Draft European Parliamentary Elections (Franchise of Relevant Citizens of the Union) Regulations 2001

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Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): I want to make one brief point in connection with the comments by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath about electoral regions. Are the regulations capable of covering any change in the electoral system? During the previous European elections, the system of vast regions with a multiplicity of candidates on a list was a catastrophic failure that distanced the connection between the electorate and their representatives. Most people do not know who represents them or to which party they belong. I hope that the regulations will not so enshrine that system that the Minister be unable to consider bringing back the European constituencies that we had before—whatever the electoral system that applies within them. I am not saying that we should return to the first-past-the-post system—that is a matter for subsequent judgment—but the current regions do not mean anything to anyone and weaken the link between the British people and the important institution of the European Parliament.

10.46 am

Mr. Mike O'Brien: I shall deal with each of the issues in turn. I thank the hon. Member for Surrey Heath and other hon. Members, including Liberal Democrats, for their support for rolling registers.

A European convention on human rights judgment obliges the United Kingdom to find a way to enfranchise Gibraltar and allow its citizens to vote in European elections. We are committed to doing that in time for the next European elections, which are due in 2004, but it will require primary legislation. Gibraltarians are Commonwealth citizens and are therefore able to vote in all UK elections if they are resident here and registered to vote. The regulations do not apply to Gibraltarians, because they are not relevant citizens of the European Union. They apply only to citizens of the EU who are not Irish or Commonwealth citizens and are resident in the UK. We cannot change the position of Gibraltarians by regulations—it requires primary legislation, which we shall introduce in the proper manner before the next European elections, which are due in 2004.

Mr. Wilkinson: Has the Minister considered the possibility that the Government's fulfilment of their ECHR commitments in respect of Gibraltarians' entitlement to vote will set a precedent for other Commonwealth nationals, laying open the possibility of judicial action in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg for all those other Commonwealth nationals—and, indeed, Irish Republic nationals—who are resident in the United Kingdom?

Mr. O'Brien: With the exception of Gibraltar, we are satisfied that we are complying with the ECHR. Countries must determine how they wish to apply the convention within the bounds of Strasbourg decisions, and we are satisfied that—with the exception of Gibraltar—we are not in breach.

Mr. David Heath: I welcome the Minister's comments. However, is he saying that the Government have abandoned the line that they trotted out when we last discussed the matter on the Floor of the House? They said that the position of Gibraltarians could be corrected only by a change in the treaty requiring unanimity among the member states of the European Union, which they did not expect to be forthcoming. Have the Government abandoned the position that they stated only two years ago?

Mr. O'Brien: The Government's position is that an ECHR judgment obliges the UK to find a way to enfranchise Gibraltarians and allow its citizens to vote in European elections, which is what we propose to do.

Mr. Hawkins: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: I will give way once more.

Mr. Hawkins: I am glad to hear what the Minister has said. I am sure that the Chief Minister of Gibraltar, Mr. Peter Caruana QC, and all Gibraltarians will also welcome it. When the primary legislation is enacted—and I hope that that will happen under the next Conservative Government—will the Minister say whether the regulations will need consequential amendments, arising from the change in law relating to Gibraltar?

Mr. O'Brien: I shall have to consider whether the regulations will require consequential amendments when there is a change to the right to vote for Gibraltarians. It does not appear that the regulations will need to be altered unless something in the legislation, enabling Gibraltarians to vote, obliged us to do so. Therefore the hon. Gentleman is asking a question that is contingent on something else. I do not know what the contingency will be so I cannot give him a clear answer. However, our position has not changed from that of two years ago; we have been consistent. We intend to be in a position to comply with the ECHR judgment. We will have constructive discussions with our Spanish partners, and others, about how we can best take the matter forward.

The hon. Member for Surrey Heath asked about the wording of the regulations and whether it represented a change in approach. As far as I am aware, the wording of the regulations is consistent with the terminology of other relevant legislation. He therefore need not take flight with the paranoia that grips the Conservative party—with the exception of the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) who is thankfully free from paranoia on this issue. I found it amusing that the hon. Member for Surrey Heath used the phrase ``Europe des patries'' to explain the Conservative party's policy.

Mr. Hawkins: Will the Minister give way?

Mr. O'Brien: In a moment. I take your advice, Mr. O'Brien, not to pursue the debate any further and I will not do so unless the hon. Gentleman tempts me further.

Mr. Hawkins: I do not intend to tempt the Minister further. I wanted to point out that the Minister's attempts to caricature our position often fail to understand that because we believe passionately in a Europe of nation states, that does not make any of us anti-European. I regard myself as a huge friend of France—I am a member of the all-party French group and a great Francophile. The fact that I used a telling French phrase to describe our belief shows that we have a patriotic belief in the future of this country as an independent sovereign nation; it does not make me anti-European.

Mr. O'Brien: Everyone can hear what the hon. Gentleman says and make their own judgment.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome asked whether a new application and declaration is needed. The answer is yes. If someone moves constituency, they must re-register. In response to the hon. Member for Esher and Walton, the way in which European constituencies are delineated is not affected by the regulations. They do not make current constituency boundaries more concrete in any way, which he was criticising, so he can vote for the provision with a clear conscience.

The hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood (Mr. Wilkinson), with his anti-European credentials and his long and honourable opposition to most things European--I would do him an injustice if I said all things European--asked about Commonwealth citizens and how they vote. I reiterate that we have no plans to change that. We are not in breach of the European convention on human rights and the change in the regulations is necessary to comply with the 1994 regulations following the introduction of a rolling register.

Mr. Wilkinson: The Minister has been courteous and helpful. I want to press him on Commonwealth nationals who are residents of British overseas territories. He referred to Gibraltarians. Why should British Commonwealth nationals who are resident in the few remaining British overseas territories be disfranchised while their French counterparts in the departements d'outre mer are allowed to vote? Does he realise that at the Council of Europe, on which I served for 12 years, the British position is an embarrassment vis-a-vis the European convention on human rights and Gibraltarians' electoral entitlement? It is difficult for the British to take the moral high ground while we deny Gibraltarians the right to vote in European elections?

Mr. O'Brien: As I have said, we intend to make progress on that before the 2004 European elections, in consultation with our Spanish colleagues.

On British dependent territories, the Government have issued a statement on the way in which we intend to proceed. We shall have to consider all the issues, but, on the hon. Gentleman's earlier question, we are satisfied that our policy does not put us in breach of the European convention on human rights, except in relation to Gibraltarians. I heard what the hon. Gentleman said and it may be helpful if I write to my colleagues in the Foreign Office to draw their attention to his points in the hope of eliciting a more detailed reply to him.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee has considered the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Franchise of Relevant Citizens of the Union) Regulations 2001.

        Committee rose at three minutes to Eleven o'clock.

The following Members attended the Committee:
O'Brien Mr. Bill (Chairman)
Cawsey, Mr.
Godsiff, Mr.
Hall, Mr. Mike
Hawkins, Mr.
Heath, Mr. David
Hepburn, Mr.
Quinn, Mr.
Rendel, Mr.
Taylor, Mr. Ian
Thomas, Mr. Gareth, R.
Wilkinson, Mr.
Williams, Mr. Alan W.

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Prepared 13 March 2001