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10 Dec 2002 : Column 198—continued

Angus Robertson: Does the hon. Gentleman agree that the Electoral Commission should take into account the fact that two parts of the United Kingdom have a four-party rather than a three-party system? Before the argument is put that that is special pleading for the Scottish National party, let me make it clear that if the number is reduced in Scotland, the Liberal Democrats and the Labour will lose MEPs, not us.

Mr. Heath: The Electoral Commission should take that into account. We could discuss how the figures might work out in a future election, but that is immaterial. What matters is the principle of having a proportional system.

My second concern relates to the system of election. Although the Minister pre-empted my comments by rejecting that as part of the Bill, I still intend to explore it further. It is time to instruct the Electoral Commission to review the operation of the list system. We argued strongly, with others, that a closed list system was not the right way to introduce proportional representation to this country. We thought an open list preferable and the single transferable vote better still.

Back in November 1997, we had a great deal of fun discussing the different electoral systems of d'Hondt, Sainte-Lague, Hagenbach-Bischoff and Hare-Niemayer which the then Home Secretary, now the Foreign Secretary, was keen to discuss. At the end of the day, however, he closed his mind and the result was a closed list, which goes against proper accountability. My colleague Nick Clegg is testimony to that. He is an MEP for the East Midlands and has declared his intention to seek election to this House because the system of closed

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lists within a regional context makes it difficult for him to establish the close relationship with his electorate that ensures proper accountability and democracy.

It is an opportune time to review the situation, especially as I think that the previous Home Secretary intended to provide such a proliferation of different systems at different levels and in different areas because he wanted to bring the whole electoral system into disrepute. That is the only reason I can find to explain why he introduced different systems for the devolved Governments, for local government and for different parts of the UK. I hope that we will shortly discuss arrangements for the upper House. I shall argue strongly that if we have an elected upper House, its Members should be elected by single transferable vote or, alternatively, an open list system. A closed list is not a good method of selection. I hope that we can put that to the Electoral Commission so that it can make recommendations to the House.

Finally, like the hon. Member for Stone, I am unhappy about the Lord Chancellor, an unelected Minister in another place who holds a position in the justiciary, having responsibility for those matters. I would be perfectly happy for a Minister in the Lord Chancellor's Department—the Minister herself or her fellow Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Doncaster, Central (Ms Winterton)—to make those decisions, but I have strong misgivings about the matter being left to the Lord Chancellor, who holds a Government position about which I have grave doubts anyway. Clause 23 makes the powers exercised by the Lord Chancellor concurrent with those of the Secretary of State. The Secretary of State's Department is not specified—perhaps the Minister can help to identify which Secretary of State would have powers and in what circumstances. These matters are of great concern to Members on both sides of the House, impinge on the democratic process, and are properly the responsibility of Ministers who are accountable to the House. I hope that we will examine them during consideration of the Bill, which I broadly welcome. However, there are details at which we must look very closely indeed.

6.11 pm

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley): First, I am sure that the House is well aware of my interest in Gibraltar. I was a member of the delegation that observed the referendum there.

Geraldine Smith: May I take the opportunity to add that I, too, was an observer in Gibraltar? I should have made that interest clear when I intervened on the Minister.

It is strange that we can go anywhere in Europe up to three times a year without making a declaration, but cannot visit Gibraltar, where British people live, undeclared. It will be interesting to see if that changes now that Gibraltar has European representation.

Mr. Hoyle: My hon. Friend is right—it is rather absurd that people from EU member states have the right to visit other EU countries three times a year without making a declaration. It is therefore rather

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obscene that one cannot visit Gibraltar even once without making a declaration. That fact needs to be taken on board in the future.

I congratulate the Government on introducing the Bill, which will guarantee a basic human right to Gibraltarians that has been denied them for decades. I am pleased that the case of Matthews v. UK, which went to the European Court of Human Rights, ensured that that right was included in the Bill. The Government promised in 1999 that a Bill would be introduced to allow the people of Gibraltar the right to exercise their democratic vote in European elections in time for the 2004 elections. We all believe in democracy, and we have an opportunity to demonstrate that in the Bill.

