New Clause 18

Political Parties and Elections Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 11:45 am on 18 November 2008.

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Filling vacant European Parliament seats in Northern Ireland

‘(1) In section 5 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 (c. 24) (filling vacant seats), after subsection (3) there is inserted—

“(4) As regards a seat in Northern Ireland, the regulations may, in specified circumstances, require it to be filled as follows—

(a) where the previous MEP stood in the name of a registered party when elected (or most recently elected), by a person nominated by the nominating officer of that party;

(b) where paragraph (a) does not apply but the previous MEP gave a notice in accordance with regulations under this Act naming one or more persons as substitutes, by a person so named.

(5) In subsection (4)—

“nominating officer”, in relation to a registered party, means the person registered as its nominating officer under the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 in the Northern Ireland register (within the meaning of that Act);

“registered party” means a party registered under that Act in that register;

“the previous MEP”, in relation to a vacancy, means the person who was the MEP immediately before the vacancy arose.”

(2) Regulations containing provision made by virtue of this section may specify that the provision has effect in relation to any seat that is vacant at the time the provision comes into force and in respect of which notice of a by-election has not been published at that time.’.—[Mr. Wills.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Amendment (a), at end of new subsection (4)(a) insert

‘from a list of up to three persons who are not disqualified to serve as an MEP and whose names and electoral numbers had been submitted along with the nomination papers of the previous MEP at the previous election.’.

Amendment (b), in new subsection (4)(b) leave out from ‘apply’ to end and insert

‘, by the highest ranking person who is not disqualified to serve as an MEP and whose name and electoral number had been submitted on an ordered list of up to three persons along with the previous MEP’s nomination papers at the previous election.’.

Government amendment No. 128.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

The new clause facilitates reform of the system for filling vacant European parliamentary seats in Northern Ireland. It is important because Northern Ireland does not operate a party list system. Under section 5 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002, vacant seats can be filled only by having a by-election.

European elections in Northern Ireland are held under the single transferable vote form of proportional representation. Concerns have been raised with us that a by-election under that system has the potential to provide for the disproportionate representation of certain parties. That is a particular issue in the context of Northern Ireland, where proportionate representation is of real importance.

The Northern Ireland political parties and other interested groups expressed concerns about the current system and requested that the Government explore options for reform. That is why we have introduced the new clause. We have consulted all the relevant parties. They are all content with the proposals. We have consulted the chief electoral officer for Northern Ireland, who is also content. We therefore believe that people are generally content with the proposals.

Earlier this year, the Government proposed that the nominating officer of the political party in whose name the Member of the European Parliament stood when elected should be able to nominate a replacement to fill a vacant European parliamentary seat. Generally, electors vote for representatives of political parties because they support the party’s position on certain matters, in line with the party’s manifesto. However much we as individuals would all like to believe that that was otherwise, we generally accept that it is the position. Therefore, should a vacancy arise, it makes sense for that party to decide who should fill the seat.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

The Minister seems to think that the choice of electors would be the same two years on. It may be different. What is he doing about that?

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I will come to precisely that point. There is no perfect system in such a circumstance, and I stress that it is relatively unlikely that a vacancy will arise. It is possible, but most of the time Members of the European Parliament see through their full term. As we may see in further debate on the issue, the alternatives also create problems in the way that the hon. Gentleman suggests.

It makes sense for the party to decide who should fill the seat. Under that system, Members of the European Parliament who did not belong to a political party when elected could submit a list of substitutes when returned, which could be used to fill the seat and could be modified as necessary.

The proposals were the subject of a full public consultation, and they received strong support among the Northern Ireland parties and other interested groups, so new clause 18 amends section 5 of the 2002 Act to add proposed new subsection (4), enabling regulations to be made that provide for the nominating officer of the relevant political party to nominate a replacement Member of the European Parliament in the event that a European Parliament seat held by that party becomes vacant.

I should point out to the hon. Member for Isle of Wight the fact that in a democratic system voters elect Members of Parliament or Members of the European Parliament for the full term. What he suggests would in some sense compromise that principle. I recognise that the issue is difficult, and can be debated either way, but I ask him to reflect on that fundamental democratic principle. We do not shift our position on who should remain in Parliament on the basis of opinion polls. That may or may not be a good thing, but it is the system that operates.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am happy to, although I suspect that we shall diverge a little from the clause and Northern Ireland.

