

Mr. Mackinlay

And existing Back Benchers, please.

Mr. Green

My hon. Friend makes an excellent point, as does the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). Senior Back Benchers, both those who have gone to another place and those still in this place before elevation to another place, can make great sense on the issue.

Mr. William Cash (Stone)

My hon. Friend made an interesting and important point about the French. Is it not the case that Martinique, Guadeloupe, Réunion and so on are already départements of France? They are seen to be part of France. From 1713, and later in the treaty of Paris, they were turned into colonies.

5.45 pm
Mr. Green

My hon. Friend is right. There is an exact equivalence, which is why the Committee should accept the amendments.

The Government have made a lot of noise about their presidency and what they will achieve in the six months. May I make the modest suggestion that an historic step forward, which would be popular in this country and extremely welcome in Gibraltar, would be the Government's using their presidency to accept the amendments and giving democratic rights to the people of Gibraltar.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Ms Joyce Quin)

This has been an interesting debate, and I recognise the strength of feeling that has been evident in the speeches of many hon. Members, particularly the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), who raised this issue on Second Reading, and my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), who has referred to the matter on various occasions.

I found the arguments of the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) less convincing. I was grateful that he began by saying that he was not filibustering. That was good to hear. He also said that he would not try to widen the debate to a general debate on Gibraltar, although it has been widened somewhat.

The right hon. Gentleman spectacularly dodged the question, addressed to him by my hon. Friend the Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), why the previous Government had not sought to amend the legislation, or whether they would have included Gibraltar if they had introduced a Bill to change the voting system for the European Parliament as the right hon. Gentleman proposes. He was silent on the matter.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

May I help the hon. Lady by reminding her that I said that we recognised, as did her party, before the first direct elections and subsequently, that the form of direct elections that we had adopted—European constituencies based on parliamentary constituencies—made it difficult to accommodate the matter. That was the view of her party in opposition, which never sought to persuade us to take action on it. Having decided to change the system, the Government have now provided an opportunity to redress a wrong that should be put right.

Ms Quin

I find that even less convincing than when the right hon. Gentleman said it the first time round. The previous Government were in power for 18 years. At various points during that time, European constituency boundaries were changed. They never raised the matter.

The right hon. Gentleman thought that we would say that Spain would not like the proposed change, so we would not go ahead with it. I am not prepared to say that at all this evening, although I notice that the right hon. Gentleman's colleague in the other place said something similar on behalf of the Opposition there. He said: We— meaning the Conservative Opposition— recognise the formidable practical difficulties in resolving this issue, in that any alteration to the status quo would require the agreement of all member states, including Spain."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 26 November 1997; Vol. 583, c. 1052.] I suggest that the right hon. Gentleman seems not to be on message with his colleagues in another place. The Opposition must try to arrive at a consistent line.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

The Minister says that she will not say that Spain will not like it. What does she think Spain's reaction would be if the Government accepted the amendment?

Ms Quin

I said that I am not going to say that Spain would not like it as a reason for not accepting the amendments.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I accept that that is the argument that the Minister is advancing, but what is the answer to my question? What does she think Spain's attitude would be if the Government accepted the amendment?

Ms Quin

As that is not the argument that I am advancing, the hon. Gentleman's argument is hypothetical. It would seem that his question has been answered by his colleague in another place, Lord Moynihan.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Quin

I shall not keep on giving way to the right hon. Gentleman, but I shall do so on this occasion.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I am grateful to the Minister. My noble Friend is not a Minister and I am not advancing any particular point of policy. I am merely asking the Minister a question, and a simple question. It may not be part of her argument but she is a Minister and it is a legitimate question for me to ask her. What is the Government's assessment of Spain's reaction if the Government accepted the amendment and tried to move things forward?

Ms Quin

As that is not central to my argument, it is not appropriate for me to make such an assessment. The issue that the right hon. Gentleman has raised is not a stumbling block when it comes to the proposed legislation before us.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) referred to the real difficulties. I am grateful to him for what he said even though I reach a rather different conclusion. At least the hon. Gentleman addressed the real legal issues that are at stake.

Various hon. Members have referred to the départements d'outre mer and the territories d'outre mer. Fortunately for the territories involved, they were covered by the appropriate legislation at the beginning. There is a different historical setting and the territories are counted as part of metropolitan France. They are, for example, able to vote in domestic elections. Opposition Members may envy the status of those areas, but they are not relevant to Gibraltar, to the terms of the amendment or to the Bill.

Mr. Gill

In the Minister's opinion, is there any legal bar to the people of Gibraltar being included in the electoral roll of an English region at the next European elections?

Ms Quin

I am coming to that point. The legal arguments are central to the point of view that the Government are taking.

Gibraltarians are unable to vote in European parliamentary elections by virtue of the second annex of the 1976 Act on direct elections to the European Parliament. The annex restricts the application of the Act to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland only, to the exclusion of other UK territories such as Gibraltar, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, to which the EC treaties apply in part.

My hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock rightly referred to differences between the arrangements that affect Gibraltar and the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man, but those differences are not relevant to the Bill, which covers all those territories, including Gibraltar. That is the point.

Mr. Gill

The Minister is now addressing the nub of the question. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) and I maintain that there is no bar to Gibraltarians' being put on the electoral roll of one of the new regions in the United Kingdom. Does the hon. Lady accept that much of the new European law that is applied in Gibraltar has to be put on the statute book in Gibraltar and that that is done because of Gibraltar's relationship to the United Kingdom? However, it is not stated in directives that they apply to the United Kingdom and Gibraltar. It is assumed that Gibraltar is part of the United Kingdom for such purposes. What is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. It is—

The Chairman of Ways and Means (Sir Alan Haselhurst)

Order. The hon. Gentleman must not make a second speech in an intervention.

Ms Quin

Our understanding of the legal situation is that Gibraltar cannot be included in the way that is suggested. That view seems to be shared by the Opposition spokesman in another place. We are not making a judgment hastily; we closely examined the evidence. It seems that it is not possible to include Gibraltar in the way the hon. Gentleman describes.

Mr. Mackinlay

My hon. Friend has referred to the inclusion of Gibraltar along with the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. There is a substantive difference in law. The Isle of Man and the Channel Islands are not in the European Union. The treaties apply in part to those territories but they are not in the EU. People who live in the Channel Islands or the Isle of Man do not have EU citizenship, whereas the people of Gibraltar do. Gibraltarians are in the EU, although in a special category.

I wish sometimes that the occupants of the Treasury Bench would focus on what is being addressed to them through the Chair, because I wish to ask a question. If, for the purposes of this intervention, we accept that my hon. Friend's legal opinion is right—although I think that it is wrong—will she nevertheless be persuaded by the moral argument that the people of Gibraltar are exclusively denied? The Government should therefore examine the proposition advanced by the shadow Home Secretary and reflect upon it again. They should bear it in mind that the fundamental treaties of the European Union state that everyone should be enfranchised. The UK could go on the offensive in the European courts by saying that we are fulfilling the principle of the treaties, only to find that there are democratic institutions that have not prevailed.

Ms Quin

As I have said, there are differences between the status of Gibraltar in the European Union and, for example, the status of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man. However, for the purposes of the EU parliamentary elections, it is clear that they have the same status. That is the legal position. If that position were to be changed, it would require a proposal from the European Parliament, and a unanimous decision in Council followed by ratification by all member states. I am sure that the formidable political obstacles that would be encountered by that course of action are more than evident to the Committee.

The fact that Gibraltarians are unable to vote in elections to the European Parliament does not mean that Gibraltarian views are not expressed in the European Parliament. Having been a member of the European Parliament for 10 years, I know that that is the case. I know that Gibraltar's interests have often been articulated there. I think, for example, of the time when the EU had a scheme to help shipyards, which was called RENAVAL. The scheme involved money that was used in the United Kingdom and in the shipyard at Gibraltar to help deal with the rundown in the Ministry of Defence in that area.

Sir Brian Mawhinney


Ms Quin

I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman for the last time.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

We are in Committee.

I am sure that the hon. Lady was conscientious in terms of Gibraltar when she was a Member of the European Parliament. I say that generously. However, by the token of her argument, would she be content if 18,000 voters in Gateshead, East and Washington, West did not have the opportunity to vote, but she could soothe them by saying, "Of course, I move among you, drink in your pubs and visit the schools in the area, so don't worry; the fact that you cannot vote for me is not that important because I know what you are thinking"? Surely that is not an argument that the hon. Lady would advance in her own constituency.

Ms Quin

I certainly would not make that argument, but Gateshead, East and Washington, West is covered by the legislation in a way that Gibraltar is not. I am simply saying that there are mechanisms for raising Gibraltar issues, which is done regularly by the UK Government. It is also done by various Members of the European Parliament. That is the only argument that I am making.

Mr. Mitchell

This is the argument of virtual representation, which was advanced about the rotten boroughs in the 18th century. It was said that Manchester was virtually represented because those people might speak for it. My hon. Friend the Minister is arguing—I am not a lawyer, so I cannot check on it—that there is no legal basis for including Gibraltar. I should have thought that where there is a will there is a way. As my hon. Friend accepts the need for representation, will she work to secure representation for the people of Gibraltar in the European Parliament, which they deserve in a democratic institution?

Ms Quin

I do not think that my hon. Friend was here when I began my speech.

Mr. Mitchell

I watched it on the television.

6 pm

Ms Quin

My hon. Friend must have been away from the television in order to get to the Chamber. He will therefore not have heard my legal arguments that deal with those points.

I hope that the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire recognises that the amendments alone will not and cannot confer on Gibraltar the right to vote in European Parliament elections. I hope that he will reflect on that and withdraw the amendment.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I am grateful to you, Sir Alan, for allowing me to catch your eye, because I want to reflect on a few of the points that have been made in this debate.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) directed the Committee's attention to the legal problem that is at the heart of this debate. He did so off the back of a brave declaration of rectitude by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay), whose legal view was that the Foreign Office was simply wrong. That view is unique neither to the hon. Gentleman nor to the Committee. What was interesting about the speech of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome was the part of the letter from Baroness Symons, which said, if my memory serves me right, that, if the Foreign Affairs Committee felt strongly about this issue, she was prepared to seek further advice.

Mr. David Heath

So that we can be absolutely clear, the exact words are that the Secretary of State has asked legal experts to look at the points again and is still awaiting their advice.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman.

Had the Committee heard the Minister say that legal experts had been asked to look at the position again and that she would report back to the House on Report, her speech would have commanded a more convincing response from those who heard it. If she will now come to the Dispatch Box and confirm that legal experts have, as her hon. Friend says, been asked to look at this matter again and that she will undertake to ask them to report so that she can bring their expertise back to the House on Report, I should be happy to withdraw the amendment now and bring it back on Report. I am happy to give way to the hon. Lady if she wishes to do that. I see that the Home Secretary is telling her that she must not do so, so I assume that she will not.

Mr. Hawkins

Does my right hon. Friend share my disappointment that what the Government have really said is, "This is not possible and we are not prepared to try or to consider it"? Does not that undermine what the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Peter Caruana, said in his recent address to the fourth conference of the United Nations—that time cannot stand still for Gibraltar, and that we must make progress?

Sir Brian Mawhinney

My hon. Friend accurately sums up what we have been told this afternoon, although he did not accurately sum up what the Foreign Affairs Committee has been told. We thus have a Minister at the other end of the Corridor saying something different from a Minister at this end of the Corridor. It is interesting that the Minister at the other end of the Corridor is from the Foreign Office, which is dead against this proposal anyway, while at this end of the Corridor the Minister who is taking a hard line is from the Home Office, which is supposed to defend the democratic process. I am confused.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has done us a service by drawing that letter to our attention, and I hope that, after the Division, he will encourage the Chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee to press Baroness Symons to report back on that legal advice as quickly as possible, preferably before the Bill's Report stage, so that we can form a judgment on the possibility of making progress on this legal point.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) made an important point and underlined what several hon. Members said about the importance of letting Gibraltar have the vote. He also raised in my mind the question what the rest of the world will think about Gibraltar, given that its 30,000 people are the only people in 400 million who do not have the vote. What is the rest of the world supposed to make of that part of the European Union? What conclusions will it draw? Are not its conclusions likely to be detrimental to Gibraltar? Is it not strange that our Government should help to generate circumstances in which Gibraltar is damaged in that public way?

The hon. Member for Thurrock made an important point when he reminded the Committee that British citizens all over the world can vote in those elections thanks to the legislation introduced by the previous Government—indeed, they can do so for 20 years after leaving these shores—but the people of Gibraltar cannot.

We all understood the point made by the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), whose commitment to the democratic principle in circumstances that are much more difficult than most right hon. and hon. Members—fortunately—will ever have to face or understand, is a continuing sense of pride, and justifiably so, not only to the hon. Gentleman but to his right hon. and hon. Friends.

I now come to the Minister's disappointing speech. She flatly refused to tell us what assessment the Government had made of the possibility of moving this issue forward, were they minded to do so. I understand why she refused to answer my question. Had she been willing to answer it, she would have had to admit either that the Government had seriously considered accepting this or a similar amendment, but had balked at the fence or, even worse, that they had not even bothered to consider this option. In other words, she would have had to admit that they had not even bothered to see whether there was any chance of success. It all hung on a legal point.

The hon. Lady said that, because of that legal point, 18,000 people have to be deprived of the right to vote so as to help to determine the legislation that governs their lives. Conservative Members will remember her statement throughout this Parliament. Given the Government's centralising, controlling instincts, that was a quintessential new Labour emphasis. We shall not forget it.

I listened to the hon. Lady carefully. She said that, if the law were to be changed, every country would have to agree to and ratify a proposal. That is not a legal obstacle: I agree with her that it is a challenging political agenda. I hope that the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome has noted that point.

If there is no legal obstacle, merely a difficult political hand to be played, the hon. Lady could have said, "It will be difficult to give them the right to vote, but our commitment to the democratic process is such that we are willing to try. However, we can't do so on the back of the Opposition amendment. At best, we can give an undertaking to use the presidency and all our efforts thereafter to try to change the position. When we succeed, we will introduce the necessary primary legislation." If she had said that, hon. Members from all parties would have said to her, "Thank you. We recognise that this is a difficult task that will take time to complete, but you have given us an undertaking and have assured us that your democratic instincts are strong."

In those circumstances, we would have withdrawn the amendment. However, urged on by the Home Secretary, the hon. Lady said exactly the opposite and left us with the clear impression that, when it comes to 18,000 voters in Gibraltar, the Government do not much care. That is a terrible indictment of the hon. Lady. I am glad that the Government Deputy Chief Whip has just joined us. By nodding his head, he has assented to my proposition that the Government have taken a heartless position.

The hon. Lady has hidden behind an abstruse and indefensible point of law to deprive 18,000 Gibraltarians of the right to vote. It is a flag up the masthead and Conservative Members will remember for a considerable time what she and the Home Office have done. She asked me to withdraw the amendment in the light of her wholly unconvincing argument. A number of hon. Members from various parties want to tell the people of Gibraltar, "We believe that you should have a vote." If the hon. Lady and her right hon. and hon. Friends go into the Lobby to tell the people of Gibraltar, "We don't think that you are important enough to have a vote," they must live with that on their consciences.

I shall press the amendment to a vote.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 183, Noes 315.

