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10 Dec 2002 : Column 218—continued

Mr. Cash: Will the Minister give way?

Yvette Cooper: I have given way to the hon. Gentleman on many occasions and he has had various opportunities to make points; however, I shall give way one more time.

Mr. Cash: I have indeed had such opportunities, but so far I have had no reply to my question about the extension of the Lord Chancellor's powers in respect of the whole remit of European Community law. In particular, the question not just of the reduction in numbers under the treaty of Nice, but of future changes, has not been dealt with.

Yvette Cooper: I am coming to the number of seats, and to the suggestions that were incorrectly made by the hon. Gentleman and other Opposition Members.

The second issue relating to secondary powers concerns Gibraltar's enfranchisement and the need to address the many aspects of UK electoral law—the way in which election agents' expenses are paid, and other such details—that must be applied to Gibraltar. It is appropriate that such matters be dealt with through secondary legislation, but it is clear that there will be considerable debate about this issue in Committee.

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The hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon) asked whether the Lord Chancellor will be able to reduce the number of MEPs in Northern Ireland to less than three, and the answer is no. Clause 2(4)(b) and paragraph 1(2) to schedule 1A establish that each electoral region must be allocated at least three MEPs. Opposition Members also suggested that the House was getting no say in the reduction in the number of MEPs, but that is not true. The treaty of Nice sets the final number of MEPs for the UK at 72, and this House debated and ratified both the treaty and that figure. How we get from here to there will depend on the agreement of the European Council this week on how many new states get in, and on what the timetable for the reduction should be. However, all EU members will need to sign up to that interim position.

Hon. Members also raised the question of consultation with the Government of Gibraltar. Officials have been in contact with the Government of Gibraltar through correspondence, and in direct discussion in meetings. As hon. Members suggested, further meetings will take place before Christmas, including with a Foreign Office Minister. The detail of the Bill will be discussed, as will the way in which enabling provisions can best be applied to Gibraltar, how far such changes can be made by Westminster Parliament, and the extent to which the Government of Gibraltar can legislate. We expect some of these changes to take place through Gibraltar's own legislation, but not everything can be dealt with in that way. For Gibraltar to be treated fairly as part of a UK region, UK electoral law—which is decided by this House—needs to cover Gibraltar as well. We are talking about detailed issues—I have already mentioned expenses and election agents—including sending election addresses through the post, whether schools and rooms can be used for parliamentary elections, and so on. We need to ensure that a whole series of detailed issues concerning the conduct of elections are applied fairly to Gibraltar, so that it is treated consistently as part of a UK region.

Certain Members wanted to discuss the future status of Gibraltar, but that does not form part of the Bill's scope. I welcome the points that were raised, but I should make it clear that the Government have always said that any proposed change in the status of Gibraltar would be a matter for the people of Gibraltar to decide in a referendum. That has always been the case, and it continues to be so. The constitutional settlement for Gibraltar, which was set out in 1969, is complex, and changing that status does not form part of the scope of this Bill.

The hon. Member for South Norfolk raised an important question about the European Court judgment. He suggested that the issue is whether the people of Gibraltar have the right to petition the European Court, or whether they are covered by the European convention. My understanding of the judgment differs slightly, and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman in more detail about this complex issue. As I see it, the judgment concerned whether or not the European Parliament formed part of Gibraltar's legislature, and whether the article and protocol on free and fair elections to the legislature therefore apply. The European Court ruled that they do, but the legal

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arguments do not apply in the same way to the Channel Islands as they do to Gibraltar. As I said, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman on this point, because these are complex legal arguments.

On the points raised by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds, it would of course be preferable to amend the 1976 legislation, but we were unable to secure the unanimous agreement of the Council. That is why we have taken such action through the Bill, and we support the enfranchisement of Gibraltar in this way.

The hon. Member for Poole asked about the way in which the Electoral Commission should make its decisions and the matters that it should take into account. It does of course need to consult widely, and I am sure that political parties will make their views known as part of that consultation. In raising issues that might be important at the margins, the hon. Gentleman has in some ways shown exactly why it is so important that the Electoral Commission should conduct this consultation. Many marginal issues concerning Gibraltar, or concerning relations between individual regions, could have political consequences. It is therefore right that the Electoral Commission, which is independent and was set up for exactly such purposes, should be the body that makes the recommendation to us.

