§ Order for Second Reading read.4.31 pm
§ The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department(Yvette Cooper)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The Bill has two clear purposes. The first is to enable us to play our part in supporting the enlargement of the European Union and the participation in European parliamentary democracy by the new accession states. Secondly, it will enfranchise Gibraltar in the European parliamentary elections. Together those purposes will form a major step towards fulfilling UK responsibilities arising from the widening of the European Union democracy to include new member states, and towards ensuring fair representation for those entitled to vote in elections to the European Parliament.
I welcome the fact that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) is here to reply to this debate for the Opposition. We had understood that his colleague, the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins), might lead on this issue, and I confess that that had surprised me. Given the fascination of the hon. Member for Stone for all things European, I would have been a little startled if anyone had managed to prise him away from a Bill that had Europe in the title. Nevertheless, for all the hon. Gentleman's history on matters European, I hope that this is one Bill on which he and his party can agree, as I believe that its provisions should command all-party support.
Both main aspects of the Bill are about allowing those who are not currently represented in the European Parliament to vote in European elections and to be represented in the European Parliament. Part 1 establishes a mechanism by which the number of UK Members of the European Parliament can be altered to allow space at the European Parliament for new accession states.
§ Mr. Elfyn Llwyd (Meirionnydd Nant Conwy)
The Lord Chancellor's press release of 9 December refers to the notion that Gibraltar should become part of the Welsh region for the purposes of representation in the European Parliament. There is also talk of Wales having four seats instead of five. Will the Minister explain the reasoning behind that?
§ Yvette Cooper
We have not specified that Gibraltar should be part of the Welsh region. We have made it clear that the Electoral Commission must come forward with a recommendation as to which region Gibraltar should be part of. That could be one of the English regions or the Welsh region.
§ Geraldine Smith (Morecambe and Lunesdale)
Although it is most welcome that Gibraltar will have representation in Europe, is the time not now right for Gibraltar also to have representation in this Parliament at Westminster? Would my hon. Friend like to comment on that?
§ Yvette Cooper
The position of Gibraltar is complex and has evolved over many years. Very few areas of 174 Westminster legislation affect Gibraltar because much of its legislation is made in the Gibraltar Assembly. That process is important and I know that it receives the support of the people in Gibraltar. Therefore, I do not propose a change at this time. However, I shall come to the issues regarding Gibraltar's franchise under the European elections. That issue has also been discussed in the European Court.
Part 2 sets out a provision to enable the people of Gibraltar to vote in European parliamentary elections and to have their interests directly represented in the European Parliament for the first time. We intend to bring both changes into effect by the time of the 2004 European parliamentary elections. Both parts of the Bill reflect the United Kingdom's international obligations under the treaty of Nice and the European convention on human rights.
§ Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)
The Minister lays great stress on the need to ensure that the electoral system is working as best it can for all citizens. Does she accept that the system that the Government use for the elections—the so-called closed list system—is supported only by the control freakery tendency in the Labour party? Why is she not taking the opportunity offered by the Bill to reconsider the system so that we can have open lists that give each elector a real influence over the outcome of the election?
§ Yvette Cooper
The hon. Gentleman knows that Parliament has debated open and closed lists extensively. We have no proposals to change the system. A series of other countries in Europe use the closed list system, which has the advantage of being clear, simple to operate and easy to understand. It also delivers a proportionate result.
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
Did the Minister note the suggestion in the European Scrutiny Committee's report in June that it would be better to return to the first-past-the-post system for European elections rather than relying on proportional representation?
§ Yvette Cooper
The hon. Gentleman has a long history of arguing about such things. He knows that the provision for proportional representation is supported across Europe and, as I said, has been extensively debated in the House and the other place. We have no proposals to use the Bill to change the voting system for European elections.
Part 1 changes the total number of UK MEPs. The House knows that the European Union is preparing for the accession of new member states. The treaty of Nice was signed on 26 February last year by all EU member states and provides for the EU to be enlarged, eventually to include 12 new nations, so bringing the membership to a total of 27. EU enlargement will bring immense benefits in terms of regional stability, economic security, the economy and the environment.
§ Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory (Wells)
I am surprised that the Minister has so far glossed over the allocation of the seats. She must be aware that the number of MEPs allocated provisionally to each country is a matter of controversy and dispute. Not all member states have accepted it. So why, according to the explanatory notes, 175 does clause 4 accept that the European Commission will inform the UK of its representation and that the Lord Chancellor will then act on that information? Indeed, he can anticipate the numbers required. That appears to remove from the House the ability to debate the number of MEPs that we should have. I am aware that we will be invited to agree to an order, but why is the House not given an opportunity to debate and agree the number allocated to the United Kingdom when the procedure starts to roll under the Electoral Commission?
§ Yvette Cooper
I have been on my feet for about six minutes, in which time I have taken about four interventions. I intend to deal with the number of seats in just a few paragraphs, if the hon. Gentleman will be patient, and I hope to address his concern then. To suggest that I have glossed over the allocation is a little premature.
The benefits of enlargement will flow across Europe. We should strongly welcome the gains that that will bring for the accession states, which have worked hard to meet the criteria for joining the EU. Enlargement is in the direct interest of the UK as well. The widening market will bring long-term economic gains for British companies and British investors, and the environmental benefits that will result from accession states tackling pollution will be experienced here too. The benefits of regional stability have direct consequences for UK citizens as well as people across Europe.
Drawing the accession states into the EU means ensuring that they have proper involvement in European institutions and decision making. In particular, for the purposes of the Bill, it means ensuring that they have fair representation in the European Parliament. During preparations for EU enlargement, it was agreed by the treaty of Nice that an enlarged European Parliament with a maximum 732 MEPs was necessary. Existing member states are obliged to make reductions in the number of MEPs to make space for accession states and ensure that they have fair representation, while keeping the European Parliament at a manageable size.
The Bill sets up a framework for reducing the number of MEPs representing the UK to a final maximum of 72—a reduction of 15 seats from the current 87. The current number of British MEPs is specified in the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002, which is amended by the Bill. Along with France and Italy, the UK will continue to have the second-largest number of MEPs in the European Parliament.
§ Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)
Can my hon. Friend confirm that the change in the number of MEPs to 732 is a great opportunity for us to move away from Strasbourg once and for all? We could have one location that was not expensive, inefficient and a waste of time and resources.
§ Yvette Cooper
As my hon. Friend will be aware, there are strong views in other European countries about that. It has been debated extensively across Europe, and I do not anticipate progress on the matter in the near future.
The number of seats that we have in the European Parliament will not be reduced all at once. It was agreed by the treaty of Nice that the reduction in existing 176 member states' representation will take place as new states accede. It is intended to implement some reductions to account for the accession of the first group of accession states—probably 10 of the 12 candidates—in time for the 2004 election. Final decisions about which countries will accede and the number of seats to which each existing member state will be entitled with the first tranche of accessions will be made later this week at the European Council in Copenhagen.
§ Mr. John Redwood (Wokingham)
I guess the Minister's refusal to answer the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) about our influence over the matter is a reflection of the fact that the Government have no influence. Does she agree with the Portuguese Government that as long as we stay outside the euro, we cannot possibly hope to provide a lead on or influence over such issues?
§ Yvette Cooper
Is the right hon. Gentleman advocating early membership of the euro? That would certainly be a startling change. I sense a shifting position—any minute now, the right hon. Gentleman will be telling us that the five economic tests have been met. As I have explained, the issues are decided by negotiation across Europe. Opposition Members must accept that that is the case—discussion and negotiation are essential. We must ensure that the European Parliament is an effective size and does not grow ever larger with the accession of each new country. It is important that it is of manageable size and that there is fair representation for all members of the European Union. Opposition Members seem to be suggesting that our Parliament should be able to pick numbers out of a hat and toss them at the European Parliament and that every other country should do the same. However, it is important that the issues are debated.
§ Mr. Heathcoat-Amory
Instead of caricaturing our position, I wish that the Minister would answer my question. These matters are occasionally the subject of controversy and dispute, as she knows, under the Nice allocation. Why, therefore, does clause 4, according to explanatory notes, allow the commission to inform the United Kingdom what its allocation will be? Apparently, we have to accept that allocation without a debate or decision in our Parliament. I urge the Minister to amend the clause to give member states additional influence over that important matter of democracy. That is a rather modest request. I hope that she accedes to it in the light of her Government's professed desire to give member states' Parliaments additional authority.
§ Yvette Cooper
As I have made clear, the proposal for a reduction to a final maximum of 72 seats was part of the negotiations of the treaty of Nice. There will be further discussions at the Copenhagen European Council later this week to discuss which states will accede to the European Union this week. It is important for us to recognise that the pace of change towards that maximum of 72 seats will be determined by the pace of accession of other countries. That needs to happen and it will depend on the discussions that take place across Europe, not just this week, but in future.
There is an important issue about how those reductions are to be incorporated into the European parliamentary election system. We believe that the 177 fairest way to decide where the reductions should occur is to ask the independent Electoral Commission to examine the issue and make recommendations. The commission will report to the Lord Chancellor the results of its review and present recommendations about the new distribution of MEPs across the UK. Clause 2 establishes a mechanism for such reviews. It gives the Lord Chancellor the power to require the Electoral Commission to undertake them within a specified period, and according to the number of MEPs necessary at that time.
§ Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)
There is a great deal in the Bill about the Electoral Commission and Government Ministers, but there is nothing which states that the Electoral Commission must refer the matter to the boundary committee for proper scrutiny and due process. Will that be the case? There may be disputes among regions about the number of seats—on grounds of sparsity, for example. Does the hon. Lady expect a proper process to be undertaken?
§ Yvette Cooper
Certainly, we would expect the Electoral Commission to conduct a proper review. We are not proposing to alter the boundaries of the electoral regions to account for the change as part of the process or as part of the Bill. It is right that the independent Electoral Commission should make recommendations on the matter. We have specified factors that the Electoral Commission needs to take into account—for example, in order to ensure proportionality across the 12 electoral regions, we have set out in the Bill the requirement that each electoral region should have a minimum of three seats, irrespective of voter numbers, to provide reasonable scope for proper representation for each region. Clause 2 ensures that while carrying out the review, the commission takes that into account, and that thereafter the proportion of MEPs to electors should be as equal as is practically possible across the regions. Within those parameters, the Electoral Commission can make any recommendations that it considers appropriate.
Clause 4 gives the Lord Chancellor the power to make a draft order to implement, in due course, the reduction in the total number of MEPs and any recommendation made by the Electoral Commission. The Lord Chancellor will not be able to make an order to change the distribution of MEPs other than one that implements the recommendations of the Electoral Commission, or one that has the consent of the Electoral Commission. The draft order will be placed before both Houses of Parliament for endorsement by affirmative resolution before it can be made and come into effect.
In addition to those specific reviews, which are necessary as a result of the enlargement of the EU, clause 6 and schedule 1 provide for the commission to undertake periodic reviews of the distribution of MEPs.
§ Tony Cunningham (Workington)
Will my hon. Friend confirm that the process is basically a simple numerical exercise? We used to have 87 seats, along with France and Italy, and the Germans had 87 until East Germany came in. The number of our seats is going 178 down to 72, and France and Italy will have 72. The number of MEPs for each region will be determined by the size of the electorate.
§ Yvette Cooper
My hon. Friend is right. The number will be determined also by the recommendation of the independent Electoral Commission, to ensure that the distribution across the country is as fair as possible.
§ Yvette Cooper
The hon. Gentleman must realise that the premise of all the changes is that new countries will be joining the EU. That is the starting point for the Bill. It is important that those countries' voices are heard and that they are represented in the European Parliament. The shadow Foreign Secretary said that the Conservative party was passionately in favour of enlargement, but perhaps he should have pointed that out to the hon. Gentleman before this debate.
§ Yvette Cooper
I am very glad to hear that the hon. Gentleman is in favour of enlargement, but he must also will the means and recognise its consequences. Newly acceding member states will need a voice in the European Parliament.
Let me turn to the second part of the Bill, which deals with enfranchising Gibraltar for European parliamentary elections by 2004. In 1999, in the judgment on the case of Matthews v. the UK, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the people of Gibraltar should be able to participate in elections to the European Parliament and that the UK should take the necessary steps to put that ruling into effect. The UK accepted the judgment of the Court, and the Bill is the means of fulfilling that obligation.
The Bill will enable the people of Gibraltar to have their interests directly represented in the European Parliament for the first time. We want to achieve that by including Gibraltar as part of one of the existing electoral regions. Gibraltar's electorate consists of about 20,000 voters, while the average electoral region in the European parliamentary elections has 3.7 million, so it would clearly be disproportionate for Gibraltar to form a region on its own. Clause 8, therefore, provides for Gibraltar to be combined either with one of the nine English electoral regions or with Wales, which forms its own region, in what we would call the combined region. We believe that that provides a wide choice of regions with different defining features.
§ Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)
Does my hon. Friend's Department take any view about which region would be 179 more suitable to join Gibraltar and is it aware whether any other overseas territories have made noises or applications with regard to joining the EU?
§ Yvette Cooper
I know that my hon. Friend has expressed interest in that issue for a considerable time. The Lord Chancellor's Department has not taken a view about the region with which Gibraltar would best be combined. Many hon. Members will have their own views, but we believe that it is appropriate for a recommendation to be made by the Electoral Commission to ensure fairness throughout the country. The judgment to which I referred does not apply in the same way to areas such as the Channel Islands, which have a very different relationship with the EU.
§ Tony Cunningham
At the moment, the Isle of Man has to accept various EU directives as it is trading in the single market, but it has no EU representation whatever. Would it be possible for the Isle of Man Government to have representation if they so wished?
