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10 Dec 2002 : Column 204—continued

Mr. Ruffley: I am most happy to give way to my distinguished hon. Friend.

Mr. Cash: A thought occurred to me as I was making my speech and also just now as my hon. Friend advanced his lucid arguments. To some extent, were not both the United Kingdom Government and the Spanish Government more impressed by the necessity of complying with the Court's ruling and the feeling that it would be invidious, difficult and embarrassing for them not to do so than by the wholly understandable and justifiable position of unilateral action?

Mr. Ruffley: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. My assessment is that if Her Majesty's Government had shown at an earlier stage a desire to take unilateral

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action—I am sure that he will agree that they had an opportunity to do so in 1997—the matter could have been resolved more rapidly. As he suggested, the single cause may not have been the Government's threat of unilateral action, but reticence on the part of other countries about being taken to the European Court of Human Rights. I prefer the interpretation suggesting that an independent member state was acting in its interests on the basis of the threat of unilateral action. I am sure that that approach should have been taken earlier, but it sent out an unmistakeable sign, albeit late in the day, to show that if this Parliament and the UK Government dig in, are lucid and clear and draw a line in the sand, they can often get more out of negotiations than by acting in a supine way and relying on the feeding of lines by various pin-stripe-suited types in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The significance of the Bill is the effect that it will have on Spain. I join the hon. Member for Chorley and other speakers in drawing attention to the referendum result. I hope that the Foreign Office will consider that result and the way in which the people of Gibraltar will embrace their voting rights in 18 months' time and put a stop to any sell-out or mealy-mouthed negotiations that are consistent with neither the British national interest nor that of the overseas territory of Gibraltar.

The Bill contains an important lesson. Not only in this aspect of European policy, but in others, if Ministers want to do something that might upset some other EU partners, they should do it, because it is remarkable what they can achieve when they keep the British national interest in mind when negotiating in the EU arena.

Mr. Ian Davidson (Glasgow, Pollok): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that we should consider pursuing our interests by returning to a system of first-past-the-post elections to the European Parliament, rather than by having it decided for us that we should have some crazy system of proportional representation?

Madam Deputy Speaker (Sylvia Heal): Order. The Bill is about representation, rather than methods of election.

Mr. Ruffley: Hon. Members may not have noticed that I was about to finish my peroration, but I shall briefly be tempted down the path laid out by the hon. Gentleman. Widespread concern has been expressed in all parts of the House throughout the debate about the nature of the closed list system. I know that the Liberal Democrat spokesman has flagged up to the Minister the suggestion that there may be some mechanism to raise that matter in Committee, although when I look at the title of the Bill, it seems to me that that may be rather difficult. Surely, it must be a matter for the House to debate in the near future. In my view, it is inimical to democracy to have a closed list system ruled by party claques, apparatchiks and control freaks, and I am glad that he and other colleagues in all parts of the House steadfastly set their faces against such an approach. I look forward to hearing from the Minister about that point.

6.39 pm

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole): Several hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), mentioned our debates on the European

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Parliamentary Elections Act 2002. The Foreign Secretary, in typical fashion, presented his best case for the change in the electoral system, which the Bill seeks to effect. One of his central arguments was that a list system would increase turnout. The House of Commons briefing shows that Great Britain managed a turnout of 23.1 per cent. We should at least mention the total and abject failure of that central objective—engaging the British people—of changing the system. Like many Members, I believe that it would be better if we returned to first principles and considered reintroducing first past the post.

Earlier, I mentioned the process for reducing representation throughout the regions and nations of the United Kingdom. It is important to consider that. Under current arrangements for the House, the Electoral Commission's boundary committee goes through a special process. First, it sets a quota for England; secondly, it sets quotas for unitary authorities or counties and then it draws up boundaries for seats. Individuals can write in and object. If 100 individuals in a local authority or major political party write in, an inquiry is held.

Although the process takes time, there is an input from many organisations into the precise boundary and representation for each area. That tradition has existed since 1945, and it has also applied in local government, which had boundary commissions. Local government undergoes a similar process when change occurs.

In recent years, the Government have tended not to refer electoral matters, especially those that involve proportional representation, to the proper scrutiny of a boundary commission. Instead, they have simply consulted the Electoral Commission. I am worried about that because I am not sure whether proper representations can be made in such circumstances.

For example, the Greater London Authority Act 1999 provided for twinning boroughs and the list system. It was debated in Committee, but it did not undergo the same scrutiny in the country or through an inquiry. The Regional Assemblies Bill involves a similar process. The Government will simply consult the Electoral Commission, but the Bill contains no proper procedure for dealing with the size and precise nature of the electoral boundaries.

The Bill covers what may prove to be party-political, contentious issues. It was claimed earlier that we were simply considering arithmetic and therefore an uncontentious matter, but that is incorrect. The size of a region and the electoral quota required to win a seat can determine representation between the parties. Although southern Ireland has the single transferable vote system, which the Liberal Democrats dearly love, the size of the multi-Member constituencies and whether they are odd or even numbered determine which parties take specific seats. In the Irish system, increasing or reducing the boundaries and seats can determine political representation.

It is clear that if one subtracts, for example, nine seats from a specific region, that can have an impact on political representation. It may have a disproportionate impact on one political party. The Bill clearly states that the exercise is numerical. I welcome that principle. If one tries to apportion seats, it is probably best to do that on a numerical basis. However, what happens when two

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regions make an equal claim, or in the case of quotas that are extremely close? How does one determine in a tie-breaker who will get and who will lose the extra seat? That will cause some debate in a system under which the number of constituencies is fixed.

The Bill does not provide for sparsity. If two regions have an equal claim, sparsity might be a factor. Our first past the post system takes account of it. One presumes that there will be a single enumeration date for the regional electorates. However, some regions are growing rapidly and others are losing population. Will that be a factor in the decision between specific regions? Will Gibraltar be the tie-breaker? That is unclear.

Assigning Gibraltar to a region could determine whether the region gets an extra seat and another loses a seat. There is a political calculation in that, for example, if the south-west had seven rather than six seats, it would be contentious. The Bill does not provide for an inquiry or some means for political parties, local authorities or people in the regions to make representations. Reference is made only to the Lord Chancellor and the Electoral Commission.

The Electoral Commission has a general remit to consult, but the Bill does not specify what sort of consultation. I hope that even if that does not appear in the Bill, the Government, through the Parliamentary Secretary's reply or in Committee, will set out the process. Even if there is no controversy in the first round of reducing seats, perhaps it will arise next time. The process will continue as Europe is enlarged. The ground rules need to be clearly set out so that members of all parties know how to respond to a redistribution of seats. I am uneasy about matters being conducted purely between the Lord Chancellor's Department and the Electoral Commission.We are considering matters that are more political than numerical. If that is acknowledged, we can get through the process more easily.

I welcome the fact that the Gibraltarians will be able to vote. Many hon. Members have spoken about that, and I shall not say much more. As a member for the south-west, which, as I have often argued, is not an especially natural region, I suspect that it would be the most logical region to combine with Gibraltar, given the links between them. The Cornish tend to perceive themselves as somewhat different, and the south-west could probably absorb the Gibraltarians easily as we would also have the Cornish. That is my bid for the Gibraltarians to be combined with the south-west.

I have anxieties about the Bill. It is a small, technical measure, but that does not mean that it does not raise political questions and arguments.

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