Photo of Andrew Turner Andrew Turner Conservative, Isle of Wight

Without going off the trail of Northern Ireland, if a Westminster Member died there would be a by-election. Is that going to change?

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

No. As I have explained to the hon. Gentleman, we are dealing with a different system of elections in Northern Ireland. We have first past the post for parliamentary elections to Westminster, but we also have a different system in this context, and views will differ on its merits. In the specific context of Northern Ireland, that system and the methods in place to replace Members of the European Parliament, should they die or otherwise become unavailable to continue their term of office, could lead to specific problems. That is what the new clause is intended to deal with.

We have consulted widely on the new clause in Northern Ireland and have made provision in it for regulations to be made to permit Members of the European Parliament who did not belong to a political party when they were returned to submit a list from which a replacement MEP could, if required, be selected. Hon. Members  will know that replacements for seats vacated by MEPs from a registered party in Great Britain are filled from the party’s list and no by-election is held. The proposed change will align Northern Ireland closer with that principle.

Amendment No. 128 simply provides for new clause 18 to come into effect on Royal Assent. Regulations will then be required to give full effect to the changes.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I draw the Minister’s attention to proposed new subsection (4)(b), which the new clause will insert in section 5 of the 2002 Act, which deals with the death of someone elected as an independent.

The Minister mentioned the possibility of a list being used in that case, but there is nothing in the new clause to determine who on the list would be nominated. If the independent MEP died having only submitted a list, who would decide which person on the list would be nominated in his place?

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for those remarks; he raises an important point. The process is difficult with independents, as he says. We intend to cover the point in more detail in regulations, and I hope that the Committee will bear with us on that.

The issue is complicated and we must bear in mind the very specific circumstances of Northern Ireland. However, we intend that independent MEPs in that context will be able to submit a list of substitutes when they are returned. That list may be changed by the independent Member by notifying the chief electoral officer during the term.

I hope that the Committee will support the new clause and amendment No. 128, so that in the event of a vacancy arising during a term, the views of the people of Northern Ireland will continue to be represented proportionately in the European Parliament.

Photo of Alan Reid Alan Reid Shadow Minister (Northern Ireland), Shadow Minister (Scotland)

I support amendments (a) and (b). I want to say at the outset that I believe that the single transferable vote system is the best and fairest system of election. I am delighted that it is used in Northern Ireland European elections and wish that exactly the same system were used in the rest of the United Kingdom. However, I accept that nothing is perfect, and that there is one imperfection with the single transferable vote, which is how vacancies are handled.

There are two obvious options: one is a by-election, which is how the law stands in Northern Ireland, and the other is nomination, as Government new clause 18 provides. The problem with a by-election is that even if everybody voted for exactly the same party that they voted for in the previous general election, somebody from a different party could be elected if the vacancy had occurred because of the death or resignation of someone representing a party that had not got the most votes in that constituency. That is the problem that can arise with by-elections under STV.

The system of nomination also has defects: there is no public scrutiny of the person who becomes the MEP, and it also lays the way open for political parties to nominate a well known public figure at the election. If that well known public figure got elected, they could resign a few days later and be replaced by someone totally unknown to the electorate.

In most circumstances, a by-election is the best way to fill a vacancy under STV, which is what the Scottish Parliament decided when it introduced the STV for local government in Scotland. That system has worked well. As I said earlier, even if people voted the same way as in the previous election, that could result in someone from a different party getting elected. We are all aware that, even under first past the post, by-elections are different beasts from general elections. A significant number of by-elections—local government and parliamentary by-elections—result in someone from a different party being elected.

Normally, I prefer the STV system to fill vacancies in a by-election. However, Northern Ireland is different, as the Minister said. We need to ensure that we balance the interests of the whole community in Northern Ireland. All our European elections in Northern Ireland have resulted in two Unionists and one nationalist being elected. A problem could arise if the nationalist MEP died or resigned. The by-election would almost certainly result in a Unionist being elected, so we would have three Unionists and no nationalists in the European Parliament.

In the peculiar circumstances of Northern Ireland, I agree with the Government on using nomination to fill the vacancy. We tabled amendments (a) and (b) because the Government’s new clause will allow political parties to nominate somebody who will go through no public scrutiny. We all know that parties put forward prospective candidates. There are circumstances in which the media questions that candidate, or something arises in that candidate’s background that causes the candidate to withdraw. Even in list systems—parties put forward lists for the European Parliament—the media can question someone lower down the list even though that person has no chance of getting elected. If anything damaging is said by that person, it might damage the political party’s chances of winning votes in the election.