Division No. 178] [6.13 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Butterfill, John
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Campbell, Menzies (NE Fife)
Arbuthnot, James Cash, William
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet)
Baker, Norman
Baldry, Tony Chidgey, David
Beggs, Roy Chope, Christopher
Berth, Rt Hon A J Clappison, James
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington)
Bercow, John Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh)
Beresford, Sir Paul Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe)
Body, Sir Richard
Boswell, Tim Collins, Tim
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Cormack, Sir Patrick
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Cotter, Brian
Brady, Graham Curry, Rt Hon David
Brake, Tom Dafis, Cynog
Brand, Dr Peter Davies, Quentin (Grantham)
Breed, Colin Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Duncan, Alan
Browning, Mrs Angela Duncan Smith, Iain
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset) Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Burnett, John Evans, Nigel
Burns, Simon Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Burstow, Paul Fabricant, Michael
Fallon, Michael Norman, Archie
Fearn, Ronnie Oaten, Mark
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Öpik, Lembit
Foster, Don (Bath) Ottaway, Richard
Fraser, Christopher Page, Richard
Gale, Roger Paice, James
Garnier, Edward Paterson, Owen
George, Andrew (St Ives) Pickles, Eric
Gibb, Nick Prior, David
Gill, Christopher Randall, John
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Gray, James Ruffley, David
Green, Damian Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Greenway, John St Aubyn, Nick
Grieve, Dominic Sanders, Adrian
Hague, Rt Hon William Sayeed, Jonathan
Hammond, Philip Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian
Harris, Dr Evan Shepherd, Richard
Hawkins, Nick Simpson, Keith (Mid—Norfolk)
Hayes, John Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns)
Heald, Oliver Smyth, Rev Martin (Belfast S)
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) Soames, Nicholas
Heathcoat—Amory, Rt Hon David Spelman, Mrs Caroline
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas Spicer, Sir Michael
Horam, John Spring, Richard
Howard, Rt Hon Michael Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot) Steen, Anthony
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N) Streeter, Gary
Hunter, Andrew Stunell, Andrew
Jack, Rt Hon Michael Swayne, Desmond
Jenkin, Bernard Swinney, John
Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Syms, Robert
Tapsell, Sir Peter
Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn) Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Taylor, Rt Hon John D (Strangford)
Keetch, Paul Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Key, Robert Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
King, Rt Hon Tom (Bridgwater) Taylor, Sir Teddy
Kirkbride, Miss Julie Thompson, William
Kirkwood, Archy Townend, John
Laing, Mrs Eleanor Tredinnick, David
Lait, Mrs Jacqui Trend, Michael
Lansley, Andrew Trimble, Rt Hon David
Leigh, Edward Tyler, Paul
Letwin, Oliver Tyrie, Andrew
Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E) Viggers, Peter
Lidington, David Wallace, James
Lilley, Rt Hon Peter Walter, Robert
Livsey, Richard Wardle, Charles
Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham) Waterson, Nigel
Loughton, Tim Webb, Steve
Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas Welsh, Andrew
Mackinlay, Andrew Whitney, Sir Raymond
Maclean, Rt Hon David Whittingdale, John
McLoughlin, Patrick Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Madel, Sir David Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Maginnis, Ken Wilkinson, John
Malins, Humfrey Willetts, David
Maples, John Willis, Phil
Mates, Michael Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Maude, Rt Hon Francis Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian Woodward, Shaun
May, Mrs Theresa Yeo, Tim
Michie, Mrs Ray (Argyll & Bute) Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Mitchell, Austin
Moore, Michael Tellers for the Ayes:
Moss, Malcolm Mr. James Cran and
Nicholls, Patrick Mr. Stephen Day.
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Ainger, Nick Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)
Alexander, Douglas Ashton, Joe
Allen, Graham Atherton, Ms Candy
Atkins, Charlotte Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Banks, Tony Dawson, Hilton
Barnes, Harry Dean, Mrs Janet
Barron, Kevin Denham, John
Battle, John Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Bayley, Hugh Donohoe, Brian H
Beard, Nigel Doran, Frank
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Dowd, Jim
Begg, Miss Anne Drew, David
Bell, Stuart (Middlesbrough) Drown, Ms Julia
Bennett, Andrew F Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Benton, Joe Edwards, Huw
Berry, Roger Efford, Clive
Betts, Clive Ellman, Mrs Louise
Blackman, Liz Etherington, Bill
Blears, Ms Hazel Fatchett, Derek
Blizzard, Bob Field, Rt Hon Frank
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Fitzpatrick, Jim
Boateng, Paul Fitzsimons, Lorna
Borrow, David Flint, Caroline
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Flynn, Paul
Bradshaw, Ben Follett, Barbara
Brinton, Mrs Helen Foster, Rt Hon Derek
Brown, Rt Hon Gordon (Dunfermline E) Foster, Michael J (Worcester)
Foulkes, George
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Fyte, Maria
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Galbraith, Sam
Browne, Desmond Galloway, George
Buck, Ms Karen Gapes, Mike
Burden, Richard Gardiner, Barry
Burgon, Colin Gerrard, Neil
Butler, Mrs Christine Gibson, Dr Ian
Byers, Stephen Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Caborn, Richard Godsiff, Roger
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Goggins, Paul
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Golding, Mrs Llin
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Gordon, Mrs Eileen
Campbell—Savours, Dale Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Caplin, Ivor Griffiths, Win (Bridgend)
Caton, Martin Grocott, Bruce
Cawsey, Ian Grogan, John
Chapman, Ben (Wirral S) Hain, Peter
Chaytor, David Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Chisholm, Malcolm Hall, Patrick (Bedford)
Clapham, Michael Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields) Hanson, David
Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands) Heal, Mrs Sylvia
Healey, John
Clark, Paul (Gillingham) Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N)
Clarke, Charles (Norwich S) Hepburn, Stephen
Clarke, Eric (Midlothian) Heppell, John
Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge) Hesford, Stephen
Clarke, Tony (Northampton S) Hewitt, Ms Patricia
Clelland, David Hill, Keith
Coaker, Vernon Hinchliffe, David
Coffey, Ms Ann Hodge, Ms Margaret
Coleman, Iain Hoey, Kate
Colman, Tony Home Robertson, John
Connarty, Michael Hoon, Geoffrey
Cooper, Yvette Hope, Phil
Corbett, Robin Hopkins, Kelvin
Corbyn, Jeremy Howarth, Alan (Newport E)
Corston, Ms Jean Hoyle, Lindsay
Cousins, Jim Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford)
Cranston, Ross Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Crausby, David Humble, Mrs Joan
Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley) Hutton, John
Cryer, John (Hornchurch) Iddon, Dr Brian
Cummings, John Ingram, Adam
Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S) Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead)
Dalyell, Tam Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough)
Darling, Rt Hon Alistair Jamieson, David
Darvill, Keith Jenkins, Brian
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W) Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle)
Davidson, Ian Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield)
Davies, Rt Hon Ron (Caerphilly)
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Pollard, Kerry
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Pond, Chris
Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW) Pound, Stephen
Powell, Sir Raymond
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Prosser, Gwyn
Jowell, Ms Tessa Purchase, Ken
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Quin, Ms Joyce
Keeble, Ms Sally Quinn, Lawrie
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Radice, Giles
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Rammell, Bill
Kelly, Ms Ruth Raynsford, Nick
Kemp, Fraser Reed, Andrew (Loughborough)
Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree) Robinson, Geoffrey (Cov'try NW)
Kilfoyle, Peter Roche, Mrs Barbara
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth) Rogers, Allan
Kumar, Dr Ashok Rooker, Jeff
Ladyman, Dr Stephen Rooney, Terry
Laxton, Bob Rowlands, Ted
Lepper, David Roy, Frank
Leslie, Christopher Ruane, Chris
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S) Ruddock, Ms Joan
Lewis, Terry (Worsley) Russell, Ms Christine (Chester)
Liddell, Mrs Helen Ryan, Ms Joan
Livingstone, Ken Salter, Martin
Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C) Sarwar, Mohammad
Lock, David Savidge, Malcolm
Love, Andrew Sawford, Phil
McAllion, John Sedgemore, Brian
McAvoy, Thomas Shaw, Jonathan
McCabe, Steve Sheerman, Barry
McCafferty, Ms Chris Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert
Macdonald, Calum Shipley, Ms Debra
McDonnell, John
McFall, John Short, Rt Hon Clare
McGuire, Mrs Anne Simpson, Alan (Nottingham S)
McIsaac, Shona Singh, Marsha
McKenna, Mrs Rosemary Skinner, Dennis
McLeish, Henry Smith, Angela (Basildon)
McNamara, Kevin Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
McNulty, Tony
McWalter, Tony Smith, Jacqui (Redditch)
Mahon, Mrs Alice Smith, John (Glamorgan)
Mallaber, Judy Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent)
Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S) Soley, Clive
Marshall, David (Shettleston) Southworth, Ms Helen
Marshall—Andrews, Robert Squire, Ms Rachel
Martlew, Eric Steinberg, Gerry
Maxton, John Stevenson, George
Meale, Alan Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Michael, Alun Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley) Stinchcombe, Paul
Milburn, Alan Stoate, Dr Howard
Miller, Andrew Stott, Roger
Moonie, Dr Lewis Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Moran, Ms Margaret Stringer, Graham
Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N) Stuart, Ms Gisela
Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W) Sutcliffe, Gerry
Morley, Elliot Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Mountford, Kali Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Mudie, George Tipping, Paddy
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood) Todd, Mark
Naysmith, Dr Doug Touhig, Don
O'Brien, Bill (Normanton) Trickett, Jon
O'Brien, Mike (N Warks) Turner, Dr Desmond (Kemptown)
O'Hara, Eddie Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Olner, Bill Twigg, Derek (Halton)
O'Neill, Martin Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Osborne, Ms Sandra Vis, Dr Rudi
Palmer, Dr Nick Ward, Ms Claire
Pearson, Ian Wareing, Robert N
Pendry, Tom Watts, David
Pike, Peter L White, Brian
Plaskitt, James Whitehead, Dr Alan
Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W) Worthington, Tony
Wray, James
Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen) Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Winnick, David Wyatt, Derek
Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C) Tellers for the Noes:
Wood, Mike Mr. Greg Pope and
Woolas, Phil Mr. Robert Ainsworth.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. John Greenway (Ryedale)

I beg to move amendment No. 48, in page 1, line 12, leave out 'nine' and insert 'eighteen'.

The Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 49, in page 1, line 13, after 'Scotland', insert 'shall be divided into two electoral regions— (3A)'. No. 71, in page 1, line 17, leave out '71' and insert '70'.

No. 72, in page 1, line 18, leave out '8' and insert '9'.

No. 50, in page 1, leave out lines 21 to 23 and insert— '(5) The Boundary Commissions for England and Scotland shall prepare reports dividing England into eighteen regions (of which three shall cover London), and Scotland into two regions. (6) The Secretary of State shall—

  1. (a) lay any report of a Boundary Commission under subsection (5) before Parliament;
  2. (b) consider the report; and
  3. (c) not earlier than four months after the last such report has been laid, make an Order dividing England into eighteen regions (of which three shall cover London), and Scotland into two regions.
7) No order shall be made under subsection (6)(c) above unless a draft thereof has been laid before and approved by a resolution of each House of Parliament.'. No. 68, in schedule 1, page 5, leave out lines 7 to 18.

No. 54, in page 5, line 20, leave out 'Secretary of State' and insert 'Boundary Commission for England'.

No. 55, in page 5, line 23, leave out 'he considers' and insert 'they consider'.

No. 56, in page 5, line 27, leave out 'Secretary of State' and insert 'Boundary Commission for England'.

No. 58, in page 5, leave out lines 45 to 47.

No. 69, in page 6, line 3, leave out from beginning to end of line 47 on page 7.

No. 74, in page 6, line 25, leave out '10' and insert '9'.

Mr. Greenway

Amendment No. 48 would replace the proposed nine electoral regions for England with 18. In Scotland, the proposed single electoral region would be replaced by two.

One of the Conservative party's principal objections to the Bill is the breaking of the constituency link between a Member of the European Parliament and his or her electors. While it is doubtful whether any system of proportional representation could fully overcome that concern, there is a case for saying that doubling the number of electoral regions would create a greater opportunity for MEPs to identify with the areas that they serve.

Some may be tempted to suggest that many voters do not know the identity of their MEPs now, but surely the scheme set out in the Bill will make matters infinitely worse. As they stand, the electoral regions provide for as many as 11 MEPs to represent a region. That is bound to confuse people about who are their representatives in the European Parliament, thus reinforcing public scepticism about the value and relevance of the Parliament itself.

The proposed electoral regions have never been subject to public consultation. I shall refer to that in more detail later. The practical consequence is that no one in the House or outside can be confident that the regions set out in the Bill reflect the public's view of their true regional identity. Such a broad-brush approach means that communities have been forced into regions with which they have little cause to identify. Even the most cursory examination of the regional map demonstrates the futility of trying to weld together vast areas of England that have little in common, have wholly different problems or have markedly separate local or regional identities.

Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

Before the hon. Gentleman becomes too excited about the superior qualities of the present system, let me tell him something. I had occasion to look up the office address of an MEP who represents Eyemouth, a fishing village on the Scottish coast just north of where I live. His office is in Ayr, on the west coast, which is part of the same constituency under the existing system.

Mr. Greenway

I am not entirely sure what that has to do with the size of electoral regions. It is up to every MEP to make arrangements to publicise where he can be contacted. I have no doubt that, at elections, electors can make their own judgment on their respective MEP's performance. If we have seven, eight or even 11 MEPs in one electoral region, that will make it even more difficult for electors to have any opportunity to hold to account the people who have been elected to represent them in Brussels and Strasbourg.

The regional map completely disregards the commercial, cultural and geographical links of significant parts of the country, which are economic entities in themselves. Central southern England is a case in point.

Mr. Mitchell

If the hon. Gentleman's argument is that we should redraw the regional map to some design of his own, and his further argument is that those regions are too big to allow MEPs to have a genuinely representative role, why does he not support the original formulation, where we had 63 electoral regions?

6.30 pm
Mr. Greenway

We entirely agree with the hon. Gentleman, but, sadly, because of the weight of numbers against us—although the force of argument was on our side—we lost the vote. That matter was put to rest in this House at Second Reading, but we believe that the proposals that I am outlining—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will listen to the details—will provide a better solution than that in the Bill.

Many regional entities exist in all respects, but are not recognised as regions by the respective Government offices or by the Bill. Central southern England is effectively divided in half by the Bill. Local media coverage and transport links, rather than lines on a map, are the major factors which determine where people feel that they belong.

What do the residents of Northampton, which is linked with the west coast main line, have in common with the rural and east coast communities of Lincolnshire? The area that the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) represents—if he will listen—is not in the east midlands region, but the coastal towns to the south are; for European elections, they are in the same constituency as the suburbs of Northampton and its commuter area.

How does it make sense to link the commuter belt of Hertfordshire and Bedfordshire with Norfolk? The proposed south-east electoral region is a ridiculous amalgam. In terms of regional issues, let alone local ones, what do people in Buckingham and Oxford share with those in the Kent channel ports? Arguably, Dover has more in common with Calais than with Milton Keynes.

In the south-west electoral region, does it make sense to link Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Bristol with Devon and Cornwall? We note the lack of interest from the Liberal Democrat Benches on that matter. In central southern England, Bournemouth is in the south-west region, but neighbouring Southampton is in the south-east region, which seems nonsense, given the transport and economic links.

Why cannot people in the Birmingham conurbation, one of Europe's largest cities, have exclusive representation in the European Parliament, instead of being joined with the huge rural communities around the conurbation? People in the north-west know that Merseyside and Greater Manchester are wholly different communities. I shudder to think what north-west MEPs will do when the referee fails to award Liverpool a clear penalty at Old Trafford. Perhaps some early-day motions will be tabled about that.

Having buried Humberside, the east of the Pennines—the area that I represent—is still stuck with Yorkshire and the Humber. Yorkshire's strong regional identity is not reflected by a region that replicates even the traditional county boundary, as Middlesbrough and Redcar are in the north-east region and parts of north Lincolnshire are still in the same region as Yorkshire and the Humber. Many people living in the North York moors in the northern part of my constituency, with which I know you are familiar, Sir Alan, are more likely to regard Middlesbrough as their regional centre than Leeds.

Those inconsistencies have never been subjected to any independent assessment. That said, the proposed north-east electoral region, with just four MEPs, seems much more logical than some of the huge regional constituencies that are proposed elsewhere. That is the area which the Minister of State, Home Office, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin) represents. The question that the Committee must ask is why, if four is a satisfactory number for the north-east, an average of four—because that is what 18 electoral regions, rather than nine, would mean—is not satisfactory for the rest of the country.

With 80 per cent. of Britain living in urban areas, the urban vote will dominate the outcome of elections. That is why it makes sense for Scotland to be divided into two regions, although I say to the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing), who 1 am sure will catch your eye later, Sir Alan, that we do not agree with the suggestion that there should be an extra seat for Scotland at London's expense. What we do say is that the rural voice, about which Conservative Members are so concerned, will be diluted, diminished and downgraded as a consequence of the proposals.

Apart from the geographical distortions that the proposed regional list creates, the degeneration and erosion of the quality of local representation and the undermining of the value of local contacts should be of most concern to the Committee and will be of concern to the country as a whole.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

In the context of the quality of representation and of the consideration of these crucial amendments, does my hon. Friend not think it extremely unfortunate that, in the midst of his speech, only one Liberal Democrat Member is in the Committee?

Mr. Greenway

It is unfortunate, but not surprising—that is the only point I can make.

What will MEPs' power base be if there is no meaningful constituency link? Who will have heard of them, seen them or, for that matter, heard them speak? What contact will people have with them? Where will MEPs hold their surgeries or base their offices? How will voters get in touch with them? No thought appears to have been given to the serious practical and logistical difficulties of MEPs covering such huge areas.

The danger is that extended regional lists will open the door to partisan representation. The Labour voter will go to the Labour MEP and Conservative voters to their Tory representative. I shudder to think what policy successes Liberal Democrat Members will claim in the cause of advancing their political interests—you can bet your life they will claim them, Sir Alan.

How people voted is irrelevant when we, as constituency Members of Parliament, help and represent our communities. That is the fundamental principle of universal representation, which the Bill would undermine. The fact that we represent all the people in our communities enables us to form a wider picture of local experience. Partisan representation will undoubtedly destroy that.

The size of the electoral regions will also lead to inevitable competition between different areas within a region for European Union structural funds or other support or special interest from Brussels. I know that from my own experience. My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) was a Minister in the Department of the Environment when we were bidding for objective 5b funds for North Yorkshire. He will recall that the initial steer we got from the Commission was that the Pennine chain was in, but the North York moors, Scarborough and Whitby were out. If the whole of Yorkshire and the Humber had been represented by the same MEPs, answerable to the same electorate, I cannot imagine that we would have had the sort of lobbying that happened on that occasion to ensure that the North York moors were included in the objective 5b structural fund arrangements.

The size of the proposed electoral regions would mean that MEPs could easily find themselves compromised. In London, for example, it does not take much imagination to see the potential conflict in seeking support for EU funds when the whole of the Greater London area is regarded as one electoral region. A better solution would be for it to be divided into three constituent parts, so that voters would have a stronger identity with their representatives in Brussels and Strasbourg.

A good example of what might happen is that, if funds were available from Brussels for a new rail link or some transport infrastructure, some people might want those in the north-west of London and others in the south-east, to link with Kent. If MEPs are to represent the whole of London in the same way, it will not be a case of cosily working to achieve the objective. As politicians in the real world, we know that we have to lobby for the interests of our constituents. MEPs would be compromised by the scale of what is proposed.

Mr. Beith

The hon. Gentleman has not admitted at any stage that the main reason for multi-Member constituencies is proportionality. He has also failed to tell us how the rest of Europe manages, having had, in most cases since the start of the Parliament, MEPs with lists based on much larger systems than those proposed in the Bill.

Mr. Greenway

I dealt with the first point when I said that the proposed electoral region for the north-east, which covers the right hon. Member's constituency, has four representatives. If four is good enough for the north-east, surely four ought to be good enough for the rest of the country.

Frankly, I am not particularly interested in what the rest of Europe does. I am interested in ensuring proper representation in Brussels and Strasbourg for the people in this country. It may interest the right hon. Member to know that I have done some sums. Mathematics was not my best subject, although I got an O-level. However, I am prepared to put this hypothesis up to scrutiny. It is based on the formula in the Bill. We wait to hear whether the Government have changed their mind and want to rethink all that—that will come later in Committee.

By my calculations, if a third party gets a smidgen more than 20 per cent. of the votes cast in a four-Member electoral region, it must, as a natural consequence, get the third or fourth seat. I am happy to distribute the arithmetic. If a party is unable to get 20.001 per cent. of the votes cast by a million or so voters, it does not have much of a claim for saying that proportionality arrangements do not work to its advantage, and it does not deserve representation.

Mr. Peter Bottomley (Worthing, West)

Is my hon. Friend telling the Committee that, for a very minor improvement in proportionality, we will end up with most of the country—in particular, most of England—having MEPs whom no one has voted for by name? Will we end up with people who, if we copy the continental habit, could be swapped in and out by their parties without regard for what the electorate wants? Is that what other parties seriously want? My constituents do not want it. They would prefer to vote for people. They do not mind some mild proportionality, but they want their MEPs to have some link with the local area.

6.45 pm
Mr. Greenway

All that my hon. Friend says is correct. In the amendments, we are seeking to bring some small improvement to what can only be described as a rotten system—one which the public will rightly regard with derision at the election next year.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole)

The hon. Gentleman said—unless I am misquoting him—that, if a party could not get 20 per cent. of the vote, it was not worthy of representation. I am interested to know what percentage of the electorate he is willing to write off and say should not have representation.

The Chairman

Order. Before the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) resumes, it might be helpful to the Committee if I remind him that this group of amendments deals with electoral regions. Another group deals with voting systems.

Mr. Greenway

Obviously, I will heed your strictures, Sir Alan, but I was not attempting to discuss electoral systems.

The Chairman

I agree. I think that the hon. Gentleman was being goaded, but I hope that he will take my point.

Mr. Greenway

As we are in Committee and not in a normal debate of the whole House, I was simply having the courtesy to give way to all hon. Members who wished to intervene.

My right hon. and hon. Friends and I believe that, as things stand, the Government's solution—this is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) was making—will have an adverse impact on popular respect for the European Parliament.

Brussels is already regarded with a fair degree of suspicion and even hostility. The Parliament itself is seen by many as pointless, wasteful and remote. The extensive regional lists proposed in the Bill seem likely to accentuate that feeling and create further alienation at a time when the European Parliament wants to improve public acceptance and trust and has been given wider responsibilities. It could be argued that the immense scale of the electoral regions would undermine the democratic fabric of the Parliament.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

My hon. Friend mentioned the democratic process. That means people. Am I right in believing that this hotch-potch of a Bill, which I strongly oppose, will mean that people will be voting for parties, not people? Under the regional electoral system, not people but a party will be involved. That will remove from the European Parliament any true democratic independence, which is essential for any successful democracy.