The Bill raises some interesting questions about the logistics of a referendum and Gibraltar's future, particularly the issue of the region to which Gibraltar should be aligned. Many people have expressed their views, including the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) and members of the Scottish National party. I would like to point out that the north-west would benefit from the voters of Gibraltar voting with it, but that is for the Electoral Commission to decide. I hope that it will take on board Members' views before making a decision.

The Foreign Secretary has said that the south-west is the most obvious candidate. I agree that it has the strongest case of any of the contenders. I accept that Northern Ireland has historical links with Gibraltar, but Navy ships travel between the Plymouth dockyards and Gibraltar, so the south-west option makes sense. Sir Francis Drake's connection with Spain has been mentioned. I am not sure that that is the best reason for alignment—[Laughter.] I thought that the hon. Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) would not be able to resist that little kick at Spain. The Golden Hind Society held a referendum in Plymouth, which showed that the people there believed that the people of Gibraltar should have the right to self-determination, and that they did not believe in joint sovereignty either. My heart tells me to go for the north-west, but I know that the south-west is the obvious choice. Hopefully, the Electoral Commission will allow us to express our preferences, but I am sure that it will make the right decision and listen to all the views expressed in the House.

Political parties must also consider how the proposals will affect their regional list system. That has already been mentioned, and I trust that the Minister will deal with it later. We should be aware of the change and what enfranchising the people of Gibraltar might mean. Earlier, I raised with the Minister the question of other overseas territories. Who knows, the Falklands or other overseas territories may come forward, although I accept that they have no wish to do so at the moment. France, Holland and Spain, as has been said, have enfranchised the residents of their overseas territories. Will the Minister tell us whether the Bill would allow us to consider such an application from one of our overseas territories or, if not, how we would deal with it.

As I said, I went out to Gibraltar to observe the referendum on 7 November. The clear result was that its people have no wish for joint sovereignty, so the question is: what next for Gibraltar? We were told by the Foreign Secretary that the status quo is not an option, so we must look for something else. As joint sovereignty was rightly rejected, we must look at alternatives such

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as integration with the United Kingdom and representation of Gibraltar in the House. It has been said that Gibraltar has no elected Member in Parliament, but perhaps we should consider that in future. Independence may be an option or, alternatively, we could consider maintaining the status quo, if that is what the people of Gibraltar wish. Reducing the Governor's powers in Gibraltar and ensuring that there are more powers for its Government may be another way forward. However, we have made a start in looking at issues that need to be considered more carefully in discussions about the future of Gibraltar.

Whatever we may think, this is a matter for the people of Gibraltar. We need to hold a debate with them on which options should be considered by the House. Eventually, they should be able to vote on them in a referendum. However, it is up to the Gibraltarian Government to make a decision about what they wish to do next—I am sure that the people of Gibraltar will ensure that their Government are aware of what they think. In the Bill, we are recognising the democratic rights of the people of Gibraltar and enfranchising them. We believe in human rights and the right to self-determination. The Bill allows Gibraltarians to have a say in Europe, and moves Gibraltar a step closer to the UK. I hope that it acts as a catalyst for discussions about the future status of Gibraltar. We should ensure that its people have the right to vote in European elections and are aligned with a suitable region. I am sure that we can build closer links with Gibraltar, because our Government have failed it in the past. We have been at loggerheads with the people of Gibraltar, but the time has come to reflect calmly on what happened in the past. We in the House must move forward with the best interests of Gibraltar at heart. Successive Governments have kicked Gibraltar around, instead of respecting what it has done for the United Kingdom.

I cannot think of any other territory that put itself at risk during the second world war, the Falklands war and the Gulf war, and will do so again, whatever happens next in respect of Iraq. Gibraltar has always supported the United Kingdom. Whenever they have been called upon in times of trouble, the people of Gibraltar have always volunteered first. It is important that they now get the recognition that they deserve. We have the opportunity to show our full support. Instead of putting them at loggerheads again with a British Government, let us move forward in unity.

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