It is important that the people who are nominated to fill vacancies are known to the electorate before they cast their votes in the European election. That is why we have tabled amendments (a) and (b). Amendment (a) refers to the circumstances in which somebody representing a political party has been elected. Along with that person, there would have to be three possible substitutes nominated. Their names would be published so that the electorate knew that if they were voting for that person, there would be a possibility that one of the three nominated substitutes could become the MEP if that person died or resigned. Therefore, when a vacancy arose, the political party would choose one name from the list of three.

Our amendment would not allow for that political party to add other people to the list. The important thing is that anybody who becomes an MEP should be known to the electorate at the time of the original election. That would be the effect of our amendment.

We have not said that the list should be ordered because there could be problems if the person at the top of the list defected to another party or became seriously ill. We have said only that the three possible substitutes should be known at the time of the election.

Amendment (b) relates to independence, which I raised with the Minister earlier. In this case, the list must be ordered. If the independent candidate dies,  there is no way—unless they wrote something in their will—that they can come back from the grave and decide which of the three substitutes should become the elected representative. The Minister said that that matter would be tackled by secondary legislation, but the best way to tackle it would be to accept amendment (b). At the time of his election, the independent candidate would submit an ordered list of three people. If a vacancy arose, it would be filled by the highest ranking surviving person on that list.

The Government new clause sets the right principles of nomination, but I urge the Government to accept amendments (a) and (b). Potential MEPs must put themselves forward at election time and undergo public scrutiny. They should not merely be nominated by their party and appear from nowhere after the vacancy has arisen.

Photo of Eleanor Laing Eleanor Laing Shadow Minister (Justice) 12:00, 18 November 2008

It is strange to debate the reintroduction of a sort of hereditary principle as part of the Bill, but that is really what new clause 18 brings about. It would save a lot of time and difficulty if, when standing for election, each of us could say, “If I do not make it to the end of this Parliament, I would like so and so to take my place.” Many political parties have worked like that in the past, but I am delighted that none of us work like that now. Of course, I see why the Government want to introduce the provision in respect of Northern Ireland, and I support what they are trying to do. That is perfectly reasonable.

We support amendments (a) and (b) as proposed by the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute. They produce greater clarity—again, I return to that point—about how the system would work. In recent weeks until 4 November, newspapers around the world were full of the succession question: if John McCain were elected as President of the United States, would Sarah Palin take on that role in the event of a catastrophic event that removed John McCain? It seems that—against the better judgment of some of us—the people of the United States decided, for some unfathomable reason, that that succession was not to be risked. Actually, that is not correct. The reason was not unfathomable; it took up thousands of columns in newspapers throughout the world.

When the hon. Gentleman was speaking, it struck me that this is the same principle. If we elect a person, we should know who would take over that position should they not complete a term in office. Normally, our democratic system depends on by-elections. If it were not for them, we would surely get bored between elections—they are an essential part of our system.

I support what the hon. Gentleman has said and I hope that the Government will consider the amendments favourably as they would clarify what would happen under new clause 18. I am also concerned about what is meant by the phrase “specified circumstances.” New clause 18 refers to certain issues occurring in “specified circumstances”, but what are they? The lack of transparency of new clause 18 was the issue that concerned me most. However, when someone votes, they should know what substitutes the elected representative has put in place, as they would perhaps subsequently become the elected representative for that particular place. The voter ought to know that. It is not fair to ask a voter to go into the polling booth and elect Mr. A without knowing that he  carries Mrs. B with him. It is wrong for that information not to be given to a voter. It would be perfectly possible to put that information before a voter in the two specific circumstances referred to in amendments (a) and (b), while keeping the Government’s overall intention of maintaining the balance within the specific unusual circumstances of the Northern Ireland elections. We all understand and support that intention.

The other slightly worrying thing is that the basis of new clause 18 is the assumption that people vote on party lines alone and not on other factors related to a candidate. I accept that the Minister put that forward as a reasonable argument and that people do largely vote on party lines. However, sometimes the particular candidate matters as well. I am always suspicious of giving political parties more power and taking that power away from the individual—for example, the list system for European elections gives far more power to a political party and takes power away from the individual. If power is taken away from the individual, it is taken away from the voter because if the voter does not know who is accountable, they cannot get rid of that person. The voter therefore has less power and the political party has more power.

