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Lord Carrington: My Lords, as a result of the observers going, the Serbian army moved in.

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, I am not sure that the noble Lord is reading the same newspapers and the same reports. The Serbian army has been there for some time. The Serbian security police have been there for some time. Their tanks have been destroying Serbian villages for weeks. That is why we are there. The noble Lord may say that the fact that there will be no observers there in future may diminish our ability to restrain the Serbs. That is a perfectly tenable point of view. But to say, as he did, that their removal has caused more damage than anything else in recent months is an argument that defeats me.

My noble friend Lord Kennet asked me what Mrs. Albright promised the Kosovars. I have no idea what was said. My noble friend asked what was our objective. I stated it yesterday, I have stated it again today, and I shall repeat it time after time. Our military objective is to disrupt what is presently going on in Kosovo and to curb President Milosevic's capabilities to continue with that kind of activity in the future.

The noble Lord, Lord Sandberg, said that casualties will come. The noble Lord may be right. I very much hope that he is not. It is magnificent that we have had none so far. The noble Lord pointed out that the aerial activity has only just begun. The main objective of air attacks in the immediate future is to degrade the air defence capabilities of the Serbian government so that in future our forces may fly more safely over their territory.

It is a very precise and guided set of targets that I see every morning down in the bowels of the Ministry of Defence. I take issue with those who talk in the terms used by my noble friend Lord Stoddart, who referred to "pulverising Serbia to dust". We are not pulverising

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Serbia to dust. The talk about bombing Serbia, as though we were trying to produce another Dresden in Belgrade or another Coventry in another town, is absolute fiction. We are addressing a very small number of precise military targets, in exactly the same way as we were doing in Iraq, where Saddam Hussein has been unable to provide any demonstration of mass casualties as a result of the Desert Fox campaign and subsequent activities. My noble friend spoke of our "unleashing a massive bombardment on a small country". He uses such evocative language that I must take issue with him. It is simply not the case. Had my noble friend been listening to my introductory remarks he would realise that we sent out four Harriers last night. Three of them returned with their bomb loads intact because they were not sure that they could hit their targets. That is not "pulverising Serbia".

The Earl of Lauderdale: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. Perhaps he can clear up one matter. We understand that among the targets attacked last night were the defences and the town of Novi Sad. I hear that the town of Novi Sad itself was damaged. Does the Minister know whether or not that is the case?

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, as I have already said, it is impossible for me to give a detailed bomb damage assessment so I am afraid that I cannot answer the noble Earl's question. If I find that there is any information when I return to the Ministry of Defence I shall be happy to write to the noble Earl on that point.

We are dealing with a brutal dictator who, as the noble Lord, Lord McNair, said, has engaged in unacceptable ferocity and cruelty. As the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said, we must play our part and accept our duty and responsibility for being part of Europe, even though it may appear to some noble Lords that there is no direct British connection.

I am grateful for many of the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Burnham. However, the noble Lord said that we must go into Kosovo. We have no intention of fighting our way into Kosovo. I shall repeat that as many times as necessary. Neither we nor any of our NATO allies have the intention of fighting our way in on the ground. We are sending our troops in only by agreement when the circumstances arise.

The noble Lord asked whether we could defend our troops in Macedonia. Perhaps I did not have the noble Lord's full attention when I addressed the House earlier today. I said that General Jackson had told us that he had plans in place which he was satisfied would meet the case if necessary, were his troops to be attacked by ground troops under the control of the Serbian authorities in Kosovo. Of course there will be a strain on our troops on the ground. Of course there will be logistical problems. But I give the noble Lord the reassurance that the Chiefs of Staff, and particularly the Chief of the Defence Staff, believe that we have the situation under control.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, I thank the Minister for giving way. Perhaps I may remind him that we sent troops

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into Northern Ireland to defend the Catholic population and within months they were shooting our troops in the back.

Lord Gilbert: My Lords, that is one of the reasons why we are not sending troops into Kosovo.

