European Parliament Elections Bill

Prayers – in the House of Commons at 12:22 pm on 9 January 2015.

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Second Reading

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 12:49, 9 January 2015

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is the first of three Bills that I hope we shall have the chance to discuss today. In a sense, this is my contribution to manifesto development for the Conservative party in the run-up to the next general election, and I am delighted that my hon. Friend Jonathan Evans is here in the House today, as he has a great deal of knowledge of this matter: he is a former MEP and, indeed, leader of the Conservatives in the European Parliament. He understands what our policy used to be. The Conservative policy used to be in favour of open lists for European Parliament elections, rather than the closed lists we have at the moment. I hope the Minister will say that he agrees wholeheartedly that open lists are more democratic than closed lists, and that open lists are likely to encourage more people to participate in European elections, because they will have a real choice, rather than having choice limited by the closed list system. This would be a good thing for democracy. As you know well, Madam Deputy Speaker, if you have a good point, there is no need to labour it, so with that, I have the pleasure of moving the Second Reading motion.

Photo of Jonathan Evans Jonathan Evans Conservative, Cardiff North 12:50, 9 January 2015

It is a great pleasure to rise to support my hon. Friend Mr Chope on the introduction of this Bill. He rightly informs the House that the Conservative party has historically been in favour of open list elections to the European Parliament. Of course, we used to have individual first-past-the-post elections until 1999, but in the run-up to the introduction of proportional representation in the European Parliament elections in 1999 the House had to give its attention to what form of elections should be undertaken. One requirement we had to take into account was that for proportional representation itself.

Although this House has generally set its face against change in favour of proportional representation, let me clearly declare my hand: I have always been a strong supporter of proportional representation. Being a Member of Parliament who serves the Conservative cause in Wales, I know that there would have been significantly more such Conservative MPs in this House over the years had we had a proportional system rather than the first-past-the-post system. The Conservative party has generally had the support of about 25% of the Welsh electorate—on occasion, it has increased to about 33%—yet in two general elections we ended up with no Welsh Members, notwithstanding the fact that one fifth of the electorate voted for our party. That has its impact on the way in which people look at the provenance of a political party.

The Conservatives have suffered from that in Wales and, in fairness, the Labour party has suffered in vast swathes of England from exactly the same phenomenon. I therefore make no apology for the fact that when proportional representation was introduced, I was very much in favour of it. When I was subsequently selected as the lead candidate for Wales in the European elections in 1999, I was in the happy situation of saying that I had no embarrassment about topping the list in an election on a proportional basis, given all the support I had publicly given to that change.

What I found to be absolutely unacceptable, however, was that the choice by my party members to put me at the head of the list meant that every vote cast in the Conservative cause was a vote for me to be a Member of the European Parliament. I say that notwithstanding the fact that, perhaps slightly differently from my hon. Friends the Members for Christchurch and for Gainsborough (Sir Edward Leigh), I have always been an enthusiastic supporter of British membership of the European Parliament. I do not claim for a moment, however, that all the party members in Wales shared my view. They selected me to head their list, but they have a range of views and undoubtedly some among the electorate would have found it more acceptable to cast a vote for a Conservative who shared their more cynical views about our European engagement. That was not permitted because of legislation passed immediately before the elections in 1999—in 1998, I believe.

At that time, the Conservative party argued strongly against that legislation, taking the battle up to the other place to hold it off, in order to ensure that we had an open list system. Clearly an open list system is thoroughly more democratic, so one has to wonder why we have a closed list system. I must tell hon. Members that the reason goes back to an advertisement published in The Guardian at the time of the debate on the scrapping of clause IV—its removal was led by the former Prime Minister, Tony Blair. The advertisement was a direct challenge to his authority and it was signed by 10 Labour MEPs. After the introduction of the closed list system, all 10 were purged from the European Parliament by the Labour party in subsequent selections, so we can begin to understand why we ended up with legislation that is anti-democratic: it was an opportunity to control what happened in Strasbourg and to control the choices voters would be permitted to make. Our party rightly opposed that, but, bearing in mind the immediacy of the election in 1999, there had to come a time when a system had to be agreed and eventually the Conservative party’s opposition was withdrawn so that we could have a system we could work with. It is a matter of great disappointment that in the intervening period no effort has been made to change the system.

My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch is not trying to reinvent the wheel here, because eight other countries in Europe operate an open list system—I do not know how welcome that news will be to him. Denmark, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Austria, Belgium, Finland and Sweden all have variants of open list systems. Those countries all allow their voters to make a selection among individual candidates who may well all be from the same party, if they wish to support that party in the election.

