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10 Dec 2002 : Column 177continued
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 accountfor 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
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.
Mr. Cash: Can the Minister reconcile her statement with the fact that, under the proposals, the percentage of votes that the United Kingdom will have drops from 13.9 per cent. to 10.1 per cent.?
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 shall give the hon. Gentleman one more go at this subject.
Mr. Cash: I am grateful. I would be very interested if the Minister could find a single reference in any of my speeches or writings about this subject suggesting that I am not in favour of enlargement. The situation is quite the opposite.
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
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.
Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): Will the Minister give way?
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 (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Will the Parliamentary Secretary give way?
Yvette Cooper: I shall as I have not taken an intervention from a Liberal Democrat Member so far.
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
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.
Mr. Rosindell: Will the Parliamentary Secretary give way?
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?