Mr. Greenway

As one would expect, my hon. Friend—for whom I have a high regard, as he represents the town where my mother was born—makes his own point, with which I agree, in an extremely robust and telling way. My right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney) was coaxing me to reply to my hon. Friend's intervention by saying, "For the first time." There is some truth in that, because, if the Bill is passed unamended, elections will be held on that unsustainable basis for the first and the last time.

Ministers are deluded if they believe that any sense of regional or local identity is properly reflected in their preferred regional structure. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what other institutions or organisations—outside Government, and in which contact with the general public is such a crucial element of what they do—operate at that level?

Mr. Martin Bell (Tatton)

I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman agrees that the proposals would do credit to the rule book of the Bulgarian communist party? We might be ending up as delegates in the great hall of the people. When will we get back to democracy? If I have to be the candidate of a closed list of one, I will be—but is it democratic?

Mr. Greenway

We really are having some childhood reminiscences, because the hon. Gentleman represents the place where I—not my mother—was born. For that reason, if for no other, I have been very charitable to him since his election to the House. I agree with his sentiments. The proposals will make it extremely difficult for anyone to take an independent-minded view of any issue. That applies as much to independent candidates, as he was, as to candidates who belong to a party but wish to hold a different view. I sense, Sir Alan, that, because of another intervention, I have been prompted to stray again.

We all know that Ministers, in proposing that regional structure, have an eye to their plan of imposing unnecessary and burdensome regional government in England. However, an imposed regional map—whether for regional government or for regional representation in the European Parliament—that does not command popular support, reflect local identity or in the creation of which people have had no say will not stand the test of time.

The Government could and should have handled the matter differently. They might have published a White Paper—

Mr. Cawsey

There was: our manifesto.

Mr. Greenway

I am coming to that.

In November, the Library—as always—produced an extremely informative paper suggesting that Lord Plant, with Michael Steed, had argued for a White Paper. My understanding is that Lord Plant's views have had a substantial impact on Labour's policy documents.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

indicated assent.

Mr. Greenway

I am glad to have the hon. Gentleman's confirmation.

In autumn 1997, Lord Steed argued for a White Paper on options for establishing boundaries. However, instead of a White Paper, we got the hotch-potch in the Bill.

The Government should have asked the boundary commission, in the normal way, to examine and consider all the issues and to make representations. The recommendations would then have been subject to proper local consultation in public meetings, and people would have been given a chance to have their say.

Our amendments would provide for that consultation and would allow the boundary commission to develop a solution that is both more sensitive to local wishes and more practical in the delivery of local and regional representation. To allow for a wider consultative process, our amendments would provide a four-month period after the boundary commission's reports had been laid and before implementation of the regional structure—which would itself be subject to affirmative resolution by each House. Amendments Nos. 68 and 69, which relate to schedule 1, are consequential to that proposal.

The future allocation of seats should be decided by the boundary commission rather than by the Secretary of State, as proposed in the Bill. Amendment Nos. 54 to 56 provide for that. The considered view has always been that it is simply not acceptable for the Secretary of State to hold such power over the redistribution of elected representatives.

When the House most recently amended European constituency boundaries, in 1993, the boundary commission's role was thought sufficiently important for the Labour Opposition to table a reasoned amendment, which was moved by the present Prime Minister who was then the shadow Home Secretary. The amendment stated: this House declines to give a Second Reading to the European Parliamentary Elections Bill … which does not provide for the Boundary Commission to establish new boundaries with the power to hold public inquiries and proper consultation". One or two quotations in his speech go to the heart of the proposals in our amendments. He said: it will not be the Boundary Commission but a sub-committee appointed by the Home Secretary that will draw up the new boundaries; … there will not be the full process of public inquiry that is normally associated with boundary changes … it must be done on a proper basis. The reason for having the Boundary Commission draw up the boundaries is obvious—it is independent, it is respected and it has the expertise."—[Official Report, 30 June 1993; Vol. 227, c. 996.] It is remarkable how things that seemed so important such a short while ago are flagrantly disregarded by the Government when it suits them. However, it is no longer remarkable to find the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary holding seemingly conflicting views on the same issue at the same time.

The Home Secretary's opposition to proportional representation is well known. Earlier in the debate, he had an exchange on the issue with my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Cambridgeshire. As we saw only three weeks ago, at the most recent Home Office Question Time, the Home Secretary rather takes pride in his difference with the Prime Minister on the matter.

It is very refreshing that the Home Secretary makes it clear that he does not agree with proportional representation. On more than one occasion, the Prime Minister has let it be known that he would prefer not to destroy the constituency link by introducing PR in any Westminster election. The House and the country should ask whether those views can be trusted when the Prime Minister and the Home Secretary are content for the constituency link to be destroyed in elections to the European Parliament. It is a case of "read my lips."

Our European partners' demand for proportional representation in Euro-elections, or their predilection for a Europe—

The Chairman

Order. The hon. Gentleman is palpably straying into the matter of voting systems, which is the subject of the next group of amendments. He must confine his remarks to the matter of electoral regions.

Mr. Greenway

I thought that I was confining my remarks to the boundary commission—which the Prime Minister clearly thought was so important, but which has been disregarded in the Bill, and is the subject of our amendments.

The imposed solution of regional electoral boundaries has no basis in the United Kingdom. There has been no expression of popular support for that solution that is worthy of the name. I believe that the public will express a view on the electoral regions when they discover just what the Bill would impose on them in regional representation in Europe.

I do not mind if, as a consequence, voters take a dim view of the Government—the Government will deserve all the bad press and unpopularity that the regional lists will generate—but the Committee should have a concern that these vast electoral regions, established not by the boundary commission but by Government diktat in a way that rides roughshod over long-established democratic procedures, will have an adverse impact on popular support for the European Parliament.

The regional structure fails the electorate. It will undermine voters' confidence in the Parliament and in their representatives, because the voters will not have a sufficiently local identification with their MEPs to feel that their views really matter. It is but one further step for electors to conclude that it is pointless even going to the polls.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

In his excellent speech, my hon. Friend has mentioned the north-west region, in which my constituency is located. Can he say to whom constituents of mine should appeal or make representations in respect of a matter relating to the competence of the European Parliament? Should they choose one of the elected Members and make contact with some office and then go there, although it might be 50, 60, 70 or 80 miles away, or should they expect the European assembly Member to come to them?

7 pm

Mr. Greenway

I suspect that they will go to my hon. Friend, as they do already.

In conclusion, the arrangements for the representation of the United Kingdom—

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

The hon. Gentleman said that he was going to conclude, so I thought that I had better quickly ask the question to which my hon. Friends and I have been awaiting the answer. If the hon. Gentleman is so opposed to regions, how has he arrived at the figure 18? Is it simply two times nine, an attempt to prove that he can do arithmetic or something?

Mr. Greenway

I could equally ask the hon. Gentleman where the figure nine comes from. The regional rationale is something in which the Government believe, but it is not something which the people of this country have been asked to vote on or say whether they believe in. If the Government were so convinced—

Mr. Cawsey


Mr. Greenway

I shall deal with one intervention at a time.

If the Government are so convinced that this is such a good idea, why not have it put to the boundary commission? What is the rush to do everything in advance of the election next year? Is it because the Government are really seeking a cosy deal with the Liberal Democrats, and are stringing them along so that the Prime Minister can attempt to have the best of both worlds at the next general election?

Ms Quin

The hon. Gentleman just asked where the figure nine comes from. It is the number of Government office regions established by the previous Government.

Mr. Greenway

I am glad that the Minister intervened, because it enables me to point out that those regions were established for entirely different reasons. They were established, as I understand it, to put regional offices closer to the people; they were not established with the idea that they would suddenly become part of some federal system of which the Bill is a precursor. That is why it is so important that we have the matter out now.

Mr. Cawsey

We are still waiting for an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), who asked about the figure 18. I know that the hon. Gentleman said that sums were not his best subject, but it seems that the best he can come up with is that 18 is nine multiplied by two. Why does the amendment suggest 18 rather than nine, which is the number of regions that the previous Government came up with? Is he seriously saying in response to the Minister that the public can keep in contact with an office in a region but not with several MEPs? That is a nonsensical argument.

Mr. Greenway

With respect, the hon. Gentleman is wrong. The public do not keep in contact with the regional office. Members of Parliament and local authorities certainly do, but the idea that members of the public have the slightest idea about what goes on in their regional Government office beggars belief.

As for the figure of 18, I said earlier that four was the number considered suitable for the north-east, and if we take four as an average, we end up with 18. However, our argument is that we should not be in this position in the first place.

There should have been a White Paper, consultation and an opportunity to discuss what would be a suitable number to balance the needs of having a proportional system, if that is what the Government intend, and of giving smaller parties as well as independent candidates a reasonable chance of winning seats, with the fact that we have always based our democracy on constituency representation, which means local people represented locally by their Members of Parliament.

The arrangements for the representation of the United Kingdom in the European Parliament should not be about carving up the map of Britain to satisfy European sensibilities over voting systems. They should be about satisfying the interests of the British people by ensuring identifiable and accountable local representation in an increasingly important institution. The amendments at least provide an opportunity to take this botched job back to the drawing board and to find a better solution. The interests of our democratic processes demand that we should do so. I commend the amendments to the Committee.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

I shall speak to amendments Nos. 71, 72 and 74 which stand in my name and those of my colleagues, but I wish to comment first on the speech by the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) because I found some of his remarks very strange and quite incomprehensible.

Part of the House's problem in examining European issues has been the dominance of Euroscepticism in recent years and a lack of commitment to try to make Europe work for the people of this country. If the Conservative party had done more to promote the European Parliament and other European institutions, there would not be so much cynicism among the voters. It ill behoves the Conservative party to treat the electorate as if they were stupid, because the electorate realise the importance of Europe.

The activities of Members of the European Parliament are every bit as important as a commitment to the European ideal. I draw the attention of hon. Members to a Charter 88 briefing, which refers to a later group of amendments, but which also shows that the work of a Member of the European Parliament does make an impact on local people. I must point out that the highest percentage scored by any MEP was that won by my mother-in-law who represents the Highlands and Islands constituency. That constituency is the size of Belgium. I heard the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) complaining about people having to travel 80 miles, but to me that seems like just down the road.

The Highlands and Islands constituency stretches from Muckle Flugga in the north of Shetland down to the Mull of Kintyre in Argyll. The MEP has contact with every constituency Member of Parliament, irrespective of political persuasion, and she holds regular meetings in all the Westminster constituencies. We should encourage such people to stand for the European Parliament to ensure that the message that European institutions are important is disseminated.

Mr. Gill

Why does the hon. Lady criticise my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), who is defending the status quo in which Members of the European Parliament relate to a geographical area? Does she not understand that that will disappear under the new system?

Mrs. Ewing

The hon. Member for Ryedale said that Scotland should consist of two regions, but he did not define them or say how that would work. The Conservative party cannot even muster the 20 per cent. of the vote that he referred to—it is very much a minority party in Scotland—so I suspect that he would draw a line through the middle of Scotland and divide us into the highlands and lowlands. A community's identity with its MEP is a two-way street. Communication depends on the commitment of individuals and parties.

Mr. Greenway

The amendments would ensure that the boundary commission decided how Scotland would be divided. I know the hon. Lady's constituency, so I hope that she agrees—I repeat this point—that there is a world of difference between representing the main conurbations and representing the more rural parts of the country.

Mrs. Ewing

I assume, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman will recommend to the boundary commission that the borders and the highlands and islands belong together, with the central belt as the separate region.

As Members of Parliament, we all know the local problems that arise every time there is a boundary commission review. At the general election, I lost a substantial chunk of the Moray constituency, although the area remains within my local authority boundaries. That causes huge confusion; people are upset, because they have formed a particular identity.

The hon. Member for Ryedale said that the link between representatives and the people they represent can arise only through a regional identity, but I do not believe that that is so. He has not taken into account the information that the European institutions provide to communities to ensure that MEPs are more accessible.

We live in a world of information technology but, even in living memory, headlines used to read, "MP to visit constituency"; pipe bands would welcome a Member of Parliament off the train. A former Labour Whip tells the story of a particular hon. Member in the 1960s. The Whip often thought that the Member was in his constituency, while the constituents thought that he was at Westminster; of course, he was in neither place.

Mr. Beith

Was it a Glasgow Member?

Mrs. Ewing

I will not mention names.

Many pompous words are spoken about the link between Members of Parliament and their constituents. Members of Parliament are responsible for building those links when they are elected, through offices, information technology and e-mail or any other method that is open to them. Political parties are responsible for ensuring that top-quality people, who are committed to the European ideal, are selected and put on the list.

Mr. Bercow

Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Ewing

No. I meant to speak briefly and I have not yet even mentioned the amendments. I apologise, Mr. Martin; as you see, I have become impassioned as a result of some of the remarks made earlier.

Amendments Nos. 71, 72 and 74 are simple; they would require the transfer of an additional seat to Scotland. In 1993, the Labour party voted against the European Parliamentary Elections Bill on Second Reading; the reasoned amendment was tabled by the right hon. Gentleman who is now Prime Minister. Labour Members argued at the time that Scotland should be given one of the six additional seats that were being allotted to the United Kingdom.

Amendments Nos. 71, 72 and 74 are a continuation of the Labour party's 1993 argument. We believe that, because of the nature of Scotland's geography and needs, there should be an additional seat. If one were to cut from an Ordnance Survey map the Westminster constituency of Inverness, East, Nairn and Lochaber and place it over a map of Greater London, one would see that that one Scottish constituency is larger than the whole of London.

In an independent Scotland—which I want—we would be entitled to 16 seats in the European Parliament, but, in my modest way, I am asking only for one additional seat. I hope that the Government will consider the amendments favourably.

7.15 pm
Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon)

In determining the correct boundaries in which MEPs should operate, the Committee should consider what their functions are. We should accept that MEPs are not simply different forms of Members of Parliament. Their work is radically different and they should not receive constituents who are concerned with social security, housing or planning—the three staples of the surgery work of Members of Parliament. Generally, MEPs deal with business, education, local authorities and public bodies. A large part of their work is in representing corporate, rather than personal, interests.

The European Parliament is increasingly lobbied by business organisations because of the volume of its regulation and the creation of the single market. Since the days when the Minister and I were MEPs, the volume of work has multiplied enormously. I found that the educational institutions were very anxious to participate in the various educational programmes, which would also be relevant to the constituencies that we are considering. Local authorities and other public bodies were also keen to participate in the European programmes that were available to them.

MEPs do not have to have a Westminster-type constituency to carry out their functions, but they have to employ many of the same methods as Westminster Members of Parliament to be effective. They have to build up links with individual businesses and people. Their clients—if I may use that expression—are often the same people, who come time and again. MEPs need to find out how they tick, and they need to find out how their MEPs operate.

Moreover, when MEPs are lobbying on behalf of those people in Brussels—which, despite all the mythology, is no more than a big county council—and in the other European institutions, they need to be identified with a particular interest; others need to know that they can produce a brief or an argument that is concise and to the point, and has a definitive aim.

Mr. Richard Allan (Sheffield, Hallam)

The right hon. Gentleman seems to be making the case for the regions from which MEPs are to be elected to be conterminous with the regions in which the regional development agencies will be located. That is precisely what the Bill will do. The business matters to which the right hon. Gentleman refers operate at a regional level.

Mr. Curry

The hon. Gentleman would have a point if it were not for the fact that, under the proposed system, MEPs will have to compete for the affections of the RDAs—I shall come to that point in a moment.

Current European constituencies are large and—let us be honest—slightly incoherent. Some MEPs represent counties, which have an historical identity, whereas others represent areas carved from different counties, which lack that identity. The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) represents a vast chunk of Scotland, but I suspect that her constituency has a cultural coherence. [Interruption.] I appreciate her anxiety to have an extra seat for Scotland—no doubt for Sean Connery.

Mrs. Ewing

I did not respond immediately because my constituency is divided by the highland line and there is very much an eastern philosophy and a western philosophy. There is coherence, however, and much of it has resulted from local government reorganisation.

Mr. Curry

I can understand the hon. Lady's point of view, as my constituency is divided by the Pennines into Craven and the area east of the Pennines. So, to all intents and purposes, I have to manage two constituencies which are radically different in character. Woe betide any MEP who thinks that my constituency can be treated as one unit.

I now turn to the region that I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway)—Yorkshire and The Humber—which will be represented by seven MEPs. I start at the top left-hand corner of my constituency, on the Cumbrian border at the Ribblehead viaduct. One could not get much more remote. The area is characterised by the occasional train and millions of sheep. It is right in the heart of the Pennine chain. I am strongly in favour of the trains and the sheep, and I have campaigned hard to keep them. Given the present Government's policies, the train has a marginally better chance of surviving than the sheep.

My constituency continues down the Pennine chain, along the Lancashire border to the border of the Bradford city council area and the outskirts of Keighley. I have described half my Westminster constituency. It continues across the Pennines into the Vale of York, effectively to the line of the Al, and circles around Harrogate and through part of the suburbs of Leeds.

I have described just one Westminster constituency. It is difficult enough to represent such a constituency even though it is well defined and Craven has a strong sense of identity. We have to multiply that by seven or more to imagine a multiplicity of MEPs representing an extremely diverse region.

The region would comprise a vast upland area, the old West Riding and South Yorkshire—a textile area and the traditional heartland of Yorkshire, where enormous regeneration programmes have been put in place. It continues across the M62 virtually to the suburbs of Manchester, through South Yorkshire and along to the Humber ports. The region will be represented by a single clutch of MEPs. It is colossally diverse. That is bad enough, but the situation is even worse in the south-west.

I know from experience that Devon and Cornwall are rarely on speaking terms. Cornwall regards itself as wholly distinct from Devon. In a few years' time, the River Tamar may be the only frontier in Europe where passports will still be needed.

Devon and Cornwall have very little in common with Bristol. As has been pointed out consistently, Bristol is closer to London than to the principal points in Cornwall, yet Bristol and Cornwall will both be part of a great region which is very heterogeneous. Devon and Cornwall are lumped together for EU purposes—for example, in terms of getting aid from the European Union—but they are very different. Cornwall has wholly different problems from Exeter. They are much more serious and there is high unemployment. Many people forget that Cornwall is an old industrial county which certainly deserves to stand alone for the reworking of objective 2 assistance in two or three years' time. However, it is proposed to be part of a single constituency.

The prize-winning example is that people who live in Oxford, Gillingham, Canterbury or Southampton, and anyone who lives in or goes on holiday to the Isle of Wight, will be represented by the same clutch of MEPs. That enormous great arc will be deemed part of the same constituency.

The problem is very simple. Who will identify with what, and how will they go about it? If seven MEPs are elected to represent Yorkshire and The Humber, will they sit down and say, "You take this bit, Fred, and I will take that bit. I know the farmers, so I will take the Pennine chain, and as you want an industrial bit, you had better take South Yorkshire"? Will it be a colonial carve-up, with the appointment of divisional governorships of various parts of the region?

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the very heterogeneity that he has described is a strength, because it allows the elected representative to take a much more balanced view than somebody who represents a minority interest? He has just told us that his own constituency is divided by the Pennines—an area with which I am familiar from my childhood. Most of us represent constituencies with diverse parts, but that enables us to take a more balanced view. I do not see how, by describing the area, the right hon. Gentleman is making a case for his amendment.