§ Yvette Cooper
If the Isle of Man Government wanted us to discuss that possibility with them, we would certainly be happy to do so.
§ Yvette Cooper
I need to make a little progress; I shall give way in a few minutes.
Clause 9 gives the independent Electoral Commission the task of considering with which region Gibraltar should be combined. The commission will report its conclusions with a recommendation to the Lord Chancellor by 1 September next year, in time to enable everyone to prepare for the elections the following summer. After consulting the Electoral Commission, a draft order establishing the combined region will be laid before both Houses.
We welcome the fact that the Electoral Commission wants to consult widely before reaching its conclusions in the United Kingdom and Gibraltar, although the Bill requires formal consultation with only the Governor and Chief Minister before a recommendation is made.
§ Simon Hughes
The Bill provides for consulting the Governor and the Chief Minister. No one can argue with that. Does the Minister's statement about the Electoral Commission's consultations imply that the people of Gibraltar, the political parties and other interest groups will have a chance to express their views? Perfectly proper debates are taking place and, given the small size of the electorate in Gibraltar compared with 180 those of the regions, it is surely better to do what the people of Gibraltar would wish as well as what would suit our electoral planning.
§ Yvette Cooper
The hon. Gentleman makes important points. The Electoral Commission is keen to consult widely and not restrict itself to the Governor and the Chief Minister. I shall ensure that the Electoral Commission is made aware of the hon. Gentleman's comments.
§ Mr. Rosindell
Everyone will be pleased to hear that proper consultation will take place with the people and the elected Government of Gibraltar. Does the Parliamentary Secretary accept that Gibraltar is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom, not only of England and Wales? Why, therefore, are only England and Wales being considered?
§ Yvette Cooper
That is a good question. Consideration is confined to England and Wales for a purely practical reason. To ensure that the secondary legislation is effected in time, and bearing in mind devolution to the Scottish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly, it was simpler to limit consideration to England and Wales. That ensures that everything will be in place by 2004.
§ Yvette Cooper
If the hon. Gentleman is keen to have more detail, I am happy to supply it. Clearly, the matter can be discussed further in Committee. I am also happy to provide more information in summing up, but I must make progress now.
§ Lady Hermon (North Down)
I am most grateful to the Parliamentary Secretary for giving way to an Ulster Unionist this time.
Northern Ireland has a special relationship with the people of Gibraltar in that many Gibraltarians were evacuated to Northern Ireland during the second world war, and some electors on the Gibraltar electoral role were born in Northern Ireland. Would the Parliamentary Secretary therefore consider amending clauses 8 and 9 to enable the Electoral Commission to include Northern Ireland in the regions with which the Gibraltarian electorate could vote?
§ Yvette Cooper
I acknowledge the hon. Lady's points. Nevertheless, there are different legislative arrangements in Northern Ireland and Scotland for elections and judicial matters. They mean that the inclusion of Northern Ireland and Scotland would be considerably more complicated and that it would be difficult to prepare the secondary legislation in time for the 2004 elections. If the outcome of selecting an electoral region could be Scotland or Northern Ireland, it would not be possible to begin preparing the secondary legislation until the decision had been made. That would mean waiting for the Electoral Commission to report, and waiting until next September to begin implementing the necessary secondary legislation for Gibraltar to be covered for the 2004 elections. 181 That would make life considerably more difficult for those who organise the election in Gibraltar because a series of practical changes needs to happen.
The underlying principle for combining Gibraltar with a UK electoral region for European parliamentary elections is that Gibraltar should be treated as if it were as much a part of the region as any other area in it. That means that UK electoral law as it applies to the European Parliament elections must apply as equally as possible throughout the combined region. That is no simple feat because UK electoral law does not currently apply to Gibraltar.
The Bill therefore makes provision for the application of a number of pieces of legislation—the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002; the Representation of the People Acts; and the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—and of many of the statutory instruments made under those Acts, modified as necessary. Modification is necessary to ensure that the law makes practical sense in Gibraltar. Specific circumstances such as location and time difference have to be catered for, and we also need to ensure that there is equality and consistency between the arrangements for conducting European Parliament elections in Gibraltar and in the rest of the combined region. We believe that the most appropriate approach is for this law to be modified for the purposes of Gibraltar by orders and regulations, and the Bill includes enabling powers to provide for that.
The Bill therefore addresses the key issues in much in the same way as the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 does, leaving the complex detail for regulations. Thus, clause 13 sets out the requirement for Gibraltar to maintain a register of electors for the European Parliament elections, and clauses 14 and 15 cover the franchise and the entitlement to be registered. On the franchise for voters in European parliamentary elections in Gibraltar, we want, as far as possible, to enfranchise those resident in Gibraltar who would be entitled to vote in UK European parliamentary elections if they lived in the UK. Correspondingly, entitlement to be registered on the Gibraltar register is intended to be very similar to that for the UK register, with a slight exception to reflect certain specific conditions, such as the Gibraltar Immigration Control Ordinance.
This legislation is consistent with the United Kingdom's international obligation, and the changes that the Bill is designed to enact are important. They will allow new member states their voice in the European Parliament, and enable the people of Gibraltar to vote for the first time in a European parliamentary election. We believe that the approach set out in the Bill is both appropriate and sound, and that it will support enfranchisement and greater participation in democratic institutions across Europe. I urge all hon. Members to support it.
§ 5.1 pm
§ Mr. William Cash (Stone)
Given the intensely controversial nature of the Gibraltar issue, I have to admit to being somewhat disappointed by the way in which the Minister has introduced the Bill, because, in all fairness, she did not really give us an explanation of what lies behind it. For the most part, she gave a mere recital of its provisions, rather than an explanation of the principles that led to its Second Reading today. 182 The Bill is like a curate's egg: it is good in parts. However, it must be set against a background of two main issues. The first is the reduction of the number of MEPs for the United Kingdom, the principle and method of which raise some disturbing questions. The second issue is that of Gibraltar. However welcome are the proposals to join Gibraltar with one of our existing electoral regions, they also illustrate the lack of proper consultation—at the level of insult—of the Government and people of Gibraltar.
On the reduction in the number of MEPs for the United Kingdom, the Minister has not yet mentioned the fact that the Bill does not specifically refer to reductions—I refer hon. Members to its long title, and to the relevant clauses—although this is implicit in the legislation implementing the treaty of Nice. The Bill refers merely to the enabling of alterations to the number of Members of the European Parliament. Indeed, the explanatory memorandum to the Bill states:The European Commission"—that famously democratic body—will inform the UK what their representation will be (the total number of UK MEPs) for the European Parliamentary elections in 2004, and subsequently.Of course, the words "that famously democratic body" are my own. I merely interpolated them to explain the matter as clearly as I could.
The Conservative party voted against the Nice treaty, and my comments on this Bill are without prejudice to that position. I called for a White Paper during the proceedings on the Bill to implement the Nice treaty, which was supported, on a three-line Whip, by my party. I am glad to say that it was even supported by the Liberal Democrats, on a vote. One of the most alarming features of the Government's position on the Nice treaty—which is now coming to fruition in this Bill—is the wholly mischievous and unwarranted claim, made by a succession of previous Ministers, that, under the treaty, Britain's influence has increased in the European Parliament, not to mention in the Council of Ministers.
§ Mr. Redwood
Did my hon. Friend notice that when I asked the Minister a perfectly good question, which she was quite unable to answer, she made an entirely false allegation about me changing my view on a crucial subject, which was not implied by what I said? Clearly, she had no chance whatever of answering the point on the Government's complete lack of influence with their European partners on any of those matters.
§ Mr. Cash
I am bound to concur with my right hon. Friend. Indeed, on the realities of influence, one has only to look, for example, at what has been going on in the defence field over the past few days to realise just how little influence the United Kingdom is able to exercise in relation to European matters. That will continue.
As I pointed out in an intervention, under the Nice treaty, Britain's share of Members of the European Parliament is to crash down from 87 out of 626 from 15 member states, which is equivalent to 13.9 per cent. of the votes, to 74 out of 732. That is a paltry 10.1 per cent., taking into account all the applicants and, barring accidents and democratic decisions if those are made in referendums, the anticipated new total of 27 member states.
§ Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)
The hon. Gentleman told us that he is in favour of expansion, but is he suggesting that he favours expansion with a bigger and more costly Parliament with more and more Members?
§ Mr. Cash
No, I am not. I am saying, very simply, that there is an extremely strong case for maintaining our number of seats and that the European enlargement process, irrespective of whether it takes place, is not a reason in itself for such a reduction. Indeed, as I shall explain, the Government's official position in March 2000 was that there should not be more than 700 Members. They were explicit about that, but, of course, they gave way over an increase to 732.
There are also, I may say, uncertainties about the extent to which the enlargement will take place. Irrespective of whether one is in favour of it, the reality is that we cannot be certain of how many Members of the new Parliament there could or should be. One has only to read today's newspapers to see, for example, that there are serious political and constitutional difficulties with regard to the Polish position.
§ Simon Hughes
I am honestly very confused about the hon. Gentleman's position. If he does not oppose enlargement—he said that he is a supporter of it—there are only two options: either have a bigger European Parliament with more Members, although I have always heard him and his colleagues argue for smaller European institutions rather than bigger ones, or reduce the relative proportion for each existing member state. There is no other way forward. If, for example, Poland does not join, the numbers would not increase by as much and we would not lose as many Members relatively. I need to know which of the two views he supports—a bigger Parliament with the same number of British Members and more Members in total or a smaller Parliament, in which case we would have to take a smaller share.
§ Mr. Cash
I am simply making the point, which I shall repeat, that there are grave uncertainties as to how the proposals will operate in practice. Originally, the Government said that they wanted everything to be done in one fell swoop and that they were against the two-stage operation that we now have. I am afraid that I attribute a lot of the difficulties that arise in relation not only to the Bill, but to the whole enlargement process to the fact that the Government have failed to acknowledge the realities of the position and the uncertainties that go with it.
I shall proceed by repeating another point that I made earlier: the Government said in March 2000 that the ceiling should be 700 MEPs, which they of course failed to insist on. They were also originally opposed to a two-stage transition to a lower limit for the number of MEPs, on which they again failed to deliver, particularly given the new powers of co-decision in the European Parliament and the increasing centre of gravity that is Berlin, which causes a further marginalisation of British influence.
As I pointed out in the pamphlet that I wrote in July 2001, which even the then Minister for Europe described in flattering terms in a letter to me, that represents a fundamental geopolitical shift in the balance of power 184 and the tectonic plates of Europe. The policy of gradual emasculation of British influence and democracy cannot hide the true long-term nature of the new and harsh political landscape that is being engineered.
The decrease in British influence in the European Parliament is inversely proportional to the increase in the power of that Parliament at the expense of national Parliaments. That is made plain by many of the proposals that are now flooding the convention on Europe.
In its report this year, the European Scrutiny Committee called for a return to the "first past the post" election system. I mentioned that in an earlier intervention. It reflects concern about the degree of centralised power for the party leaderships in the member states which goes with the rations of party lists, and also the disconnection with constituencies, a tendency to political corruption and a decline in deep-rooted democratic representation.
Under clauses 2 and 4, the Lord Chancellor effectively becomes king. I would describe clause 4 in particular as "Cardinal Wolsey's revenge", because it goes even further than the Henry VIII clauses to which we have taken exception for many years. It goes beyond giving Ministers power to amend or repeal enactments of primary legislation by order. Although this would be subject to affirmative resolution, in the real world the Lord Chancellor would have a greatly enhanced power to reduce the number of MEPs in conformity with European Community law—as it is expressed in the Bill—not only now but in future. The Bill does not specify what changes would be made, and under what European Community laws they would be made.
§ Lady Hermon
Is the hon. Gentleman's understanding of clause 4 and the new powers to be given to the Lord Chancellor that, despite the reassurance that each electoral region will be allocated at least three MEPs, Northern Ireland's allocation could be reduced from three to two, or even one?
§ Mr. Cash
That is one of the matters that cause us great concern. Many of the powers are so open-ended, vague and uncertain, and indeed so great, while the means of redress is so little, that it is essential for us to consider them in detail and table amendments in Committee.
The Bill does not even tell us which Community law would apply. While we must assume for present purposes that this would be done under the Nice treaty, at any rate for the time being, that does not take account of whatever may emerge from the European convention and/or any subsequent intergovernmental conference or treaty. There is a strong case for ensuring that any decisions made by any such bodies are subject to full democratic consent.
The mere fact that the Lord Chancellor is obliged to consult the Electoral Commission does not provide any satisfactory safeguard. When I communicated with the commission on 5 December, I was told that it had not been involved in advising on the powers for the Lord Chancellor, and that this was an initiative orchestrated by him and his department. I am paraphrasing, but that is what it boiled down to. It seems ironic, to say the least, 185 that a decision affecting the influence of the United Kingdom in respect of such an important matter should be made by an unelected Member of the other place.
§ Mr. McCabe
Would the hon. Gentleman care to reflect on his answer to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon)? He said that Northern Ireland's allocation could be reduced to one MEP. Does not the Electoral Commission stipulate that there must be three per region?
§ Mr. Cash
It certainly does, but we are dealing with the Bill, and also with the extremely extensive power to be given to the Lord Chancellor by order. In Committee we will be able to consider the extent to which the hon. Gentleman is right. If he would like to be on the Committee, I am sure that his membership would benefit us all.
It is because the range of powers is so wide that I described clause 4 as Cardinal Wolsey's revenge. I trust that both Houses of Parliament will be sure to exercise their powers under clause 5 with determination and tenacity. Indeed, a Henry VIII clause at least focuses on one Act, whereas these provisions are open sesame for the entire remit of what is commonly regarded as supreme Community law. I trust that the extent and range of the powers will be fully scrutinised in Committee, and thereafter in another place, where there is a Committee that we do not have in this place, the Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, under the capable chairmanship of Lord Dahrendorf.
