HL Deb 23 April 2004 vol 660 cc508-12

12.50 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 11 March be approved [12th Report front the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the European Parliament (Disqualification)(United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2004 be approved. I shall also speak to the European Parliament (Number of MEPs)(United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2004.

I am grateful that it has been agreed that these orders can be taken together. They both relate to the European parliamentary elections to be held in the United Kingdom on 10 June this year, and are an important part of the Government's preparations for these elections.

There is one main purpose of this first order. It disqualifies certain classes of individuals connected with Gibraltar from being MEPs. This follows on from the order which established the combined electoral region of the South West and Gibraltar to enable the people of Gibraltar to vote in European Parliamentary elections and which extended the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 to Gibraltar. Noble Lords may recall that that order was debated in this House in January.

By way of background, a ruling in 1999 by the European Court of Human Rights, as a result of a legal challenge to the UK from a Gibraltar resident, declared that the European Parliament formed a part of Gibraltar's legislature. The European Parliament (Representation) Act—which received Royal Assent in May 2003—fulfilled the obligation to meet the terms of that judgment. The Act provides for the Gibraltar electorate to be enfranchised for elections to the European Parliament.

The current position in both the UK and Gibraltar is that, under Section 10 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002, as it stands, certain classes of people are disqualified from being an MEP, for example people under 21. Other classes of people in the UK that are disqualified from being an MEP include, for example, people declared bankrupt in the UK. Provision needs to be made to apply such disqualification to Gibraltarians in a similar position. This order does that, mirroring those classes of people in the UK.

In addition, under Section 28 of the Gibraltar Constitution certain people are prohibited from being members of the House of Assembly. The order includes those classes of people listed in the constitution, which although similar to those disqualified in the United Kingdom, are not caught by the United Kingdom provisions.

In detail, paragraph 2(a) of the order provides for a person to be disqualified from the office of MEP if he has been adjudged or otherwise declared bankrupt under any law in force in Gibraltar and remains undischarged. Those in the class described here are also currently disqualified from being members of the Gibraltar House of Assembly. Bankrupts under United Kingdom law are not entitled to be MEPs (by virtue of being disqualified from being an MP).

Paragraph (b) of Article 2 disqualifies from the office of MEP a person who holds or acts in certain public offices—such as judges or members of the police—by virtue of which they would be disqualified under Gibraltar law from being members of the Gibraltar House of Assembly. Again, this is similar to the existing UK position, where such people are disqualified from membership of the House of Commons. However, the provision enables those such as teachers or junior administrative staff who are not disqualified under United Kingdom law to be MEPs.

Furthermore, the provisions found in paragraph (c) of Article 2 disqualify the Clerk to the House of Assembly of Gibraltar. Under the terms of the European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003 the clerk to the House of Assembly of Gibraltar is both the electoral registration officer and the local returning officer for the Gibraltar part of the combined region, and similar persons are disqualified in the United Kingdom. In addition any deputy or clerk appointed by the Clerk to the House of Assembly in Gibraltar in his capacity as local returning officer or the European electoral registration officer for Gibraltar is also disqualified.

Those who have committed offences connected to the elections to the House of Assembly in Gibraltar are disqualified from being members of the House of Assembly under the Gibraltar Constitution. Provisions in paragraph (d) mean that this class of people are also disqualified from being an MEP. The provisions under paragraph (e) disqualify those who have been found guilty of one or more offences— whether in Gibraltar or elsewhere—sentenced or ordered to be imprisoned indefinitely or for more than one year and are detained in Gibraltar or unlawfully at large. This provision is related to the one for the disqualification for the House of Assembly and in addition equates to a similar provision in the Representation of the People Act 1981.

To summarise, Article I provides for the citation, commencement and interpretation of the order. Article 2 specifies those persons who are disqualified from the office of MEP. The Electoral Commission has considered this order and has given its overall support.

This order is an important part of the required secondary legislation following the European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003, and as such contributes to the United Kingdom fulfilling its obligations arising from a European Court of Human Rights decision which said that the people of Gibraltar are entitled to vote in the European parliamentary elections. It does this by defining those people in the United Kingdom and Gibraltar who are disqualified from the office of MEP.

I shall now turn to the second order, the European Parliament (Number of MEPs) (United Kingdom and Gibraltar) Order 2004. This provides for the number of United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament to be reduced from 87 to 78 as a result of the accession of 10 new states to the European Union. The order also sets out how the new number of MEPs are to be divided between the electoral regions in the UK. The new number of MEPs, as set out in the order, will apply to the European parliamentary elections to be held on Thursday, 10 June 2004.

Noble Lords may find it useful if I go into some of the background as to why this order is necessary. The Treaty of Nice, which entered into force on 1 February 2003, provides for an enlarged European Union of 27 states, and makes adjustments to EU institutions to prepare the Union for enlargement. It was agreed after negotiations in which the UK played a full part that the European Parliament would be expanded to accommodate the new member states and that the European Parliament would have a maximum number of 732 MEPs.

The Government fully support the enlargement of the European Union. However, I am sure noble Lords will agree that it makes sense to put a limit on the total number of MEPs elected by EU states so that the European Parliament does not become too large. A necessary consequence of that is that the number of MEPs elected by existing member states, including the United Kingdom will be reduced in order to accommodate the new member states.