Mr. Bacon: Can the Minister confirm whether the decisions and actions of the Electoral Commission are open to judicial review?

Yvette Cooper: The Electoral Commission is responsible to the Speaker's Conference in this Parliament. I shall have to take advice on that point and write to the hon. Gentleman. It is important that the independent electoral commission should be the body to make the recommendations. I understand that it is subject to judicial review.

Many points of detail were raised that we can discuss in Standing Committee.

Mr. Hoyle: One quick point: would the Bill allow another overseas territory to challenge for enfranchisement to the EU?

Yvette Cooper: The Bill does not cover any other overseas territory. Clearly, if one wanted to have discussions with us, we would agree to that, and many such issues will also be matters for the Foreign Office.

Many matters of detail and drafting have been raised, and I hope that we can discuss them further in Standing Committee. I hope that we will gain the support of as many hon. Members as possible for the detailed provisions.

One substantive difference became apparent when the hon. Member for Stone seemed to object to the reduction in the number of UK MEPs. My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hall Green set the position out clearly. He said that supporters of EU enlargement can adopt one of only two positions: either they want the European Parliament to get ever bigger, or they believe that the UK and other countries need to reduce the number of their seats so that the new accession states can have representation.

In fact, there is a third option—that the new accession states should simply not get representation in the European Parliament. I assume that that is not the

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Opposition stance. It is right that we should give the new accession states fair representation, and that, therefore, means recognising the consequences—as negotiated across Europe—for UK representation.

The hon. Member for Stone set out his objections to any reduction in the number of UK MEPs, and that seemed to me to be the wrong approach. In the past, he has said that he supported enlargement but not if that meant crushing out the democratic spirit. It is hardly in the democratic spirit to resist all reduction in UK representation, with the knock-on impact that that would have for fair representation for the new states that we should be welcoming to the EU.

The hon. Member for Stone also referred to his pamphlet on the Nice treaty. That is indeed a weighty tome—50 pages of criticism, to be precise. When I saw it, I thought that the hon. Gentleman must be prolific, and I assumed that he had written equally weighty tomes on other issues of interest to him in his role shadowing the Attorney-General and the Lord Chancellor's Department. I confess that I struggled to find any statements at all on those matters, let alone one that ran to 50 pages. In fact, I struggled to find much in the way of letters or parliamentary questions. It seems that the hon. Gentleman's interests lie elsewhere.

Mr. Cash: I assure the Minister that the shadow Cabinet has ample paper on all subjects.

Yvette Cooper: I wonder what the hon. Gentleman has been drowning his fellow members of the shadow Cabinet in. I suspect that the answer will not be matters to do with the Attorney-General, but matters to do with Europe. When the hon. Gentleman was appointed to the Opposition Front Bench, a Tory spokesman said that he was instructed by the Tory leader that he would not be discussing European issues or pronouncing on matters European. The hon. Gentleman has in fact been quite restrained in this debate, and I accept that he has said before today that he supports enlargement. However, the logic of his argument is that, although we should welcome other eastern European and accession states into the EU, we should pull the UK out of it. He wants the renegotiation of the treaties of Nice, Amsterdam and Maastricht, and in fact he believes that we should have a referendum on the entire EU treaty itself.

A much wider difference has become evident: the hon. Member for Stone and his party want to be outside the EU and shouting from a distance while European states and the new accession states decide matters affecting our future. The Government believe that we should be in Europe, arguing our case, influencing the debate and making a real difference to the issues that affect people's lives.

That includes supporting the European Parliament, and supporting a voice in the European Parliament for people from the accession states. It also means enfranchising Gibraltar and giving its people a voice in the European Parliament.

The Bill is important. It will extend democracy and ensure a better and wider EU. I hope that all hon. Members will support that, and that they will give the Bill a Second Reading tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.

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