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10 Dec 2002 : Column 207—continued

6.48 pm

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I am pleased to have an opportunity of speaking in the debate. I want to raise three specific issues. The first is about human rights, especially in relation to other overseas territories. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who is not in his place, raised that point. Secondly, I want to consider the Electoral Commission and the role of the Lord Chancellor. My third point is about the operation of the combined region and proportional representation.

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We are discussing the matter today because of the European Court of Human Rights and its judgment. The Parliamentary Secretary said that the Matthews judgment did not apply to the Channel Islands. However, the Bill and the other documentation suggests that the point about the Matthews case is nothing to do with the wishes of the Gibraltarian Government or those of any other Government of a British overseas territory. Two questions are relevant. Had the British permanent representative to the Council of Europe, who makes a declaration about the European convention on human rights, declared specific territories to be within the ambit of convention? Did any of those territories have the right of individual petition before the European Court? So long as both of those conditions are satisfied, and despite the stance, whatever it might be, of the Government of the Channel Islands—the Bailiwicks of Guernsey or Jersey, for example—it might be open to a citizen to petition the European Court, just as it was open to Denise Matthews to do so. Presumably, in the same circumstances, if the convention were applicable and there were a right of individual petition before the European Court, the Court would reach the same decision again. I would be grateful if the Minister would expand on that, because she did not go into the matter in detail earlier.

My next point relates to the Electoral Commission and the powers of the Lord Chancellor. Many hon. Members have commented that the Bill gives too many powers to the Lord Chancellor. My view is that any man who compares himself with Cardinal Wolsey probably deserves fewer rather than more powers, and that the House should not consider passing any Act of Parliament that might enhance his powers in any way. The Bill says, however, that the Electoral Commission has to consider which of the existing electoral regions in England and Wales should be combined with Gibraltar and, before determining what recommendation to make to the Lord Chancellor, consult with the Governor and the Chief Minister of Gibraltar. Under the Bill, the Lord Chancellor also has an obligation to consult the Electoral Commission.

That raises a number of questions, which I would be grateful if the Minister could answer. First, what weight will the Government give to the opinion of the Gibraltar Government—by which I mean the Chief Minister and the Government, in particular, and not simply the Governor? The reason that I ask the question in that form is that a press release of 22 November—the day on which the Bill was published—from the Gibraltar Government makes it plain that the United Kingdom Government gave no weight to the opinions of the Government of Gibraltar when they presented the Bill to the House of Commons. The press release states:

that is, the Government of Gibraltar—

There are two reasons why that is strange. The first is that the British Government have made a commitment to more pre-legislative scrutiny—that is, more pre-consideration of Bills, so that they will be in better shape when they come before the House.

Secondly, given the thorough Horlicks that the British Government have made of their relations with the Government of Gibraltar, one might have thought

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that, on a Bill of this importance to Gibraltar, it might have been sensible to show the Gibraltar Government the finished text of the draft Bill before presenting it to the House, and to say, XHere is our draft text; what do you think of it?" According to the Government of Gibraltar, however, that was not done. An explanation from the Minister for that would also be helpful.

A further question that I would like to raise is on the nature of the combined region and how it will work in practice. With respect to what you said earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker—of course, I respect your ruling. The way in which the combined region that will include Gibraltar is to operate will involve the existing electoral system, and this will highlight the operation of that system more starkly than ever before. In my own electoral region for the European Parliament—the eastern region—there are eight MEPs. In the south-west—part of which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms)—I think that there are seven, and in Northern Ireland, three. I was particularly attracted to the suggestions made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon); she made a very appealing case.

So far as I understand the Bill, the system will operate in exactly the same way in the combined region, once Gibraltar has been incorporated into it, as it does now in, shall we say, my own eastern region. Each of the eight MEPs for that region, technically, is an MEP for the whole region. Similarly, the seven MEPs for the south-west are all MEPs for all the south-west. Thus, whichever combined region incorporates Gibraltar, all its MEPs will represent Gibraltar. We already understand the difficulties that this causes in practice. In my own area, the MEPs have informally cut up the region territorially, just so that they can begin to get a grasp of the job. I would be grateful if the Minister could address this issue, specifically in relation to Gibraltar. How will this work? If all the MEPs from a region represent Gibraltar, will they all fly off there regularly? Alternatively, will they simply have to cut up their region and decide informally that only one of them should take responsibility for the territory? If so, which one, and from which party? This raises real concerns in relation to the operation of the combined region.

I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) in his place and participating in this debate as a true Eurosceptic. I gather that, at a tea party in his constituency a few months ago, he said that he had always been against the single European currency. It is a great pleasure to participate in a debate on the Floor of the House with him, when he takes such an important position on such an important question. With respect to his position on proportional representation, however, I suggest that the question of how the combined region would operate throws into stark relief the catastrophe that is proportional representation.

6.55 pm

Mr. Andrew Rosindell (Romford): Most hon. Members will be aware of my views on Gibraltar, and on how the British people of that territory should be represented at every level of government. It is a pity that they should have to begin by being represented in the European Parliament. I would much prefer the Minister to come to the House to state that she will also give the

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people of Gibraltar the right to make their own decisions on who will speak for them in this House as well. They are British citizens, and they should be treated equally and properly, as we would expect our own constituents to be treated.

I welcome this initiative, although it is sad that it has taken 31 years for the British people of Gibraltar to be given the right to vote in European elections. They joined the Common Market at the same time as the United Kingdom did, yet they were deliberately excluded from being able to vote in European elections from 1979 onwards. That was shameful, and created a democratic deficit that no party in government has addressed over a long period of time. I sincerely hope that the present Government will address the democratic deficit in relation to this place, and that my own party will consider this a future policy for the next Conservative Government.

I welcome the Bill, principally because it takes the first step in a long overdue move towards the integration of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar within the United Kingdom. I hope, however, that the concept of giving the people of our overseas territories the right to vote in elections will not end with this Bill. I want to correct one or two hon. Members who have spoken on the subject earlier. Gibraltar is a member of the European Union, via the United Kingdom, but that does not apply to the other British overseas territories or the Crown dependencies of the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man; they are not part of the European Union. Lucky them! While Gibraltar remains part of the European Union, however, it should be given the right to vote and to choose its own elected representatives, and I am glad that there is consensus on that in the House.

The people of Gibraltar have been treated shabbily. It is regrettable that it has taken an action in the European Court of Human Rights to bring the matter to a head. It is a pity that Labour Members—with the honourable exception of the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who is just returning to the Chamber—are not enthusiastic about the Bill. Indeed, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hall Green (Mr. McCabe) said that he did not particularly like Gibraltarians, and had no time for them. He seemed reluctant to give them the vote in European elections. I wish that there were more enthusiasm. I cannot understand any British Member of Parliament being unenthusiastic about giving all British people the right to vote in all British elections. I find it appalling that there is a lack of such enthusiasm among those on the Government Benches. Indeed, the Government have been forced to bring the Bill to the House. They have not done so willingly, as one might have expected from a British Government in relation to their own people.

The explanatory notes make it clear that the integration of Gibraltar in a British region for representation in the European Parliament has come about through the case of Matthews v. the United Kingdom in the European Court of Human Rights. The referendum held on the Rock only last month—we all know the result, as 99 per cent. of people in Gibraltar

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decided that they want to stay British—clearly showed that the British people of Gibraltar want representation in the European Parliament and here.

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