HL Deb 27 January 2004 vol 656 cc174-80

7.52 p.m.

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 15 January be approved [5 th Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the draft order. The order has two key purposes that I wish the House to consider. The first is to establish the combined electoral region which will bring the south-west and Gibraltar together so that the people of Gibraltar can vote in European parliamentary elections. The second is as a result of this combination to extend, with amendments as necessary, the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000 so that they apply to Gibraltar in so far as possible in the same way as they apply to the rest of the combined region.

This order is necessary and desirable to ensure that we fulfil our obligation to enable the people of Gibraltar to vote in the European Parliament elections. This follows the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in 1999 which ruled that the European Parliament formed a part of Gibraltar's legislature. The European Parliament Representation Act 2003 enables the establishment of the combined region. As the average electorate in the electoral region in the UK is 3.7 million and the size of the electorate in Gibraltar is around only 20,000, it was agreed by Parliament that Gibraltar should become part of an existing UK electoral region and as such would be represented by MEPs for that region.

The Electoral Commission was required by the same Act to consider and recommend to the Lord Chancellor which UK electoral region Gibraltar should be combined with. On 28 August last year, following a wide consultation process in the UK and Gibraltar, the commission announced in a report its recommendation that Gibraltar should be combined with the south-west region. This announcement was welcomed generally. The report making this recommendation has been laid before Parliament. Article 2 of this order specifies the south-west region.

The European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002 contains the basic provisions for the running of European parliamentary elections in the UK, including defining electoral regions; and Article 3 of this order amends that Act to take into account the inclusion of Gibraltar in the European parliamentary election process.

In framing the primary legislation to enable Gibraltar to vote at European parliamentary elections, our guiding principle—it is one shared by the Government of Gibraltar, this House and another place—was that as far as possible the main corpus of electoral law that applies to the UK for European parliamentary elections should also apply to Gibraltar. This is being achieved by means of a number of pieces of secondary legislation. First, the European parliamentary elections regulations which are to be laid before Parliament shortly will cover for the United Kingdom and Gibraltar such matters as entitlement to register to vote and the mechanisms of the conduct of the election.

The Government of Gibraltar, too, will be making a substantive contribution by making an ordinance which will, among other things, provide for the maintenance of the electoral register and the regulation of party political broadcasts in Gibraltar.

The order which we consider today contributes to this by extending to Gibraltar the provisions of the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. That Act provides a regulatory framework for political parties wishing to participate in elections, for the reporting of donations and election campaign expenditure.

The order does a number of things in relation to the registration of political parties. Article 5 amends the Registration of Political Parties (Prohibited Words and Expressions) Order 2000 so that UK parties are prevented from registering as, for example, the Gibraltar Conservative and Unionist party. However, the order provides for the possibility of a Gibraltar party registering under such a name.

The order also deals with the question of donations to parties. There may be a concern in the House, rightly, that this would allow additional sources of money not otherwise permitted to flood into UK-based political parties. The order guards against this. The approach we have taken is to limit the amount of money that comes in from particular sources and ensure that it is not more than that which the party could use for European Parliament elections. Political parties based in both the UK and Gibraltar will be able to participate in the elections. An existing UK party which has already registered with the Electoral Commission will not need to register again; but if that UK party wishes to receive donations from a Gibraltar source, it will need to make a statement to the Electoral Commission that it proposes to contest the European Parliament election in the combined region, the south-west. That party will then be able to receive donations from a Gibraltarian source but only during the four month campaign period—in the case of the 2004 elections, from 10 February to 10 June.

UK parties will be subject to further constraints where the aggregate value of Gibraltarian donations received during the four month period exceeds the campaign expenditure limit for the combined region as set out in the 2000 Act, being about £315,000. The excess donations are to be returned to the donor in the same way as if they were impermissible donations by three months after the date of the poll. This will ensure that any one party cannot receive any more than it can use during the election period and provides a clear limit for donations from Gibraltar linked to expenditure in the combined region for these elections.