Only five countries have a closed system. During my time in the European Parliament I found the French system to be the most pernicious, and it is therefore disappointing that in certain aspects we follow that example. At least we can say that we have a regional closed list system. France has a national closed list system, which means that the votes for the respective parties are counted across the republic and the seats allocated thereafter, but not to the people who stood in those elections—they are allocated to the parties. Hon. Members who have visited France during European elections may recall seeing photographs of the main party leaders, because their names appear at the head of the European list, even though there is no prospect whatsoever of their accepting a seat in the European Parliament. What happens thereafter is that that person’s name is expunged and the seat allocation is decided by the parties in the weeks following the election. For this House, we are used to seeing the television coverage of debates that take place during the election campaign and on polling night a declaration is made as to who has been elected as the Member of Parliament. In France’s European elections we do not know probably for two or three weeks after the election who will be serving in the European Parliament, because that decision has not been made by that stage by the leadership of the individual parties.

We can see that the closed list system concentrates power at the top of the political party. That is why it was introduced by Tony Blair, and it is why the Conservatives rightly opposed it back in 1998. My hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch began his remarks by saying that he wanted to make a constructive contribution to the formulation of the Conservative party’s next general election manifesto, which is why I very much hope the Minister will accept that all the arguments are in favour of the Bill and that it will make progress—if not perhaps in this Parliament, in the next one.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission 1:00, 9 January 2015

I congratulate my hon. Friend Mr Chope on presenting this Bill. I concur and agree with my hon. Friend—indeed, he is a good friend—Jonathan Evans who has adduced some very powerful arguments for a change in thinking. Much as I admire the Minister’s independence of spirit, I accept that he is hardly like to change Government policy on a wet Friday in January, but I very much hope that he will listen to the very intelligent arguments that have been made.

In my view, and in that of most people, an open list system is a much more democratic way of electing Members of the European Parliament. It is undoubtedly entirely pernicious that a small group of people—sadly, modern political parties are quite small in their numbers—can decide on who heads a list and that person is then automatically elected. All they have to do for the next five years is attend every party meeting and ensure that they are well in with their regional party. They remain No. 1, and whatever the people want, they get elected. We have heard the history of the debate in the Labour party in the 1990s, so I will not repeat it, but it shows that this is not a party political matter. It is an issue that the Labour party could look at as well as the Conservative party.

If we believe in the European Parliament and want to create interest, we should want to have characters elected—people who stand up for something. It is surely right that if they are popular in their region, they can rise up the list and people can vote for them individually. The political parties should not fiddle around, decreeing that a certain sort of person should rise to the top; it is up to the people to decide, as the will of the people is seldom wrong.

Before I sit down—it is the will of the House that this debate is fairly short—let me say that there is a wider issue. A big debate will continue about whether we have elections to the House of Lords. Personally, for all sorts of reasons, I do not agree with elections to the House of Lords. If they do happen, they will undoubtedly be under proportional representation. It would be a complete disaster if people were elected to the House of Lords under a closed list system. It really would be ridiculous to put a load of party hacks in the second Chamber, which is not about people forming a Government but about rationally trying to reform legislation, because we had kept this closed list system. The arguments are very strong. We will not get a result today—

Photo of Philip Davies Philip Davies Conservative, Shipley

Before my hon. Friend sits down, may I say that we have a system that is neither open nor closed; it is neither fish nor fowl. Yorkshire and the Humber region elected Edward McMillan-Scott as a Conservative on a closed list system. Basically, people were invited to vote for a party and they voted Conservative. He defected to the Liberal Democrats and carried on as the MEP as a Liberal Democrat, even though nobody had voted for him as an individual; they had only voted Conservative. The current system is complete nonsense; it is neither one thing nor another.

Photo of Edward Leigh Edward Leigh Chair, Public Accounts Commission, Chair, Public Accounts Commission

It is also scandalous that someone can defect from the party to which they had been elected and then just carry on in the European Parliament. My hon. Friend has put his finger on it: this is neither fish nor fowl. It is actually completely illogical. Debate and reform are needed, and I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch for moving this Bill.

Photo of Steve Reed Steve Reed Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 1:04, 9 January 2015

I congratulate Mr Chope on securing this bill. I will, if I may, speak just briefly.

We welcome this debate about the voting system at European elections. The hon. Gentleman is not known to be a constitutional and electoral reformer, or indeed an advocate of the European Union. Indeed, as Jonathan Evans said, he holds a rather more cynical view of that institution. For that reason it is perhaps surprising to find the hon. Gentleman advocating a system of election so popular on the continent. From Belgium and Denmark, to Greece and Cyprus, open list electoral systems are a prominent part of European democracies.

The hon. Gentleman’s contribution today is welcome. Labour supports the principle of proportionality. There are merits to an open list system, whereby voters can choose individual candidates from a list provided by each party. Closed party lists can be impersonal, and can arguably weaken the link between the representative and the regional area. They offer less in the way of voter choice. Power is in the hands of parties to select candidates who are more likely to win. Arguably, that can lead to similar types of politicians entering politics. Candidates are selected by party leaders, who may sometimes be tempted to pick what we may consider to be safer choice, which can further diminish the ability of Parliaments, both domestic and abroad, to challenge the Executive.

