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10 Dec 2002 : Column 211—continued

Tony Cunningham: I am listening carefully to the hon. Gentleman. Why did the House not pass legislation between 1979 and 1997 to give the people of Gibraltar the opportunity to vote in European Parliament elections?

Mr. Rosindell: As the hon. Gentleman knows, I was not a Member of the House in that period and I cannot speak for a previous Conservative Government. All I can say is that, as a Member of the House today and one who will be a Member when the next Conservative Government are elected, I strongly believe that it is my party's duty to ensure that that wrong is corrected when we are back in power. The Bill will give the people of Gibraltar the right to vote in European elections, but they must also have the right to vote Members to this House. I look forward to that day.

Mr. Hoyle: I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is as disappointed as I am that the franchise was not given to the people of Gibraltar between 1979 and 1997, and that he wants to express that disappointment.

Mr. Rosindell: I am disappointed that British subjects, whoever they are and wherever they may live, have not been given the right to vote in British elections. The previous Conservative Government could have given them that right. Obviously, other matters were on the agenda, but I have no doubt that a future Conservative Government will consider the issue and, as the hon. Gentleman knows more than most on the Government Benches, I am arguing strongly for that in my party. Our Government's attitude to the people of Gibraltar should involve not listening and walking away, but substance and meaning. They are British, as are all subjects in the British overseas territories, and they should be given the rights that are expected in our constituencies.

I urge the Government to send the people of Gibraltar the right signals. It is important that those in Gibraltar who are watching the debate today do not see a Government who are reluctant to introduce the Bill. I honestly believe that the attitude that they have displayed to the people of Gibraltar has done enormous harm, so this is an opportunity for them to make their peace with the people of the Rock, respect them and embrace their wishes. It would make such a difference if the people of Gibraltar were made to feel that they are wanted by the Government and wanted by the Members of this place.

Mr. Cash: Does my hon. Friend not think that, perversely and in some respects, that attitude may have done a lot of good? It has drawn the attention of the people of this country to how shabbily the people of Gibraltar have been treated. The British people have every reason to be concerned about how they are likely to be treated, for example when they are not given a referendum on the Government's proposal for a European constitution.

Mr. Rosindell: My hon. Friend is correct again. The Government have treated the people of Gibraltar

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shabbily, but that has highlighted the democratic deficit and the importance of giving the vote to the British people in our few remaining overseas territories.

After an Adjournment debate last week, the Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Minister for Europe said to me, XIf you give Gibraltar the right to vote in elections, they will all want it." It is as if we have millions of colonies that are all waiting to send MPs to the House. Of course, that is simply not the case. We have a small number of overseas territories—about 12 or 13—with small populations and none has asked for or seems to want independence. They all want to stay under the Crown and they wish to remain British.

Madam Deputy Speaker: Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the other aspect that distinguishes those territories is that they are not relevant to the Bill.

Mr. Rosindell: Thank you for reminding me of that, Madam Deputy Speaker. I was responding to points made by other Members. My hon. Friend the Member for Stone (Mr. Cash) referred to referendums on European issues and I endorse everything he said.

The region in which Gibraltar should be included is a matter for the people of Gibraltar and the Electoral Commission. It should be an independent decision. There are strong arguments for the south-west region and arguments for Northern Ireland. I regret the fact that only England and Wales are to be considered, as I believe that Gibraltar is an overseas territory of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Therefore, I cannot understand how, in principle, it is right to exclude any part of the UK from consideration as to the region in which Gibraltar should be included.

Mr. Bacon: Does my hon. Friend agree that the reason given by the Minister for why that cannot be done—namely, that it is rather too complicated—is inadequate in view of the importance of his remarks about the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the fact that we managed to get a man to the moon in 1969?

Mr. Rosindell: My hon. Friend makes a fair point. That argument cannot be sustained and it is simply wrong on principle. If a British overseas territory is to be given the vote in British elections and if the Electoral Commission is to decide the region or constituency in which that territory is to be included, we must start from the basis that it can be included in any part of the UK. I cannot understand how it can possibly be argued that Scotland and Northern Ireland should be excluded from consideration.

I entirely endorse what my hon. Friend says and ask the Minister to reconsider. I am not arguing for Gibraltar to be included in Northern Ireland or in Scotland; I want the people of Gibraltar to make that decision with the Electoral Commission. The whole UK should be treated the same way in this respect.

Once again, it is shabby that the Government have failed to consult the Government of Gibraltar, Gibraltar's Chief Minister and the Gibraltarian people on the Bill. The Minister should understand how profound the matter is to the people of Gibraltar.

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The Bill is not of minor consequence to them; it is of major significance to their lives. The European Union may not be particularly significant, but the fact that the people of Gibraltar are getting a vote in a British election for the first time makes the Bill incredibly important to every person on the Rock.