As I said, our objectives are clear. Our objective is not to occupy, not to subjugate. We do not know what is going to happen. We do not know how Mr. Milosevic will behave. And we shall be judged by whether or not we succeed in disrupting his activities and curbing his abilities. We may fail. I do not believe that we shall. I have the greatest confidence in the skill and capabilities and the assets at the disposal of our forces and those of our allies who are engaged in these very dangerous activities. I do not propose to contemplate the possibility of failure. I am sure that everyone in this House joins me in saying God speed to those of our forces who are engaged in these extremely dangerous operations. I hope for their sake, and for the sake of the people of Kosovo and Serbia that they are successful.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

European Parliamentary Elections (Gibraltar) Bill [H.L.]

8.47 p.m.

Lord Bethell: My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

This is the third time in the past year that I have raised the question of the voting rights of Gibraltar citizens in the European Parliament. I make no apology for returning to this question now. Twice, your Lordships rejected amendments to the European Parliamentary Elections Bill which called on the Government to facilitate the voting rights of Gibraltarians for the Strasbourg Parliament. But there has been a serious development since that happened, inasmuch as a case brought by a Gibraltar citizen before the European Court of Human Rights has been approved by that court, and by a resounding majority of 15 votes to two, one of the two minority voters being the British judge.

The people of Gibraltar are deeply concerned about the question of voting rights in the European Parliament. In June last year I presented a petition to your Lordships signed by no less than 90 per cent. of the voting population of Gibraltar. I urged the House to see to it that Gibraltarians were able to vote in the elections that will take place on 10th June this year.

The 17,000 voters of that small territory have many duties and obligations which are brought upon them by the European institutions, including the European Parliament. Of course they want to have an input into who their representatives in Strasbourg and Brussels should be. They want someone who represents them, to whom they have access and to whom they can present individual matters.

Miss Denise Matthews, the applicant to the Strasbourg court, points out that according to Article 3 of the First Protocol of the European Convention on

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Human Rights, Gibraltarians have the right to a free vote over the choice of the legislature. The last time we discussed this in your Lordships' House, the Government argued that the European Parliament was not a legislature. However, the 15 judges in Strasbourg took a different view. I wish to quote what I believe is a rather devastating comment made by the Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Williams, on 24th June 1998, in his summing up speech:

    "One speaker asked whether the present situation is in breach of the European Human Rights Convention. My advice is quite clear and unambiguous: it is not".--[Official Report, 24/6/98; col. 301.]
Seldom, I suggest, has a Minister been guided by such erroneous advice. I accept that the advice was clear and unambiguous and I absolve the Minister of blame for having accepted the advice that came from his department or probably from another department. But the advice was mistaken, according to a substantial majority of the judges in the Strasbourg court.

Therefore, I believe that this puts the Government in a position where they must act, they must not just express sympathy, good will or intentions. They must act and must take measures that will enable the question to be resolved. We have lost a lot of time. If action had been taken in June 1998, we would be further along the path. But let us take action now.

The Minister also said last June that he had clear and unambiguous advice on another point: that voting rights could not be given to the people of Gibraltar because of the 1976 Act on voting rights agreed by the governments. I hope that the Government will not be too influenced by that "clear and unambiguous advice" that comes, I have no doubt, from the Foreign Office legal department, on the question of the 1976 Act. I pray that the Government will not put a supposition by the Foreign Office legal department above a clear and resounding decision taken by the Court of Human Rights. Surely, the Government should do something concrete, not just something sympathetic or nice, to ensure that the question is sorted out.

The Bill that I put before your Lordships would allow Gibraltarians on the electoral roll of Gibraltar to vote in the elections in June this year, if it is passed in time and if the House of Assembly in Gibraltar approves it. It would put the 17,000 voters on the London regional list. Here, I must declare an interest in that I am a candidate on the London regional list. However, I hope that my interest will not be seen as being excessive, as there are 17,000 voters in Gibraltar and 5 million voters on the London regional list. So the Gibraltar element would only be one-third of 1 per cent. of that list, if the Bill is passed.