The Lord Chancellor will acquire significant power under clause 2 in relation to the distribution of MEPs in the electoral regions, but there is no proper explanation of the boundaries problems that could arise. The total number of MEPs involved is not specified, and we have to rely on the conclusions of the Nice treaty, combined with the outcome of discussions that are to take place on 12 and 13 December at Copenhagen. As the explanatory notes say, the number will be agreed at European level, or as anticipated by the Lord Chancellor.
Furthermore, it is the Electoral Commission—which is unelected, as is the Lord Chancellor—that will recommend the distribution, following the Lord Chancellor's specification, and the power is exercisable with a view to implementing any specific change or anticipated change under Community law in the total number of MEPs for the United Kingdom. What is unacceptable, among other things, is that there is no requirement for the recommendation by the Electoral Commission to the Lord Chancellor to be debated, once published by the Commission—it need merely be laid before Parliament by the Lord Chancellor. I will be grateful if the Minister says that, as I hope, these matters will be not merely laid before Parliament but be subject to a substantive debate.
There is no specific provision under the clause for any such recommendation to be exercisable by the mechanism of a statutory instrument subject to affirmative resolution. Will the Minister explain the mechanics of the arrangement, including in the context of clause 4?
We welcome the proposals on Gibraltar, not least because the Government have utterly failed in their relations with the Government and people of Gibraltar, 186 whom they have treated with contempt. The Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, in agreeing in principle to shared sovereignty with Spain, were, and probably still are, perfectly prepared to ride roughshod over the democratic will of the people of Gibraltar, irrespective of the 99.8 per cent. vote in the referendum in November.
I have to say, with regret, that the Liberal Democrats were no less prepared to sell Gibraltar out.
§ Simon Hughes
We should not get into the whole debate here, but I refer the hon. Gentleman to the motion passed by our party conference with an overwhelming majority. I know that his party, like the Labour party, has not had a debate in which the membership could take part. If he reads the motion, he will see that we support the people of Gibraltar and believe that it is time for the Brussels process talks to be brought to an end.
§ Mr. Cash
I would be extremely glad to read anything that the hon. Gentleman would like to give me, but I must say that there seems to have been less than enthusiasm for the idea that Gibraltar should be given the opportunity, under the arrangements that we have proposed, to ensure that the democratic will of its people is properly adhered to. No doubt we will hear from him later on that.
There has been a total lack of meaningful consultation by the Government, and the introduction of the Bill has provided further proof that they are recklessly negligent when it comes to consultation with the Government of Gibraltar. Conservative Members would be happy for Gibraltar to have representation in the European Parliament—if it will do it any good—but it is clear that the only reason why these provisions are in the Bill is that the Government were driven to include them in order to comply with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights on 18 February 1999, by a massive vote of 15 to two, following the declaration of the Commission on Human Rights on 6 April 1996.
I say all this without prejudice to the unhappy history of the previous Government in relation to the Denise Matthews case, which appears to have been coloured by an over-enthusiasm for accommodating the wishes of Spain on the part of sources that some might identify. I wonder whether the reality of what happened then will emerge in the debate in another place in due course. Notwithstanding that, right has prevailed and the Bill at last gives Gibraltar democratic engagement in the European Parliament.
I would add one general word of warning, however, in respect of the uncertain and uncharted waters that lie ahead under the proposals for the federalisation through the convention and beyond. I urge all those with an interest in democracy in Europe to be vigilant about any future attempt to unscramble the Bill's provisions by majority vote, and to bear in mind the words of T.S. Eliot in "Murder in the Cathedral":The last temptation is the greatest treason:To do the right deed for the wrong reason.We cannot yet know to which region the combined engagement will apply, but it is suggested that it could well be the south-west. Given that the Spanish rejected the British request for an amendment to the 1976 187 legislation on direct elections, the Government were driven to take unilateral action in order to comply with their own commitment to the European convention on human rights. This Bill is the result. How uncomfortable it must have been for the Prime Minister to have to choose between Spain and his commitment to the European ideal.
There are further criticisms—I shall make them now—of the United Kingdom's position in respect of this Bill, which sits uneasily between the Rock and a hard place. Why has the United Kingdom failed properly to consult with the elected authorities on the Rock? Gibraltar's self-government is devolved to a considerable extent. Where does the Minister draw the line between the governmental roles of the United Kingdom and of Gibraltar itself—particularly in respect of electoral and constitutional law—in so far as Gibraltar's own circumstances could justifiably be accommodated without infringing fundamental principles of electoral law? After all, there will be a need for legislation in Gibraltar to authorise the requirements of the Bill. Given that the United Kingdom Government were prepared to come to terms with having to comply with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights, surely they could also have accepted that some of the Bill's provisions could be legislated in Gibraltar itself.
In particular, too much emphasis is placed on the view of the Governor of Gibraltar, and not enough on those of the elected Government of Gibraltar and their Ministers, notably the Chief Minister. Furthermore, it is the Electoral Commission that will be given the power to recommend which electoral region of the UK will combine with Gibraltar. Will the Minister be good enough to tell us today how the consultation process will involve all the interested parties in Gibraltar, and particularly its elected authorities? I heard what she said in reply to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Simon Hughes), but it is not just the Electoral Commission that should be engaged in proper consultation across the board; so should the United Kingdom Government and their Ministers, including the Lord Chancellor.
I censured the Government about the mechanics of part 1 of the Bill, which gives greatly increased powers to the unelected Lord Chancellor and to the unelected Electoral Commission. Similarly, the unelected Governor of Gibraltar—and, rightly, the elected Chief Minister—will be consulted. Why should there not be wider and more substantial consultation in Gibraltar, particularly in the light of clauses 11 and 12? They include, subject to affirmative resolution, an alteration in the law of Gibraltar by the United Kingdom Parliament that could be regarded as sensitive, contentious or even oppressive.
During my research into the draft proposals for a new constitution for Europe, I discovered a provision that, if adopted, would inhibit the tax regimes of Gibraltar, Jersey, Guernsey and the Isle of Man, and which would bring any such territories, within the overarching ambitions of the new European superstate, and within the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. I trust that the Minister will assure the House today that the Government have no intention of adopting any such 188 proposals. I say that because, although we can understand the reason behind the provisions in the Bill relating to Gibraltar and to certain other arrangements, the overarching question remains of the extent to which the whole matter will be wrapped up in the convention, with potential changes that could unscramble the arrangements now going through. Because of the intense controversy that attends the question of Gibraltar, there is no reason to suppose that those powers would not be manipulated in future, with a view to unscrambling the arrangements. We need to be extremely vigilant on that issue.
I understand that the Chief Minister is to meet representatives of the Lord Chancellor's Department on 17 December, along with the new Minister for Europe. Why was no meeting held between the Lord Chancellor and the Chief Minister before the Bill was introduced? I am not aware that there was a meeting with any other Minister. Perhaps the Parliamentary Secretary herself has had a meeting with the Chief Minister, but I have not heard anything about it.
The in-depth consultation that should have taken place already—it may yet happen—must include not only the combined region but the application of electoral law to Gibraltar under clauses 12 to 21. We intend to examine those clauses closely in Committee, and to seek to amend them, as with so many other provisions in the Bill.
Only the other day, the Foreign Secretary spoke disparagingly of the UK's colonial legacy. He, the members of his Department and now the Lord Chancellor are making a pretty good fist of acting like imperial panjandrums in relation to the democratic rights of the people of Gibraltar. If that is an example of the Government's post-colonial, ethical foreign policy—especially following the referendum on the Rock—they stand charged with behaving like the very people from our imperial past whom they have excoriated. If that is new Labour's imperial face, God help the member states of an enlarged Europe under a new Labour president.
The Parliamentary Secretary will have understood from my speech that we intend to scrutinise the Bill thoroughly in Committee. I should welcome her response to the points that I have raised and the questions that I have asked before the end of proceedings today.
§ Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)
My brief contribution to the debate concerns the overarching question of expansion. We have talked about that often enough, and there is a simple choice to be made. People can believe that expansion will be good for the EU overall, in that it will boost gross domestic product in a number of countries, not least out own. It will also be good in that it will create more jobs right across Europe, and that is something that we all want just now. Expansion will certainly strengthen our capacity to fight international crime and terrorism, and I think that most hon. Members would agree with that. Despite what has been said about Poland, expansion offers the chance of securing peace and stability across Europe. In all those respects, the argument for expansion should be supported by a great many of us. 189 It is self-evident that, after expansion has taken place, some changes or movement will have to be made to accommodate the other countries. I have no problem if that means a reduction in the number of parliamentary seats. That process seems relatively straightforward. If Britain were ultimately to lose 15 or 16 seats, we would still have the second largest number of seats in the European Parliament, alongside France and Italy. That would not cause me to lie awake at night sweating about percentages. Instead, I would say that Britain would be part of a rather large voting block, especially when we combined with some of the other countries.
§ Angus Robertson (Moray)
I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way, and I am sorry that I am able to ask this question not of an elected Scottish Labour party MP, but of an exile Scot. Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the Bill's likely effect in respect of representation for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? He may be aware that Scotland, with a population of 5 million, has only half the representation of Denmark, whose population is the same size. The proposals mean that that disparity will get worse, to the extent that there may be no proportionality between the various parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. McCabe
My answer may explain why I am an exile: from my point of view, in terms of Europe, Scotland is not a separate country. I think of it as part of the United Kingdom and I expect that that is why it has its given number of seats.
I think that we should be prepared to accept some reduction in representation. I will admit to some parochial interest, and I do not think that I am alone in this. It is conceivable that the number of seats for the west midlands could go down to six. Given that the population is about 5 million and, as the Minister said, the average size for a region is a population 3.4 million, I would be a bit worried if our seats were reduced to reflect the latter figure. However, that is a matter for the Electoral Commission. When we established it, some of us, if not all, recognised that we would have to address that issue in the future.
I noticed that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) was slightly disparaging about the Electoral Commission, and he told us that it is not even an elected body. He is absolutely right, and I am delighted about that. The object was to create an impartial body, independent of Government and political parties, to supervise the administration of elections. The hon. Gentleman may recall that its establishment was recommended by the Hansard Society, the Jenkins commission and the Neill Committee. In fact, we voted for it in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The hon. Gentleman's Government, or, rather his party—that was a Freudian slip, as a Tory Government will be a long time coming—
§ Mr. Cash
My points about the Electoral Commission were not meant to deny that it has an important function to perform. However, in the context of these arrangements, as we are dealing with orders in 190 Parliament and the constitutional process, they would much better be dealt with by a proper democratic process through Parliament.
§ Mr. McCabe
I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I simply repeat that his criticism is that the Electoral Commission is not an elected body, while my point is that that is because we said that we needed an impartial body to deal with such issues. There is a choice, but voting for something and then rejecting it the first time that it is put to the test says something about our commitment.
I am also struck by the hon. Gentleman's position. He told us that he had never written or spoken against expansion, and I am happy to accept that. However, I cannot understand why he cannot tell us whether he wants a bigger and more expensive Parliament or he wants to scupper expansion through preventing a parliamentary readjustment across Europe. Or does he believe that everybody but Britain should play their part, while we should not bother? That is central to his argument at the outset. If he does not know what he wants or why he wants it, why is he telling us what he wants in the first place?
On clause 2, I think that there was a fundamental error in the hon. Gentleman's response to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). It is clear that the Electoral Commission must make sure that there are at least three MEPs per region. On that basis, Northern Ireland would not lose any of its MEPs under the Bill. We could discuss this in Committee, and I am sure that amendments will be put down to that effect, but it will be time wasted, because we know what the position is before we start. I am tempted to say that if we are not against expansion—if we have never written or spoken against it—why do we want to waste time on matters that we know are unnecessary?
As for Gibraltar, strangely enough, I have a slightly different recollection, because it seems that the Bill is trying to deal with the consequences of the European Court of Human Rights ruling. Hon. Members will recall that under that ruling the then Tory Government found that they were in breach of their obligations under the treaty, but failed to do anything about it. Strangely enough, the Bill tries to address that problem.
Opposition Members may tell us that they are not happy about the Labour Government's approach but they had the option to do something when they were in government and chose not to. They chose instead to put themselves in breach of the treaty and when that was pointed out to them they chose not to remedy it, so we were left to deal with the matter and are doing so in a relatively simple, straightforward and pragmatic way.
Between 17,000 and 20,000 people in Gibraltar have the right to vote in European elections and we have to find a way of making that possible. Because that number is too small to form a constituency on its own, the Government's proposal is that we should pair Gibraltar with another region in order to enfranchise its people. I can see no problem with that—except that, unlike other hon. Members, I am not absolutely in love with Gibraltar or the Gibraltarians, so I am willing to be up front about the fact that I do not desperately want them to he paired with the west midlands.
191 We should reflect on what the Electorol Commission said.
§ Mr. Rosindell
Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House and to the people of Gibraltar his comments about not being in love with them? They are British people. Does he not agree that they should be treated fairly, decently and in a democratic way—as he would expect for his constituents? Will he also explain to the House why the Government are so enthusiastic about allowing the applicant countries of eastern Europe to join the EU and have representation—as is right—but do not display the same enthusiasm for the British people of Gibraltar, who have been members of the European Union for 31 years?
§ Mr. McCabe
I shall deal with the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question in due course. On the second part, I repeat that the Labour Government have not denied the people of Gibraltar the opportunity to participate in elections. It was the previous Tory Government who were in breach of their agreements under the convention. They failed to find a remedy and that is why we are holding this debate. I hope that point is clear to the hon. Gentleman.