Members will be able to imagine the circumstances if a part of the mainland UK that had been excluded from voting in elections were suddenly able to vote. People would be very keen to ensure that they were properly consulted. That did not happen with Gibraltar, although it should have. I hope that the Minister takes note of the comments not just from me, but from many Members who made that point this afternoon. The Government should go to the people and the elected Government of Gibraltar and give them the right to be consulted on this very important issue, which affects their future.

It is a matter of principle, at least in my view, that all British people—whoever they are, and in whichever part of the world they may live—should be treated equally. This is, I trust, the first rather than the last step along the road to that end.

Let me remind the Minister that the people of Gibraltar are not just part of the European Union. In many senses, they are governed by the United Kingdom Administration. Tony Blair—sorry, the Prime Minister—may be Prime Minister of the United Kingdom rather than Gibraltar, but he makes many decisions about what happens there, as do the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Defence. Similarly, in respect of higher education, health and many other matters, Gibraltar depends on our elected Government for decisions. That should be taken into account in this and future legislation if we are to deal with the democratic deficit that many of us have mentioned today.

I welcome the Bill, but I am sorry it has taken a court judgment to force the Government to act. I hope that the necessary measures will be taken speedily, and that the people of Gibraltar will be consulted fully. I look forward to the day when those people elect their own MEP, and indeed their own Member of Parliament.

7.11 pm

Adam Price (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr): I apologise to both Front Benches, and indeed to all Members, for my absence during most of the debate. I was at the annual children's reception at 10 Downing street, following what will probably prove to be my only invitation to No 10 during the current Parliament.

In this vital debate, we have focused on the representation of small polities or territorial communities—principally Gibraltar, although I am glad that the Cornish were given a mention earlier. They would certainly say that the move to a list system has had a negative impact on their voice in Europe. I intend to concentrate on the representation of what might be called the natural regions of the United Kingdom. Wales and Scotland currently have 13 MEPs between them, but the number is to fall to 10. We are, in fact, to experience 20 per cent. of the cut in UK representation, although our population is only 15 per cent. of the whole. That is disproportionate.

I do not want to adopt a sectarian approach. Although we obviously have a nationalist perspective, Unionists should also be concerned. In a multinational

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state such as the UK, those who uphold the constitutional integrity of the Union should pay particular attention to the representation of smaller nations such as Northern Ireland at all levels, including the European Parliament. To an extent that is reflected in the fact that the devolved Assemblies, very rarely, are given observer status at the Council of Ministers, although they have no voting rights.

However, it is precisely because Wales, as a small nation, has no automatic right to sit in the Council of Ministers—and no representation in COREPER, the Committee of Permanent Representatives—that the voice of MEPs is so important to us. European Union policies have historically been very important to us in Wales, and indeed to those in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The current discussions of fisheries policies interest us greatly; agriculture is disproportionately important to both Wales and Scotland, along with coal and steel. The same could really be said of regional policy in general. That is why we need to maintain the current level of representation for those three parts of the United Kingdom.

The American political scientist A.O. Hirschmann spoke of the strategies that minority groups could employ in a political system. There were, he said, two strategies, Xvoice" and Xexit". Either the system accommodated minority groups, allowed them to express their distinctiveness and listened to them, or the Xexit" door was available. Some of us may wish to approach that door, but I think it is in all our interests, whatever our perspective, to ensure that minority nations in the UK, including Northern Ireland, are given adequate representation. We see that principle in federal systems throughout the world. Members will correct me if my geography is wrong, but I believe that Wyoming, whose population is about half a million, has the same representation in the Senate as California, whose population is some 20 million—or perhaps 40 million; I am not sure. This is not special pleading. I am talking about how we are to ensure political cohesion in a multinational state.

In the European Union there is, in fact, over-representation of small and medium-sized nations. It is called—this is another wonderful example of Eurospeak, or Eurobabble, depending on one's political leanings—the principle of degressive proportionality. It means the over-representation of smaller nations in per capita terms, in relation to both the weighting of votes—that will apply even under the new proposals, post-accession, in the Council of Ministers—and representation as such. It is important because the proportion of small and medium-sized members of the EU is increasing post-accession. The average population of the current member state is about 24.5 million, whereas after further accessions it will be 8.8 million. The question of how best to represent smaller nations is at the forefront of the enlargement debate.

Clearly, a rigid numerical per capita rule is not the answer. A more qualitative approach is needed to the representation of political and cultural diversity in the EU. Luxembourg, whose population is about the same as Cardiff's, will have six seats, while Ireland, with the same population as Wales, will have 12—three times as many as Wales. Denmark, with the same population as Scotland, will have 13, more than double Scotland's six.

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According to the Bill a Welshman is worth a third of an Irishman, and a Scot is worth half a Dane. That strikes me as rather bizarre.

The hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) is right. We are making an excellent case for full self-government—for Wales and Scotland to be members of the European Union in their own right, and to have the full panoply of advantages in terms of representation. We look forward to seeing the Liberal Democrats join us in supporting that principle at the next election.

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