I should also declare an interest in that I have a few times in the past 20 years visited Gibraltar at the expense of the Gibraltar Government. This is a point to which I have returned on many occasions and if the Minister has it in mind to say that the question should have been addressed seriously by the Conservative Government over the years, I can only say that I agree with him entirely. It has been hanging around for about a quarter of a century. I therefore ask the Minister to

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think carefully about the point and the invidious position in which he finds himself as a result of the poor advice he received from the Civil Service.

I do not expect the noble Lord, Lord Williams, to oppose this Second Reading; it is unlikely that he will. But it is possible, if I have correctly read the words of the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary, that he will say that there is no time for it to be properly dealt with in another place. It would be a tragedy, if it were left so that the present position prevailed. I believe that the Government are honour bound, because of their mistakes in the past, to take into account the human rights of the people of Gibraltar and to ensure that they have a vote on 10th June.

As to the attitude of Spain, there are indications that the Spanish Government would not object to it. The Spanish Ambassador in London spoke to that effect a few days ago. I do not believe that the Government of Spain--any government of Spain--bearing in mind the recent history of Spain and the vivid memories that Spain has of violations of human rights, would find it in their hearts to deny the franchise to the 17,000 people of Gibraltar. Spain will not fly in the face of the European Court of Human Rights. The Spanish have more respect for it than certain other countries.

I therefore hope that the Minister will go beyond sympathy. He said in June last year that he was unable even to sugar the pill. I hope that this time he will not only sugar the pill but provide an effective medicine that will cure the disease that has arisen as a result of the decision. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a second time.--[Lord Bethell].

8.57 p.m.

Lord Hardy of Wath: My Lords, the House is obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell. Whether his Bill meets the requirements of legal niceties I am not qualified to say, but I believe that its principle is good. I maintain the view that Gibraltar should not be the only part of the EU which lacks representation. I said so in a debate in the House last year, so I need not detain the House long this evening.

There may be many in Spain who do not like the decision of the court to which the noble Lord referred, just as there are many in Spain who might be quite happy to see political exclusion continue or to see the nuisance, the churlish behaviour and delays at the frontier continue. There are those in Spain who would deny history. Yet it has some relevance.

Gibraltar became part of the state of Spain in 1462 and ceased to be part of Spain politically in 1713--251 years. It has been linked with Britain for a considerably longer period than that. But even if Spanish interests dismissed that historical fact, they can surely not expect to take Gibraltar into Spain against the overwhelming wishes of the people of Gibraltar. It may not be fashionable to suggest that the Spanish Government could more clearly recognise the contribution which Gibraltar made during the Second World War, when a large part of the population of Gibraltar were removed

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in order that it could properly concentrate on its role as a fortress for the eastern Mediterranean and a watchtower for the maritime approaches to Europe.

These matters are still of some significance. But, more than that, Spain should recognise that there is virtue and value in consistency. I have a number of friends involved in political activity in Spain. I have marvelled at the lack of consistency that sometimes they display. For example, Spain became part of the Council of Europe in the late 1970s. From that time no country or parliamentary delegation was more enthusiastic about encouraging, promoting and recognising democracy than my Spanish friends. I made this point last year and so will not labour it. No one did more to ensure that Liechtenstein, Andorra and San Marino were recognised as independent sovereign states, even though I can remember reminding the Spanish spokesman that they were roughly the size of Gibraltar. But they recognised it was right that even the smallest states in Europe should enjoy full democratic recognition and character. I believe that it is our responsibility in Britain to ensure that the democratic deficit that clearly exists is resolved at the earliest possible time.

9.1 p.m.

Baroness Hooper: My Lords, it is always very satisfactory to be proved right. Those of us who supported my noble friend Lord Bethell in his proposed amendment to the European Parliamentary Elections Bill last year are certainly vindicated by the judgment in Matthews v. United Kingdom. I place on record my congratulations to Miss Matthews on her perseverance and single-mindedness in bringing the action as well as its successful outcome. It is also fortunate that this victory, focused on one small area as it is, took place before the death of General Sir William Jackson, former Governor of Gibraltar and doughty champion of Gibraltar's right to determine its own future and play its part in the European Union. He must have been very pleased by this result.