There are questions about how the Electoral Commission will address the problem. One of the commission's stated aims is that, as well as trying to find electoral equality, it should reflect community identity and interests when determining regions. I am not quite clear as to the connection between Gibraltar and the west midlands although I am aware that the Conservative MEP, Philip Bradbourn, is very keen on it. However, that may be partly down to a simple electoral calculation. I hope that I am wrong but I suspect that if we were to examine the current situation in the west midlands, Mr. Bradbourn might have a pressing reason for wanting Gibraltar paired with the region.
In reality, it is difficult to imagine how the Electoral Commission will deal with the problem. However, we have some guidance. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that he thought that the south-west region had the most in common with Gibraltar and might be the most obvious choice. Interestingly, the Gibraltarians who gave evidence to that Committee made the same point. They made it clear that their preference was to join up with the south-west region, so the solution may be simple.
If for any reason that proposal falls through, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to bear in mind, when the Lord Chancellor finally reflects on the matter, the clarity with which the hon. Member for North Down demonstrated her desire that Gibraltar should be paired with Northern Ireland.
§ Lady Hermon
The hon. Gentleman may have the good fortune to serve on the Standing Committee that considers the Bill, so may I help him with some additional information? The tallest building in Gibraltar is known as Ballymena house—not Paisley house or Trimble house—which, as the hon. Gentleman 192 Will know, is a well known town in Country Antrim. The Gibraltar Government's principal representative in the United Kingdom is a gentleman who was born during the war and was evacuated to Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. McCabe
With every seductive statement, I am more and more persuaded by the hon. Lady's case, and I totally agree that we should treat it seriously.
I said earlier that I was not in love with the Gibraltarians, which obviously caused some distress to the hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell). Let me flesh out what I am saying. If the Gibraltarians want to sign up to the European Parliament and be represented in it, should they not agree to sign up in total? Why should they be exempted from the Community customs area or the common agricultural policy?
§ Mr. Hoyle
My hon. Friend is making a very interesting statement, but I am sure that he will recognise that countries such as Spain, Holland and France also have overseas territories with completely different fiscal regimes from that in the EU, so we will not be creating something new, but copying a right that already exists in the EU.
§ Mr. McCabe
That is absolutely right. I was brought up in a regime that said, "No taxation without representation." I would equally turn that on its head and say, "If you want representation, you should be prepared to co-operate with the tax regimes that other people are subject to." I take a rather different view from that of the hon. Member for Stone, who referred to inhibiting Gibraltar's tax regime. I do not know why Gibraltarians should be exempted from the Community customs area, the CAP or the VAT regime. They are less than enthusiastic about signing up to the EU tax code of conduct or the OECD's harmful tax competition code, which, I presume, the hon. Gentleman had in mind.
In fact, the Gibraltar Government said that they will not implement or comply with any voluntary code. I am sure that most hon. Members know that the OECD code, which is voluntary, deals with harmful competition. What is the point of being part of the EU and asking to be represented in it if people do not intend to co-operate with its main tenets, one of which involves avoiding harmful, unfair or unreasonable competition?
In addition, one of the things that I do not love about Gibraltarians is that they continue to enjoy mortgage interest tax relief when no taxpayer in this country is given that benefit. Of course they pay no capital gains tax. In fact, it is the perfect place to go when people want to stash away lots of money. I want to mention another thing that I do not like. I believe that representation should engender fairness and equality. I am happy—
§ Simon Hughes
Before the hon. Gentleman gets carried away and becomes too happy, may I ask him whether he remembers how much the United Kingdom Government subsidise Gibraltar? The answer is nothing. If he believes in devolution in the United Kingdom, as I hope he does, surely he also accepts that Gibraltar's domestic policies, including those on tax, should be determined by the Government of Gibraltar, not by the Government of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. McCabe
I was happy until I took that intervention. I think that the hon. Gentleman refers to 193 direct subsidy. I accept what he says about that, but it could be argued that Britain contributes to Gibraltar's economy in a number of ways. I certainly accept that the Gibraltarians are entitled to set their own tax rates, but if people sign up to and demand representation in a club, it is reasonable to expect them to abide by the same rules as the other members of that club. Hitherto, the people of Gibraltar have shown enthusiasm only for the benefits that they will derive, but none of the costs that they might be obliged to pay.
§ Simon Hughes
I do not want to distract the hon. Gentleman from the main thrust of his argument, but some taxes have EU-wide implications, such as VAT, the money collected from which goes into the EU-wide kitty. I understand that there is a case for everybody who has representation paying into that kitty. Capital gains tax, however, has no EU-wide obligation. It is entirely a domestic matter. I assume that he, like us, believes that such issues should continue to be left to domestic Governments to determine and should not be imposed by the EU.
§ Mr. McCabe
If I did not make it clear earlier, let me make it clear now: I was making a specific point about European tax obligations. In passing, I referred to the differences between the experiences of taxpayers here and taxpayers in Gibraltar. I hope that that is sufficiently clear.
We should all be in favour of EU expansion. If there is a cost in terms of a reduction in our overall number of seats to accommodate our new partners, every sane person should recognise that that is the only way forward. As we are under an obligation to admit Gibraltar, I am happy to go along with that and to leave it to the good judgment of the Electoral Commission, which I hope will have heard the comments of the hon. Member for North Down. I am happy to leave it to the commission to make the decision.
§ Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)
I share the pleasure of the Parliamentary Secretary at seeing the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) leading for the Conservatives. There was a real worry that the hon. Gentleman had somehow been parked in a siding for this Bill, and I am glad that that was not the case.
As has been explained, the Bill is in two distinct parts, both of which the Liberal Democrats welcome in broad terms: in the case of Gibraltar, because the measures are long overdue; in the case of the European Parliament, because the proposals move towards the necessary adjustments to allow for enlargement, although we would argue that other adjustments need to be made, and that the Bill does not go far enough in that respect. I have a slight quibble with the architecture of the Bill, as the two parts are the wrong way round. Part 2, which deals with Gibraltar, contains consequent amendments that have implications for part 1, although only in marginal terms. Given that one part is contingent on the other, I would have drafted the Bill the opposite way round. I shall follow my own logic by dealing with Gibraltar first.
The people of Gibraltar have been disfranchised in terms of the European election. As Gibraltar constitutes part of the territory of the European Union, and is 194 subject to at least part of the acquis communautaire, it is disgraceful that it has been disfranchised for so long. That it was necessary for an individual citizen of Gibraltar, Mrs. Denise Matthews—whom I warmly commend—to take a case to the European Court of Human Rights to secure any Government interest in the matter, either from this Government or their predecessor, is deplorable. That it is has taken this Government nearly four years, since 18 February 1999, to legislate, all the while protesting the legal impossibilities of enfranchising the people of Gibraltar, is regrettable. Having said that, we now have a Bill that will do the job as far as the people of Gibraltar are concerned. That is to be welcomed, and I believe that it will be warmly welcomed in Gibraltar.
We have covered this territory many times before in debates. The hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who is unfortunately not present tonight, led the charge with his private Member's Bill back in 1997. In 1999, the Foreign Affairs Committee, of which I was then a member, produced a report that was very stringent in its proposals, and made it clear that it felt that the Government were letting the people of Gibraltar down.
We also had a debate in 1998 in which I led for the Liberal Democrats. An amendment was tabled that would effectively have brought about the change in status of the franchise of the people of Gibraltar that we are debating now. Unfortunately the Government rejected it, but not before cogent arguments had been advanced on both sides. I remember arguing that the people of Gibraltar should form part of what was then the Devon and Cornwall European constituency—it has now been absorbed in the south-west region—on the ground that Gibraltar logically formed part of the western approaches. I do not take a dogmatic view of that. In the west country, we have experience of dealing with islands—for example, the Isles of Scilly—promontories and peninsulas, so there may be logic to my proposal. However, that is properly a matter for the Electoral Commission to determine.
§ Mr. Heath
The hon. Gentleman may have a point. Indeed, it is perfectly possible to argue that the problems of Gibraltar go back to the treaty of Utrecht. The draftsmen's lack of foresight in working out future relationships in Europe and the possibility of Gibraltar being returned to the Spanish crown have dogged us ever since.
§ Simon Hughes
My hon. Friend makes the perfectly valid point that the Liberal Democrats do not have a view about the region or part of the United Kingdom to which Gibraltar should be linked. We believe that the Electoral Commission should come up with a recommendation. Bids have been made from those representing the capital city and there is logic to them. However, I am also sympathetic to the view that Northern Ireland and Scotland should be included as options. The reasons for not including them do not 195 outweigh the fact that the Electoral Commission should have an entirely open choice. We can then all do our own bidding and lobby the commission.
§ Mr. Heath
Indeed, or the countries. On the suggestion of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), the specific concerns of the political parties in Northern Ireland may put members of the electorate in Gibraltar in a difficult position, but there is no reason why the political parties in Northern Ireland should not take on a Gibraltarian dimension to their policies. Furthermore, there is an added advantage in that Northern Ireland has a superior electoral process for the election of Members of the European Parliament. That process is exclusive to that region and is unfortunately not available in the rest of the country. I shall return to that point.
The position of Gibraltar has been dogged with ambiguities because of successive Governments' lack of interest in securing a proper status for Gibraltar in accession treaties or in subsequent European treaties to which we have been party. That is entirely regrettable.
I agree with the hon. Member for Stone about the lack of consultation with the representatives of Gibraltar. That is not unusual in the British Government's relationship with the Government of Gibraltar. It has been a characteristic of recent years. The relevant parts of the Bill should make explicit the need to consult the House of Assembly in Gibraltar and the wider community there about the Bill's consequences. Specifically, when the Electoral Commission draws up the rules for registration and the electoral process, it must consult the political parties that are currently constituted in Gibraltar in exactly the same way that it would routinely consult the political parties in the United Kingdom. The fact that that point is not made explicit in the Bill is regrettable, but it may be dealt with in Committee.
The representation of Gibraltar in this House was raised earlier. What we decide has a great effect in Gibraltar, but it has no access even to the Bar of the House and there is no representation for the people of Gibraltar here. The House and the Government need to address that point. We must also consider the future status of Gibraltar in the European Union. If we consider the position of the French Territoires et Départements d'Outre-Mer, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, the Dutch external territories and the Faroes, we find that Gibraltar is an anomaly that needs to be addressed.
I want to deal with the extraordinary comments of the hon. Member for Stone about the Liberal Democrats. I do not think that there is any room for ambiguity in 196 the many words that my hon. Friends and I have uttered on the subject. We have argued that the people of Gibraltar should determine their future status.
§ Mr. Cash
I shall be happy to learn the official position, but I have a couple of quotations from the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who is the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman. When referring to a referendum, he said:It's plain daft to have a referendum on proposals which have not yet been finalised. Mr. Caruana would have served the interests of the people of Gibraltar much better if he had participated in the talks over its future, rather than carping from the sidelines.The right hon. and learned Gentleman described concerns over Anglo-Spanish talks as "hysteria". That is what I had in mind. Having said that, I think the hon. Gentleman's remarks today make an awful lot of sense.
§ Mr. Heath
Because the hon. Gentleman has couched his remarks in those terms, I find it hard to maintain a grudge against him. It is entirely possible to reconcile my right hon. and learned Friend's remarks with what I have said. Although there may have been good political reasons, it did not make sense to hold a referendum on proposals that had not yet been formulated. However, it makes absolute sense to hold a referendum that is binding on all parties once proposals are on the table. Our policy makes that clear. We are determined that, in accordance with liberal and democratic principles, the status of Gibraltar will be determined by the people of Gibraltar. We shall always put their interests first. That is explicit in our policy, and I think the hon. Gentleman now accepts that.
§ Lady Hermon
I wish to pick up on a point that the hon. Gentleman made about the candidates for whom the electors in Gibraltar could vote if they were aligned with Northern Ireland as a region. I assure him that the Liberal Democrats' sister party, the Alliance party, fields candidates in the European elections along with the traditional parties, such as the Ulster Unionist party and the other Unionist parties. The Conservative party might just manage to save its deposit if it too fielded a candidate in the European elections in the region. There is a broad sweep of political parties in Northern Ireland.
§ Mr. Heath
If the hon. Lady is seriously suggesting that saving a Conservative party deposit is an argument in favour of the proposal, I must say that it is a difficult concept for us to swallow. None the less, I accept her point.
Let me deal with the reduction in the number of MEPs. There is an orthodoxy that hon. Members on both sides of the House welcome enlargement. However, that breaks down when it comes to putting in the necessary preparatory work to allow enlargement to take place. Concerns about that have been explored and 197 I do not need to repeat the arguments. There is a long-standing commitment to reduce or cap the overall size of the European Parliament. The hon. Member for Stone referred to the figure of 700, which he claimed was produced by the British Government. Knowing his scholarly love of the subject, I am surprised that he did not recognise that the figure was spelt out in article 189 of the treaty of Amsterdam, about which we seem to have forgotten. The consensus was that that should be the approximate figure for the European Parliament within the enlarged Community. Every current member state must contribute to the reduction to reach that target.
The EU has not reached the figure of 700. It has listened to the pleadings of the small countries, which believe that there is an irredeemable minimum number of representatives that they should have so that they are properly represented. That touches on what the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) said when he compared Scotland with other small nations that are member states. We need to recognise the imbalance.
§ Angus Robertson
On that point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that neither the Bill nor the Electoral Commission will deal with the problem? Slovakia, which is likely to be a new member, has the same population as Scotland, but it will have 13 seats, whereas Scotland will probably have only five. Lithuania, which has broadly the same population as Wales, will have 12, whereas Wales may only have four. Northern Ireland, which can be compared in population terms with Estonia, may go from three to two seats, whereas Estonia will have six. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the only answer to the problem is for all three nations to have the status of normal member states of the EU if they so wish?
