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10 Dec 2002 : Column 184—continued

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,

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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,

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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 XMurder in the Cathedral":

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

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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

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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.

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