But my noble friend Lord Bethell is another whose perseverance must be admired. I am very pleased to be able to support the Second Reading of this Bill which has the merit of being both short and simple. My noble friend raised a number of important points as did the noble Lord, Lord Hardy of Wath. No doubt we shall hear useful contributions from other noble Lords. My questions concentrate on timing and the practical issue of the appropriate constituency base that must be considered with great speed. What is the Government's estimate of the time required to put the necessary arrangements in place? Should the new arrangements not be in place by June, what will the Government do to comply with the ruling of the court given that almost a year ago (June of last year) this issue was raised in your Lordships' House? Had action been taken then it might have been possible to make the necessary arrangements in time.

My final question relates to the constituency base. I do not see how Gibraltar can form a separate constituency in any sense given its size; nor do I believe it appropriate that the whole of the Gibraltar electorate should be attached to one mainland British Euro

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constituency. However, I am very taken by the suggestion of my noble friend Lord Bethell that it should be attached to the constituency for which he is to be a candidate. Nevertheless, I believe that it would be more appropriate to find a way in which Gibraltarians can choose where their votes should be attached and that that should be in any part of the United Kingdom.

We have been over this ground on a number of occasions. Therefore, I shall not elaborate further. I pose one final and more general question. I ask the Minister whether in these days of political correctness his right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary intends to make an apology to the people of Gibraltar for getting it wrong.

9.4 p.m.

The Earl of Carlisle: My Lords, I support this Bill to provide for electors in Gibraltar to vote in elections to the European Parliament. I thank and congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, for his courage, skill and persistence in this matter. We are all in his debt, not least the electors of Gibraltar, and also Her Majesty's Government who are ultimately responsible for their security and therefore their democratic way of life, which they both relish and cherish. So do we.

This is a liberal measure concerned with democracy. It is a fundamental principle in a liberal democracy, especially in Britain, that every person over the age of 18 years is entitled to vote in local, parliamentary and European parliamentary elections. Since we joined the European Union, British citizens with British passports--the electors of Gibraltar--have been denied a very basic right: the right to vote in European parliamentary elections. They are and feel themselves to be, culturally, economically, socially, politically and legally--as do citizens of the United Kingdom and the Kingdom of Spain--a part of Europe. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has already quoted the remark of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, on 24th June. I shall not repeat that. But the last three words that he used--"It is not"--give food for thought and "words for eating". Since then the European Court of Human Rights, on 18th February of this year, has ruled by an overwhelming majority that Her Majesty's Government have been in breach of the law. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn--a highly respected lawyer and Minister in this House--will agree that this is a very serious matter.

How should we get round, or over, the problem? First, we should support the Bill. Secondly, the noble Baroness, Lady Symons of Vernham Dean, (who is not in her place today) informed your Lordships on 25th February that to comply with the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights through domestic legislation would put us in breach of the 1976 Act. On whose advice does the noble Baroness base that statement? Was it based on the opinion of those lawyers whose advice has already been shown to be unsound? Perhaps the Minister will inform us.

If we do not have the power unilaterally to extend the European parliamentary franchise to Gibraltar, then I, like other noble Lords and in particular the noble

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Baroness, Lady Hooper, seek answers to these questions. First, have the Government consulted their European Union partners? When did the process start; and what, if any, are the outcomes of the consultations? Secondly, will legislation be introduced through the European Union institutions in time for Gibraltar to vote in the June election?

As a Member of the constructive Opposition, perhaps I may offer a suggestion. Will the Government incorporate the electorate of Gibraltar into a United Kingdom Euro-parliamentary constituency? Could they do so as speedily as possible, because we do not want to be in breach of the European Court of Human Rights again if the Gibraltarians cannot vote in two-and-a-half months' time.