§ Mr. Heath
The hon. Gentleman makes his point. It is self-evident that what he describes is true, but the only remedy—no doubt one that he would advocate—is to split the United Kingdom up so that it is no longer a nation and a member state. It is clear that no one else in the EU will accept the proposition that we count ourselves as four small countries rather than one large one and can therefore have a larger number of representatives. If I thought that the number of MEPs was critical to this country's representation, I would be more exercised by the proposal than I am. I happen to believe that the quality of representation is not entirely proportional to the numbers who are sent to Brussels and Strasbourg. I accept that there is an anomaly, however, and the hon. Gentleman is right to point it out.
My difficulty is that the Government have not addressed the remaining obstacles to enlargement. I would not expect the Bill or the Minister to deal with those, but until the common agricultural policy is right and we sort out some of the institutional changes, there are obstacles to enlargement and the effective working of the EU after enlargement. Subsidiarity, which we have discussed so often, is more a myth than reality. It is time that we proposed, on behalf of the British people, an effective solution to some of those problems.
The reform of the European Parliament itself is also an issue. Many hon. Members will be saddened and not a little distressed by the rejection yet again of the reform of the expenses and pay arrangements in the European 198 Parliament. That was rejected by an unholy alliance of Christian Democrats and Socialists. Although the British Conservatives did not join them this time, no doubt they still have sympathies with that cause. Until reform is in place, the criticism that MEPs are on a gravy train will persist. It is time that we put that house in order.
However, it is right that overall representation is reduced if we are to avoid an unwieldy and over-large institution. It is right that the Bill presents the Electoral Commission with that responsibility, and I have two substantive issues to raise on the way in which the commission carries out its work. The first concerns the minimum number of three Members for each region. The figure of three works well in Northern Ireland because of its electoral system, which is not available to the rest of the country. In the case of a party list system, however, the smaller the number of Members on the list, the less proportional it becomes. This is not a selfish argument because on current voting intentions, it would make little difference to us in the regions as they are constituted.
The north-east runs the risk of reducing from four to three Members. That would markedly reduce the proportionality of the result in that area. While we have the party list system in the regions of England, Wales and Scotland, the Electoral Commission must have regard to the outcome of that system in terms of the minimum number. To provide for a region in which only three Members are elected will produce a perverse outcome.
§ Angus Robertson
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Electoral Commission should take into account the fact that two parts of the United Kingdom have a four-party rather than a three-party system? Before the argument is put that that is special pleading for the Scottish National party, let me make it clear that if the number is reduced in Scotland, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour will lose MEPs, not us.
§ Mr. Heath
The Electoral Commission should take that into account. We could discuss how the figures might work out in a future election, but that is immaterial. What matters is the principle of having a proportional system.
My second concern relates to the system of election. Although the Minister pre-empted my comments by rejecting that as part of the Bill, I still intend to explore it further. It is time to instruct the Electoral Commission to review the operation of the list system. We argued strongly, with others, that a closed list system was not the right way to introduce proportional representation to this country. We thought an open list preferable and the single transferable vote better still.
Back in November 1997, we had a great deal of fun discussing the different electoral systems of d'Hondt, Sainte-Lague, Hagenbach-Bischoff and Hare-Niemayer which the then Home Secretary, now the Foreign Secretary, was keen to discuss. At the end of the day, however, he closed his mind and the result was a closed list, which goes against proper accountability. My colleague Nick Clegg is testimony to that. He is an MEP for the East Midlands and has declared his intention to seek election to this House because the system of closed 199 lists within a regional context makes it difficult for him to establish the close relationship with his electorate that ensures proper accountability and democracy.
It is an opportune time to review the situation, especially as I think that the previous Home Secretary intended to provide such a proliferation of different systems at different levels and in different areas because he wanted to bring the whole electoral system into disrepute. That is the only reason I can find to explain why he introduced different systems for the devolved Governments, for local government and for different parts of the UK. I hope that we will shortly discuss arrangements for the upper House. I shall argue strongly that if we have an elected upper House, its Members should be elected by single transferable vote or, alternatively, an open list system. A closed list is not a good method of selection. I hope that we can put that to the Electoral Commission so that it can make recommendations to the House.
Finally, like the hon. Member for Stone, I am unhappy about the Lord Chancellor, an unelected Minister in another place who holds a position in the justiciary, having responsibility for those matters. I would be perfectly happy for a Minister in the Lord Chancellor's Department—the Minister herself or her fellow Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton)—to make those decisions, but I have strong misgivings about the matter being left to the Lord Chancellor, who holds a Government position about which I have grave doubts anyway. Clause 23 makes the powers exercised by the Lord Chancellor concurrent with those of the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State's Department is not specified—perhaps the Minister can help to identify which Secretary of State would have powers and in what circumstances. These matters are of great concern to Members on both sides of the House, impinge on the democratic process, and are properly the responsibility of Ministers who are accountable to the House. I hope that we will examine them during consideration of the Bill, which I broadly welcome. However, there are details at which we must look very closely indeed.
§ Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)
First, I am sure that the House is well aware of my interest in Gibraltar. I was a member of the delegation that observed the referendum there.
§ Geraldine Smith
May I take the opportunity to add that I, too, was an observer in Gibraltar? I should have made that interest clear when I intervened on the Minister.
It is strange that we can go anywhere in Europe up to three times a year without making a declaration, but cannot visit Gibraltar, where British people live, undeclared. It will be interesting to see if that changes now that Gibraltar has European representation.
§ Mr. Hoyle
My hon. Friend is right—it is rather absurd that people from EU member states have the right to visit other EU countries three times a year without making a declaration. It is therefore rather 200 obscene that one cannot visit Gibraltar even once without making a declaration. That fact needs to be taken on board in the future.
I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill, which will guarantee a basic human right to Gibraltarians that has been denied them for decades. I am pleased that the case of Matthews v. UK, which went to the European Court of Human Rights, ensured that that right was included in the Bill. The Government promised in 1999 that a Bill would be introduced to allow the people of Gibraltar the right to exercise their democratic vote in European elections in time for the 2004 elections. We all believe in democracy, and we have an opportunity to demonstrate that in the Bill.
The Bill raises some interesting questions about the logistics of a referendum and Gibraltar's future, particularly the issue of the region to which Gibraltar should be aligned. Many people have expressed their views, including the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and members of the Scottish National party. I would like to point out that the north-west would benefit from the voters of Gibraltar voting with it, but that is for the Electoral Commission to decide. I hope that it will take on board Members' views before making a decision.
The Foreign Secretary has said that the south-west is the most obvious candidate. I agree that it has the strongest case of any of the contenders. I accept that Northern Ireland has historical links with Gibraltar, but Navy ships travel between the Plymouth dockyards and Gibraltar, so the south-west option makes sense. Sir Francis Drake's connection with Spain has been mentioned. I am not sure that that is the best reason for alignment—[Laughter.] I thought that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) would not be able to resist that little kick at Spain. The Golden Hind Society held a referendum in Plymouth, which showed that the people there believed that the people of Gibraltar should have the right to self-determination, and that they did not believe in joint sovereignty either. My heart tells me to go for the north-west, but I know that the south-west is the obvious choice. Hopefully, the Electoral Commission will allow us to express our preferences, but I am sure that it will make the right decision and listen to all the views expressed in the House.
Political parties must also consider how the proposals will affect their regional list system. That has already been mentioned, and I trust that the Minister will deal with it later. We should be aware of the change and what enfranchising the people of Gibraltar might mean. Earlier, I raised with the Minister the question of other overseas territories. Who knows, the Falklands or other overseas territories may come forward, although I accept that they have no wish to do so at the moment. France, Holland and Spain, as has been said, have enfranchised the residents of their overseas territories. Will the Minister tell us whether the Bill would allow us to consider such an application from one of our overseas territories or, if not, how we would deal with it.
As I said, I went out to Gibraltar to observe the referendum on 7 November. The clear result was that its people have no wish for joint sovereignty, so the question is: what next for Gibraltar? We were told by the Foreign Secretary that the status quo is not an option, so we must look for something else. As joint sovereignty was rightly rejected, we must look at alternatives such 201 as integration with the United Kingdom and representation of Gibraltar in the House. It has been said that Gibraltar has no elected Member in Parliament, but perhaps we should consider that in future. Independence may be an option or, alternatively, we could consider maintaining the status quo, if that is what the people of Gibraltar wish. Reducing the Governor's powers in Gibraltar and ensuring that there are more powers for its Government may be another way forward. However, we have made a start in looking at issues that need to be considered more carefully in discussions about the future of Gibraltar.
Whatever we may think, this is a matter for the people of Gibraltar. We need to hold a debate with them on which options should be considered by the House. Eventually, they should be able to vote on them in a referendum. However, it is up to the Gibraltarian Government to make a decision about what they wish to do next—I am sure that the people of Gibraltar will ensure that their Government are aware of what they think. In the Bill, we are recognising the democratic rights of the people of Gibraltar and enfranchising them. We believe in human rights and the right to self-determination. The Bill allows Gibraltarians to have a say in Europe, and moves Gibraltar a step closer to the UK. I hope that it acts as a catalyst for discussions about the future status of Gibraltar. We should ensure that its people have the right to vote in European elections and are aligned with a suitable region. I am sure that we can build closer links with Gibraltar, because our Government have failed it in the past. We have been at loggerheads with the people of Gibraltar, but the time has come to reflect calmly on what happened in the past. We in the House must move forward with the best interests of Gibraltar at heart. Successive Governments have kicked Gibraltar around, instead of respecting what it has done for the United Kingdom.
I cannot think of any other territory that put itself at risk during the second world war, the Falklands war and the Gulf war, and will do so again, whatever happens next in respect of Iraq. Gibraltar has always supported the United Kingdom. Whenever they have been called upon in times of trouble, the people of Gibraltar have always volunteered first. It is important that they now get the recognition that they deserve. We have the opportunity to show our full support. Instead of putting them at loggerheads again with a British Government, let us move forward in unity.
§ David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire)
I apologise for missing the earlier part of my hon. Friend's contribution. What would he say to my constituent, a Gibraltarian who has moved permanently to live in the United Kingdom, Mr. Olivares of St. Denys crescent, Ibstock, who has the qualities that my hon. Friend just described? He demonstrates the utmost loyalty to this country and is deeply disappointed by some of the events that have taken place in recent months. Should he be more encouraged by what my hon. Friend perceives will happen over the months to come?
§ Mr. Hoyle
I welcome that intervention because my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to his constituent. It is important that we build close links with the people of Gibraltar for their benefit, not to appease the Spanish 202 Government. It was too easy to sell out the people of Gibraltar for new access within the EU, using Italy and Spain. I believe that we will never treat people in that way again, and I hope that we will recognise our previous mistakes and look after those loyal people of Gibraltar, who are part of the United Kingdom. We are therefore their representatives in the House, and I hope that from now on we can ensure that we work for the benefit of the people of Gibraltar and safeguard their interests.
§ Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds)
I welcome the Bill because of the enfranchisement of Gibraltarians for the purposes of European parliamentary elections. It is long overdue and has been rejected by Ministers in the House several times before.
The Bill is significant for two reasons. First, for all of us who believe in the effective parliamentary supremacy of this place, the very existence of the Bill as it relates to Gibraltar demonstrates what a Government can achieve if they decide to go down the route of unilateral action in the EU arena. Ministers have effectively threatened to take unilateral action to ensure that Spain does not block the enfranchisement of Gibraltarian citizens for European parliamentary elections. Ministers should mark well the precedent that they have set.
Secondly, the Bill is significant because of the strong message that it sends to the Spanish Government. The passage of the Bill in this place makes it clear that the House sees a more important role for Gibraltar in the life of this country. It certainly represents a move towards closer integration. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who is a doughty campaigner and articulate prosecutor of the cause of Gibraltarian democracy. I hope that Spanish representatives listening to the debate and looking at the Bill's provisions will understand the message that is being sent to them in respect of any future negotiations that they may have with Her Majesty's Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I mention the importance of the threat of unilateral action to allow the Bill to go ahead. History shows some spinelessness on the part of Ministers in previous Governments, as well as the present Government. At the commencement of direct voting for the European Parliament in the 1970s, the Gibraltarians were excluded from any possibility of direct voting. A rather strange distinction was drawn between Gibraltar and the overseas territories of France and Spain, which were seen to be closely integrated with those countries. As citizens of those territories can vote in national elections, there was no problem including them in European parliamentary elections. Even though the people of Gibraltar have strong historical links with this country and are a part of Europe geographically, they were excluded.
With the increasing importance of co-decision making under the treaties of Amsterdam and Nice, it is little wonder that Ministers in Gibraltar want European parliamentary representation. Remedies for the wrongs done to the people of Gibraltar have been attempted before, as we have heard. The first bold attempt was made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) in his private Member's Bill in 1997. At that time, the 203 Labour Government argued that the enfranchisement of Gibraltarians by the means of adding Gibraltar to a UK constituency was not possible because it would involve amending Annex II of the EC Act on Direct Elections 1976. That would have had to be ratified by all member states, and Ministers at the time did not believe that the Spanish would allow it. That is essentially why that Bill fell.
The second attempt was made during the passage of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill in 1997 and 1998. On Second Reading in another place, the Minister, Lord Williams of Mostyn, raised legal objections to legislating unilaterally to amend the EC Act. He said:If we tried to amend it, it would not be within our domestic competence and it would be open to change at the European Court."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 9 April 1998; Vol. 588, c. 900.]That was an extraordinary example of spinelessness, no doubt not just at the behest of legal advisers, but at the behest of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Thus, the second recent attempt came to naught.