Mr. Curry

It all depends on what the hon. Lady means by a balanced view. We are elected to represent people, to take their interests to governing bodies and to lobby on their behalf. We lobby in competition with representatives of different regions.

We shall have a heterogeneous set of MEPs because of the way in which things are organised. In most regions, the three principal political parties are likely to be represented. The Labour party will have chosen its candidates at head office, so we know that 80 per cent. of the election will be over for Labour candidates as soon as the apparatchiks have decided on the list. We and the Liberal Democrats have a reasonably democratic means of selection, but if there is a closed list, the election will be over for those at the top and the bottom of the list as soon as the list if published. Only the chap who is fourth on the list will consider it worth while to fight the election. We shall therefore have a heterogeneous team.

A constituent will be able to approach the Labour candidate, the Conservative and the Liberal Democrat and see who does better. That may be good from the point of view of the constituent, but we should consider the poor chap in Brussels who is trying to be helpful. He has to see on succeeding days different delegations of MEPs—or even MEPs from the same delegation—all trying their luck. His patience will soon run out, and the quality of representations will have no credibility.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) made the point about people going to the MEP for whom they voted. However, businesses, public bodies and educational institutions cannot do that, as, for them, party allegiance is not the essence of the matter. How will they determine which MEP to approach?

Mr. Curry

They will be very confused indeed. There is a long tradition in Britain of seeking redress from an individual. The representative puts an individual's case before the men in peaked caps. That is the traditional role of the Member of Parliament.

Mr. Coaker

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman about the problem that he thinks will be generated by a number of MEPs representing one region? In local authorities, wards are often represented by three or four councillors, who may be from different political parties, but it does not seem to be a problem. Many people in those wards see that as an improvement.

Mr. Curry

As the hon. Gentleman will know, representatives on local authorities with multi-member wards are elected individually in annual elections. If that is not the case, it is difficult to see why the Labour party is so enthusiastic in its consultation paper about reorganising, revitalising or reinventing local government about having annual elections in order to exercise some democratic control over local government.

The First Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael J. Martin)

Order. The right hon. Gentleman is now addressing the next set of amendments. We are discussing the size of the regions, not the system of voting. If the right hon. Gentleman sticks to the amendments before us, perhaps we can dispose of them and move on to the next subject.

Mr. Curry

I was overcome by the spirit of generosity in trying to reply accurately to the question from the other side of the Committee. The parallel that was put to me is not precise. In local government, one votes for a named person. Under the proposals for the European Parliament, the electorate will be invited to vote for a list. Before the first member of the public casts the first vote on election day, we shall know the names of 80 per cent. of those who will turn up in the European Parliament.

7.30 pm
Mr. Bercow

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) displays his lack of understanding by seeking to equate a local government ward, in which two or three named representatives are elected to cover perhaps 8,000 or 10,000 voters, with a new European electoral region with up to 11 MEPs representing up to 5 million people? There is no comparison.

Mr. Curry

That is the point.

Mr. Coaker

The principle is the same.

Mr. Curry

There is no point in telling the electorate, "I am sorry. I cannot do this. What really matters is the principle." The voters are interested in one's ability to deliver. That is what Members of Parliament exist for. That is even more true in the European Parliament, which is a consultative body with a powerful legislative role. There is a more consensual principle in the European Parliament—we can argue about whether that is a good idea—where the two principal groups tend to vote together to get a majority more frequently than here. With the political dividing lines being less strong than here, the role of the individual is more important.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

If the principle is what counts, would a facility to vote for individual candidates remove the right hon. Gentleman's objections to the electoral regions?

Mr. Curry

If I were stuck with a bad system and wanted to make the best of it, I would infinitely prefer to be able to cast a vote for a named candidate. When we come to that point, I hope that the Home Secretary, whose heart is not in the Bill—any more than his body is at the moment—will agree that it would be sensible to move towards such a system. You will get irritated with both of us, Mr. Martin, if we persist on that, so I shall move on.

It has been suggested that the proposals are sensible because the Government offices for the regions and the regional development agencies cover those areas. However, they do so by different processes. The Government offices were put in the regions because they had been based in London with a series of disparate outposts in the regions before. They were consolidated there to create a greater coherence so that bodies that needed to deal with them had a one-stop shop and could go to one person to deal with a range of problems. That system has been successful, but the argument cannot be extrapolated to the European Parliament.

We are now to have regional development agencies conterminous with the Government regions. The Minister for the Regions, Regeneration and Planning has said that there will have to be a sub-structure in the regions so that Devon and Cornwall, for example, feel that they have their say. We finished the Committee stage of the Regional Development Agencies Bill today, so I am fairly au fait with the issue. The Minister has implicitly acknowledged that we cannot put people under a great millennium-type tent and assume that everyone will find their corner in it. There is no argument for duplicating the situation for MEPs.

We shall eventually have regional assemblies, although that agenda has been heavily postponed. The Deputy Prime Minister was keen on them to start with, but he has retreated on the idea now. They are promised for a future Parliament. All the local councils busily packed their bags and waited, rather like commuters standing on the station only to be told that the train has been cancelled.

Who will represent whom? Will the MEPs carve the area up by geography? Will they carve it up by function, with one taking industrial issues, another taking agricultural issues and others—there are bound to be plenty from the education establishment—taking responsibility for education and training matters? The electorate will not have been consulted on any of that.

Mr. Drew

I am pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has gone on to education. He has already mentioned business. Does he accept that it is not just the Government who work on a regional level? There are regional branches of the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress. Higher education establishments are looking for a regional role. It is a myth to pretend that only the Government have a regional emphasis. The proposals will link in directly with those organisations.

Mr. Curry

The hon. Gentleman has missed the fact that being a Member of Parliament or a Member of the European Parliament is like being a doctor, a vet or a parson—we are never off duty. We have to be accessible. People come to us and ask us to do something for them. Accessibility and identity are crucial to being able to deliver what constituents want. A group of MEPs without a local base, possibly competing with each other and ordered by the party rather than the voters—unless the mechanism is changed—will not have the accessibility that I believe is necessary. There is also a danger of inefficient lobbying, with a multiplicity of MEPs falling over themselves and creating the impression—or reflecting the reality—of incoherence.

The examples of other member states do not give us a great clue. I remember dining with my Irish colleagues in the European Parliament. I did not get the impression that there was a surplus of charity when we discussed colleagues with whom they shared a constituency. They found it a bothersome business. Given the chance to get away from the situation, they would have done so. The great problem in Belgium was the linguistic divide, which was a touchstone for many issues.

No one would want the French national list system commended to him. Each faction of each party is reflected on the list. Those who are above No. 17 are home and dry and those who are below No. 23 have no chance. They can all go off to the Bahamas during the election campaign. Only the handful in the middle fight the election. The system is open to massive abuse and is regularly so abused because all the great and the good of the parties stand at the head of their list, get into the European Parliament and then resign a couple of weeks later so that someone else can take their place. Offering oneself for election with the specific intention of standing down for someone else is an abuse of the electorate. That is not the democracy that we have practised in the United Kingdom.

I do not take the view that all forms of proportionality are, by some biblical truth, wrong. We should consider different forms of representation. However, let us be honest. We have two Governments: one here and another—although we do not call them a Government—in Brussels. There is dual sovereignty. Access for the ordinary elector to that other Government, from whom many of the decisions that affect our lives flow, should be as ready as access to the national Government.

The institutions are not necessarily formidable. I have described the European Commission as like a big county council, but more open. The European Parliament is increasingly used by those who want to lobby. The various other European institutions are also surprisingly open. It is a mistake to think of the institutions as an alien power which is entirely closed.

The risk is that we shall make access more difficult, make the institutions more impenetrable, remove the electors from their representatives and remove the representatives from a means of effectively representing those who have elected them. That is why the proposed system is wrong. I support the amendment as a modest attempt to make it a little better.

Mr. Beith

At least the word "proportionality" passed the lips of the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry). It barely passed the lips of the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), whose heart is not in his amendments. He talked about the Home Secretary's heart not being in the Bill, but the hon. Gentleman really wants to go back to the present system, with a closed list of one and no proportionality.

One knows what the outcome of the election will be in a large number of constituencies—in which parties can place their people—because the system relies on the scale of the party vote. Many of the constituencies are in areas where, such is the distribution of votes, the outcome could be pretty well known from the start. Who gets the nomination gets the seat. It is a closed list of one. The electorate cannot interfere with that without voting against the party.

The hon. Member for Ryedale is seeking to go halfway back to such a system by halving the size of constituencies. The consequence would be to reduce drastically the potential for a proportional result. The hon. Gentleman has gone on and on about poor voters who cannot decide which of the selection of Members of the European Parliament from different parties to go to. Electors are being given a choice. To the hon. Gentleman, the poor elector being unable to decide that matter is far worse than the elector discovering that the votes that he and many tens of thousands of other people cast counted for nothing because nobody was elected as a result of those votes.

The present system produces a result in which vast numbers of people are disfranchised either because their party nationally has no seats, despite getting 10 or 15 per cent. of the vote, or because it has no seats in a whole area or a whole part of the country. The Conservative party now finds itself in the latter position in Scotland under the Westminster system.

Several hon. Members


Mr. Beith

I hope that Conservative Members will keep fairly quiet, because their party leader has been making a speech across the road, evincing a new and more open-minded approach to constitutional issues. By the time they read their speeches tomorrow, they might have to rethink some of the things that they said. Perhaps, however, the Leader of the Opposition has exempted from his new constitutional approach any assessment of the rights of voters to have the way in which they voted represented in the results of elections in which they have taken part. That is denied under the present system.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

The right hon. Gentleman and I have a similar attitude towards our constituencies and our concern to represent them, and—I think—have a reputation for doing so. Is it not at least conceivable that a kind of disfranchisement arises in a very large constituency in which candidates are very much directed by the list, which can be controlled by a party?

The right hon. Gentleman referred to a person being put into a constituency. I do not know what happens in the Liberal Democrat party, but if a Conservative were put into a constituency in such a way, he would soon be at the bottom of the list that was selected. Can the right hon. Gentleman not see that there is disfranchisement in huge constituencies?

Mr. Beith

The current European Parliament constituencies are huge; that is their nature. I cited the example of the Scotland South constituency. A few miles up the road from where I live is the fishing town of Eyemouth on the east coast of Scotland. The MEP for Eyemouth is also the MEP for Ayr on the west coast of Scotland. The constituency is vast. There is no way in which one can conceive of it as one does a Westminster constituency. It is simply not a natural grouping. It is the result of trying to put together numbers sufficient to fit the system with a single-Member constituency.

To change from that system to one in which electors' votes can be fairly reflected in the outcome with a range of Scottish representatives—to which they should have been able to contribute through the open list system, allowing them to influence the order—would lead to the votes that they have cast, whether as Liberal Democrats in the borders, Scottish nationalists, Labour supporters or Conservative supporters, securing proportional representation within the European Parliament's Scottish representation. That is a prize worth having.

Mr. Bercow

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is unsatisfactory for him to suggest that the existing system is bad and relatively unrepresentative when, as we point out, the proposed system would be a great deal worse? My MEP is a perfectly estimable individual, but how will he be able formally to represent 5 million people as effectively as he does now when he is responsible simply for the representation of 500,000 people?

Mr. Beith

I want to develop the way in which I think that Members work in multi-Member constituencies. On not one occasion during the past 18 years—I have been in the House throughout—has the Conservative party sought to remove the multi-Member constituency in Northern Ireland that elects by the single transferable vote. The Conservative party takes the view that it is perfectly reasonable for three Northern Ireland MEPs, representing three different sets of views in the community, to represent Northern Irish urban and rural issues—Belfast and the rural areas have very different issues—in the European Parliament. Not once have I seen an amendment from the Conservatives to change that system.

Nor in the experience of the Republic of Ireland, or, for that matter, in some of the other European countries, have MEPs found it impossible to represent key groups and interests in those countries. We would hardly have to work out ways of lobbying more effectively if we thought that MEPs throughout the rest of Europe were crippled by proportional representation systems and rendered unable to represent various parts of their country effectively. It is absolute nonsense to make that claim. We know that they are capable of using the European Parliament effectively to represent various interests in their countries.

Mr. Greenway

The right hon. Gentleman is making a good point with which in many respects I do not disagree, but Northern Ireland has slightly fewer than 1.2 million voters and three MEPs. That suggests that our proposal for 18 regions in which there would be an average of four Members ought to be supported.

7.45 pm
Mr. Beith

The hon. Gentleman ought to know that, if a constituency set an average of four Members, a disproportionate result would be produced. An even more disproportionate result could be achieved by having single-Member constituencies—the present system demonstrates that.

The choice of a regional level for constituencies is appropriate because, by and large, it produces big enough constituencies to secure proportionality, and the constituencies relate to other activities and institutions which also operate at a regional level. Most of the institutions with which we deal—not just Government institutions—from the CBI to the Churches operate on a regional basis. They know that they have to do so particularly at European level. Indeed, in dealing with Europe, regional representation has been most extensively developed outside government by organisations which see it as necessary in order to put their case in Europe.

Mr. Lansley

To bring the right hon. Gentleman back to his own region, under the Government's proposal, the north-east would have four MEPs. Is he saying that he does not regard that as sufficiently proportional? What does he propose should be done for the north-east of England?

Mr. Beith

I do not think that the outcome is satisfactory, but it is the direct result of using Government office regions. It is not satisfactory from the standpoint of proportionality. If it were repeated across the country, there would be a very disproportional result—but it is not repeated across the country. I am rather intrigued that Conservative Members should keep quoting the north-east as an example of an ideal size of constituency, when they have tabled an amendment that would change it by incorporating Cumbria and making it a five-Member constituency. From a proportional point of view, that would have advantages, but I see the Government's logic in attaching parliamentary constituencies to the regions which exist for so many other purposes.

Right hon. and hon. Members who try to treat European constituencies just like a Westminster constituency do not understand either how the European Parliament works or the need to secure proportionality in the result. The one Member who came closest to an understanding of the European Parliament was the one with some experience of it, the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon. He made some quite sensible comments about how that body functions and what can be achieved through it.

In assembling the list that parties first put before the electorate—bearing in mind the fact that the electorate should be able to influence it—they will need to secure candidates from various parts of the region, or they will deprive themselves of votes. If they ignore the scale of the region in which the election takes place, they will cut off their noses to spite their faces and undermine their ability to win votes.

The idea that, in a larger region, MEPs either cannot work together or will be destroyed by competition comes strangely from the lips of Conservative Members. I thought that Tories were in favour of competition and of people realising that they had to test their ability to do things against what others were doing. People who think that, in the House, there are not tensions and disagreements and competition between hon. Members must be unaware of what is going on around them.

Members can and will co-operate and work together. Members will go in joint deputations on behalf of a region. There will also be an element of competition in wanting to show voters that they are doing the best possible job and ought to get extra support when the next election comes along, and win personal votes in the system that I shall advocate in the debate on the next group of amendments.

Can that be unhealthy? What could be more unhealthy than the present system, where Members believe, under the closed list of one, that the only determinant of whether they get re-elected is whether they get the party nomination for a seat at the next election? If that is the only determinant, there is no pressure to produce the best possible performance for the electorate or to show independence of mind from time to time. Multi-Member constituencies where there is an element of competition increase the likelihood of Members exercising some independence.

The hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) talked about the prospects of an additional seat for Scotland. Her argument has often been advanced generally and inapplicably, as if Scotland consisted wholly of its remote and thinly populated areas, which have a very particular case for representation. Under the present Westminster system, that has led to the over-representation of densely populated urban areas, such as much of Glasgow. Scotland's case must be examined in a more sophisticated way. The hon. Lady has a fair point. The appropriate way to consider it—here I come to other Conservative amendments—is through a subsequent boundary commission. It would be much better, after the next European elections, for a boundary commission to review the boundaries between seats.

I am not happy with the idea that the representation of Scotland and Wales should be permanently fixed. Wales could be disadvantaged by that. If anything, there is a possibility that the number of Welsh seats will be reduced and the number of Scottish seats increased by one. The appropriate body to deal with that is a boundary commission rather than the Secretary of State.

There is an overriding reason why the Government were right to make provision in the Bill for the next elections. If they had not, they would have put at risk the ability to offer a fair system of voting at the next European elections. It is reasonable to use an accelerated process to secure that, but I recommend that subsequently, instead of the Secretary of State reviewing such matters, we should have a boundary commission able to review not only the boundaries of English constituencies but the number of seats for Scotland and Wales.

Mr. Lansley

I am grateful for the opportunity to add briefly to an interesting debate which has illustrated some of the problems that will arise in relation to the very large regions. The provisions are another example of the principle whereby if any institution, particularly an institution of government, that is created for one purpose is applied to another, a law of unintended consequences comes into force. In this case, that will be to the detriment of accountability and of the representation of the electorate of the European Parliament.

I will not labour the points made by my right hon. and hon. Friends. I take the points made about the character of Members of the European Parliament. I have not been one, but it is clear from my visits to the European Parliament that its Members do not deal with quite the same range of interests day by day with which we deal in this place, which often arise from constituency concerns. They are often representatives who, in addition to their geographical representation, have a functional specialisation in the European Parliament. However, as representatives of a European constituency, it is of continuing importance that they should be available to an elector on the basis of that elector's particular interest.

It will serve Members badly if electors find that, when they ask Members to take up a case, they are told only that their Member's functional specialism is different. Electors will argue that they elected the Member to be their representative to the European Parliament, and want their line of argument to be followed.

Mr. Gummer

Does my hon. Friend agree that this is an argument between politicians who favour believing that people want proportionality and the people, who want access to their local Member of Parliament? My experience is that even a person who had voted Conservative would prefer to go to a Member of Parliament of a different party who was locally available than be proportionally represented. Most people regard that as a distant concept.

Mr. Lansley

I agree with my right hon. Friend. That is a worrying potential development which arises from the Bill's structure. I hope that—I know that this is so of me and my neighbours in Cambridgeshire—we have always taken it as axiomatic that, although we were elected as representatives of a political party, we sit as representatives of the whole electorate. We therefore would not expect people to come to us on the basis of party allegiance or, notwithstanding the customs of the House which would preclude it, go to another party's representative in another constituency. We would all deprecate that, but that could be the outcome of the Bill. People will tend to regard someone from their party as their representative rather than the person elected to the European Parliament to serve a whole area.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lansley

I am glad to give way to my neighbour in Cambridgeshire.

Mrs. Campbell

Does the hon. Gentleman accept that I get many letters from his constituents, who write to me because I am a Labour Member? I presume that he gets quite a large number from my constituents who write to him because he is a Conservative Member. People feel allegiance to the party for which they have voted. Our system does not allow us to overcome that. I normally send such letters to him if people want problems solved, but if they ask my opinion, I freely give it. I assume that he does that, too.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. Perhaps we can get back to the amendments, which concern the size of the region rather than party allegiance.

Mr. Lansley

The size of the region has some bearing on all this. There is a media relationship involved. The hon. Lady and I inhabit, as it were, the same media. Inevitably, when she says one thing and I say another, people will respond to one of us. That is fine in respect of opinions, but the convention by which we operate in the House—that we should deal with people in our constituencies and not deal with cases from constituents of other Members—serves well in dealing with public bodies and in determining who has the responsibility to pursue a constituency case through to its conclusion. There is no sense in which any of us can wash our hands of that.