We, the taxpayer, have already had to foot the bill for the previous court case at Strasbourg. We do not want to do so again. This is a sorry story. The people of Gibraltar have demonstrated again and again their loyalty to the Crown and to democracy. One of them has had to take us to court. The court ruled in the plaintiff's favour. It ruled against Her Majesty's Government. Since 1973 injury has been inflicted upon Gibraltarians by successive British governments. We now have the opportunity to rectify that injustice by supporting the Bill before us. Let us do precisely that. We do not want to add insult to injury.

9.9 p.m.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Bethell for introducing the Bill and give it my full support.

I appreciate that the Government have taken steps to discuss the situation with our European partners and I congratulate them on that. It is the right thing to do. However, as I understand it, there are at least two conflicting legal opinions. I am sure the Minister will agree that the way to sort out two conflicting legal opinions is usually in court and not just to say, "We know that the opinion we have is right" when that has proved to be wrong.

The Government have had the benefit of a judgment by the European Court of Human Rights which was not available to the previous government. Any argument that we are simply going down the same track as the previous government is negated by the position of the European Court of Human Rights. I hope that the same old argument that we have heard so often in the past will not be trotted out again.

I believe that we should immediately legislate to incorporate the UK electorate in Gibraltar into a mainland British euroconstituency. I have no particular feeling about which constituency. If any other country wishes to challenge that legislation, let it do so in a British court which can be in the locus of the European Court of Human Rights. Time is of the essence. The European elections are due in June. I believe that that proposal would be the swiftest and most correct way to right the proven wrongs perpetrated on the citizens of Gibraltar.

I ask three simple questions of the Minister. Do the Government expect the failure to amend the Act in time for the June election to lead to another legal challenge

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in the European Court of Human Rights? Have discussions on amending the Act taken place between Her Majesty's Government and Spain; and what are the outcomes of those discussions? Has any advice been received by Her Majesty's Government that amending the Act would be in breach of the Treaty of Utrecht?

9.11 p.m.

Lord McNally: My Lords, in opening the debate, the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, indicated a number of interests. Those of us who have heard the noble Lord over the years know that, as a dog with a bone, he takes up the causes he adopts with terrier-like tenacity. I do not think that anyone doubts the reasoning underlying his pursuit of this subject.

There is no doubt that the citizens of Gibraltar should have the right to vote in European elections. What is in doubt is whether they should have the right to vote via a British constituency as is suggested by the Bill. I am not a lawyer, but I would be eager to know from the Minister, or perhaps from Lord Bethell, whether the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights is simply a recognition of the right to vote in European elections without providing the solution, or whether it is specifically pointing in the direction that this Bill does, because the weight that we give to that judgment is important.

I realise that, in speaking from this Front Bench, I am to a certain extent walking on egg shells. Noble Lords have heard the passion of my colleague and noble friend Lord Carlisle on this matter. I understand that colleagues in another place would be eager to support the Bill if it went there. We need clarification about whether the 1976 Act would necessitate unanimity. It is still a matter of some doubt, as a number of Peers have pointed out, as to whether or not it would need a court case in Britain to clarify the position; I do not know.

What I do know is that this is not an issue which can be divorced from the long-term future and interest of Gibraltar. That future must be on the basis of close and harmonious relations with Spain. For us at this point to spatchcock this legislation on to our domestic European Elections Bill I cannot believe would be seen by Spain as anything other than highly provocative. I do not think this Bill will resolve the right of Gibraltarians to vote in European elections. In some ways it is a cruel hoax on the people of Gibraltar to believe that it would.

There is a situation that has been identified here which successive governments have left on the back burner for too long. I do not object to the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, using this device to keep the pressure on as regards this issue. In the meantime, as my noble friend Baroness Williams suggested, the European Committee of this House may take a closer look at Gibraltar and may even make it the subject of a special study. It is time for the Government to put this issue very much on the front burner in terms of discussions with our colleagues in Europe. It is an injustice. It is one that has festered far too long. We certainly do not oppose the Bill this evening. Nor do I suggest that it has all the solutions to the problem with which the absence of a vote for the people of Gibraltar leaves us.