It is ironic that we needed a claim under the human rights legislation to break the impasse—the obstacle of European Union law, as perceived by Ministers. The human rights claim made in the Matthews case in 1996 came to grief in the first instance, when it was before the Council of Europe's European Commission of Human Rights. On the first attempt, Her Majesty's Ministers countered that the 1976 Act fell within the European Community legal order and was therefore not an Act for which the UK could be held responsible under the Council of Europe convention. Even at that stage, Ministers were not interested in the human rights claim, but happily in February 1999, when proceedings commenced in the European Court of Human Rights, the Court found in favour of Matthews, stating that the British Government were in violation of the ECHR and that they had not made proper arrangements to enable the people of Gibraltar to vote in elections to the European Parliament. At that stage, rather late in the day, Her Majesty's Government acted on the basis of a human rights claim rather than on any robust position on EU law and committed themselves to taking action. It was only at that stage that they showed the moral gumption that I wish they would show in EU negotiations more generally.
The first sign of any determination to say that we were not going to allow Spain to veto parliamentary will and the desire to enfranchise the people of Gibraltar came when the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers put it to the UK that it had two ways of ensuring conformity with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. The Committee suggested that the UK could give effect to the Matthews judgment either by amending the 1976 Act to require the unanimity of EU states—a proposal that was never going to be much of a runner, given the previous attitude shown by Her Majesty's Ministers in not even attempting to take such a route in EU negotiations—or by taking national action. That would involve independent national action—I like the sound of that—using domestic legislation without prior amendment to the 1976 Act. 204 There would also be no requirement to ask Spain whether it would consent—something that we all know was never going to happen.
When the Foreign Office sees such things happening, it can either take a sensible course of action or make life difficult for itself. On this occasion, it appeared to advise the right hon. Member for Neath (Peter Hain), now Secretary of State for Wales and the relevant Foreign Office Minister at that time, to take the route of unilateral action. My point is that all that happened late in the day, but none the less, much to my incredulity, in Hansard on 10 December 2001, the right hon. Gentleman said:The content of this legislation is a matter for the UK alone".Amen to that. He went on to say:it does not require the approval of other member states. There will be no additional EU legislation. Consultations are already underway between the Government and the Government of Gibraltar on the practical arrangements."—[Official Report, 10 December 2001; Vol. 376, c. 632W.]Those arrangements have issued forth substantially in the Bill, which illustrates a very important point: it is significant because it shows the importance of unilateral action.
I should like the Minister to deal with a puzzle that arises from the provisions on Gibraltar. The point was well made by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which, like me, applauded the use of unilateral domestic legislation instead of any faffing around in fruitless negotiations to try to ensure unanimity among various EU partners. The Select Committee said in its report of July 2002:By acting unilaterally, the British Government will enable Gibraltar citizens to vote in elections without prior amendment of the 1976 EC Act".However, the Committee was puzzled by a statement made to it previously by the now Secretary of State for Wales:Spain has dropped its opposition to our insistence on giving the people of Gibraltar the right to vote in the European elections. That is why we have been able to proceed.I share the Committee's puzzlement and I would be grateful for elucidation from the Minister on how Spain ever had a veto if we could take such unilateral domestic action anyway, without its consent or that of any other EU member?
§ Mr. Cash
A thought occurred to me as I was making my speech and also just now as my hon. Friend advanced his lucid arguments. To some extent, were not both the United Kingdom Government and the Spanish Government more impressed by the necessity of complying with the Court's ruling and the feeling that it would be invidious, difficult and embarrassing for them not to do so than by the wholly understandable and justifiable position of unilateral action?
§ Mr. Ruffley
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. My assessment is that if Her Majesty's Government had shown at an earlier stage a desire to take unilateral 205 action—I am sure that he will agree that they had an opportunity to do so in 1997—the matter could have been resolved more rapidly. As he suggested, the single cause may not have been the Government's threat of unilateral action, but reticence on the part of other countries about being taken to the European Court of Human Rights. I prefer the interpretation suggesting that an independent member state was acting in its interests on the basis of the threat of unilateral action. I am sure that that approach should have been taken earlier, but it sent out an unmistakeable sign, albeit late in the day, to show that if this Parliament and the UK Government dig in, are lucid and clear and draw a line in the sand, they can often get more out of negotiations than by acting in a supine way and relying on the feeding of lines by various pin-stripe-suited types in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
The significance of the Bill is the effect that it will have on Spain. I join the hon. Member for Chorley and other speakers in drawing attention to the referendum result. I hope that the Foreign Office will consider that result and the way in which the people of Gibraltar will embrace their voting rights in 18 months' time and put a stop to any sell-out or mealy-mouthed negotiations that are consistent with neither the British national interest nor that of the overseas territory of Gibraltar.
The Bill contains an important lesson. Not only in this aspect of European policy, but in others, if Ministers want to do something that might upset some other EU partners, they should do it, because it is remarkable what they can achieve when they keep the British national interest in mind when negotiating in the EU arena.
§ Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should consider pursuing our interests by returning to a system of first-past-the-post elections to the European Parliament, rather than by having it decided for us that we should have some crazy system of proportional representation?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal)
Order. The Bill is about representation, rather than methods of election.
§ Mr. Ruffley
Hon. Members may not have noticed that I was about to finish my peroration, but I shall briefly be tempted down the path laid out by the hon. Gentleman. Widespread concern has been expressed in all parts of the House throughout the debate about the nature of the closed list system. I know that the Liberal Democrat spokesman has flagged up to the Minister the suggestion that there may be some mechanism to raise that matter in Committee, although when I look at the title of the Bill, it seems to me that that may be rather difficult. Surely, it must be a matter for the House to debate in the near future. In my view, it is inimical to democracy to have a closed list system ruled by party claques, apparatchiks and control freaks, and I am glad that he and other colleagues in all parts of the House steadfastly set their faces against such an approach. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about that point.
§ Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)
Several hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), mentioned our debates on the European 206 Parliamentary Elections Act 2002. The Foreign Secretary, in typical fashion, presented his best case for the change in the electoral system, which the Bill seeks to effect. One of his central arguments was that a list system would increase turnout. The House of Commons briefing shows that Great Britain managed a turnout of 23.1 per cent. We should at least mention the total and abject failure of that central objective—engaging the British people—of changing the system. Like many Members, I believe that it would be better if we returned to first principles and considered reintroducing first past the post.
Earlier, I mentioned the process for reducing representation throughout the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. It is important to consider that. Under current arrangements for the House, the Electoral Commission's boundary committee goes through a special process. First, it sets a quota for England; secondly, it sets quotas for unitary authorities or counties and then it draws up boundaries for seats. Individuals can write in and object. If 100 individuals in a local authority or major political party write in, an inquiry is held.
Although the process takes time, there is an input from many organisations into the precise boundary and representation for each area. That tradition has existed since 1945, and it has also applied in local government, which had boundary commissions. Local government undergoes a similar process when change occurs.
In recent years, the Government have tended not to refer electoral matters, especially those that involve proportional representation, to the proper scrutiny of a boundary commission. Instead, they have simply consulted the Electoral Commission. I am worried about that because I am not sure whether proper representations can be made in such circumstances.
For example, the Greater London Authority Act 1999 provided for twinning boroughs and the list system. It was debated in Committee, but it did not undergo the same scrutiny in the country or through an inquiry. The Regional Assemblies Bill involves a similar process. The Government will simply consult the Electoral Commission, but the Bill contains no proper procedure for dealing with the size and precise nature of the electoral boundaries.
The Bill covers what may prove to be party-political, contentious issues. It was claimed earlier that we were simply considering arithmetic and therefore an uncontentious matter, but that is incorrect. The size of a region and the electoral quota required to win a seat can determine representation between the parties. Although southern Ireland has the single transferable vote system, which the Liberal Democrats dearly love, the size of the multi-Member constituencies and whether they are odd or even numbered determine which parties take specific seats. In the Irish system, increasing or reducing the boundaries and seats can determine political representation.
It is clear that if one subtracts, for example, nine seats from a specific region, that can have an impact on political representation. It may have a disproportionate impact on one political party. The Bill clearly states that the exercise is numerical. I welcome that principle. If one tries to apportion seats, it is probably best to do that on a numerical basis. However, what happens when two 207 regions make an equal claim, or in the case of quotas that are extremely close? How does one determine in a tie-breaker who will get and who will lose the extra seat? That will cause some debate in a system under which the number of constituencies is fixed.
The Bill does not provide for sparsity. If two regions have an equal claim, sparsity might be a factor. Our first past the post system takes account of it. One presumes that there will be a single enumeration date for the regional electorates. However, some regions are growing rapidly and others are losing population. Will that be a factor in the decision between specific regions? Will Gibraltar be the tie-breaker? That is unclear.
Assigning Gibraltar to a region could determine whether the region gets an extra seat and another loses a seat. There is a political calculation in that, for example, if the south-west had seven rather than six seats, it would be contentious. The Bill does not provide for an inquiry or some means for political parties, local authorities or people in the regions to make representations. Reference is made only to the Lord Chancellor and the Electoral Commission.
The Electoral Commission has a general remit to consult, but the Bill does not specify what sort of consultation. I hope that even if that does not appear in the Bill, the Government, through the Parliamentary Secretary's reply or in Committee, will set out the process. Even if there is no controversy in the first round of reducing seats, perhaps it will arise next time. The process will continue as Europe is enlarged. The ground rules need to be clearly set out so that members of all parties know how to respond to a redistribution of seats. I am uneasy about matters being conducted purely between the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Electoral Commission. We are considering matters that are more political than numerical. If that is acknowledged, we can get through the process more easily.
I welcome the fact that the Gibraltarians will be able to vote. Many hon. Members have spoken about that, and I shall not say much more. As a member for the south-west, which, as I have often argued, is not an especially natural region, I suspect that it would be the most logical region to combine with Gibraltar, given the links between them. The Cornish tend to perceive themselves as somewhat different, and the south-west could probably absorb the Gibraltarians easily as we would also have the Cornish. That is my bid for the Gibraltarians to be combined with the south-west.
I have anxieties about the Bill. It is a small, technical measure, but that does not mean that it does not raise political questions and arguments.
§ Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk)
I am pleased to have an opportunity of speaking in the debate. I want to raise three specific issues. The first is about human rights, especially in relation to other overseas territories. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who is not in his place, raised that point. Secondly, I want to consider the Electoral Commission and the role of the Lord Chancellor. My third point is about the operation of the combined region and proportional representation.
208 We are discussing the matter today because of the European Court of Human Rights and its judgment. The Parliamentary Secretary said that the Matthews judgment did not apply to the Channel Islands. However, the Bill and the other documentation suggests that the point about the Matthews case is nothing to do with the wishes of the Gibraltarian Government or those of any other Government of a British overseas territory. Two questions are relevant. Had the British permanent representative to the Council of Europe, who makes a declaration about the European convention on human rights, declared specific territories to be within the ambit of convention? Did any of those territories have the right of individual petition before the European Court? So long as both of those conditions are satisfied, and despite the stance, whatever it might be, of the Government of the Channel Islands—the Bailiwicks of Guernsey or Jersey, for example—it might be open to a citizen to petition the European Court, just as it was open to Denise Matthews to do so. Presumably, in the same circumstances, if the convention were applicable and there were a right of individual petition before the European Court, the Court would reach the same decision again. I would be grateful if the Minister would expand on that, because she did not go into the matter in detail earlier.
My next point relates to the Electoral Commission and the powers of the Lord Chancellor. Many hon. Members have commented that the Bill gives too many powers to the Lord Chancellor. My view is that any man who compares himself with Cardinal Wolsey probably deserves fewer rather than more powers, and that the House should not consider passing any Act of Parliament that might enhance his powers in any way. The Bill says, however, that the Electoral Commission has to consider which of the existing electoral regions in England and Wales should be combined with Gibraltar and, before determining what recommendation to make to the Lord Chancellor, consult with the Governor and the Chief Minister of Gibraltar. Under the Bill, the Lord Chancellor also has an obligation to consult the Electoral Commission.
That raises a number of questions, which I would be grateful if the Minister could answer. First, what weight will the Government give to the opinion of the Gibraltar Government—by which I mean the Chief Minister and the Government, in particular, and not simply the Governor? The reason that I ask the question in that form is that a press release of 22 November—the day on which the Bill was published—from the Gibraltar Government makes it plain that the United Kingdom Government gave no weight to the opinions of the Government of Gibraltar when they presented the Bill to the House of Commons. The press release states:The Government"—that is, the Government of Gibraltar—has examined the European Parliament (Representation) Bill published today by the British Government, upon the text of which the Gibraltar Government has not been consulted.There are two reasons why that is strange. The first is that the British Government have made a commitment to more pre-legislative scrutiny—that is, more pre-consideration of Bills, so that they will be in better shape when they come before the House.
Secondly, given the thorough Horlicks that the British Government have made of their relations with the Government of Gibraltar, one might have thought 209 that, on a Bill of this importance to Gibraltar, it might have been sensible to show the Gibraltar Government the finished text of the draft Bill before presenting it to the House, and to say, "Here is our draft text; what do you think of it?" According to the Government of Gibraltar, however, that was not done. An explanation from the Minister for that would also be helpful.
A further question that I would like to raise is on the nature of the combined region and how it will work in practice. With respect to what you said earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker—of course, I respect your ruling. The way in which the combined region that will include Gibraltar is to operate will involve the existing electoral system, and this will highlight the operation of that system more starkly than ever before. In my own electoral region for the European Parliament—the eastern region—there are eight MEPs. In the south-west—part of which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms)—I think that there are seven, and in Northern Ireland, three. I was particularly attracted to the suggestions made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon); she made a very appealing case.