Mr. Allan

Is the hon. Gentleman not guilty of confusing the role of MPs with that of MEPs? MEPs principally represent wider interests in Europe, rather than taking up individual constituency cases as we do.

Mr. Lansley

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, which brings me to my next point. I recognise that there is a difference. In Cambridgeshire, we are well served by our Member of the European Parliament.

Mrs. Anne Campbell

We never see him.

Mr. Lansley

To pursue the point that I was making—

Mrs. Campbell

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Lansley

The hon. Lady is presuming a little in asking me to give way a second time. Before I do, I want to make this point clearly.

Members of the European Parliament are different in that they often adopt a functional specialism alongside their responsibility as geographical representatives. The Member of the European Parliament for Cambridgeshire pursues his role as spokesman on agriculture for his group, the European People's party, in the European Parliament. For the county that he represents, there is a good fit between his functional specialism and his geographical role as an MEP.

Mr. Bercow

Unless I misunderstood or misheard the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell)—if I did, no doubt she will correct me—when my hon. Friend was speaking about the great merits of his local MEP, she exclaimed from a sedentary position, "We never see him." Is that or is that not an ironic commentary? Under these massive, unwieldy and unsuitable electoral regions, will she not see even less of that excellent MEP in future than in the past?

Mr. Lansley

I am going to give way to the hon. Lady, but, before I do so, I should say that, if that is indeed the point that she is going to make, it is wholly unjustified. Notwithstanding my hon. Friend's point, I believe that, given that my local MEP is representing a large area—larger than Greater London—with a population of half a million, he does extraordinarily well at being seen around the county. However, I shall happily give way to the hon. Lady if she wants to dispute that.

8 pm

Mrs. Anne Campbell

It is enormously valuable to have all those points made in speculation of what I am going to say, but I have to say that the current MEP representing Cambridgeshire is not seen frequently in the constituency, unlike some of the neighbouring MEPs who are frequently seen in their constituencies. I suspect that that is partly because he has a farm in Yorkshire and spends most of his time there and not in Cambridgeshire.

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. We are definitely going wide of the amendments.

Mr. Lansley

The hon. Lady and I are bound to disagree on that matter, but I am sure that I could present an enormous amount of testimony to the effect that the MEP for Cambridgeshire is often seen in his constituency and is much appreciated for what he does there.

A point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) bears emphasising. Several Labour Members appeared not to understand why the amendments are structured so as to increase to 18 the number of electoral regions, but the reason is quite straightforward, although it is not simply a case of taking nine regions and doubling their number.

If it is acceptable, as has been illustrated in debate, for proportionality to be achieved in Northern Ireland by reference to three MEPs and in the north-east by reference to four MEPs, it is perfectly possible for proportionality to be more readily achieved across the country with, on average, four MEPs per constituency. It has been amply shown in the debate that, when one reaches the point of having eight MEPs for the eastern region, or 10 in the north-west, or 11 in the south-east, one sees that, in pursuit of very marginal increments in proportionality, one has dramatically increased the distance and lack of shared representational factors within the electoral regions one has constructed.

We are simply trying to balance, on the one hand, the desire to have electoral regions that have a degree of commonality of interests and purpose, against, on the other hand, the principle of the Bill established on Second Reading, that there should be proportionality. We are not trying, by way of amendment, to undermine the whole purpose of the Bill and go back to single-Member constituencies; we are trying to strike that balance. To have eight or more MEPs representing the south-east, or London, or the north-west or the eastern region—with the idea that such areas have a commonality of interests that are susceptible to coherent representation in the European Parliament—is to create areas that are too big.

We have to strike the balance at a lower level and I subscribe to the view expressed in the amendments, that the balance is better struck at the level of three, four or possibly five MEPs per constituency. Five should be the maximum number of MEPs—for example, in Wales, although there may be those who say that it would be difficult to represent in the European Parliament the commonality of interests between south and north Wales.

One then comes to the question of how to structure the electoral regions. If not on the basis of the Government office for the region, on what basis should it be done? As my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale made clear, it is determined by the boundary commission and is built up from local authority areas and so on, but, in a sense, that illustrates the relationship between the size of electoral regions and the impact on the politics of those who are elected.

If, starting with a blank sheet of paper, we were to design electoral regions that would make sense for the purposes of European Parliament elections, we would probably do that on the basis of media maps, rather than administrative maps, because, come the elections, we would be looking for candidates who could represent themselves and make an impact on a large electorate. The extent to which administrative regions cohere with the media map is rather limited in certain areas of the country. It would be difficult to correlate Meridian's television broadcasting area with the administrative regions when considering its impact in the south-east and south-west. It might be easier to do that in respect of Anglia Television, which covers East Anglia, but harder in respect of Central Independent Television or Yorkshire Television.

Those media maps are significant because, if we are trying to achieve a more effective system of electoral representation, having a geographical structure that matches the context within which the campaign will be fought—through the media, as that is the best way to communicate personalities, ideas and issues—would be an advantage. It would make more sense to relate the geographical structure to the media map than to the administrative convenience of Government Departments or standard statistical regions which are not created for electoral purposes. The Government are displaying a lack of imagination, because in pursuit of administrative convenience they may have missed the point if what they are trying to achieve is not only proportionality but a sense of involvement in, and understanding of, the European Parliament.

When creating large electoral regions, one changes the character of the opportunity for minority parties and independents. Notwithstanding the speech by the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell) earlier in the debate, I believe that there is a balance to be struck when creating large electoral regions which will offer opportunities for minority party representation. The point can be reached where one is contemplating some extremely narrow interests being represented in the European Parliament.

In the south-east, if someone were able to make an impact through the national media and acquire just 10 per cent. of the votes cast—remember that, on past precedent, turnout has been only 36 or 37 per cent., so I am talking about only 3 or 4 per cent. of the total electorate—that person might have sufficient votes to win a seat in the European Parliament. That might give some people cause for concern.

Mr. Drew

I am slightly confused—perhaps the hon. Gentleman will elucidate. My understanding is that all the minority parties are in favour of the regional list system: not only parties represented in this place, but others—in particular, the Green party. Is the hon. Gentleman saying that he is against that, and so in favour of those parties being excluded for ever, or is he saying that he feels that they will be excluded because of the system that we will have? The minority parties do not think that they will be excluded; they think that they will have a better chance.

Mr. Lansley

I am sure that the minority parties do feel that they will have a better chance. My point is that, if one is going to have proportionality, one has to do it through multi-Member constituencies that give minority parties that can gain the support of a substantial minority—

The First Deputy Chairman

Order. I do not enjoy interrupting hon. Members, but we are drifting into a discussion about the system of voting, rather than talking about the size of the regions, which is the subject of the amendments.

Mr. Lansley

I am grateful to you, Mr. Martin, but I hope that you will let me explain my point.

The size of the regions is relevant in this respect only: the larger the region, the smaller the proportion of the electorate that can justify the election of a minority party or, indeed, an independent with a particular appeal. Unfortunately—I wish that it were otherwise—we are talking about elections where the turnout may be as low as 40 per cent. or less. For example, 4 per cent. of the electorate in London may elect a Member to the European Parliament. I do not dispute what the hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) has said: minority parties may be in favour of that system. However, from a public policy point of view, there is a limit to how far we should go in that direction.

Everything points to striking a balance. The current balance is not correct in some very large regions, although it may be all right in some of the smaller regions. If we were to pursue the amendments, we could certainly strike a better balance.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

I shall be brief, as many of my hon. Friends wish to contribute to the debate.

The amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) is interesting, in that it proposes taking a seat from London and giving it to Scotland. Under the first-past-the-post system, it is possible to take account of remote geographical regions. The distribution of boundaries under the current system allows Scotland to have quite large seats but a lower quota. The relationship between the respective countries in the Union is relevant when considering this amendment. According to the Library, England represents 83.3 per cent. of the electorate; Scotland, 9 per cent.; Wales, 5 per cent.; and Northern Ireland, 2.7 per cent. The Scottish nationalists are trying to pinch a seat from England. A 71-seat allocation gives England 81.6 per cent. of the electorate, which means that we are under-represented. Seventy-two seats gives England 82.75 per cent. of the electorate, which means that we are still under-represented—but at least we would be approaching quota. England would be over-represented if we had 73 seats.

Mrs. Ewing

Under the 1993 settlement for the European parliamentary elections, the average Scottish electorate comprised 491,000 people. The figure for England was 512,000. Without the highlands and islands, the figure for Scottish electorates is 511,000. There is not the huge difference that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

Mr. Syms

"Proportionality" is a word which seems to fall from many people's lips. We are discussing the relationship between the countries of the Union and how seats in the European Parliament are allocated. This Bill is based on the principle of proportionality. England is currently allocated 71 seats but, on the basis of electoral size, it should be allocated 72 seats. We may even have a claim to 73 seats. Therefore, the Scottish Nationalists' proposal to take a seat north of the border, thereby creating further under-representation in England, is not exactly fair.

I return to my original point. The first-past-the-post system allows for sparsity to some extent. However, under a proportional system, we must allocate seats in terms of electoral size. We should begin not by subtracting a seat from England and giving it to the Scots, but by reconsidering the allocation of seats and adding one to England to ensure that it is properly represented.

Turning to the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway), the key point is that there are quite large differentiations in the regional lists at present. That creates great unfairness. There is a 25 per cent. quota for Wales but only a 10 per cent. or 11 per cent. quota to win in the south east. That will skew the nature of political competition. Someone like Sir James Goldsmith would not stand for election in Wales because there is no chance of receiving 25 per cent. of the vote. However, someone like him might stand in the south-east or north-west of England where the quota level and breakthrough point is much lower.

8.15 pm

If we are to have fairness in politics, there must be a relationship between the regions in terms of size—otherwise we will skew the nature of nominations. All the odds and sods will congregate principally in the north-west and the south-east of England where their prospects of victory are good, and none will stand for election in Wales. As the amendments tabled by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale suggest, the boundary commission could address that problem. Size is important under the proportional system.

I draw the attention of the Committee to the situation in southern Ireland, where the Government draw the boundaries. Some gerrymandering occurs under that system. Extra seats may be determined by whether there are three, five or seven-member wards. There is an old Irish tradition that the party in government—it does not matter whether it is Fine Gael, the Labour party or another major party—always rejigs the boundaries in terms of numbers in order to give that party a slight advantage.

Under this Bill, the Home Secretary retains the power to rejig the system. I have no doubt that the present Home Secretary is an honourable man who will act fairly. However, I am not sure about future Home Secretaries.

Mr. Cawsey

Not former Home Secretaries.

Mr. Syms

That is an interesting point.

The advantage of the boundary commission is that it examines issues independently. It will receive representations from communities, local authorities and other bodies and allows for the exercise of some logic.

At the sharp end of such inquiries—numbers always come into play—there is always concern that things might not gel. However, the system is logical, and I do not think that these boundaries have been drawn logically. My hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale mentioned having regions of four. I believe that we could have regions of three or five, depending on the circumstances. The boundary commission could examine the matter sensibly and rationally. The European elections are some way off and it is not beyond the wit of the boundary commission to examine the arrangements before then.

Mr. Gummer

If we do not have a boundary commission, the boundaries are based on the Government regions. In the south-east, it was expected that bodies and organisations could travel from any part of that area to London. In the context of elections, we are talking about people. I hope that people are not expected to travel across the south-east to London. As it is extremely difficult to travel across the south-east—and there are similar difficulties in the eastern region—it will be very difficult for ordinary people. Does my hon. Friend agree that the boundary commission should consider that matter because it will be concerned with people rather than parties? This Bill appears to be concerned with parties rather than people.

Mr. Syms

My right hon. Friend makes a good point: the boundary commission can take a broader view and consider local interests. One of the strengths of the current system—although the seats are too large—is that an elected member of the European Parliament can deal with local authorities and other organisations. The boundary commission would allow a range of bodies, from trade unions to businesses, to make representations.

Mr. Bercow

Further to what my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) said a moment ago, does my hon. Friend not think that it is significant that, in the course of our discussion, no Labour, Liberal Democrat or Scottish National party Members have countered the original point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) in his opening speech: that there is no obvious common interest between the constituent parts of many new electoral regions? If there is such a commonality of interest, why have hon. Members failed in the past 90 minutes to identify what it is?

Mr. Syms

My hon. Friend makes a good point. I am sure that, if the Government conceded the principle of the boundary commission, people could express their views about which regions they should be in and how representation should be provided. In politics one must be seen to be doing the right thing. Keeping the matter within the Home Office is not seen to be playing the game in British politics. It is sensible for the task to be carried out independently by an organisation set up for that purpose, which can listen to representations and set out a logical framework for the distribution of regions across the United Kingdom.

I hope that the Minister will listen to the Opposition arguments on this important point. When the principal Opposition party and other Opposition parties support the principle of an independent boundary commission, it would be a serious matter for the Government to turn their back against the proposal and say that the Home Office knows best, and that everything is set and sealed.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) made a good argument about the media areas throughout the country. We all know, especially MEPs who tend to be a little more remote, that it is important to be able to go to a local radio or television station to get people to know us. Most boundaries for television areas do not correspond with constituency boundaries.

There are further practical problems. It is difficult to get across many of the regions. MEPs will come back from Brussels and have to be in Penzance one day, in Poole the next day, and then perhaps in Stroud. I thought that we did not want MEPs to be driving around and spending a great deal. We will have extremely peripatetic Members of the European Parliament running around vast areas and trying to have an impact.

We all understand the point about geographical size. I have a relatively compact constituency. Some hon. Members with constituencies of 200 or 300 square miles find difficulty in getting around.

Mrs. Ewing

That is very small.

Mr. Syms

The hon. Lady says from a sedentary position that 200 or 300 square miles is small. Perhaps it is, compared with the highlands.

Mr. Gill

Does my hon. Friend agree that the new MEPs will not chase round those huge constituencies? They will not be accountable to the people because they will be able to make so many excuses about having to be somewhere else. A further problem is that there is no means of getting rid of a bad MEP under the system proposed by the Government. Is that not the final indictment of it?

Mr. Syms

I agree with my hon. Friend, but the key point is that, if we can reduce the number of MEPs for the regions from 11s and 10s to threes, fours or fives, we would have a definable area where an MEP could have a fixed office. With that number of MEPs, people might even know the name of the MEP who represents them, or be able to find a Member of Parliament or a local council that knows the name of the representative.

If we look at the size of some of the proposed regions and add up the number of local authorities in them, it is clear that that will cause problems. Local authorities have considerable dealings with MEPs.

The hon. Member for Stroud (Mr. Drew) stressed the importance of regions. There is indeed a regional role, but local authorities are also important. MEPs may be dealing with 20 or 30 different local authorities, which may have different priorities and may want the MEP to turn up to support a particular project. Tremendous problems are bound to arise.

To summarise, I do not believe that the regions are drawn in a sensible and logical way. I support my hon. Friends' amendments calling for an independent boundary commission to examine them. If we must have a proportional system, although I dislike it, I think that constituencies with three, four or five MEPs would be more acceptable and would at least be an attempt to maintain a geographical relationship between MEPs and their constituents. That would be a great improvement.

As I argued earlier, I believe that England is under-represented in the proposals. If proportionality is supposed to be the flavour of the month, is it not a little rum that we are starting off by allocating 71 seats to England, rather than 72?

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

I support my hon. Friends' amendments to reduce the size of Euro-constituencies and to task the boundary commission with the duty of allocating the electoral regions.

We should all be worried about the lack of identification of the people of the United Kingdom with the rest of Europe. Other continental countries do have an identification with the ideal of Europe. France, Belgium, Luxembourg and the Netherlands, marched over three times in the past 130 years, look to Europe as a guarantor of their democracy. Spain can still remember Franco, Portugal can still remember Salazar, Germany is conscious of its aggressive history, and Italy has its own problems. All those countries look to Europe as a guarantor of their democracy and their prosperity.

At the critical moment in our history, we did not regard Europe as our guarantor. In 1940 we stood alone, and we tend to identify still with the United States and Canada. The problem is still one of identification with Europe.

Representation in the European Assembly was originally by Members of Parliament and Members of the other place. Direct elections changed that, and Members of the European Parliament made considerable efforts to establish links with their own areas. I accept that most members of the public do not know the name of their MEP, but those who do need to know it can find out. They will find that their MEP has a geographical responsibility—a duty of care.

In Wight and South Hampshire we have a sense of unity of purpose. The coastal belt, the M3, the A3, the M27 roads, access to ports at Portsmouth and Southampton, Solent, Spithead, the Isle of Wight—we have a sense of identity in that Euro-constituency and with a larger area, but that would not be the case with an area that stretched from Kent to Milton Keynes, to Oxfordshire, West Sussex and the Isle of Wight. That would take in far too large an area.

In addition to their functional roles, MEPs have a geographical responsibility. That is one of their strengths and one of the advantages that gives us a sense of identification with the European Parliament. With proportional representation in large constituencies, a constituent might apply to an MEP in his own party or, more dangerously, he might apply to different MEPs from different parties, playing one off against the other and trying to find one who will assist his cause if others will not.

Mr. Gummer

Does my hon. Friend agree that the position is worse than that? No individual MEP would be responsible for that constituent. Once we move away from the single-member system, that problem arises. Constituencies must at least be small enough for people to know when MEPs do not do their job properly. With eight, nine, 10 or 11 MEPs, several will be unavailable to anybody. We must know to whom they are available, in order to know to whom they are responsible.

Mr. Viggers

Indeed. In very large Euro areas such as the south-east, where there will be 11 MEPs, I expect that the older and grander MEPs will seek to delegate responsibility for looking after such minor parochial matters to MEPs further down the list. The only thing that will matter will be to get themselves well up on the list to start with.

The practical implications of choosing European candidates has not been discussed. Despite the stories that we have heard about the large Euro-constituencies in Scotland, in the south and south-east of England the Euro-constituencies tend to be sufficiently close to each other for people to know one another at constituency chairman and constituency officer level. There can be a commonality of purpose in choosing a candidate.

Let us consider the problems of choosing the candidates for the south-east where there will be 11 seats. In the south-east area, the Conservative party is trying anxiously to fulfil the aims of true democracy and one person, one vote. There is to be a large meeting in docklands in the east end of London, which as far as my constituents in Gosport are concerned, might well be on the dark side of the moon.

As has been pointed out by my excellent constituency chairman, Commander Geoff Bartlett, he and his officers are deeply concerned that the candidacy of our excellent and exceptionally able MEP, Roy Perry, is unfairly penalised in what cannot be a level playing field, when the remote associations such as Gosport and the Isle of Wight will not be proportionally represented by having ready access to the open meeting in docklands. He says that it is unreasonable to expect constituents from Gosport to travel by bus, coach or train to docklands to take part in a selection procedure over, perhaps, a 15-hour day, involving reading the CVs of many candidates and then deciding among them. It would be physically impossible for constituents to know the candidates.

8.30 pm
Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

My hon. Friend is making a point that is directly relevant to the size of the electoral regions. At least in the Conservative party we are trying to introduce an element of one-member, one-vote democracy. The Labour party wishes to entrench on the statute book a system that works only with Stalinist centralism—[Interruption.]

