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10 Dec 2002 : Column 188—continued

5.27 pm

Mr. Stephen McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green): My brief contribution to the debate concerns the overarching question of expansion. We have talked about that often enough, and there is a simple choice to be made. People can believe that expansion will be good for the EU overall, in that it will boost gross domestic product in a number of countries, not least out own. It will also be good in that it will create more jobs right across Europe, and that is something that we all want just now. Expansion will certainly strengthen our capacity to fight international crime and terrorism, and I think that most hon. Members would agree with that. Despite what has been said about Poland, expansion offers the chance of securing peace and stability across Europe. In all those respects, the argument for expansion should be supported by a great many of us.

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It is self-evident that, after expansion has taken place, some changes or movement will have to be made to accommodate the other countries. I have no problem if that means a reduction in the number of parliamentary seats. That process seems relatively straightforward. If Britain were ultimately to lose 15 or 16 seats, we would still have the second largest number of seats in the European Parliament, alongside France and Italy. That would not cause me to lie awake at night sweating about percentages. Instead, I would say that Britain would be part of a rather large voting block, especially when we combined with some of the other countries.

Angus Robertson (Moray): I am grateful to the hon. Member for giving way, and I am sorry that I am able to ask this question not of an elected Scottish Labour party MP, but of an exile Scot. Will the hon. Gentleman reflect on the Bill's likely effect in respect of representation for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland? He may be aware that Scotland, with a population of 5 million, has only half the representation of Denmark, whose population is the same size. The proposals mean that that disparity will get worse, to the extent that there may be no proportionality between the various parties in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Mr. McCabe: My answer may explain why I am an exile: from my point of view, in terms of Europe, Scotland is not a separate country. I think of it as part of the United Kingdom and I expect that that is why it has its given number of seats.

I think that we should be prepared to accept some reduction in representation. I will admit to some parochial interest, and I do not think that I am alone in this. It is conceivable that the number of seats for the west midlands could go down to six. Given that the population is about 5 million and, as the Minister said, the average size for a region is a population 3.4 million, I would be a bit worried if our seats were reduced to reflect the latter figure. However, that is a matter for the Electoral Commission. When we established it, some of us, if not all, recognised that we would have to address that issue in the future.

I noticed that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) was slightly disparaging about the Electoral Commission, and he told us that it is not even an elected body. He is absolutely right, and I am delighted about that. The object was to create an impartial body, independent of Government and political parties, to supervise the administration of elections. The hon. Gentleman may recall that its establishment was recommended by the Hansard Society, the Jenkins commission and the Neill Committee. In fact, we voted for it in the Political Parties, Elections and Referendums Act 2000. The hon. Gentleman's Government, or, rather his party—that was a Freudian slip, as a Tory Government will be a long time coming—

Mr. Cash: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. McCabe: Yes.

Mr. Cash: My points about the Electoral Commission were not meant to deny that it has an important function to perform. However, in the context of these arrangements, as we are dealing with orders in

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Parliament and the constitutional process, they would much better be dealt with by a proper democratic process through Parliament.

Mr. McCabe: I take the hon. Gentleman's point. I simply repeat that his criticism is that the Electoral Commission is not an elected body, while my point is that that is because we said that we needed an impartial body to deal with such issues. There is a choice, but voting for something and then rejecting it the first time that it is put to the test says something about our commitment.

I am also struck by the hon. Gentleman's position. He told us that he had never written or spoken against expansion, and I am happy to accept that. However, I cannot understand why he cannot tell us whether he wants a bigger and more expensive Parliament or he wants to scupper expansion through preventing a parliamentary readjustment across Europe. Or does he believe that everybody but Britain should play their part, while we should not bother? That is central to his argument at the outset. If he does not know what he wants or why he wants it, why is he telling us what he wants in the first place?

On clause 2, I think that there was a fundamental error in the hon. Gentleman's response to the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon). It is clear that the Electoral Commission must make sure that there are at least three MEPs per region. On that basis, Northern Ireland would not lose any of its MEPs under the Bill. We could discuss this in Committee, and I am sure that amendments will be put down to that effect, but it will be time wasted, because we know what the position is before we start. I am tempted to say that if we are not against expansion—if we have never written or spoken against it—why do we want to waste time on matters that we know are unnecessary?

As for Gibraltar, strangely enough, I have a slightly different recollection, because it seems that the Bill is trying to deal with the consequences of the European Court of Human Rights ruling. Hon. Members will recall that under that ruling the then Tory Government found that they were in breach of their obligations under the treaty, but failed to do anything about it. Strangely enough, the Bill tries to address that problem.

Opposition Members may tell us that they are not happy about the Labour Government's approach but they had the option to do something when they were in government and chose not to. They chose instead to put themselves in breach of the treaty and when that was pointed out to them they chose not to remedy it, so we were left to deal with the matter and are doing so in a relatively simple, straightforward and pragmatic way.

Between 17,000 and 20,000 people in Gibraltar have the right to vote in European elections and we have to find a way of making that possible. Because that number is too small to form a constituency on its own, the Government's proposal is that we should pair Gibraltar with another region in order to enfranchise its people. I can see no problem with that—except that, unlike other hon. Members, I am not absolutely in love with Gibraltar or the Gibraltarians, so I am willing to be up front about the fact that I do not desperately want them to be paired with the west midlands.

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We should reflect on what the Electoral Commission said.

Mr. Rosindell: Will the hon. Gentleman explain to the House and to the people of Gibraltar his comments about not being in love with them? They are British people. Does he not agree that they should be treated fairly, decently and in a democratic way—as he would expect for his constituents? Will he also explain to the House why the Government are so enthusiastic about allowing the applicant countries of eastern Europe to join the EU and have representation—as is right—but do not display the same enthusiasm for the British people of Gibraltar, who have been members of the European Union for 31 years?

Mr. McCabe: I shall deal with the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question in due course. On the second part, I repeat that the Labour Government have not denied the people of Gibraltar the opportunity to participate in elections. It was the previous Tory Government who were in breach of their agreements under the convention. They failed to find a remedy and that is why we are holding this debate. I hope that point is clear to the hon. Gentleman.

There are questions about how the Electoral Commission will address the problem. One of the commission's stated aims is that, as well as trying to find electoral equality, it should reflect community identity and interests when determining regions. I am not quite clear as to the connection between Gibraltar and the west midlands although I am aware that the Conservative MEP, Philip Bradbourn, is very keen on it. However, that may be partly down to a simple electoral calculation. I hope that I am wrong but I suspect that if we were to examine the current situation in the west midlands, Mr. Bradbourn might have a pressing reason for wanting Gibraltar paired with the region.

In reality, it is difficult to imagine how the Electoral Commission will deal with the problem. However, we have some guidance. My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary told the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs that he thought that the south-west region had the most in common with Gibraltar and might be the most obvious choice. Interestingly, the Gibraltarians who gave evidence to that Committee made the same point. They made it clear that their preference was to join up with the south-west region, so the solution may be simple.

If for any reason that proposal falls through, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to bear in mind, when the Lord Chancellor finally reflects on the matter, the clarity with which the hon. Member for North Down demonstrated her desire that Gibraltar should be paired with Northern Ireland.

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