So far as I understand the Bill, the system will operate in exactly the same way in the combined region, once Gibraltar has been incorporated into it, as it does now in, shall we say, my own eastern region. Each of the eight MEPs for that region, technically, is an MEP for the whole region. Similarly, the seven MEPs for the south-west are all MEPs for all the south-west. Thus, whichever combined region incorporates Gibraltar, all its MEPs will represent Gibraltar. We already understand the difficulties that this causes in practice. In my own area, the MEPs have informally cut up the region territorially, just so that they can begin to get a grasp of the job. I would be grateful if the Minister could address this issue, specifically in relation to Gibraltar. How will this work? If all the MEPs from a region represent Gibraltar, will they all fly off there regularly? Alternatively, will they simply have to cut up their region and decide informally that only one of them should take responsibility for the territory? If so, which one, and from which party? This raises real concerns in relation to the operation of the combined region.
I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) in his place and participating in this debate as a true Eurosceptic. I gather that, at a tea party in his constituency a few months ago, he said that he had always been against the single European currency. It is a great pleasure to participate in a debate on the Floor of the House with him, when he takes such an important position on such an important question. With respect to his position on proportional representation, however, I suggest that the question of how the combined region would operate throws into stark relief the catastrophe that is proportional representation.
§ Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford)
Most hon. Members will be aware of my views on Gibraltar, and on how the British people of that territory should be represented at every level of government. It is a pity that they should have to begin by being represented in the European Parliament. I would much prefer the Minister to come to the House to state that she will also give the 210 people of Gibraltar the right to make their own decisions on who will speak for them in this House as well. They are British citizens, and they should be treated equally and properly, as we would expect our own constituents to be treated.
I welcome this initiative, although it is sad that it has taken 31 years for the British people of Gibraltar to be given the right to vote in European elections. They joined the Common Market at the same time as the United Kingdom did, yet they were deliberately excluded from being able to vote in European elections from 1979 onwards. That was shameful, and created a democratic deficit that no party in government has addressed over a long period of time. I sincerely hope that the present Government will address the democratic deficit in relation to this place, and that my own party will consider this a future policy for the next Conservative Government.
I welcome the Bill, principally because it takes the first step in a long overdue move towards the integration of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar within the United Kingdom. I hope, however, that the concept of giving the people of our overseas territories the right to vote in elections will not end with this Bill. I want to correct one or two hon. Members who have spoken on the subject earlier. Gibraltar is a member of the European Union, via the United Kingdom, but that does not apply to the other British overseas territories or the Crown dependencies of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man; they are not part of the European Union. Lucky them! While Gibraltar remains part of the European Union, however, it should be given the right to vote and to choose its own elected representatives, and I am glad that there is consensus on that in the House.
The people of Gibraltar have been treated shabbily. It is regrettable that it has taken an action in the European Court of Human Rights to bring the matter to a head. It is a pity that Labour Members—with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who is just returning to the Chamber—are not enthusiastic about the Bill. Indeed, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) said that he did not particularly like Gibraltarians, and had no time for them. He seemed reluctant to give them the vote in European elections. I wish that there were more enthusiasm. I cannot understand any British Member of Parliament being unenthusiastic about giving all British people the right to vote in all British elections. I find it appalling that there is a lack of such enthusiasm among those on the Government Benches. Indeed, the Government have been forced to bring the Bill to the House. They have not done so willingly, as one might have expected from a British Government in relation to their own people.
The explanatory notes make it clear that the integration of Gibraltar in a British region for representation in the European Parliament has come about through the case of Matthews v. the United Kingdom in the European Court of Human Rights. The referendum held on the Rock only last month—we all know the result, as 99 per cent. of people in Gibraltar 211 decided that they want to stay British—clearly showed that the British people of Gibraltar want representation in the European Parliament and here.
§ Tony Cunningham
I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Why did the House not pass legislation between 1979 and 1997 to give the people of Gibraltar the opportunity to vote in European Parliament elections?
§ Mr. Rosindell
As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was not a Member of the House in that period and I cannot speak for a previous Conservative Government. All I can say is that, as a Member of the House today and one who will be a Member when the next Conservative Government are elected, I strongly believe that it is my party's duty to ensure that that wrong is corrected when we are back in power. The Bill will give the people of Gibraltar the right to vote in European elections, but they must also have the right to vote Members to this House. I look forward to that day.
§ Mr. Rosindell
I am disappointed that British subjects, whoever they are and wherever they may live, have not been given the right to vote in British elections. The previous Conservative Government could have given them that right. Obviously, other matters were on the agenda, but I have no doubt that a future Conservative Government will consider the issue and, as the hon. Gentleman knows more than most on the Government Benches, I am arguing strongly for that in my party. Our Government's attitude to the people of Gibraltar should involve not listening and walking away, but substance and meaning. They are British, as are all subjects in the British overseas territories, and they should be given the rights that are expected in our constituencies.
I urge the Government to send the people of Gibraltar the right signals. It is important that those in Gibraltar who are watching the debate today do not see a Government who are reluctant to introduce the Bill. I honestly believe that the attitude that they have displayed to the people of Gibraltar has done enormous harm, so this is an opportunity for them to make their peace with the people of the Rock, respect them and embrace their wishes. It would make such a difference if the people of Gibraltar were made to feel that they are wanted by the Government and wanted by the Members of this place.
§ Mr. Cash
Does my hon. Friend not think that, perversely and in some respects, that attitude may have done a lot of good? It has drawn the attention of the people of this country to how shabbily the people of Gibraltar have been treated. The British people have every reason to be concerned about how they are likely to be treated, for example when they are not given a referendum on the Government's proposal for a European constitution.
§ Mr. Rosindell
My hon. Friend is correct again. The Government have treated the people of Gibraltar 212 shabbily, but that has highlighted the democratic deficit and the importance of giving the vote to the British people in our few remaining overseas territories.
After an Adjournment debate last week, the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for Europe said to me, "If you give Gibraltar the right to vote in elections, they will all want it." It is as if we have millions of colonies that are all waiting to send MPs to the House. Of course, that is simply not the case. We have a small number of overseas territories—about 12 or 13—with small populations and none has asked for or seems to want independence. They all want to stay under the Crown and they wish to remain British.
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the other aspect that distinguishes those territories is that they are not relevant to the Bill.
§ Mr. Rosindell
Thank you for reminding me of that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was responding to points made by other Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) referred to referendums on European issues and I endorse everything he said.
The region in which Gibraltar should be included is a matter for the people of Gibraltar and the Electoral Commission. It should be an independent decision. There are strong arguments for the south-west region and arguments for Northern Ireland. I regret the fact that only England and Wales are to be considered, as I believe that Gibraltar is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Therefore, I cannot understand how, in principle, it is right to exclude any part of the UK from consideration as to the region in which Gibraltar should be included.
§ Mr. Bacon
Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason given by the Minister for why that cannot be done—namely, that it is rather too complicated—is inadequate in view of the importance of his remarks about the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the fact that we managed to get a man to the moon in 1969?
§ Mr. Rosindell
My hon. Friend makes a fair point. That argument cannot be sustained and it is simply wrong on principle. If a British overseas territory is to be given the vote in British elections and if the Electoral Commission is to decide the region or constituency in which that territory is to be included, we must start from the basis that it can be included in any part of the UK. I cannot understand how it can possibly be argued that Scotland and Northern Ireland should be excluded from consideration.
I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says and ask the Minister to reconsider. I am not arguing for Gibraltar to be included in Northern Ireland or in Scotland; I want the people of Gibraltar to make that decision with the Electoral Commission. The whole UK should be treated the same way in this respect.
Once again, it is shabby that the Government have failed to consult the Government of Gibraltar, Gibraltar's Chief Minister and the Gibraltarian people on the Bill. The Minister should understand how profound the matter is to the people of Gibraltar. 213 The Bill is not of minor consequence to them; it is of major significance to their lives. The European Union may not be particularly significant, but the fact that the people of Gibraltar are getting a vote in a British election for the first time makes the Bill incredibly important to every person on the Rock.
Members will be able to imagine the circumstances if a part of the mainland UK that had been excluded from voting in elections were suddenly able to vote. People would be very keen to ensure that they were properly consulted. That did not happen with Gibraltar, although it should have. I hope that the Minister takes note of the comments not just from me, but from many Members who made that point this afternoon. The Government should go to the people and the elected Government of Gibraltar and give them the right to be consulted on this very important issue, which affects their future.
It is a matter of principle, at least in my view, that all British people—whoever they are, and in whichever part of the world they may live—should be treated equally. This is, I trust, the first rather than the last step along the road to that end.
Let me remind the Minister that the people of Gibraltar are not just part of the European Union. In many senses, they are governed by the United Kingdom Administration. Tony Blair—sorry, the Prime Minister—may be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom rather than Gibraltar, but he makes many decisions about what happens there, as do the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence. Similarly, in respect of higher education, health and many other matters, Gibraltar depends on our elected Government for decisions. That should be taken into account in this and future legislation if we are to deal with the democratic deficit that many of us have mentioned today.
I welcome the Bill, but I am sorry it has taken a court judgment to force the Government to act. I hope that the necessary measures will be taken speedily, and that the people of Gibraltar will be consulted fully. I look forward to the day when those people elect their own MEP, and indeed their own Member of Parliament.
§ Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)
I apologise to both Front Benches, and indeed to all Members, for my absence during most of the debate. I was at the annual children's reception at 10 Downing street, following what will probably prove to be my only invitation to No 10 during the current Parliament.
In this vital debate, we have focused on the representation of small polities or territorial communities—principally Gibraltar, although I am glad that the Cornish were given a mention earlier. They would certainly say that the move to a list system has had a negative impact on their voice in Europe. I intend to concentrate on the representation of what might be called the natural regions of the United Kingdom. Wales and Scotland currently have 13 MEPs between them, but the number is to fall to 10. We are, in fact, to experience 20 per cent. of the cut in UK representation, although our population is only 15 per cent. of the whole. That is disproportionate.
I do not want to adopt a sectarian approach. Although we obviously have a nationalist perspective, Unionists should also be concerned. In a multinational 214 state such as the UK, those who uphold the constitutional integrity of the Union should pay particular attention to the representation of smaller nations such as Northern Ireland at all levels, including the European Parliament. To an extent that is reflected in the fact that the devolved Assemblies, very rarely, are given observer status at the Council of Ministers, although they have no voting rights.
However, it is precisely because Wales, as a small nation, has no automatic right to sit in the Council of Ministers—and no representation in COREPER, the Committee of Permanent Representatives—that the voice of MEPs is so important to us. European Union policies have historically been very important to us in Wales, and indeed to those in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The current discussions of fisheries policies interest us greatly; agriculture is disproportionately important to both Wales and Scotland, along with coal and steel. The same could really be said of regional policy in general. That is why we need to maintain the current level of representation for those three parts of the United Kingdom.
The American political scientist A.O. Hirschmann spoke of the strategies that minority groups could employ in a political system. There were, he said, two strategies, "voice" and "exit". Either the system accommodated minority groups, allowed them to express their distinctiveness and listened to them, or the "exit" door was available. Some of us may wish to approach that door, but I think it is in all our interests, whatever our perspective, to ensure that minority nations in the UK, including Northern Ireland, are given adequate representation. We see that principle in federal systems throughout the world. Members will correct me if my geography is wrong, but I believe that Wyoming, whose population is about half a million, has the same representation in the Senate as California, whose population is some 20 million—or perhaps 40 million; I am not sure. This is not special pleading. I am talking about how we are to ensure political cohesion in a multinational state.
In the European Union there is, in fact, over-representation of small and medium-sized nations. It is called—this is another wonderful example of Eurospeak, or Eurobabble, depending on one's political leanings—the principle of degressive proportionality. It means the over-representation of smaller nations in per capita terms, in relation to both the weighting of votes—that will apply even under the new proposals, post-accession, in the Council of Ministers—and representation as such. It is important because the proportion of small and medium-sized members of the EU is increasing post-accession. The average population of the current member state is about 24.5 million, whereas after further accessions it will be 8.8 million. The question of how best to represent smaller nations is at the forefront of the enlargement debate.
Clearly, a rigid numerical per capita rule is not the answer. A more qualitative approach is needed to the representation of political and cultural diversity in the EU. Luxembourg, whose population is about the same as Cardiff's, will have six seats, while Ireland, with the same population as Wales, will have 12—three times as many as Wales. Denmark, with the same population as Scotland, will have 13, more than double Scotland's six. 215 According to the Bill a Welshman is worth a third of an Irishman, and a Scot is worth half a Dane. That strikes me as rather bizarre.
The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is right. We are making an excellent case for full self-government—for Wales and Scotland to be members of the European Union in their own right, and to have the full panoply of advantages in terms of representation. We look forward to seeing the Liberal Democrats join us in supporting that principle at the next election.
§ Adam Price
Matters for another day, perhaps.
It is reasonable to discuss how the UK seats are to be allocated. The UK is, after all, a multinational state or polity. The EU gives due regard to how minority nations and provinces are given adequate representation; we need to enshrine the same principle in the Bill. Unfortunately, clause 2(4)(b) requires the Electoral Commission to ensure thatthe ratio of electors to MEPs is as nearly as possible the same in each electoral region".That cannot be right. If we are creating separate regions for the nations and the Province, surely we need a different level of representation. I am a great supporter of English regionalism, but our history of political and cultural difference requires commensurate representation.
§ Tony Cunningham
Where exactly is the hon. Gentleman drawing the line? He talks about provinces. Would he give the Catalans, the Basques and the Bavarians greater representation, or is he talking only about nation states?
§ Adam Price
I am a great believer in self-determination, but I will not preach to the Spanish on how they should arrange their internal affairs. There is a discussion going on about whether, alongside the process of external enlargement, bringing in the nations of eastern Europe, we should have a process of internal enlargement, giving greater representation to the stateless or submerged nations of western Europe. We would advocate that, but I was making a slightly different point.