Mr. Viggers

My hon. Friend is right. Once this constitutional Pandora's box is opened, we do not know where things will lead.

The constitutional measure before us is based on the Labour party's wish to reshape its representation within the European Parliament. It is imposing a duty upon the rest of us for its own narrow party purposes. I greatly regret that.

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Viggers

I believe that the hon. Gentleman has only recently entered the Chamber, but I shall give way.

Mr. Bermingham

I have been listening quietly to the hon. Gentleman. If he were so kind as to listen to me, he might find that I am with him.

Surely a better approach than the Stalinist argument is to question what Milton Keynes has in common with Gosport. The answer is nothing. We have the same problems in the north-west. What does St. Helens have in common with Cumbria? The problems of the two areas are entirely different. Given the proposed system, those are the problems that we should be addressing.

Mr. Viggers

The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point.

Mr. Bercow


Mr. Viggers

I am reluctant to take any further interventions. I wish to make a brief speech.

I move on to the difficulty of continuing identification with the cause of Europe if we enlarge the Euro constituencies to the extent that is proposed. We shall alienate more people from the concept of Europe. Indeed, the proposal will prevent identification. I therefore urge my colleagues to support the amendments.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

I am delighted to have the opportunity to take up the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers). I shall return to the specific point which underlay the whole of his speech when I come to my concluding remarks.

I shall confine my remarks to London, especially at this hour. Dr. Johnson was a constituent of one of my predecessors, and I continue to enjoy the observation that, if a man is tired of London, he is tired of life. With a Londoner's pride, though in a manner less lapidary than Dr. Johnson, I say that, if something will not work in London, it will not work in the rest of the country.

I spoke last year of a Londoner's sense of locality. London is an agglomeration of villages which have come to pass. The great success of "Passport to Pimlico", which was filmed in my constituency, derived from the fact that Londoners feel a strong sense of local loyalty. To go outside my constituency, I do not believe that the authors of the Bill have recently read "The Napoleon of Notting Hill".

The Minister, like the Secretary of State on Second Reading, based her argument for the constituencies on the contention that they match the regions which were introduced by the previous Government, of whom I was a member. I would not dream of offending against the Official Secrets Acts by revealing what others said in Government when we discussed the concept of regionalisation. I assume, however, that I am allowed to reveal my own views, which were that I was deeply sceptical of the concept. I can say with certainty that we did not at that stage discuss using the regions as a basis for Euro-constituencies. Had we done so, it would have armed me with a powerful argument that was not available to me at the time.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) spoke of how well the other countries in the European Union have made the proposed system work. For better or for worse, I served longer continuously on the European Budget Council than any other British Minister since 1972. I first met my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry), who made a most distinguished contribution to the debate, in that capacity, when he was a Member of the European Parliament.

When I recall the closing stages of the negotiations on the European Community budget, between the Budget Council and the European Parliament, I would not commend the manner in which the European Parliament was elected as conferring flexibility in negotiations.

The Parliament on the budget was an instrument of adamantine inflexibility. The only resolution of that came not from the Parliament but from myself as holding the presidency of the Budget Council, in inventing a comparatively un-Tory instrument in the negative reserve that had the extreme pragmatic virtue of resolving the problem. I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon for the fact that, on having been elected to the European Parliament by a method other than that applicable to the rest of Europe, he helped me to persuade the rest of the Parliament to adopt my proposal.

My next point turns on the amendments that relate to the boundary commission as against the Secretary of State. I am not a man to wear wounds on my sleeve, but proposals brought forward by successive Secretaries of State have given me an employed day-time population in my constituency that is 20 times that of the average constituency throughout the nation. In London alone, 22 per cent. of the population of greater London work in my constituency. My 73 parliamentary colleagues—I see some on the Government Benches—are good enough to look after the other 78 per cent., or a little more than 1 per cent. each. I do not have to serve individual commuters but, on the ancient principle of no taxation without representation, I have to represent any business or employer who comes to me on any matter that pertains to that business or employment.

This absurd disproportion militates against my ability to serve the entire constituency properly. To be fair, the boundary commission has always been sympathetic to my argument at public inquiry that there should be some shading to reflect the employment population. I am seeking, Mr. Martin, to remain within the rules of order.

London seems to be the loser in the circumstances that I have outlined, especially if 22 per cent. of London's working population, who come to work in my constituency, have by their feet indicated that they recognise the strategic significance of the constituency. However, the boundary commission can do nothing about my problem, which is why I would rather it address the origins of the problem instead of the Secretary of State, who created it. Under the present system, the member of the European Parliament who represents my constituency and other areas is a good man whom I know and like. He is a former Member of the House of Commons, but not a member of my party. He has no hesitation in taking up domestic issues that occur within my constituency, but he has to be pushed and prompted—not least by myself—to take up matters that powerfully affect the constituency but which specifically have a European dimension. I give the art market as an example, which classically has a European dimension.

I fear that shifting this problem into the much larger constituencies that the Bill envisages will make it a great deal worse.

Finally, with a Government who pride themselves on European enthusiasms, decentralisation and referendums, I regret that on the issue before us the Government have not consulted. If by being doctrinaire—I return to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Gosport—the Government remove us further from an enthusiasm for Europe in this process, they will in my view at least, have served ill the European cause and ideal that they claim to espouse. They will have shown themselves separately to be self-contradictory on the principle of decentralisation.

Mr. Collins

We have had an excellent debate, which has included some notable speeches. I shall direct my remarks to two in particular. First, in a superb speech, my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) lacerated these ludicrous provisions, although a couple of his comments were—uncharacteristically—excessively generous.

My hon. Friend was right to stress the importance of the boundary commission, as an independent, non-political and non-partisan body, taking decisions about the proposed electoral regions. I noted that he did not observe that we have a Government who take the view that politicians' taking a view about food safety is excessively political but their taking decisions about electoral boundaries is not. That is a curious stance for the Government to take.

My hon. Friend drew attention to the absurdity of Members of the European Parliament having to jump around vast and difficult-to-traverse electoral regions. One must bear in mind, however, that we are dealing with MEPs who, under the present arrangements, are expected, even when they are on continental Europe, to travel between Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg in the course of their parliamentary duties—before returning to the United Kingdom where they will have to zoom around vast electoral regions.

Movement will be a constant process. The majority of UK MEPs will simply represent the air, because they will be airborne much more than they will have their feet on the ground. That will not be their fault; it will be the fault of the system.

Mr. Bercow

In the case of Labour MEPs, might not that be thought to minimise the potential for damaging action?

Mr. Collins

My hon. Friend may be right. In the case of Liberal Democrat MEPs, it may be appropriate that their feet will be in the air, because their heads are always in the clouds.

The other speech on which I want to comment is that of the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith). He said that, under the new system, it will be possible for MEPs to represent interest groups and promote certain issues. That may be true, but the Conservative party is interested in elected politicians representing individuals, not just groups. He also said that he hoped that voters will see a fairer system. The Conservative party is interested in whether voters will ever see the people they elect. Given the vastness of the electoral regions, I seriously doubt whether voters will ever see the person they have elected.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

My hon. Friend is making an important point, but I hope that he will not argue that the people are to blame. It would be understandable if ordinary MEPs, faced with regions of that magnitude, felt at the end of a hard week that the task was so big and threatening that their inclination was simply to go home.

Mr. Collins

I entirely agree with my right hon. Friend. The problem that I have highlighted is in the nature of the system. It does not relate to the electorate, who will be unable to identify with their MEP; and it relates still less to those who are elected to the European Parliament.

Mr. Gummer

Does my hon. Friend agree that, if MEPs decide to go home, they will have a problem deciding which home to go to? If an MEP represents an area from Milton Keynes to Gosport, his selection committee must meet in the docklands. Where could he place himself so as to be available to his electorate? That is a fundamental argument. Moreover, for the right hon. Member for Berwick—upon—Tweed (Mr. Beith) to say that the Church is run on that basis suggests a view of the Church that is unbeknown to anyone I have ever come across.

Mr. Collins

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for correcting the religious and other references in the speech of the right hon. Member for Berwick—upon—Tweed. As the right hon. Gentleman is having such a hard time of it, I shall omit some of the other matters that he mentioned and build on what my right hon. Friend said. He is right: hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise that, increasingly, our electorates expect us to be in our constituencies when we are not in this place and to be resident in our constituencies.

To use an analogy that is close to my home, if an MEP represents a region that stretches all the way from the Scottish border to Cheshire, how is he supposed to find a home that his electorate considers places him within the community that he seeks to represent? Would he live geographically halfway up or down, which might place him in Manchester? My constituents in rural Cumbria would deeply resent the idea that someone living in the urban heartland of Manchester represented their community. Should the MEP place himself at one extremity or the other? That would be difficult, because people in Chester would not feel that someone living in Cumbria understood their concerns, and vice versa. It would be absurd.

Mr. Bercow

Let us not be coy about this. There is not only an absence of common interest and identity within many electoral regions; it is worse than that. Many residents of those electoral regions have never been to, and in many cases are unaware of the existence of, large parts of the region. For instance, many noble people in Gosport have never been to Buckingham, and many noble people in Buckingham have never been to Gosport. They are none the worse for it.

8.45 pm
Mr. Collins

My hon. Friend is a great reminder of the importance of not being coy in these matters, and I shall not seek to be coy. He points out that I have been understating my case, and I shall seek not to do so in the remainder of my remarks.

In addition to the geographical problems is the problem of the sheer size of the electorate. Electorates for some regions will be about 4 million, 5 million or even 6 million people. It is simply not possible for one person to feel a link with that many people.

Let us take a practical illustration, which hon. Members on both sides of the Committee will recall—the period, less than a year ago, before the general election, when everyone who succeeded in being elected to this House, of all parties and of none in the case of the hon. Member for Tatton (Mr. Bell), who was with us earlier, will have spent a large portion of their time knocking on doors, speaking to individual voters, replying to letters, telephone canvassing and pursuing other methods of contacting individuals. How on earth will someone seeking election by an electorate of 4 million, 5 million or 6 million people knock on that many doors or make that many connections with the electorate?

Mr. Cawsey

The hon. Gentleman said that it is wrong to expect one person to represent a constituency of that size. The Bill does not expect one person to represent a constituency of that size. Does the amendment suggest that it does? If so, that is a good reason for rejecting it. [Interruption.]

Mr. Collins

I am delighted, because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) is pointing out from a sedentary position, that intervention means that the hon. Gentleman has committed himself to voting for our next amendment, which will establish precisely what he suggests. As the Bill stands, 11 people will be elected in the south-eastern region. Each will have a duty to represent all the people in that area. Does the hon. Gentleman suggest that, under the Bill as drafted, those 11 representatives can split the region between them? The Bill does not provide for them to do that. The whole of that electorate of 5 million or 6 million people will regard their MEP as someone to whom they must look.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

The hon. Gentleman's argument seems to be that it is impossible for someone to represent a constituency of more than 4 million or 5 million electors. Can he explain how the Conservative party supports a directly elected mayor for London, who will represent more than 4 million or 5 million electors?

Mr. Collins

This is an entirely different point. The mayor of London is not expected to spend most of his time travelling between Brussels, Strasbourg and Luxembourg, but can spend all his time in London. He will not have to shuttle back and forth across a vast area, so it is simply not a parallel argument.

The practicalities of the Bill are clear: they simply do not work. One must therefore look behind the matter and try to work out what could be the motivation for choosing a system with this size of electoral region and this provision for the boundaries of the electoral regions. We know why the Liberal Democrats support such a system: they want a system that puts proportionality first. The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed was entirely open about that. He wants a system that is rigged in favour of the Liberal Democrats. It is not a noble aspiration, but it is clear. But why do the Government favour it?

The Home Secretary made it clear, even today, that he remains against proportional representation for this place; why, then, is he in favour of it for the European Parliament? We must conclude that he does not take the European Parliament seriously. He thinks that the European Parliament should be used to do deals with the Liberal Democrats to influence the outcome of the next general election and to test run little experiments before the Jenkins commission reports. That is not the way to treat the European Parliament, which has serious powers over the people of this country. That approach is frivolous, so I support the amendment.

Mr. Green

Two events, one of which was a careful study of the map accompanying the helpful Library research paper, have inspired me to speak. The map, which shows Britain divided into regions, illustrates better than the eloquent remarks of my right hon. and hon. Friends the absurdity of the Government's proposal. Amendment No. 48 would have an ameliorative effect.

I declare a constituency interest. Many hon. Members have pointed out how absurd the regional boundaries are. The Government feebly defend the current system by saying that they accord with those of regional development agencies, but east Kent is already part of a European region. We have many economic ties with Europe because of the channel tunnel and links with Nord Pas-de-Calais and part of Wallonia.

Existing economic regions could sensibly be used for European elections, because businesses, local authorities and public bodies are used to working together. We could sell that idea to the people of Ashford and other parts of east Kent, but we will not be able to sell the idea that they have anything in common with the constituents of my hon. Friends the Members for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) and for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow). Those places are like the dark side of the moon to people who live in the blessed country of east Kent.

Mr. Gummer

Is my hon. Friend aware that the situation is worse than that? Bedfordshire will be associated with east Kent, even though Bedford decides whether roads in East Anglia should be repaired. It is extremely difficult to understand how Bedfordshire and Kent could, by any stretch of the imagination, have the same economic, political or, as the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) suggested, religious connections. I can count at least 30 Anglican and Roman Catholic diocese within one regional electorate. Surely it is nonsense to link Bedfordshire and Kent.

Mr. Green

I agree with my right hon. Friend. I take his point about the ecclesiastical nonsense that is attached to the political nonsense. I feel particularly strongly about that, as the home of the Bishop of Maidstone is in the village in which I live. He has made the point that, although the Church of England may be run from Canterbury, the Church in Kent is run from the village of Charing.

The Government's assertion that the regions accord with reality is self-evidently nonsense. They make the wider point that other countries do well under this system, but the tradition of parliamentary representation in other member states of the European Union is different at every level. New Zealand's use of the German additional member system of proportional representation does not work, because the New Zealand electorate treat their representatives as do the British electorate: they want them on call and they want to know who and where they are. The system works perfectly well in Germany, but not in New Zealand. It is invalid to argue that, because a system works elsewhere in the European Union, it will work in this country.

My second inspiration was the speech of the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing). She seemed to think that the amendment expressed a deep-seated dislike of the European Parliament and would damage it. The opposite is the truth. The amendment would strengthen the European Parliament and would be less damaging than the Government's proposal because there would be more chance of MEPs being identified with their constituencies.

It would be better if the boundary commission took all sensitive decisions. It would be bad if politicians were seen to be interfering with the structure of a Parliament that is deeply embedded in the public's affections—or, indeed, disaffections.

Mr. Bermingham

I declare an interest. I was the instructing solicitor in Foot v. the boundary commission in 1982, which is the lead case in this matter.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman entirely. Allegations of political interference are deeply damaging to democracy, which was the case with allegations made in the late 1960s about the Home Secretary interfering with parliamentary boundary commissions. That is why the Americans, for example, have taken the matter out of the hands of politicians and put it, bluntly, into the hands of computers. We should examine the matter carefully if we are to exclude the boundary commission, which considers parity and community of interest rather than size and numbers. Perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister would be so kind as to listen to words of wisdom from people experienced in these matters who know the dangers of ignoring the commission.

Mr. Green

The hon. Gentleman is right. I hope that the Minister will give weight to his words about damage to democracy. The situation is as bad as that, and the Government must address that point.

The European Parliament has largely excited apathy in this country. The election turnout has always been low. If the general public think that there is a whiff of gerrymandering about the election for the European Parliament, they are even less likely to hold the institution in high regard. The European Parliament is an important democratic institution, and it is the duty of the House to try to strengthen it, but the Government, for all their pro-European rhetoric, are heading in the wrong direction.

The amendment would improve the Government's proposals. Why have they chosen a particularly damaging proportional system using large regions? As has been said several times, the Home Secretary's hostility to proportional representation is so deeply embedded that he proposes its most damaging form for these elections in the hope that the system will be discredited in the eyes of the Jenkins commission and will not be adopted for any Parliament about which he cares more than he does about the European Parliament.

Ms Quin

I at least agree with the hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Green) that the European Parliament is an important institution. We do not believe that its role will be undermined by the Bill.

Perhaps predictably, the amendments led to a wide-ranging debate, which at some points seemed to veer into what we shall discuss shortly—the subject of voting systems—and at others included references to the internal procedures of the Conservative party, which were raised by the hon. Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers). There were even references to the difficulties in this Parliament faced by the right hon. Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) in his daily duties.

The hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) moved the amendment, with which were taken others relating to, in particular, the size of constituencies. It struck me as bizarre to introduce sub-regional divisions that seemed to have no coherence, and no historical or current justification. The hon. Gentleman referred several times to the constituency link, but nothing he said dissuaded me from the belief that what we propose for the regions is far better than the bizarre concoctions that he suggests.

9 pm

It is certainly possible to secure representation of valid interests within a regional framework. As the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) reminded us, that happens in other countries. Listening to some of what was said earlier, I reflected on my own experiences in the European Parliament. The issues that I pursued most vigorously in my early years of membership—issues such as shipbuilding, the fishing industry and European funds—relate to a regional dimension, and could be satisfactorily fitted into a regional framework.

Mr. Bercow

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Quin

I know that hon. Members are keen for us to make progress, and I have been keen to listen to all the views that have been expressed so far; if the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I will continue with my speech.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) referred to corporate and business interests that often lobby MEPs. I believe that it was the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) who mentioned the regional development agencies that we are setting up, and the business role that they will have. That relates very clearly and easily to the regional boundaries proposed in the Bill.

At one point, the hon. Member for Ryedale stated categorically that Dover had more in common with Calais than with Milton Keynes, but then ruined that apparently knowledgeable assertion by saying that he did not know or care about what happened in the rest of Europe, which presumably includes Calais.

Mr. Bercow

Will the Minister give way?

Ms Quin

I will give way once, but I am anxious to make progress.

Mr. Bercow

As I did not speak in the debate, it does not seem unreasonable of me to intervene.

I was a little worried by the Minister's definition of valid interests. I am not sure why she thinks that it is for her to determine what constitutes valid interests, in the context of parliamentary representation in the European Parliament. [Interruption.] It is no good laughing at the point; I hope that the Minister will seek to answer it.

Ms Quin

I certainly will. By "valid interests" I meant issues that come within the European Union's ambit and relate to the work of MEPs. Those are not interests that I have decided; they are interests that are governed by directives and other action at European level.

For example, I referred to the fishing industry in connection with regional interests. The fishing industry is greatly affected by directives, and by a host of European rules and regulations. That is not my judgment; it arises naturally in the course of work in the European institutions and the European Parliament. That is what I mean by valid interests. There are a great many with which MEPs deal now, and they will be able to deal with them very satisfactorily in the framework proposed in the Bill.

Opposition Members' speeches featured many inconsistencies in regard to size. They criticised considerations relating to size, and then proposed the division of Scotland into two in a rather arbitrary way—as the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) pointed out. Indeed, the right hon. Member for Berwick—upon—Tweed rightly drew attention to some of the geographical absurdities in the present arrangement, and—again rightly, in my view—said that they could be better addressed in the proposed regional framework.

