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10 Dec 2002 : Column 201—continued

David Taylor (North-West Leicestershire): I apologise for missing the earlier part of my hon. Friend's contribution. What would he say to my constituent, a Gibraltarian who has moved permanently to live in the United Kingdom, Mr. Olivares of St. Denys crescent, Ibstock, who has the qualities that my hon. Friend just described? He demonstrates the utmost loyalty to this country and is deeply disappointed by some of the events that have taken place in recent months. Should he be more encouraged by what my hon. Friend perceives will happen over the months to come?

Mr. Hoyle: I welcome that intervention because my hon. Friend is right to draw attention to his constituent. It is important that we build close links with the people of Gibraltar for their benefit, not to appease the Spanish

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Government. It was too easy to sell out the people of Gibraltar for new access within the EU, using Italy and Spain. I believe that we will never treat people in that way again, and I hope that we will recognise our previous mistakes and look after those loyal people of Gibraltar, who are part of the United Kingdom. We are therefore their representatives in the House, and I hope that from now on we can ensure that we work for the benefit of the people of Gibraltar and safeguard their interests.

6.22 pm

Mr. David Ruffley (Bury St. Edmunds): I welcome the Bill because of the enfranchisement of Gibraltarians for the purposes of European parliamentary elections. It is long overdue and has been rejected by Ministers in the House several times before.

The Bill is significant for two reasons. First, for all of us who believe in the effective parliamentary supremacy of this place, the very existence of the Bill as it relates to Gibraltar demonstrates what a Government can achieve if they decide to go down the route of unilateral action in the EU arena. Ministers have effectively threatened to take unilateral action to ensure that Spain does not block the enfranchisement of Gibraltarian citizens for European parliamentary elections. Ministers should mark well the precedent that they have set.

Secondly, the Bill is significant because of the strong message that it sends to the Spanish Government. The passage of the Bill in this place makes it clear that the House sees a more important role for Gibraltar in the life of this country. It certainly represents a move towards closer integration. I am delighted to follow the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who is a doughty campaigner and articulate prosecutor of the cause of Gibraltarian democracy. I hope that Spanish representatives listening to the debate and looking at the Bill's provisions will understand the message that is being sent to them in respect of any future negotiations that they may have with Her Majesty's Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I mention the importance of the threat of unilateral action to allow the Bill to go ahead. History shows some spinelessness on the part of Ministers in previous Governments, as well as the present Government. At the commencement of direct voting for the European Parliament in the 1970s, the Gibraltarians were excluded from any possibility of direct voting. A rather strange distinction was drawn between Gibraltar and the overseas territories of France and Spain, which were seen to be closely integrated with those countries. As citizens of those territories can vote in national elections, there was no problem including them in European parliamentary elections. Even though the people of Gibraltar have strong historical links with this country and are a part of Europe geographically, they were excluded.

With the increasing importance of co-decision making under the treaties of Amsterdam and Nice, it is little wonder that Ministers in Gibraltar want European parliamentary representation. Remedies for the wrongs done to the people of Gibraltar have been attempted before, as we have heard. The first bold attempt was made by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay) in his private Member's Bill in 1997. At that time, the

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Labour Government argued that the enfranchisement of Gibraltarians by the means of adding Gibraltar to a UK constituency was not possible because it would involve amending Annex II of the EC Act on Direct Elections 1976. That would have had to be ratified by all member states, and Ministers at the time did not believe that the Spanish would allow it. That is essentially why that Bill fell.

The second attempt was made during the passage of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill in 1997 and 1998. On Second Reading in another place, the Minister, Lord Williams of Mostyn, raised legal objections to legislating unilaterally to amend the EC Act. He said:

That was an extraordinary example of spinelessness, no doubt not just at the behest of legal advisers, but at the behest of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. Thus, the second recent attempt came to naught.

It is ironic that we needed a claim under the human rights legislation to break the impasse—the obstacle of European Union law, as perceived by Ministers. The human rights claim made in the Matthews case in 1996 came to grief in the first instance, when it was before the Council of Europe's European Commission of Human Rights. On the first attempt, Her Majesty's Ministers countered that the 1976 Act fell within the European Community legal order and was therefore not an Act for which the UK could be held responsible under the Council of Europe convention. Even at that stage, Ministers were not interested in the human rights claim, but happily in February 1999, when proceedings commenced in the European Court of Human Rights, the Court found in favour of Matthews, stating that the British Government were in violation of the ECHR and that they had not made proper arrangements to enable the people of Gibraltar to vote in elections to the European Parliament. At that stage, rather late in the day, Her Majesty's Government acted on the basis of a human rights claim rather than on any robust position on EU law and committed themselves to taking action. It was only at that stage that they showed the moral gumption that I wish they would show in EU negotiations more generally.

The first sign of any determination to say that we were not going to allow Spain to veto parliamentary will and the desire to enfranchise the people of Gibraltar came when the Council of Europe's Committee of Ministers put it to the UK that it had two ways of ensuring conformity with the ruling of the European Court of Human Rights. The Committee suggested that the UK could give effect to the Matthews judgment either by amending the 1976 Act to require the unanimity of EU states—a proposal that was never going to be much of a runner, given the previous attitude shown by Her Majesty's Ministers in not even attempting to take such a route in EU negotiations—or by taking national action. That would involve independent national action—I like the sound of that—using domestic legislation without prior amendment to the 1976 Act.

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There would also be no requirement to ask Spain whether it would consent—something that we all know was never going to happen.

When the Foreign Office sees such things happening, it can either take a sensible course of action or make life difficult for itself. On this occasion, it appeared to advise the right hon. Member for Neath (Peter Hain), now Secretary of State for Wales and the relevant Foreign Office Minister at that time, to take the route of unilateral action. My point is that all that happened late in the day, but none the less, much to my incredulity, in Hansard on 10 December 2001, the right hon. Gentleman said:

Amen to that. He went on to say:

Those arrangements have issued forth substantially in the Bill, which illustrates a very important point: it is significant because it shows the importance of unilateral action.

I should like the Minister to deal with a puzzle that arises from the provisions on Gibraltar. The point was well made by the Select Committee on Foreign Affairs, which, like me, applauded the use of unilateral domestic legislation instead of any faffing around in fruitless negotiations to try to ensure unanimity among various EU partners. The Select Committee said in its report of July 2002:

However, the Committee was puzzled by a statement made to it previously by the now Secretary of State for Wales:

I share the Committee's puzzlement and I would be grateful for elucidation from the Minister on how Spain ever had a veto if we could take such unilateral domestic action anyway, without its consent or that of any other EU member?

Mr. Cash: Will my hon. Friend give way?

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