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10 Dec 2002 : Column 195—continued

Mr. Heath: I agree with my hon. Friend. There is no logical reason why the commission should not consider any of the regions of the United Kingdom.

Simon Hughes: Or the countries.

Mr. Heath: Indeed, or the countries. On the suggestion of the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon), the specific concerns of the political parties in Northern Ireland may put members of the electorate in Gibraltar in a difficult position, but there is no reason why the political parties in Northern Ireland should not take on a Gibraltarian dimension to their policies. Furthermore, there is an added advantage in that Northern Ireland has a superior electoral process for the election of Members of the European Parliament. That process is exclusive to that region and is unfortunately not available in the rest of the country. I shall return to that point.

The position of Gibraltar has been dogged with ambiguities because of successive Governments' lack of interest in securing a proper status for Gibraltar in accession treaties or in subsequent European treaties to which we have been party. That is entirely regrettable.

I agree with the hon. Member for Stone about the lack of consultation with the representatives of Gibraltar. That is not unusual in the British Government's relationship with the Government of Gibraltar. It has been a characteristic of recent years. The relevant parts of the Bill should make explicit the need to consult the House of Assembly in Gibraltar and the wider community there about the Bill's consequences. Specifically, when the Electoral Commission draws up the rules for registration and the electoral process, it must consult the political parties that are currently constituted in Gibraltar in exactly the same way that it would routinely consult the political parties in the United Kingdom. The fact that that point is not made explicit in the Bill is regrettable, but it may be dealt with in Committee.

The representation of Gibraltar in this House was raised earlier. What we decide has a great effect in Gibraltar, but it has no access even to the Bar of the House and there is no representation for the people of Gibraltar here. The House and the Government need to address that point. We must also consider the future status of Gibraltar in the European Union. If we consider the position of the French Territoires et Departements d'Outre-Mer, the Spanish enclaves of Ceuta and Melilla, the Dutch external territories and the Faroes, we find that Gibraltar is an anomaly that needs to be addressed.

I want to deal with the extraordinary comments of the hon. Member for Stone about the Liberal Democrats. I do not think that there is any room for ambiguity in

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the many words that my hon. Friends and I have uttered on the subject. We have argued that the people of Gibraltar should determine their future status.

Mr. Cash rose—

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman wishes to intervene. If he does, I shall describe to him the Liberal Democrats' position as decided in the assembly that determines our policy.

Mr. Cash: I shall be happy to learn the official position, but I have a couple of quotations from the right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Mr. Campbell), who is the Liberal Democrats' foreign affairs spokesman. When referring to a referendum, he said:

The right hon. and learned Gentleman described concerns over Anglo-Spanish talks as Xhysteria". That is what I had in mind. Having said that, I think the hon. Gentleman's remarks today make an awful lot of sense.

Mr. Heath: Because the hon. Gentleman has couched his remarks in those terms, I find it hard to maintain a grudge against him. It is entirely possible to reconcile my right hon. and learned Friend's remarks with what I have said. Although there may have been good political reasons, it did not make sense to hold a referendum on proposals that had not yet been formulated. However, it makes absolute sense to hold a referendum that is binding on all parties once proposals are on the table. Our policy makes that clear. We are determined that, in accordance with liberal and democratic principles, the status of Gibraltar will be determined by the people of Gibraltar. We shall always put their interests first. That is explicit in our policy, and I think the hon. Gentleman now accepts that.

Lady Hermon: I wish to pick up on a point that the hon. Gentleman made about the candidates for whom the electors in Gibraltar could vote if they were aligned with Northern Ireland as a region. I assure him that the Liberal Democrats' sister party, the Alliance party, fields candidates in the European elections along with the traditional parties, such as the Ulster Unionist party and the other Unionist parties. The Conservative party might just manage to save its deposit if it too fielded a candidate in the European elections in the region. There is a broad sweep of political parties in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Heath: If the hon. Lady is seriously suggesting that saving a Conservative party deposit is an argument in favour of the proposal, I must say that it is a difficult concept for us to swallow. None the less, I accept her point.