Clearly, if Wales was a member of the European Union in its own right, we would automatically have a right to greater representation. My point is about being sensitive to the political and cultural diversity of these islands when we allocate seats within the United Kingdom.
§ Tony Cunningham
Is the hon. Gentleman advocating that we take seats away from other parts of the United Kingdom or Spain, for example? How many MEPs would there be under the system that he favours?
§ Adam Price
My position is absolutely clear. I accept that, with enlargement, we have to reduce the number of 216 seats for the United Kingdom, but I do not understand why Wales and Scotland should be disproportionately affected. Depending on one's reading of the Bill, it seems that Northern Ireland is protected and cannot go below the floor of three seats, and we would want the same to apply to us, although we accept that there must be some reduction.
If we are serious about maintaining the political integrity of this multinational state, there must be a certain amount of over-representation for the small nations, as otherwise they will feel dwarfed, whether in the European Union or the UK context.
The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) made the point that we have a more diverse party system in the smaller nations of the UK. In Wales, we have a fully fledged four-party system; in Scotland, we have a six-party system; and if my memory serves me correctly, there are 12 parties represented in Northern Ireland.
§ Adam Price
At least 12, and possibly growing by the day.
In that situation, we need to retain the existing level of representation.
§ Mr. Davidson
Does the hon. Gentleman accept that the individual nations of the United Kingdom are not in themselves homogeneous? In Scotland, there are substantial regional differences that are in danger of being submerged by its being a single political unit. Is not that an argument for breaking up Scotland into a smaller number of first-past-the-post constituencies for elections to the European Parliament?
§ Madam Deputy Speaker
Order. I have already ruled that the Bill does not cover the method of election.
§ Adam Price
It is bizarre that Gibraltar may be included in Wales but not in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The only reason that I can come up with is that Wales has a secondary legislative form of devolution. It seems that Gibraltar could be imposed on Wales but not on the other two parts of the UK. In fact, there will be plenty of difficulty imposing a settlement on the Gibraltarians, let alone imposing the Gibraltarians and the settlement on the people of Wales, even with the well-honed diplomatic skills of the former Minister for Europe, now Welsh Secretary.
We want to achieve representation for all parts of the United Kingdom, and we will certainly oppose any proposal that would result in less of a voice for what are already under-represented, stateless nations. We need a voice in the European institutions, and that is why we are against the Government's proposals.
§ Mr. Cash
We have had an interesting, wide-ranging debate. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) made a thoughtful contribution, and we look forward to the amendments that will be tabled in Committee. We shall have to see to what extent we can 217 find common ground with the Liberal Democrats, as there are some difficulties between us in relation to their overall position on Gibraltar. On other matters, however, and especially in relation to the overarching powers to be given to the Lord Chancellor and the Electoral Commission, we may well reach an understanding,
The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) made an extremely sensible speech. He is a member of Labour's sensible tendency. He was right to say that a logical extension of the right to European Parliamentary representation is that there should be representation for the people of Gibraltar in this House—not a point on which there is any settled policy, but one that holds great attractions in principle. My hon. Friend the Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) powerfully endorsed that point.
My hon. Friend the Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) gave us an extremely helpful history of the progress of the Bill with respect to Gibraltar, of which only those of us who had read the excellent Library research material would have been aware. He also emphasised the question of justifiable unilateral action—an issue to which we will no doubt return, not least when we debate human rights. Such points will arise when we discuss subsequent enactments, the European constitution and other matters, as we proceed towards further and deeper European integration, and resistance to it.
My hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) dealt adroitly with the question of boundary procedures. I was greatly taken with his emphasis on the political consequences for electoral law.
My hon. Friend the Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) talked about proportional representation. He was right to raise his concerns about the powers of the Lord Chancellor and the Electoral Commission and the implications for human rights.
The hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) made some interesting points about the case for the so-called stateless nations. I am not sure how we might define that in any amendments that may be tabled in Committee, but we shall wait with interest to see whether those issues are pursued at that point.
I look forward to hearing what the Minister has to say in reply to the points that were made. Very important questions arise, and so far, she has given us no more than a sketch of the Bill's content as set out in the explanatory notes. Perhaps she will now explain what really lies behind the increased and rather engrossed powers granted to the Lord Chancellor, which, as she will have gathered, the House is extremely uneasy about. There is also unease about the question of Gibraltar and the lack of consultation with its Government. I look forward to hearing that much more detailed consultation will take place not only with the Chief Minister, but with the wider population.
§ Yvette Cooper
We have had a very good debate on both aspects of the Bill: the reduction in the number of MEPs to accommodate EU enlargement, and the enfranchisement of Gibraltar. Most Members seemed broadly to support the basic principles behind the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall 218 Green (Mr. McCabe) set out clearly the case for reducing the number of MEPs as part of the expansion. The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) raised specific points relating to closed lists—I responded to them at the beginning of the debate—and set out his party's support for the principles behind the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle) gave his strong support for the people of Gibraltar. I know that he and my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale (Geraldine Smith) have visited Gibraltar, and that they have been very active in supporting its people.
The hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Ruffley) talked in detail about issues relating to unilateral action. The hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) asked about consulting the Electoral Commission, and the hon. Member for South Norfolk (Mr. Bacon) asked about consultation of Gibraltar, and about the Matthews judgment, about which I shall say more in a moment. The hon. Member for Romford (Mr. Rosindell) and my hon. Friend the Member for Morecambe and Lunesdale called for representation for Gibraltar in this House, and the hon. Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Adam Price) discussed representation in the European Parliament of Wales in particular.
I shall try to respond as briefly as I can to the various questions raised by hon. Members. Concerns were expressed about the number of powers in secondary legislation, but I should make it clear that they are very constrained. We are talking about two kinds of powers. Those relating to the reduction of the number of MEPs, which are included in first part of the Bill, are clearly constrained by the treaty of Nice. Reference is made to the reduction in numbers according to the treaty, and to the implementation of the Electoral Commission's recommendations on the allocation of MEPs across the country. It is right that we provide for the Electoral Commission's ability to make recommendations in that way; that is the fairest way to achieve proper distribution of MEPs across the country.
§ Yvette Cooper
I have given way to the hon. Gentleman on many occasions and he has had various opportunities to make points; however, I shall give way one more time.
§ Mr. Cash
I have indeed had such opportunities, but so far I have had no reply to my question about the extension of the Lord Chancellor's powers in respect of the whole remit of European Community law. In particular, the question not just of the reduction in numbers under the treaty of Nice, but of future changes, has not been dealt with.
§ Yvette Cooper
I am coming to the number of seats, and to the suggestions that were incorrectly made by the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members.
The second issue relating to secondary powers concerns Gibraltar's enfranchisement and the need to address the many aspects of UK electoral law—the way in which election agents' expenses are paid, and other such details—that must be applied to Gibraltar. It is appropriate that such matters be dealt with through secondary legislation, but it is clear that there will be considerable debate about this issue in Committee.
219 The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) asked whether the Lord Chancellor will be able to reduce the number of MEPs in Northern Ireland to less than three, and the answer is no. Clause 2(4)(b) and paragraph 1(2) to schedule 1A establish that each electoral region must be allocated at least three MEPs. Opposition Members also suggested that the House was getting no say in the reduction in the number of MEPs, but that is not true. The treaty of Nice sets the final number of MEPs for the UK at 72, and this House debated and ratified both the treaty and that figure. How we get from here to there will depend on the agreement of the European Council this week on how many new states get in, and on what the timetable for the reduction should be. However, all EU members will need to sign up to that interim position.
Hon. Members also raised the question of consultation with the Government of Gibraltar. Officials have been in contact with the Government of Gibraltar through correspondence, and in direct discussion in meetings. As hon. Members suggested, further meetings will take place before Christmas, including with a Foreign Office Minister. The detail of the Bill will be discussed, as will the way in which enabling provisions can best be applied to Gibraltar, how far such changes can be made by Westminster Parliament, and the extent to which the Government of Gibraltar can legislate. We expect some of these changes to take place through Gibraltar's own legislation, but not everything can be dealt with in that way. For Gibraltar to be treated fairly as part of a UK region, UK electoral law—which is decided by this House—needs to cover Gibraltar as well. We are talking about detailed issues—I have already mentioned expenses and election agents—including sending election addresses through the post, whether schools and rooms can he used for parliamentary elections, and so on. We need to ensure that a whole series of detailed issues concerning the conduct of elections are applied fairly to Gibraltar, so that it is treated consistently as part of a UK region.
Certain Members wanted to discuss the future status of Gibraltar, but that does not form part of the Bill's scope. I welcome the points that were raised, but I should make it clear that the Government have always said that any proposed change in the status of Gibraltar would be a matter for the people of Gibraltar to decide in a referendum. That has always been the case, and it continues to be so. The constitutional settlement for Gibraltar, which was set out in 1969, is complex, and changing that status does not form part of the scope of this Bill.
The hon. Member for South Norfolk raised an important question about the European Court judgment. He suggested that the issue is whether the people of Gibraltar have the right to petition the European Court, or whether they are covered by the European convention. My understanding of the judgment differs slightly, and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman in more detail about this complex issue. As I see it, the judgment concerned whether or not the European Parliament formed part of Gibraltar's legislature, and whether the article and protocol on free and fair elections to the legislature therefore apply. The European Court ruled that they do, but the legal 220 arguments do not apply in the same way to the Channel Islands as they do to Gibraltar. As I said, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on this point, because these are complex legal arguments.
On the points raised by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds, it would of course be preferable to amend the 1976 legislation, but we were unable to secure the unanimous agreement of the Council. That is why we have taken such action through the Bill, and we support the enfranchisement of Gibraltar in this way.
The hon. Member for Poole asked about the way in which the Electoral Commission should make its decisions and the matters that it should take into account. It does of course need to consult widely, and I am sure that political parties will make their views known as part of that consultation. In raising issues that might be important at the margins, the hon. Gentleman has in some ways shown exactly why it is so important that the Electoral Commission should conduct this consultation. Many marginal issues concerning Gibraltar, or concerning relations between individual regions, could have political consequences. It is therefore right that the Electoral Commission, which is independent and was set up for exactly such purposes, should be the body that makes the recommendation to us.
§ Yvette Cooper
The Electoral Commission is responsible to the Speaker's Conference in this Parliament. I shall have to take advice on that point and write to the hon. Gentleman. It is important that the independent electoral commission should he the body to make the recommendations. I understand that it is subject to judicial review.
Many points of detail were raised that we can discuss in Standing Committee.
§ Yvette Cooper
The Bill does not cover any other overseas territory. Clearly, if one wanted to have discussions with us, we would agree to that, and many such issues will also be matters for the Foreign Office.
Many matters of detail and drafting have been raised, and I hope that we can discuss them further in Standing Committee. I hope that we will gain the support of as many hon. Members as possible for the detailed provisions.
One substantive difference became apparent when the hon. Member for Stone seemed to object to the reduction in the number of UK MEPs. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green set the position out clearly. He said that supporters of EU enlargement can adopt one of only two positions: either they want the European Parliament to get ever bigger, or they believe that the UK and other countries need to reduce the number of their seats so that the new accession states can have representation.
In fact, there is a third option—that the new accession states should simply not get representation in the European Parliament. I assume that that is not the 221 Opposition stance. It is right that we should give the new accession states fair representation, and that, therefore, means recognising the consequences—as negotiated across Europe—for UK representation.
The hon. Member for Stone set out his objections to any reduction in the number of UK MEPs, and that seemed to me to be the wrong approach. In the past, he has said that he supported enlargement but not if that meant crushing out the democratic spirit. It is hardly in the democratic spirit to resist all reduction in UK representation, with the knock-on impact that that would have for fair representation for the new states that we should be welcoming to the EU.
The hon. Member for Stone also referred to his pamphlet on the Nice treaty. That is indeed a weighty tome—50 pages of criticism, to be precise. When I saw it, I thought that the hon. Gentleman must be prolific, and I assumed that he had written equally weighty tomes on other issues of interest to him in his role shadowing the Attorney-General and the Lord Chancellor's Department. I confess that I struggled to find any statements at all on those matters, let alone one that ran to 50 pages. In fact, I struggled to find much in the way of letters or parliamentary questions. It seems that the hon. Gentleman's interests lie elsewhere.
§ Yvette Cooper
I wonder what the hon. Gentleman has been drowning his fellow members of the shadow Cabinet in. I suspect that the answer will not be matters to do with the Attorney-General, but matters to do with Europe. When the hon. Gentleman was appointed to the Opposition Front Bench, a Tory spokesman said that he was instructed by the Tory leader that he would not be discussing European issues or pronouncing on matters European. The hon. Gentleman has in fact been quite restrained in this debate, and I accept that he has said before today that he supports enlargement. However, the logic of his argument is that, although we should welcome other eastern European and accession states into the EU, we should pull the UK out of it. He wants the renegotiation of the treaties of Nice, Amsterdam and Maastricht, and in fact he believes that we should have a referendum on the entire EU treaty itself.
A much wider difference has become evident: the hon. Member for Stone and his party want to be outside the EU and shouting from a distance while European states and the new accession states decide matters affecting our future. The Government believe that we should be in Europe, arguing our case, influencing the debate and making a real difference to the issues that affect people's lives.
That includes supporting the European Parliament, and supporting a voice in the European Parliament for people from the accession states. It also means enfranchising Gibraltar and giving its people a voice in the European Parliament.
The Bill is important. It will extend democracy and ensure a better and wider EU. I hope that all hon. Members will support that, and that they will give the Bill a Second Reading tonight.
§ Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read a Second time.