A further restriction is made in that a Gibraltarian will not be able to donate to individual members of United Kingdom political parties for the purpose of their political activities. However, he or she would be able to donate to an MEP for the combined region, regardless of which party they represented. That is a fair provision, given that all the MEPs in the combined region will represent not only the electorate of the south-west, but also the people of Gibraltar.

The draft order also provides for Gibraltarians to register as recognised third parties to ensure that non-party organisations in Gibraltar have the same opportunities as other non-party organisations in the rest of the combined region to support a particular party's campaign. The amount of campaign expenditure that recognised third parties can spend in Gibraltar will be limited, as suggested by the Electoral Commission, to £16,000. That is 10 per cent of the limit applying to other recognised third parties, which is calculated to allow for campaigning on a national basis.

The provisions will work effectively within the existing regulatory framework. At the same time, and just as importantly, it will allow the people and parties of Gibraltar to participate fully in the European parliamentary elections.

Article 6 of the draft order enables Gibraltar lawyers to have rights of audience and to conduct litigation in the England and Wales courts. That provision enables the people of Gibraltar to be represented by a legal representative from Gibraltar itself should proceedings be held in the UK. An amendment made to the 2000 Act by paragraph 7 of the schedule to the order means that the Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation is included in the lists of broadcasters prohibited from carrying party political broadcasts other than by registered parties where such broadcasts relate to European parliamentary elections. The Government of Gibraltar are making the necessary further regulatory provisions on broadcasting to mirror those in the UK in their forthcoming ordinance.

Following a recommendation from the Electoral Commission, the order also amends the more general provision relating to European parliamentary elections. The definition of campaign expenditure in paragraph 2 of Schedule 8 to the 2000 Act excludes any expenses in respect of newsletters or similar publications issued by the party, elected representatives or candidates. In other elections, such expenses would be regarded as election expenses incurred by candidates. But for European parliamentary elections, the control of expenditure by parties is by way of a limit on their campaign expenditure rather than election expenses. Without the amendment in Article 7, such expenditure would fall outside the definition of campaign expenditure.

The House will note that the Electoral Commission has been consulted on the order. The commission gave its overall support to the order and made a few minor and helpful comments that we have incorporated. In addition, and for the record, I should add that the Government consider the order fully compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights.

The order ensures that we are fulfilling our obligations following a European Court of Human Rights decision that the people of Gibraltar are entitled to vote in the European parliamentary election, as it forms part of their legislature. The order gives effect to Part 2 of the European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003, creating the combined region and extending certain areas of UK electoral law to Gibraltar. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 15 January be approved [5th Report from the Joint Committee.]—(Lord Evans of Temple Gutting.)

Lord Astor of Hever

My Lords, again, I thank the Minister for his explanation of the order. I have only a few brief comments on the details, since other related issues were discussed with the previous order. Clause 2 of the order proposes that Gibraltar will join, for electoral purposes, the south-west electoral region of the United Kingdom. While we very much welcome the addition of Gibraltar, could the Minister elaborate on what consultations were held with the people of Gibraltar about the choice of the electoral region? Did the Electoral Commission suggest other constituencies? If so, why were they thought unsuitable?

The Minister mentioned the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000, which I understand controls campaign expenditure. Will the Minister comment on what impact that Act is expected to make on the campaign for the first European elections in Gibraltar? I understand that the franchise and entitlement for voters in Gibraltar is similar to existing provisions in the United Kingdom.

Since these will be the first elections in Gibraltar, can the Minister tell the House what additional steps are to be taken to ensure that no electoral fraud occurs? Finally, linking this order to the other order, what will be the rules on dual mandate if, for example, the Chief Minister of Gibraltar decides to stand as an MEP? I look forward to the Minister's answers to my questions.

Lord Rennard

My Lords, I think that many noble Lords across the House have welcomed the fact that Gibraltarians will be able to exercise their right to vote in the elections to the European Parliament, together with their fellow citizens in the European Union. As the Minister has highlighted, bringing this about is somewhat complicated by the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act. Of course, the complexity of that legislation is something that many of us regretted at the time. Now we are seeing some of the problems of trying to bring this about according to that legislation of three years ago.