Let me deal with the reduction in the number of MEPs. There is an orthodoxy that hon. Members on both sides of the House welcome enlargement. However, that breaks down when it comes to putting in the necessary preparatory work to allow enlargement to take place. Concerns about that have been explored and

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I do not need to repeat the arguments. There is a long-standing commitment to reduce or cap the overall size of the European Parliament. The hon. Member for Stone referred to the figure of 700, which he claimed was produced by the British Government. Knowing his scholarly love of the subject, I am surprised that he did not recognise that the figure was spelt out in article 189 of the treaty of Amsterdam, about which we seem to have forgotten. The consensus was that that should be the approximate figure for the European Parliament within the enlarged Community. Every current member state must contribute to the reduction to reach that target.

The EU has not reached the figure of 700. It has listened to the pleadings of the small countries, which believe that there is an irredeemable minimum number of representatives that they should have so that they are properly represented. That touches on what the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) said when he compared Scotland with other small nations that are member states. We need to recognise the imbalance.

Angus Robertson: On that point, does the hon. Gentleman agree that neither the Bill nor the Electoral Commission will deal with the problem? Slovakia, which is likely to be a new member, has the same population as Scotland, but it will have 13 seats, whereas Scotland will probably have only five. Lithuania, which has broadly the same population as Wales, will have 12, whereas Wales may only have four. Northern Ireland, which can be compared in population terms with Estonia, may go from three to two seats, whereas Estonia will have six. Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the only answer to the problem is for all three nations to have the status of normal member states of the EU if they so wish?

Mr. Heath: The hon. Gentleman makes his point. It is self-evident that what he describes is true, but the only remedy—no doubt one that he would advocate—is to split the United Kingdom up so that it is no longer a nation and a member state. It is clear that no one else in the EU will accept the proposition that we count ourselves as four small countries rather than one large one and can therefore have a larger number of representatives. If I thought that the number of MEPs was critical to this country's representation, I would be more exercised by the proposal than I am. I happen to believe that the quality of representation is not entirely proportional to the numbers who are sent to Brussels and Strasbourg. I accept that there is an anomaly, however, and the hon. Gentleman is right to point it out.

My difficulty is that the Government have not addressed the remaining obstacles to enlargement. I would not expect the Bill or the Minister to deal with those, but until the common agricultural policy is right and we sort out some of the institutional changes, there are obstacles to enlargement and the effective working of the EU after enlargement. Subsidiarity, which we have discussed so often, is more a myth than reality. It is time that we proposed, on behalf of the British people, an effective solution to some of those problems.

The reform of the European Parliament itself is also an issue. Many hon. Members will be saddened and not a little distressed by the rejection yet again of the reform of the expenses and pay arrangements in the European

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Parliament. That was rejected by an unholy alliance of Christian Democrats and Socialists. Although the British Conservatives did not join them this time, no doubt they still have sympathies with that cause. Until reform is in place, the criticism that MEPs are on a gravy train will persist. It is time that we put that house in order.

However, it is right that overall representation is reduced if we are to avoid an unwieldy and over-large institution. It is right that the Bill presents the Electoral Commission with that responsibility, and I have two substantive issues to raise on the way in which the commission carries out its work. The first concerns the minimum number of three Members for each region. The figure of three works well in Northern Ireland because of its electoral system, which is not available to the rest of the country. In the case of a party list system, however, the smaller the number of Members on the list, the less proportional it becomes. This is not a selfish argument because on current voting intentions, it would make little difference to us in the regions as they are constituted.

The north-east runs the risk of reducing from four to three Members. That would markedly reduce the proportionality of the result in that area. While we have the party list system in the regions of England, Wales and Scotland, the Electoral Commission must have regard to the outcome of that system in terms of the minimum number. To provide for a region in which only three Members are elected will produce a perverse outcome.

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