Under the Treaty of Accession signed in Athens on 16 April 2003, 10 of the 12 candidate states provided for in the Nice treaty are to join the European Union on 1 May 2004. The accession treaty specified that the UK would have 78 MEPs in the European Parliament within the enlarged Union of 25 states. Parliament has given its approval to the Athens treaty. The draft order before us implements the UK's revised allocation of 78 MEPs provided for in the treaty. As I have explained, the UK currently has 87 MEPs. Under the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002, for the purposes of elections to the European Parliament the UK is divided into 12 electoral regions. England is divided into nine electoral regions and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each form a single electoral region. The 2002 Act specifies how many MEPs each region has.

The European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003 sets out a procedure for making adjustments to the number of UK MEPs. Where an adjustment is required—for example, as a result of provisions in an EU treaty—the Lord Chancellor will ask the independent Electoral Commission to make a recommendation to him as to how the new number of UK MEPs should be distributed between the electoral regions. The 2003 Act specifies that, in making a recommendation, the Electoral Commission must ensure that each electoral region is allocated at least three MEPs, and the ratio of electors to MEPs is as nearly as possible the same in each electoral region.

In October last year, the Lord Chancellor asked the Electoral Commission to make such a recommendation in respect of the reduced number of seats that the UK will have as a result of the expansion of the EU to 25 states. The Electoral Commission made its recommendation at the end of October and it was laid before Parliament in November 2003. The method used by the commission—the Sainte-Lague method—was fully explained in its report and I need not go into detail here. But the method was supported by a number of expert sources; for example, the Royal Statistical Society and the Office for National Statistics.

The recommendation was that in three electoral regions— the East Midlands, the South West and Northern Ireland— the number of seats remains unchanged, while the other nine regions have all lost a single seat. The Government accept the Electoral Commission's recommendation and the draft order follows the recommendation, as the 2003 Act requires.

Article 1 of the order contains citation, commencement and interpretation provisions. The order will come into force on 1 May 2004, when the 10 accession states will join the EU, in good time for the European parliamentary elections on 10 June 2004. Article 2 amends Section 1 of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002. The order inserts into the 2002 Act the new total number of MEPs to be elected for the United Kingdom. The substituted subsection (3) provides for the distribution of MEPs between the electoral regions, as set out in the commission's recommendation.

The draft order applies to the United Kingdom and Gibraltar. As noble Lords will know, Gibraltar is taking part in the June European parliamentary elections and has been combined with the South West electoral region to form a new electoral region for the European parliamentary elections. We have consulted the Electoral Commission on the draft order, as required by the 2003 Act.

The Government believe that the commission has made a fair and reasonable recommendation as to how the new number of UK MEPs should be distributed across the electoral regions, and it is in accordance with the requirements of the European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003.

Both the orders before us are necessary for the effective running of the European parliamentary elections to be held in June, and I commend them to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 11 March be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Evans of Temple Guiting.)

1 p.m.

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for explaining these two orders in such detail. They are not controversial and we shall not oppose them.

The first one brings Gibraltar into line with the procedures in the United Kingdom, while also being sympathetic to the existing rules for the Gibraltar Assembly on the disqualification of those able to stand as MEPs for Gibraltar. The second is in line with discussions that have taken place with the accession countries.

I should like to ask the Minister some brief questions. First, what consultations have been held with the people of Gibraltar and the House of Assembly about these statutory instruments? Secondly, what implication will the recent European Court of Human Rights ruling on the case of John Hirst have for Gibraltar, suggesting, as it does, that prisoners have the right to vote under the human rights legislation? And, finally, in the light of the Prime Minister's announcement of a referendum on the European constitution, will Gibraltar, as part of the South West constituency, be allowed to hold a referendum?

Lord Addington

My Lords, like the Conservative Benches, we can be very brief. We have no real objection to either order. As has already been stated, the disqualifications seem absolutely reasonable and in line not only with Gibraltarian practice but also with practice in this country. In addition, if the European Union is to expand, the European Parliament will have to be kept to a manageable size. Our loss of a few politicians' positions in the short term will ultimately be the gain of the whole of Europe. We have no objection to the orders.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords, Lord Astor and Lord Addington, for their approval of the orders. The noble Lord, Lord Astor, asked three questions, which I shall attempt to answer. The first concerned consultation with the people of Gibraltar and with the House of Assembly. The Government of Gibraltar have been consulted on the disqualification of MEPs order, as they have with all the legislation relating to the enfranchisement of Gibraltar for the purposes of the European parliamentary elections. No specific consultation took place with Gibraltar in relation to the number of MEPs order as there was no requirement to do so. But the Electoral Commission consulted widely before making its recommendations, and we know that Gibraltarians were free to contribute to that consultation.

I should add that the order simply implements the recommendations of the Electoral Commission. Noble Lords will be aware that, in the region with which Gibraltar is being combined for the purposes of the European elections—the South West region—the number of MEPs is unchanged.

The second question asked by the noble Lord concerned the case of John Hirst. The Government are carefully considering the details of the judgment and its implications before deciding what steps to take. However, given the noble Lord's interest in this matter, I shall write to him once a decision has been made to inform him of what is happening.

His third question related to the fashionable word "referendum" and whether the British Government will hold a referendum on the issue of Gibraltar. The referendum provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act do not extend to Gibraltar. However, we must remember that the announcement to hold a referendum on the EU constitution was made only two days ago—onTuesday. If and when a constitutional treaty is agreed between member states, the technicalities will be laid before the House in the relevant Bill. I believe that that answers the points raised by the noble Lord.

On Question, Motion agreed to.