I believe that a strong and democratic case can be made out for the regional divisions proposed in the Bill. I think that they make a great deal of sense in European terms, and that they will deal with the issues that the European Parliament will have to handle.

Let me now refer to some of the other amendments in the group, to which other hon. Members spoke—referring, in particular, to the role of the boundary commission. I see no need to involve the commission in this instance, when England is following regional boundaries that—as we know—were established by the previous Government, and have been widely accepted.

The situation is not the same as that in 1993, when we discussed amendments to the old European election system. The boundary commission had a well-established role then, as it does in terms of House of Commons constituencies. However, that does not apply in terms of the regional boundaries for these European elections.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

Is the hon. Lady telling the Committee that she foresees no further role for the boundary commission in the whole context of European elections?

Ms Quin

Given these particular boundaries, such a role would not seem likely, but, of course, after elections, we all discuss what has happened and what may happen. However, given the system we have—given that these are established boundaries—there is no need for the boundary commission to exercise the role that has been established and works well in terms of the House of Commons.

The Conservative Front-Bench team has been completely inconsistent, because, in 1993, when dealing with a system where nearly all of us agreed the boundary commission did have a role to play, the Conservatives tried to push forward changes without the commission. I remind them of that fact.

In choosing the regions, we have mathematically made sure that the ratio of registered electors to MEPs is, as near as possible, the same in every electoral region in England. We believe that that is a satisfactory way in which to deal with the matter. The amendments of the hon. Member for Ryedale would simply delay the Bill and postpone its implementation. I understand why he would want to do that, but that is their only effect; they would not make any real contribution to the question of boundaries.

I agreed with many of the comments made by the hon. Member for Moray, particularly her description of the work of MEPs and of the European Parliament, but I cannot accept her amendment. Each English MEP currently represents an average of 518,000 electors; by contrast, Scottish MEPs represent, on average, 498,000 electors. If Scotland were given an extra MEP, each English MEP would represent an average of 526,000 electors, while their Scottish counterparts would represent an average of only 443,000 electors. In London—it is a London seat that would be jeopardised under the arrangements—the ratio would be one MEP for every 559,000 electors.

As the hon. Member will know, we are introducing a new system and we believe that the arrangements of the parties—her own, as well as mine and others—will provide for effective representation of Scotland as a whole. Therefore, there is no justification for additional representation, as her amendment proposes, and I urge her not to press it.

We have proposed a satisfactory deal. It certainly meets the democratic test and allows a system for representation in the European Parliament that can closely relate to the concerns of electors and to the issues which, as we know, form the bulk of the work of the European Parliament and the European Union.

Mr. Greenway

In the past three hours, we have had an important debate. Attendance in the Chamber now, in the prelude to what will undoubtedly be a Division, is greater than it was for some of that important debate. However, it would be a disservice to the Committee and the people of this country to rush precipitately into a Division without dealing with some of the points raised.

First, I must assure the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) that we see nothing in our proposal for two MEPs for the Scottish region with which she should wish to differ. We are not adopting a Eurosceptic stance in the amendments. On the contrary, our proposal for smaller electoral regions results from our concern that the already low public esteem for the European Parliament in this country will be undermined still further by the scale of the regions.

Mrs. Ewing

Does the hon. Gentleman recognise that, with the establishment of a Scottish Parliament, which will work in close conjunction with MEPs from Scotland, there seems little point in having two distinct regions in Scotland?

Mr. Greenway

We do not agree. We believe, and we thought that she would agree, that the interests of the rural communities in the highlands and islands are different from those of the large urban conurbations in central Scotland. We do not propose where the boundary should be drawn. A central tenet of our proposals is that the boundary commission should have decided those matters, independently of any political interference.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon brought his practical experience of life in the European Parliament to the attention of the Committee. He, of all Conservative Members, cannot be regarded as a Eurosceptic, yet he agreed totally with the suggestion that the proposed regions are far too large and would undermine the effectiveness and accountability of MEPs.

The right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) made an extraordinary speech. On the one hand, he made it absolutely clear that proportionality first was the order of the day with the Liberal Democrats—no great surprise in that—but he went on to argue that, somehow, because the Member of the European Parliament for Scotland South had to cover an area from Eyemouth to Ayr, it was a bad thing, and that it was all right to have MEPs covering the whole of Scotland. His argument did not seem to justify the conclusion that he drew from it.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Cambridgeshire (Mr. Lansley) made the important point that the Bill would have unintended consequences, which would be to the detriment of accountability and representation in the European Parliament. Party allegiance with voters would determine to whom businesses and communities turned with problems that needed to be addressed. More than anyone else in the debate, he put his finger on what we are about with this group of amendments. For the marginal increase in proportionality that would result from the nine electoral regions, as opposed to the 18 that we propose, we are asked to accept a disproportionate extension of distance and remoteness of MEPs from their electors.

My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) pointed to the large differentiation in electoral regions. He, of all people, should know that what the Minister said about drumming up bizarre sub-regions with no historical justification is complete nonsense, because, not that long ago, the area around what is now east Dorset was in Hampshire. The Opposition believe that there is a need for the boundary commission to re-examine all those matters. In an intervention, my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) told the House why the south-east region is so large; it was established for a wholly different reason from that which the Committee is being asked to consider. He said that the south-east region was established to conform with a Department's perspective on how to cover a region in which communities were already relatively close to London. It was not established as a basis on which we should form electoral regions for the European Parliament.

9.15 pm

My hon. Friend the Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) said that the proposals ill-serve the cause of the United Kingdom's identification with Europe. He also mentioned the extreme practical difficulties for political parties in giving 11 seats to the south-east region.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mr. Brooke) said that it was never intended that the geographical boundaries of the regions—with which he was involved as a Minister—should be used as the basis for European electoral regions. There is a need to reflect further on the demands of those representing central London. The boundary commission, not Ministers, should have reflected on those demands. The Bill's 10-Member London electoral region will make matters much worse. The Government have not consulted, and their doctrinaire attitude undermines the European cause.

My hon. Friend the Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Mr. Collins) said that electoral regional boundaries were never intended to become electoral regions for the European Parliament. The regions have been adopted by the Home Secretary purely for convenience, so that, in this Parliament, proportional representation will have a test run, showing Ministers how the public might respond.

Opposition Members believe that we have a pretty shrewd idea of how the public will respond to those electoral regions. There will also be unforeseen consequences, because the regions will undermine the credibility not only of the European Parliament and of the European elections but of the Government.

I have a high regard for the Minister—our constituencies are not that far apart—but her reply to the issues raised in this debate was pretty poor. She has not addressed any of the important issues, including one on which there was cross-party consensus.

Whatever the House decides on the issue of electoral regions, we believe that this group of amendments includes important constitutional amendments relating to the boundary commission and to who should determine future changes in electoral arrangements. We think that it is fundamentally wrong for the Secretary of State to determine electoral regions. Even more important, we think that it is entirely wrong and unconstitutional for him to determine future electoral arrangements, electoral regions and proportionality.

The Committee should reflect on the fact that the Prime Minister, when he was shadow Home Secretary, criticised the previous Government for failing to consult the boundary commission on the possibility of increasing the number of European seats. The Minister said that that was a valid criticism. That may be so, but, given the way in which the extra seats came about, there was no time for consultation. That cannot be said of future changes.

If the Prime Minister believed when he was shadow Home Secretary that the independence of the boundary commission should be paramount, the Committee has a right to expect the Government to honour that belief now by accepting amendments Nos. 54 to 56 so that it is not the Secretary of State but the boundary commission that is involved with these matters in future. There must be no question of the gerrymandering of boundaries in the European elections.

It was right to have a debate of this length to expose the Government's hypocrisy. They say that they are in favour of democratic representation, but the Bill's arrangements are a botched job. At the European elections next year, the country will decide that the Government got it wrong; we are giving the Committee the chance to show tonight that the Government got it wrong.

Question put, That the amendment be made:—

The Committee divided: Ayes 128, Noes 345.

Division No. 179] [9.21 pm
Ainsworth, Peter (E Surrey) Greenway, John
Ancram, Rt Hon Michael Grieve, Dominic
Arbuthnot, James Gummer, Rt Hon John
Atkinson, Peter (Hexham) Hammond, Philip
Beggs, Roy Hawkins, Nick
Bercow, John Heald, Oliver
Beresford, Sir Paul Heathcoat—Amory, Rt Hon David
Body, Sir Richard Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael
Boswell, Tim Horam, John
Bottomley, Peter (Worthing W) Howarth, Gerald (Aldershot)
Bottomley, Rt Hon Mrs Virginia Hunter, Andrew
Brady, Graham Jack, Rt Hon Michael
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Jenkin, Bernard
Browning, Mrs Angela Johnson Smith, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey
Bruce, Ian (S Dorset)
Burns, Simon Key, Robert
Butterfill, John Kirkbride, Miss Julie
Cash, William Laing, Mrs Eleanor
Chapman, Sir Sydney (Chipping Barnet) Lait, Mrs Jacqui
Lansley, Andrew
Chope, Christopher Letwin, Oliver
Clappison, James Lewis, Dr Julian (New Forest E)
Clark, Rt Hon Alan (Kensington) Lidington, David
Clark, Dr Michael (Rayleigh) Lilley, Rt Hon Peter
Clarke, Rt Hon Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Lloyd, Rt Hon Sir Peter (Fareham)
Loughton, Tim
Collins, Tim Luff, Peter
Cormack, Sir Patrick Lyell, Rt Hon Sir Nicholas
Curry, Rt Hon David MacKay, Andrew
Davies, Quentin (Grantham) Maclean, Rt Hon David
Davis, Rt Hon David (Haltemprice) McLoughlin, Patrick
Day, Stephen Madel, Sir David
Dorrell, Rt Hon Stephen Mates, Michael
Duncan, Alan Maude, Rt Hon Francis
Duncan Smith, Iain Mawhinney, Rt Hon Sir Brian
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter May, Mrs Theresa
Evans, Nigel Moss, Malcolm
Fabricant, Michael Nicholls, Patrick
Fallon, Michael Norman, Archie
Flight, Howard Ottaway, Richard
Forth, Rt Hon Eric Page, Richard
Fraser, Christopher Paice, James
Gale, Roger Paterson, Owen
Gibb, Nick Pickles, Eric
Gill, Christopher Prior, David
Gillan, Mrs Cheryl Randall, John
Goodlad, Rt Hon Sir Alastair Robertson, Laurence (Tewk'b'ry)
Gorman, Mrs Teresa Robinson, Peter (Belfast E)
Gray, James Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Green, Damian Ross, William (E Lond'y)
Ruffley, David Trimble, Rt Hon David
Sayeed, Jonathan Tyrie, Andrew
Shephard, Rt Hon Mrs Gillian Viggers, Peter
Simpson, Keith (Mid—Norfolk) Walter, Robert
Soames, Nicholas Wardle, Charles
Spelman, Mrs Caroline Whitney, Sir Raymond
Spicer, Sir Michael Whittingdale, John
Spring, Richard Widdecombe, Rt Hon Miss Ann
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John Wilkinson, John
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)
Steen, Anthony Winterton, Nicholas (Macclesfield)
Streeter, Gary Woodward, Shaun
Swayne, Desmond Yeo, Tim
Syms, Robert Young, Rt Hon Sir George
Taylor, Ian (Esher & Walton)
Taylor, John M (Solihull) Tellers for the Ayes:
Taylor, Sir Teddy Mr. James Cran and
Trend, Michael Mr. Nigel Waterson.
Adams, Mrs Irene (Paisley N) Chapman, Ben (Wirral S)
Ainger, Nick Chaytor, David
Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE) Chisholm, Malcolm
Alexander, Douglas Clapham, Michael
Allan, Richard Clark, Rt Hon Dr David (S Shields)
Allen, Graham Clark, Dr Lynda (Edinburgh Pentlands)
Anderson, Donald (Swansea E)
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale) Clark, Paul (Gillingham)
Armstrong, Ms Hilary Clarke, Charles (Norwich S)
Ashton, Joe Clarke, Rt Hon Tom (Coatbridge)
Atherton, Ms Candy Clarke, Tony (Northampton S)
Atkins, Charlotte Clelland, David
Austin, John Coaker, Vemon
Baker, Norman Coffey, Ms Ann
Ballard, Mrs Jackie Coleman, Iain
Banks, Tony Colman, Tony
Barnes, Harry Connarty, Michael
Barron, Kevin Cooper, Yvette
Bayley, Hugh Corbett, Robin
Beard, Nigel Corston, Ms Jean
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret Cotter, Brian
Begg, Miss Anne Cousins, Jim
Beith, Rt Hon A J Cranston, Ross
Bell, Martin (Tatton) Crausby, David
Bennett, Andrew F Cryer, Mrs Ann (Keighley)
Benton, Joe Cryer, John (Hornchurch)
Bermingham, Gerald Cummings, John
Berry, Roger Cunningham, Jim (Cov'try S)
Best, Harold Cunningham, Ms Roseanna (Perth)
Blackman, Liz
Blizzard, Bob Dafis, Cynog
Blunkett, Rt Hon David Dalyell, Tam
Boateng, Paul Darvill, Keith
Borrow, David Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Bradley, Keith (Withington) Davidson, Ian
Bradley, Peter (The Wrekin) Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (Llanelli)
Bradshaw, Ben Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H)
Brake, Tom Dawson, Hilton
Breed, Colin Dean, Mrs Janet
Brinton, Mrs Helen Denham, John
Brown, Rt Hon Nick (Newcastle E) Dobson, Rt Hon Frank
Brown, Russell (Dumfries) Doran, Frank
Buck, Ms Karen Dowd, Jim
Burden, Richard Drown, Ms Julia
Burgon, Colin Eagle, Maria (L'pool Garston)
Burstow, Paul Edwards, Huw
Butler, Mrs Christine Efford, Clive
Byers, Stephen Ellman, Mrs Louise
Caborn, Richard Ennis, Jeff
Campbell, Alan (Tynemouth) Etherington, Bill
Campbell, Mrs Anne (C'bridge) Ewing, Mrs Margaret
Campbell, Ronnie (Blyth V) Fatchett, Derek
Campbell—Savours, Dale Fearn, Ronnie
Caplin, Ivor Field, Rt Hon Frank
Caton, Martin Fitzsimons, Lorna
Cawsey, Ian Flint, Caroline
Flynn, Paul Kemp, Fraser
Follett, Barbara Kennedy, Charles (Ross Skye)
Foster, Rt Hon Derek Kennedy, Jane (Wavertree)
Foster, Don (Bath) Kilfoyle, Peter
Foster, Michael J (Worcester) Kirkwood, Archy
Foulkes, George Kumar, Dr Ashok
Fyfe, Maria Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Galbraith, Sam Laxton, Bob
Galloway, George Lepper, David
Gapes, Mike Leslie, Christopher
Gardiner, Barry Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
George, Andrew (St Ives) Lewis, Terry (Worsley)
Gerrard, Neil Liddell, Mrs Helen
Gibson, Dr Ian Livingstone, Ken
Gilroy, Mrs Linda Livsey, Richard
Godsiff, Roger Lloyd, Tony (Manchester C)
Goggins, Paul Lock, David
Golding, Mrs Llin Love, Andrew
Gordon, Mrs Eileen McAllion, John
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S) McAvoy, Thomas
Grocott, Bruce McCabe, Steve
Grogan, John McCafferty, Ms Chris
Hain, Peter McCartney, Ian (Makerfield)
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale) Macdonald, Calum
Hall, Patrick (Bedford) McDonnell, John
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE) McGuire, Mrs Anne
Hanson, David McKenna, Mrs Rosemary
Harvey, Nick Mackinlay, Andrew
Heal, Mrs Sylvia McLeish, Henry
Healey, John McNulty, Tony
Heath, David (Somerton & Frome) McWalter, Tony
Henderson, Doug (Newcastle N) Mahon, Mrs Alice
Hepburn, Stephen Mallaber, Judy
Heppell, John Marsden, Gordon (Blackpool S)
Hesford, Stephen Marshall, David (Shettleston)
Hewitt, Ms Patricia Martlew, Eric
Hill, Keith Maxton, John
Hinchliffe, David Meale, Alan
Hodge, Ms Margaret Michael, Alun
Hoey, Kate Michie, Bill (Shef'ld Heeley)
Home Robertson, John Milburn, Alan
Hoon, Geoffrey Miller, Andrew
Hope, Phil Mitchell, Austin
Hopkins, Kelvin Moonie, Dr Lewis
Howarth, Alan (Newport E) Moore, Michael
Howarth, George (Knowsley N) Moran, Ms Margaret
Howells, Dr Kim Morgan, Alasdair (Galloway)
Hoyle, Lindsay Morgan, Ms Julie (Cardiff N)
Hughes, Ms Beverley (Stretford) Morgan, Rhodri (Cardiff W)
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N) Morley, Elliot
Humble, Mrs Joan Morris, Ms Estelle (B'ham Yardley)
Hutton, John Mountford, Kali
Iddon, Dr Brian Mudie, George
Ingram, Adam Mullin, Chris
Jackson, Ms Glenda (Hampstead) Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Jackson, Helen (Hillsborough) Naysmith, Dr Doug
Jamieson, David O'Brien, Bill (Normanton)
Jenkins, Brian O'Brien, Mike (N Warks)
Johnson, Alan (Hull W & Hessle) O'Hara, Eddie
Johnson, Miss Melanie (Welwyn Hatfield) O'Neill, Martin
Öpik, Lembit
Jones, Barry (Alyn & Deeside) Osborne, Ms Sandra
Jones, Helen (Warrington N) Palmer, Dr Nick
Jones, Ieuan Wyn (Ynys Môn) Pearson, Ian
Jones, Ms Jenny (Wolverh'ton SW) Pendry, Tom
Pickthall, Colin
Jones, Jon Owen (Cardiff C) Pike, Peter L
Jones, Dr Lynne (Selly Oak) Plaskitt, James
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S) Pollard, Kerry
Jones, Nigel (Cheltenham) Pond, Chris
Jowell, Ms Tessa Pope, Greg
Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald Powell, Sir Raymond
Keeble, Ms Sally Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Keen, Alan (Feltham & Heston) Prentice, Gordon (Pendle)
Keen, Ann (Brentford & Isleworth) Prescott, Rt Hon John
Kelly, Ms Ruth Primarolo, Dawn
Prosser, Gwyn Stott, Roger
Purchase, Ken Straw, Rt Hon Jack
Quin, Ms Joyce Stringer, Graham
Quinn, Lawrie Stuart, Ms Gisela
Radice, Giles Stunell, Andrew
Rammell, Bill Sutcliffe, Gerry
Raynsford, Nick Swinney, John
Reed, Andrew (Loughborough) Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Rendel, David
Roche, Mrs Barbara Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Rogers, Allan Temple—Morris, Peter
Rooker, Jeff Timms, Stephen
Rooney, Terry Tipping, Paddy
Roy, Frank Todd, Mark
Ruane, Chris Touhig, Don
Ruddock, Ms Joan Trickett, Jon
Russell, Bob (Colchester) Turner, Dr George (NW Norfolk)
Russell, Ms Christine (Chester) Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Ryan, Ms Joan Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Salter, Martin Tyler, Paul
Sanders, Adrian Vis, Dr Rudi
Savidge, Malcolm Wallace, James
Sawford, Phil Ward, Ms Claire
Shaw, Jonathan Wareing, Robert N
Sheerman, Barry Watts, David
Sheldon, Rt Hon Robert Webb, Steve
Shipley, Ms Debra Welsh, Andrew
Short, Rt Hon Clare White, Brian
Singh, Marsha Whitehead, Dr Alan
Skinner, Dennis Wigley, Rt Hon Dafydd
Smith, Angela (Basildon) Williams, Rt Hon Alan (Swansea W)
Smith, Miss Geraldine (Morecambe & Lunesdale)
Williams, Alan W (E Carmarthen)
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) Willis, Phil
Smith, John (Glamorgan) Winnick, David
Smith, Llew (Blaenau Gwent) Winterton, Ms Rosie (Doncaster C)
Smith, Sir Robert (W Ab'd'ns) Wood, Mike
Soley, Clive Woolas, Phil
Southworth, Ms Helen Worthington, Tony
Squire, Ms Rachel Wray, James
Steinberg, Gerry Wright, Anthony D (Gt Yarmouth)
Stevenson, George Wyatt, Derek
Stewart, David (Inverness E)
Stewart, Ian (Eccles) Tellers for the Noes:
Stinchcombe, Paul Mr. Clive Betts and
Stoate, Dr Howard Mr. David Drew.