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9.18 p.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, the last time that this matter was discussed (which has already been referred to), the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Mostyn, expressed fulsome sympathy with the people of Gibraltar although he said that legally his hands were tied. He said he would love to help--I am paraphrasing--but he could not. In the jargon popular at the moment he "shared their pain" over this matter, but could do nothing.

Tonight I have to confess to your Lordships that I cannot avoid having some sympathy for the Minister, because the position has changed totally. Now the Minister is being told by the Court of Human Rights that he must help. That was the decision by an overwhelming majority, as has already been said.

When I was first a Minister I used to find that civil servants sometimes came and said, "We are very sorry, Minister. We know you want to do this"--whatever it was--"but legally you can't. You will be taken to court. You must realise, Minister, that judges now take judicial review very seriously. There is no way you can do it. It is legally impossible. Our legal advice is unequivocal".

However, over time I observed two things, which no doubt the Minister, as an experienced lawyer, observed for himself long ago. The first is that in every court case up and down the land approximately half the lawyers are proved wrong every day. The second is that often legal advice changes over time, as we have seen recently. Someone else's lawyer puts forward a new point, a new argument or a different part of the law which argues the opposite way. Court cases which are begun with great confidence on the basis of the best available advice turn out to hinge on issues or points of law which emerge during the course of the argument. In other words, all legal advice is fallible.

The law of unintended consequences states that the unexpected effects of legislation are often the most important. The law of unexpected arguments in court cases is just as powerful.

However, another argument frequently addressed to Ministers, particularly those from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, is, "You understand, Minister, that it is very important that we do not upset this foreign country because we need its help on some other matter". It is not always right, of course; every negotiation is different, even in the European Union, which is in a constant state of negotiation. However, in this particular case, I do not believe that Spain would ignore the decision of the Court of Human Rights. I believe that it would and should accept it and allow us to give the citizens of Gibraltar the right to vote as suggested in my noble friend's Bill.

Here I disagree to some extent with the noble Lord, Lord McNally. His noble friend, the noble Earl, Lord Carlisle, took a different view, but, after all, they are Liberal Democrats so we can forgive them. I believe that on the wider issue of Gibraltar, Spain has consistently gone about the matter the wrong way. I believe that if Spain wished to take over Gibraltar once again it should have been wooing its people and being nice and kind to them in order to draw them into Spain.

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It should not have closed the border and so forth, which appears to be Spain's policy most of the time. In the end, it is for the people of Gibraltar to decide what they want and the actions of Spain have tended to make them decide more firmly to stay with the United Kingdom. That is a matter for the Spanish Government rather than for the Minister.

As my noble friend Lord Chesham pointed out most directly, the situation surrounding the Bill has changed. The law of unexpected arguments, from the point of view of the lawyers advising the Minister, has worked through in this case from the Human Rights Act. The law of unintended consequences has also worked through from the Human Rights Act. I welcome that and the Bill.

However, the issue of timing has entered the debate. It is obvious that if, last June, the Minister had taken the line that he seems to be obliged to take today, Gibraltarians would certainly have had the vote in the European elections this June. Now we must wait to see whether that is so. In doing so, I hope that the Minister will bear in mind that justice delayed is justice denied.

I therefore support the Bill's Second Reading. I congratulate my noble friend Lord Bethell on his persistence in this matter against all governments over a long period of time.

9.25 p.m.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I too congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, on his diligence in championing the cause of Gibraltar for many years, particularly in this context. I believe it is right that I set out the Government's position as clearly as I can.

As a number of noble Lords have indicated, and, in particular, the noble Baroness, Lady Hooper, pointed out, we discussed these issues at some length during the passage of what is now the European Parliamentary Elections Act. I can fairly say that I recognised the fact that the inability of the people of Gibraltar to vote was a matter of legitimate concern. I also said that the legal advice that the Government received was that this was not a situation that could be simply remedied through domestic legislation.