There is one technical area on which I should like the Minister to share his thinking with us and perhaps undertake to review should there be a problem in the future; namely, the amount of financial support that may come from Gibraltar sources towards these elections. My understanding is that if the south-west combined region has seven MEPs, £45,000 multiplied by seven—that is, £315,000—would be the limit that Gibraltarian individuals and parties could give over a four-month period prior to the June election. Anything more than that amount would have to be returned. It seems to me that that is a very large amount to say could come from Gibraltar sources, because it amounts to the total permitted expenditure across the whole of the combined south-west region.

Would it be right to say that Gibraltar sources could pay for 100 per cent of the costs of a party across the whole of the combined region? Might it not be more appropriate to say that a proportion of the costs would be reasonable? If so much money could be given from Gibraltar sources towards these elections, Gibraltarians may not just be getting a vote in these elections, but, with a great deal of financial support, may even be exercising undue influence. Would that be something that, if it is not reviewed now, might be reviewed in future if, when we look back after the elections, we consider that an undue proportion of the money in these elections has come from Gibraltar sources?

Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

My Lords, again I thank the noble Lords, Lord Astor of Hever and Lord Rennard, for their comments which I will attempt to answer.

The first point made by the noble Lord, Lord Astor, was about consultation and why the south-west region was chosen. As required by the European Parliament (Representation) Act 2003, the Electoral Commission consulted the Governor and Chief Minister of Gibraltar and the leader of each political party in Gibraltar's House of Assembly. In addition to the statutory consultee, the commission consulted widely over a two-month period in both Gibraltar and the UK. It did this through a public consultation paper, a media campaign and a public meeting in Gibraltar. I have in my hands the recommendation concerning the south-west, Gibraltar and the European Parliament. The first two and a half pages are devoted to an extremely detailed analysis of why the south-west was chosen.

Briefly, the commission made an assessment of several criteria which it believed would ensure that the chosen region would provide effective representation for the people of Gibraltar. Its initial consultation paper suggested that there was a stronger case for combining Gibraltar with either London or the south-west than with any other region in England and Wales. The consultation confirmed a high level of support in Gibraltar and the UK for the south-west. As well as historical and maritime links, many felt that MEPs representing the south-west's diverse communities and interests could be best placed to take on board the distinct concerns of Gibraltar. Consultees were more ambivalent about London in this role.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor, asked what impact the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act would make on the campaign for the first European parliamentary elections in Gibraltar. As I have explained, the guiding principle behind the application of UK electoral law—including the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000—is that it should apply as far as possible in the same way in Gibraltar as in the rest of the combined region. The Government of Gibraltar are already actively preparing for the elections, and I therefore see no reason why the election in the Gibraltar part of the combined region should be any less successful than in the rest of the region.

The noble Lord, Lord Astor, is concerned about fraud. This has been a matter of some concern and that is why it was dealt with so thoroughly in my opening speech. I have already made clear that the whole body of electoral law as it applies to European parliamentary elections in the UK, will as far as possible apply to the running of elections in Gibraltar. Therefore there is no reason why it should be necessary to take additional steps to ensure that no electoral fraud occurs in Gibraltar.

The noble Lord's final question was what the rules on dual mandate will be if the Chief Minister of Gibraltar decides to stand as an MEP. The prohibition on dual mandates applies to members of national parliaments, as I have explained. While it is for the European Parliament to decide what bodies this covers, it is our view that the House of Assembly would not be classified as a national parliament for this purpose.

The noble Lord, Lord Rennard, was concerned about the amount of financial support from Gibraltar. The people of Gibraltar should be able to participate by giving donations to parties. To limit this amount to less than the limit for the region as a whole would in our opinion be unfair. However, I will take that question back and give the noble Lord a more comprehensive answer later.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Baroness Andrews

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.30 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.14 to 8.30 p.m.]