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We discussed the issue thoroughly in Committee on a different amendment which had support from all sides of the House. I was disappointed by the result of the Division on that amendment. I rise only to remind your Lordships that we had on that occasion a petition from 90 per cent. of the people of Gibraltar asking for the right to vote in European elections. Although I am a great friend of Spain, have many Spanish friends and take seriously our good relations with Spain, nevertheless I think it important for your Lordships to support this request to ensure fairness and justice for that disenfranchised corner of Europe, for the people of Gibraltar. They should have the opportunity to vote not only in the next European elections, but in all subsequent elections. I support the amendment.
Lord Monson: My Lords, I can add little to the powerful and effective case put for the amendment by the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, except to say that I do not believe that Spain would behave so badly in matters such as illegal fishing in Gibraltar waters and obstructing people for two and three hours at a stretch at the border crossing if there were an MEP representing Gibraltar to raise those matters in the European Parliament and other fora on the continent of Europe. Many other European countries, I suspect, would become almost as indignant about those matters as ourselves if they knew about them. The trouble is that matters affecting Gibraltar are rarely reported in the continental press. Acceptance of this amendment, apart from all the other arguments in its favour, would ensure that more attention is paid to Gibraltar in continental Europe.
The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, I support the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, in his attempt to give the people of Gibraltar a vote in the next European elections. I took part in the debate in Committee on 24th June 1998, and having re-read the report of the debate, I noted an interesting exchange. At that time the Minister informed the Committee that the Government were bound by international obligation and he challenged my noble kinsman Lord Henley either to agree or to refute that. Of course, the noble Lord, Lord Henley, agreed, as I do.
In order to obtain a vote for the Gibraltarians at the European Parliamentary elections it is necessary, is it not, to amend the Act of 1976? That entails, first, of course, proposals from the European Parliament. Secondly, it will also need an unanimous decision in Council and, thirdly, ratification by all member states. Of course, the Government must push this ahead if it is to take place.
I have two questions for the Minister. Do the Government think that it is wrong in principle that Gibraltarians, who are British citizens under the Crown, are denied a vote? Is it not wrong in principle that they are physically, geographically, legally, culturally and socially a part of Europe and yet they do not have the vote?
Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, I supported the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, on 24th June. I say straightaway that I shall support him again today if the matter goes to a vote. I say that as one who is not exactly enamoured with the European Parliament, and indeed would prefer that it reverted to a European assembly which was composed of people sent from national parliaments. Having said that, if we have the system of direct election, it ought to be fair and it ought to apply to all citizens of the European Union. After all, we were all made citizens of the European Union whether we liked it or not (and some of us did not like it) under the Maastricht Treaty which of course was supported by the Government.
I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has made an excellent case in saying that citizens of a particular organisation or a particular country, or whatever it may be, should be treated equally. Undoubtedly, the citizens of Gibraltar are not being treated equally. I believe that some means has to be found--I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, may have found it--to ensure that the citizens of Gibraltar who are clamouring to vote in these elections are satisfied. You do not often find that people are clamouring to vote. There should be some way in which we can enable them to vote in the interests of equity and of justice. I hope that the amendment will be carried.
Lord Chesham: My Lords, I should like to join in the support of my noble friend Lord Bethell. I have a brief point to make. There appear to be two interpretations of the law. One interpretation is that this can be done internally--that the Gibraltarians are part of the UK as far as Europe is concerned--in which case we can internally give them a vote; and the other is the situation as described by the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle.
I believe that we should take the internal route. We should say, "Yes, we can give them the vote", give them the vote and then see if Spain challenges the fact that they have been given the vote. That would clearly show the hand of Spain.
Lord Milverton: My Lords, I voted in favour of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, last time and I shall do so again if the amendment is put to a vote. I do not see any reason to change my mind. It seems to me to be fair and decent that Gibraltarians should be given a vote and we should be able to respond to them in that way. One wonders why Spain is dubious and is not excited about them having a vote.
Lord McNally: My Lords, it is clear that there is a good deal of support for what the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, has quite rightly said about the great enthusiasm for the people of Gibraltar to vote in these elections. It is less clear whether by passing the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, we would be advancing that wish or indeed advancing the general interests of the people of Gibraltar.
It is no good pretending that the people of Gibraltar are full-square with voters in Dutch and French territories which are part of the metropolitan countries. I believe that in times past consideration was given as to whether Malta and Gibraltar should have exactly that status with the United Kingdom. It was decided that that was not to be, so we cannot wish it different now.
It may also be interesting to hear from the noble Lord, Lord Henley, as to how this matter was discussed inside the previous administration. After all, this is not the first election to the European Parliament. There have been a number in the past 20 years and I am sure that the wish to vote in those elections was as strong in Gibraltar as it is now. Yet somehow the previous administration did not act.
Obviously, there are difficulties about how we deal with our colonies. There is no firm track-record. We went to war over the Falklands and we handed back Hong Kong. What we do with Gibraltar and its relations with Spain is a matter for careful consideration. Successive British governments have given the clearest assurances that those relations will be based on the wishes of the people of Gibraltar. However, I am not sure that it is sensible in such a piece of legislation to add an amendment which, I suspect, would complicate rather than help resolve that long-term solution.
I hope that the Minister will indicate in his response that he sees this as a problem and tells us that the Government are willing to look at ways of helping forward the wishes of the people of Gibraltar. A suggestion made by my noble friend Lady Williams was that Gibraltar might have the absolute right to appear before the Select Committee of this House to register its views on European matters. The role of the Foreign Secretary as their representative as a colony at the Council of Ministers could be expanded and we could also consider the various suggestions which have been put forward in various debates.
Although there are strong views in my party--indeed, Simon Hughes, and others, have voiced them in the other place and my noble friend Lord Thomas of Swynnerton expressed contrary views in our last debate--I must tell the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, that it will not be possible for those of us on these Benches to support him. I hope that the noble Lord does not press
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