Once again, we come back to the basis of our democracy, which is what the Bill is about. The way in which our democracy works is the basis of our democracy. The more power that is given to political parties and the less power that is given to the individual and the voter, the weaker the democratic system is because it is much more difficult for the people to speak. It is much more difficult for the people to be heard if the panoply of party political power gets in the way. Having said that, I reiterate that we understand why there are special circumstances in Northern Ireland. If the clause were to apply to the rest of the United Kingdom, it would be totally and utterly unacceptable. However, for the special circumstances in Northern Ireland, it is acceptable. The measure is much improved by amendments (a) and (b) and I hope that the Government will take those seriously.

Photo of Nicholas Winterton Nicholas Winterton Conservative, Macclesfield

May I assist the Committee—particularly the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute? I say this, of course, before the Minister has replied to the debate, but if the hon. Gentleman wishes to press one or both of his amendments to a Division, he will need to make it clear during the debate. As I say, the Minister is yet to reply, but I have to advise him that if he does not make it clear, the Chair will proceed to put the question on adding the clause to the Bill straight away. I hope that will help the hon. Gentleman to make up his mind. Of course, we now depend on the Minister’s reply.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

I shall be happy to give way to the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute at any point during my relatively brief remarks. I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Epping Forest for their understanding of the special circumstances in Northern Ireland. We all accept that. Unfortunately, like the people of the United States of America, I shall reject the advice of the hon. Lady.

The amendments will more carefully align the method of filling seats with the current method of filling vacancies in the Northern Ireland Assembly where a list of up to six possible substitutes can be submitted prior to the election. However, hon. Members may be aware that the  Government recently laid an order to change the method for filling vacancies in the Assembly to one similar to that proposed in new clause 18. When consulting on possible changes to the method of filling vacant European parliamentary seats, the Northern Ireland Office also consulted on changes to the method of filling vacant Assembly seats. The consultation paper noted that the current substitutes method used to fill seats in the Assembly can be problematic in situations where those designated as substitutes are unwilling or unable to fill the seat when the vacancy arises, particularly if they have assumed other responsibilities during the Assembly term or if other factors have emerged since they were first listed as a substitute. Indeed, the person may have defected from the party to which they belonged when they were listed as a substitute.

The vast majority of respondents to the consultations, including the four largest political parties in Northern Ireland, agreed that reform was needed. With that in mind, I hope that the Committee will agree that it is not appropriate now that the system has been changed to reintroduce a system for filling—

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice, Shadow Minister (Shadow Solicitor General), Home Affairs

I am interested in what the Minister is saying. Can he give any instances in which the problem to which he refers actually happened, and what the resolution was?

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

It is not so much whether it has actually happened. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that there is a possibility that it could happen and, as we have heard many times in this Committee, we must legislate for reasonable possibilities as well. With that in mind—given that we have conducted the consultation and that the four largest political parties in Northern Ireland agree that the changes should be made to the Northern Ireland Assembly—the changes in new clause 18 would align the method for filling vacancies in the Northern Ireland Assembly with that for filling vacancies in the European Parliament. It seems almost perverse to accept amendments that would return to a system that the four largest political parties in Northern Ireland want to change.

Photo of David Howarth David Howarth Shadow Solicitor General, Ministry of Justice, Shadow Minister (Shadow Solicitor General), Home Affairs

Just to put it on the record, it does not have the consent of the fifth largest party, the Alliance party. There is another way out of the problem. France, I believe, has a supplÃ(c)ant system for elections to the National Assembly. A party can put forward a supplÃ(c)ant, and if the supplÃ(c)ant does not want to do the job, a by-election must be held. That risk is up to the party.

Photo of Michael Wills Michael Wills Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice

We have discussed by-elections, and I was careful to say “the four largest political parties in Northern Ireland”. That is an important consideration. As I said, it would be perverse not to seek to align the two systems, and I very much hope—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman will be interested to hear that I have just been informed that, although the consultation was widespread, the Alliance party did not respond to it, which might account for the fact that it is not part of the consensus. However, I am not sure that it would be anything other than perverse to resist the amendments, and I hope that the Committee will not do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.