Closed lists, of course, can stifle independent voices, which is why I think the policy is attractive to the hon. Gentleman. That said, however, I respect the arguments that suggest that closed lists are more amenable to measures that can increase representation of women, ethnic minorities and other groups that are under-represented in our Parliaments. There are strong arguments on both sides of this discussion. We welcome the debate on this issue and look forward to continuing it as the hon. Gentleman takes his Bill forward.

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education 1:06, 9 January 2015

I am grateful to my hon. Friend Mr Chope for bringing the issue of the voting system for European parliamentary elections before the House. He spoke with characteristic force and clarity, although with brevity on this occasion. He made his point clearly that this is a Bill that he wants to be considered in the next Conservative manifesto. I am sure that the powers that be will have noted that.

Clearly, the voting system that we use to elect our representatives is a matter of great importance and will have a significant impact on our democracy and the relationship between the public and those elected to serve them. I will try to set out the Government’s position. The Government take such matters seriously and welcome debate and discussion on proposals for changes that seek to enhance the democratic process. I therefore thank all Members for the debate so far. It is something on which there is a degree of consensus.

The voting system in use for European parliamentary elections has been debated at some length in both Houses of Parliament. Clearly, there is a range of views on the merits of the closed list voting system. It is fair to say that the closed list system is simple for electors, and it ensures that across a region seats are allocated in proportion to the votes cast.

However, I am conscious that there has been dissatisfaction with the closed list system both inside and outside Parliament and the debate today has highlighted that concern. Criticism has centred on the system being “closed”. The parties solely determine the order in which candidates are awarded the seats that they achieve. It is argued that that puts too much power in the hands of the parties and results in MEPs who are remote from the electorate. All those arguments are very strong indeed. We recognise that introducing an open list system might help to address the issue of MEPs being seen as distant from electors, because it will bring candidates closer to electors. However, the open list system is not currently used in any statutory elections in the UK.

Introducing an open list voting system at European parliamentary elections in Britain would require both primary and secondary legislation. Realistically, in terms of timing, it is not feasible at this late stage in the current Parliament to make the necessary legislative changes. In addition, there will be a number of practical and logistical implications that would need to be considered in changing the voting system for European elections.

Political parties, candidates, electoral administrators and electors would all need to receive guidance and instruction in the workings of the new voting system. This would be a novel and potentially complex system for electors, but the problems are surmountable. There will obviously be the issue of redesigning the ballot paper, which would be significantly different under an open list system.

Photo of Jonathan Evans Jonathan Evans Conservative, Cardiff North

Looking around the Chamber, I think that I am the only person here to have stood in a European election and I have done so on two occasions. Although there is a box on the ballot form by which one can vote for a party, where the names are listed it has been the practice on a number of occasions for people to choose to put the cross alongside the name of the candidate rather than in the box for the party. Generally, if it appears in the area where the party has its candidates’ names, it is counted as in favour of that party. That is another indication that my hon. Friend’s point is surmountable.

Photo of Sam Gyimah Sam Gyimah The Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education

My hon. Friend, as he says, has great experience of standing for election. He makes the point quite clearly about how the ballot paper would need to be redesigned. As I said, I believe the problems are surmountable, but it is worth putting on the record that moving from the current system to an open list system would mean that there would be some practical difficulties to surmount. Moving to an open list system would also raise cost issues, and given the Government’s central role in funding European elections, we would wish to consider it very carefully.

All that having been said, the Government can understand why my hon. Friend the Member for Christchurch has tabled the Bill. The timing is an issue and practical implications need to be considered, but the subject should seriously be borne in mind in the next set of election manifestoes. With that in mind, I recommend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Christopher Chope Christopher Chope Conservative, Christchurch 1:11, 9 January 2015

With the leave of the House, may I respond to the very encouraging words from my hon. Friend the Minister? It looks as though this is the revelation of a new part of the Conservative party manifesto. I certainly hope so. It is also good that we have so much support from Mr Reed, because if such a measure is going to make progress it is best that it does so on a cross-party basis. There is cross-party support for the idea of increasing voter engagement in elections, whether one is a Eurosceptic or a Europhile, as it is in the interests of democracy and of the European Union that there should be maximum participation in the elections to the European Parliament. I should have tabled the Bill much earlier in this Parliament, but I will take it away and hope that I see it reflected in the Conservative party manifesto.

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and Bill, by leave, withdrawn.

Photo of Dawn Primarolo Dawn Primarolo Deputy Speaker (Second Deputy Chairman of Ways and Means)

Order. It has been brought to my attention that due to a misunderstanding the motion in the name of Martin Horwood on the calendar of business for Friday 27 March for Second

Reading of the Pavement Parking Bill did not appear on today’s Order Paper. I will therefore ask the hon. Gentleman to move his motion at the appropriate time, as I am reinstating it in the Order Paper after motion 5.