Question accordingly negatived.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

On a point of order, Mr. Lord. I should like to raise a matter relating to the rights of the House. This evening at 6 o'clock in Committee Room 14, there was a meeting of the Conservative Back-Bench agriculture committee, to which a lady called Ms Kate Ashbrook, representing the Ramblers Association, came to speak. In her papers she had an advance copy of a Government document to be made available tomorrow, which has not yet been made available to Members of Parliament. We have checked in the Vote Office that the paper is not available. Would you be good enough to investigate and ensure that Ministers understand that documents that are issued in advance to fringe lobby groups should be issued first to Members of Parliament?

The Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means (Mr. Michael Lord)

I do not know the precise details of the document to which the hon. Gentleman refers. The Committee—no doubt those on the Government Front Bench in particular—will have heard what he has said.

Mr. Soames

Further to that point of order, Mr. Lord. I should have made it clear that the document concerned was the statement that I understand is to be made tomorrow on the right to roam legislation.

The Second Deputy Chairman

I have dealt with that point of order.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann)

I beg to move amendment No. 26, in page 1, line 24, leave out from 'region' to 'shall' in line 29 on page 2.

The Second Deputy Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following amendments: No. 9, in page 1, line 25, leave out from 'be' to end of line 26 and insert 'an open regional list system. 3A. An open regional list system is a system which complies with the following requirements, namely—

  1. (a) each electoral region shall be divided into a number of constituencies equal to the number of MEPs to be elected for that region in accordance with subsection 2(4) above and Schedule 1;
  2. (b) each candidate shall nominate on the ballot paper one constituency in the relevant region which he will represent, if elected;
  3. (c) in the event of the same constituency being nominated by more than one successful candidate, the candidate elected first shall represent his nominated constituency;
  4. (d) successful candidates unable to represent their nominated constituency for the reason given in sub-paragraph (c) shall, in the order of their election, choose another constituency to represent, and;
  5. (e) if an elected candidate has nominated a constituency which no candidate elected before him has nominated, he shall represent that constituency even if a candidate elected before him, whose own nominated constituency has been taken, seeks to choose it.'.
No. 1, in page 2, line 1, leave out from 'cast' to end of line 2 and insert 'in one of the following ways:
  1. (a) for a registered party;
  2. (b) for a candidate listed as a member of a registered party; or
  3. (c) for an individual candidate not listed as a member of a registered party.'.
No. 51, in page 2, line 2, after 'candidate,', insert 'whether or not the candidate is a member of a registered party,'. No. 2, in page 2, line 4, after 'candidate', insert 'not listed as a member of a registered party'. No. 3, in page 2, line 4, after 'votes' insert ', with votes for candidates listed as members of a registered party counting towards the total vote of that party.'. No. 4, in page 2, line 8, leave out from 'number' to end and insert 'shown below.
Number of seats already allocated Divisor
2 3
3 5
4 7
5 9
6 11
7 13
8 15
9 17
10 19.'
No. 5, in page 2, line 16, leave out from 'filled' to end of line 18 and insert 'as follows—
  1. (a) a quota shall be determined which is equal to the total number of votes polled for all the parties, divided by the number of seats to be allocated, plus one.
  2. (b) votes cast for the candidate at the top of the party list shall be compared with the number of votes cast for the registered party to which that candidate belongs.
  3. (c) where the candidate has fewer votes than the quota, the votes for that candidate will then be topped up to reach the quota using votes from the party vote, reducing the number of votes won by the party accordingly.
  4. (d) this process continues for each candidate on the list until the party votes have been exhausted, except where there are insufficient votes in the party vote to top up a candidate, in which case those votes are allocated to the next person on the list with sufficient votes, who moves one place up the list.'.
No. 6, in page 2, line 20, at end insert— '(7A) The style of the front of the ballot papers to be used shall be in the form set out in Schedule (European Parliament Ballot Paper). No. 10, in page 2, leave out lines 22 to 24.

No. 11, in page 2, leave out lines 25 to 28.

You may vote in one of two ways:
Put 'X' in one of these boxes to indicate the party of your choice Conservative Party Green Party Labour Party Liberal Democrats
OR Put 'X' in one of these boxes to indicate the candidate of your choice Conservative Party Green Party Labour Party Liberal Democrats Others
Annabel Daniel Winston Maureen Norman
Sir Alan Melanie Michael Ajit Anthony
Giles Jennifer Angela Rupal Lord
Lady Anne Bob Sir Paul Seymour
Dominic Celia Baroness (Anne) Jemima

New clause 4—Evaluation by Secretary of State of open list system and method of allocating seats'—After section 7 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1978, there shall be inserted the following section—

"Evaluation by Secretary of State of open list system and method of allocating seats 7A.—(1) As soon as is reasonably practicable after the first election held under the regional list system set out in section 3 of this Act, the Secretary of State shall lay a report before Parliament, setting out what appear to him to be the principal advantages and disadvantages of conducting subsequent such elections by an open list system. (2) A report under subsection (1) above may also contain proposals for changing the arrangements for the allocation of seats set out in this Act. (3) In this section, 'open list system' means an electoral system in which the names of those candidates on a party's list are listed on the ballot paper and each voter can choose whether to cast his vote either—

  1. (a) for a registered party, or
  2. (b) for an individual candidate, whether or not that candidate is on a party's list of candidates.".'.

Amendment No. 27, in schedule 2, schedule 2, page 8, leave out lines 19 to 25.

New schedule 1—

Marlene Tariq Simon
Sir Alfonse Amelia Samuel
Derek Nazalia Sarah
Mr. Trimble

I will address myself primarily to amendments Nos. 26 and 27, which stand in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth). The amendments relate to the electoral system that should be used for the election of Members of the European Parliament. During the previous debate—of which I heard bits, but not all—hon. Members anticipated this debate several times, and commented on the proposed regional party list system. I was interested to hear some of those comments.

One Conservative Member referred to the party list system as Stalinist. Another hon. Member from another party—I am not identifying them by name, because I do not want to embarrass them—said that the procedure resembled something that might emanate from the central committee of the Bulgarian Communist party. I was surprised by those comments, because the regional list system is not new—not even to the United Kingdom. It was proposed and enacted by a Conservative Government in 1996.

Mr. Mitchell

They are Stalinists.

Mr. Trimble

The hon. Gentleman is also, by implication, making a comment about his Front-Bench colleagues, on which he may wish to elaborate later.

I was not going to make that point. I was saying that those who applied such a label to the regional list system were wrong. I am sure that the Conservative party would not have proposed a Stalinist system and the Labour party would not have supported it. Labour supported the regional list system when it was voted through the House in 1996. My party pointed out some of the disadvantages.

It is amazing to hear debates about various proportional representation systems with no reference being made to the experience that we have had of operating them. We in Northern Ireland have experience of two proportional systems—the regional list system and the single transferable vote system. We have operated the latter longer—since 1973—and had quite a bit of experience of it. We used the regional list system on just the one occasion, but we have a basis for comparison. It is from that experience and on that basis that we come to the Committee with the amendment.

Criticisms of the regional list system are somewhat misplaced. It is a proportional system with its own particular characteristics, but to try to dismiss it with the sort of blanket criticism that we have heard is not appropriate. There is nothing necessarily undemocratic about a party list system. It depends to a large extent on the procedures of the party that operates it. We all have different selection procedures for the Westminster elections under the first-past-the-post system. A party presents the electorate with a candidate. The electorate do not have any choice of candidate, and they support him or not. We do not regard that as undemocratic, providing that the party has internal democratic procedures. There have been occasions on which people have criticised parties for operating selection procedures that are too narrow, but the trend is very much in the direction of one member one vote.

We in the Ulster Unionist party used to pride ourselves on the democratic nature of our selection procedures. While other parties were selecting by small committees, our selection was by large groupings of delegates who represented a very wide cross-section of the community. Meetings of several hundred delegates would regularly make the choice. We have been overtaken by parties that have moved to a one member, one vote system. I applaud those moves. It is probably about time that we caught up. Having had an excellent system for many decades—in fact, throughout the century—we do not want to end the century having been overtaken by everyone else. But that is by the way.

When we had the regional list system and had to draw up party lists, we simply used our normal internal party procedures. The very same delegates who would have been involved in selecting a candidate for the Westminster election were involved in the selection of people for the list. The point that arises is that the position on the regional list is crucial. The power to rank people on the list becomes vital.

Sir Brian Mawhinney

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the strength of selection on a one man, one vote basis, or a delegate basis, as in the Ulster Unionist party over many years, was that it produced an identifiable man or woman to whom the electorate could be asked to relate? That was one of the inherent strengths of the system, which is much less obviously true of a list system.

Mr. Trimble

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. It is true and applicable to any such comparison between a first-past-the-post system of electing Members in a single constituency and any proportional system that has multiple Members. That criticism is not unique to a regional list system.

I was making the point that the ranking on the list is crucial, and gives rise to power that could be abused. Conscious of that, we decided, when we operated the system in 1996, that we would ask our delegates to undergo two exercises at selection meetings. We first asked them to undergo procedures to identify the number of candidates to fill our list. We were dealing with five members for each list. After they had selected five members, we asked them to vote again to determine the ranking of members on the list.

The crucial ranking was done, therefore, not by party apparatchiks, and certainly not by the leadership, but by delegates. We felt that that was essential both for the maintenance of some degree of internal democracy in the party and for the credibility of the system from the electorate's point of view. While we have operated the system only once, my impression—my hon. Friends may wish to comment on their experience of it—was that it was regarded as satisfactory.

There is one curiosity about the list system, and I have seen nothing in the Bill that relates to it. I shall be interested in what the Home Secretary has to say about the question of the removal of names from the list. It is a party list. A person on it, even if elected, is elected not in his own right but as a member of a party. Should he or she cease to be a member of the party, he or she automatically comes off the list. People cannot cross the Floor in a list system.

9.45 pm

A provision under the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations, etc) Act 1996 gives the party leaders in Northern Ireland, as individuals, a power to remove people from the list. In the Northern Ireland Forum, which was elected in 1996 under that legislation, all the individual party leaders in Northern Ireland possess the power to dismiss people from an elected body with the stroke of a pen. It has not happened. None of my colleagues has used the power. The chief whip of our forum party tells me that I should occasionally threaten to use it. He says that it would have a marvellous effect on discipline if I threatened to write a letter saying, "Mr. Bloggs is no longer a member of the forum." I have not done it because it is a bit of a nuclear deterrent. One would never dare to do it unless one was confident that one would survive the resulting furore. If there is to be criticism of the list system, it should focus on that.

Analogous procedures exist for all list systems to enable parties to dismiss their members. I may have missed that point in the debate, but I should be interested to know what the Government propose.

Mr. Straw

We are proposing nothing different in this Bill from that which obtains for a Member elected to this House or to any other democratic institution under our constitution. If someone is elected under one party banner, but decides to cross the Floor, for the period for which they were elected it is a matter between that person and his or her electors, and no one else. There is no difference in principle. Any of us, having been elected under one party banner, can change allegiance. Some of us think that that is fairly reprehensible; others sometimes take a different view. The same system would obtain in respect of the party list system, as we propose it in the Bill.

Mr. Trimble

I am interested in that reply. I understand why the Home Secretary said that, but it introduces a tremendous contradiction into the proposals. If we operate a party list system, my point follows. That may be an uncomfortable conclusion, but under this system, people will vote not for individuals but for a party. If the votes of the people in one of the electoral regions are sufficient to elect three or four members of that party, the electorate, having voted for a party not a person, must surely be entitled to have that number of party representatives representing them in that area for the session. Anything else is a denial of the democratic system.

Mr. Drew

Does that not depend on whether it is an open or a closed list system, which we shall debate later?

Mr. Trimble

I take that point. The argument that we are exploring is relevant to our amendment and to the system that we propose. Noting the implications of a party list system in a sense prepares the ground for the points that I will make later. The hon. Gentleman should not assume that I approve of the system that I am currently exploring. I am merely pointing out the logical consequences of the system and the deep contradiction in the Home Secretary's actions. In having proposed a party list system, but then undermining it by not following through its implications, he has given rise to a legitimate complaint on the part of the electorate about the logic and principles of the system.

I am not here simply to praise the party list system, because it has disadvantages. In Northern Ireland in 1996, we did not find that the party list system was satisfactory. In fact, we ended that election feeling that it was quite unsatisfactory and flawed in comparison with the other proportional representation system with which we are familiar—the single transferable vote—although it is a nice point whether those flaws are greater with a five-member system or with a larger one.

The flaw that we perceived was that a party list system encouraged the creation of parties. We have far too many parties in Northern Ireland as it is, but under that system, the number increased significantly—indeed, about half a dozen were created specifically for the 1996 election, so we were faced with quite an array. Each of those parties, even the silliest, attracted some votes, albeit not many. Under the party list system, those votes for small parties are wasted votes. They simply disappear and are not counted—well, they are counted, but they have no effect on the outcome of the election, so they become wasted.

Under the STV system, with which we have been familiar since 1973, votes are transferred and consequently a more proportional result is achieved. Looking at the outcome of the 1996 elections and comparing that to what the outcome would have been under an STV system, we saw quite a difference. We felt that the electoral system cost us five seats in a 90-member body. We estimated that, had an STV system been used, we would have got an additional five seats. The same was true for other large parties.

The curious consequence of the disregard of the votes cast for small parties is that the larger parties tend to lose in comparison with those that are not quite so big. I would need to go through all 18 of our regional list elections and compare the outcomes with those that would have been achieved under an STV system before 1 could make that point with absolute certainty, but I believe that I can make and sustain it without much difficulty now.

We found that there was that disadvantage; so, having read the Bill and seen that it proposed a regional list system for Great Britain and the STV system for Northern Ireland, and having a strong view that there should be a uniform system throughout the United Kingdom, we had to decide among ourselves whether to press for the adoption of the regional list system in Northern Ireland so as to have a uniform system or to go for STV. I consulted colleagues in the party and, after much discussion, we reached the overwhelming view that the STV system would be better, and to a large extent the reason was the transferability of votes.

To have votes that are transferable means that one does not then suffer the penalty that flows from a multiplicity of parties. If many parties stand in an election, as will inevitably happen, the electorate will want to be able not only to cast a vote for the party that reflects their views, but to cast a vote that is effective and can secure the election of their representatives. A transferable vote system allows that.

Some other benefits will flow from extending the STV system to the United Kingdom as a whole. The most obvious is that it will allow the electorate to make a choice between individual candidates. Although an open list system, such as that proposed by the Liberal Democrats, gives an element of choice, it is cumbersome. Telling the electorate to choose between a party vote and a personal vote confuses the issue. The attribution of the party vote to individuals could have a capricious element. One should choose between voting either for parties or for persons. The open list system has an untidy and unhappy compromise feel about it. I had understood until recently that the single transferable vote was the preferred system of the Liberal Democrats.

Mr. Allan

The STV system is still preferred by the Liberal Democrats. Our amendments seek to improve existing provisions in the Bill, but we have not abandoned our commitment to STV as a matter of principle.

Mr. Trimble

I am delighted to hear that the Liberal Democrats still believe that STV is best. When my colleagues and I tabled our amendment on STV, we said, "Well, we are bound to gather support from the Liberal Democrats, because they have been advocates of that system for many years." It was with deep chagrin and disappointment that, as the days and weeks went by, we saw no sign of support from the Liberal Democrats. We were left to wonder what possible reason they could have for abandoning the system that they had supported for many decades. If the Liberal Democrats still believe it to be the best, perhaps we shall give them the opportunity to vote for the single transferable vote system when the time comes on Thursday.

Mr. Mitchell

Although the right hon. Gentleman praises the open list system with faint damns, does he agree that it is much preferable to a closed list system?

Mr. Trimble

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments. I did not think that I was praising the open list system. I had intended to criticise it rather gently—perhaps I was too gentle, and did not give the Committee the correct impression. Even if we concede that an open list system is preferable to a closed list system, we should go one step further and move to a system that is clearly and unambiguously a vote for persons. That is what the single transferable vote system is.

The STV system compels the electorate to vote for a person. It compels every elector to think about the persons who are standing for election, and it compels every elector to think about how he or she will vote. When STV was introduced in Northern Ireland, concerns were expressed that it was unnecessarily complex and that people would have difficulty with it. At one of the first elections under the STV system—it was not the first: there was a local government election in May and then the assembly election in June 1973—there were 18 or 19 candidates in the constituency where I resided and was foolishly persuaded to stand as a candidate. I should remember the number of candidates as, when it came to the count, I was at the bottom of the poll and came 18th or 19th.

My experience on that occasion was that the people thought carefully about their vote. They examined the election material from the various parties and looked through the potted biographies of the candidates. They came to the polling booth with the lists of candidates that they wanted to support, and they voted accordingly. Consequently, the voters took an interest in the elections. The electorate will not take the same interest in individuals standing under a party list system—whether it is closed or open—and the people will obviously take less interest in a closed list than in an open list system.

We are moving to larger regions—which were rightly criticised in the previous discussion—with more people and an electoral system that discourages paying any attention to the personalities involved. That degrades the system.

Mr. Cash

The right hon. Gentleman has related his own experience with respect to the STV system. Does he agree that the first-past-the-post system, which he has not addressed, is the best, because it gives a clear choice and a connection between the local area and the decisions that are taken at the ballot box by individuals who know exactly for whom they are voting? Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the problem with the regional list system is that it can result in the tyranny of the party leadership, and the STV system has the grave disadvantage that people lose the ability to make a clear choice when their vote is shuffled through the system?

Mr. Trimble

I shall deal later with the relative merits of first past the post, as there are some comments that I should make with regard to it. In his other comment, the hon. Gentleman gives expression to a misconception about the system. The vote is transferable, but it transfers in accordance with the choices and preferences indicated by the elector—

It being Ten o'clock, THE CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report progress and ask leave to sit again.

To report progress and ask leave to sit again.—[Jane Kennedy.]

Committee report progress; to sit again tomorrow.

Back to