My understanding of the present judgment of the European Court of Human Rights is that that aspect of the legal advice is upheld. In other words, the European Court of Human Rights accepted that the interpretation of the legal position by the United Kingdom Government was correct in that it accepted that we could not unilaterally extend the franchise. There are two distinct questions here, the first of which is whether or not the refusal of the right to vote was in breach of the European Convention. The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, is quite right in saying that the Court found against the United Kingdom on that. However, it did not find against the United Kingdom on the second important question of whether we could act unilaterally, which is the point touched on by the noble Lord, Lord McNally.

I do not think that it is right to attack those who give advice to Ministers. Sometimes advice is right. I believe that the quality of the legal advice one gets is of a high

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standard. It was, perhaps, generally surprising to most lawyers that the court reached the conclusion it did. Be that as it may, I entirely agree with your Lordships that we have to deal with the present position.

The noble Baroness asked me to secure an apology from the Foreign Secretary. I knew, as I uttered them, that I should not have used the words, "clear and unambiguous" as the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, reminded me. Of course, I regret the fact that the legal advice we were given turned out to be not upheld; in other words it was wrong.

I said at that time that it would not be profitable to try to amend the annexe to the 1976 Act. This is the key text which confined the franchise to the United Kingdom since there seemed little prospect at that time in those circumstances of securing the unanimous agreement of other member states. Quite plainly, the position has changed. It would be idle to say differently. There was the ruling in the case of Mathews v. UK. My noble friend Lady Symons said, virtually immediately in this House, that the Government accept that ruling and are looking to take immediate action to remedy the situation.

We have not been idle. On 4th March, we announced our intention to bring about an amendment of the 1976 text. On 16th March our permanent representative at the European Union, Sir Stephen Wall, tabled an amendment to the annexe to the 1976 Act. That amendment, if brought about, will widen the annexe to include Gibraltar and, in so doing, will allow the people of Gibraltar to vote in European Parliamentary elections.

The amendment is short and of the simplest. It adds to Annexe 2 the words, "and Gibraltar". Perhaps it would be helpful if I read out what Annexe 2 would read if the amendment was carried:

    "The UK will apply the provisions of this Act only in respect of the United Kingdom".
The words to be added will be, "and Gibraltar". That is the amendment that was tabled on 16th March.

We will be lobbying hard to get all member states to accept this amendment. It is most likely to be considered as part of the wider negotiations on common principles for the election of MEPs which are currently underway.

Once the amended Act has been agreed and ratified by all the other member states, it will be possible to amend our own domestic legislation to extend the franchise to include Gibraltarians. I must emphasise that there is no point in the UK Parliament enacting domestic legislation until we have secured the agreement of all the other member states to the amendment to the 1976 Act. For that reason alone, the Government regard the Bill as premature.

I know that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has tried to overcome that problem by introducing into his Bill the provision that the Bill will not come into effect except by an order made by the Secretary of State; and the Secretary of State is not to make such an order unless

    "requested by the appropriate representative authority of Gibraltar."
I do not know what that phrase is intended to mean because it is not defined in the Bill. I think that it would need to be so defined.

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There is another question. If the people of Gibraltar are to participate in United Kingdom elections, we will need to be certain that their electoral procedures are compatible with ours. We will have to ensure that the same rules governing issues such as electoral registration, voting arrangements and absent votes apply to everyone eligible to vote in our European parliamentary elections.

The noble Lord, Lord Bethell, is right that we would need further United Kingdom primary legislation--the noble Lord knows more about the domestic law of Gibraltar than I do--and that in all probability legislation in Gibraltar would also be needed. I agree. That is the present situation.

I was asked a number of specific questions which I shall attempt to answer. The noble Lord, Lord Chesham, asked me whether a failure to amend the Act would lead to another challenge. I simply do not know whether another challenge would be mounted. We shall be in a position to assert that we have taken concrete steps to put the matter right by tabling our amendment on 16th March.

We have not yet had responses from fellow member states. That is hardly surprising as the time that has elapsed between 16th March and today, 25th March, is so short. I do not know how they will react. However, it is extremely unlikely that the situation will be resolved in advance of the elections this June. We have not received any advice with regard to the question from the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, about whether extending the franchise to Gibraltar would affect the Treaty of Utrecht.

Perhaps I may continue with a further exposition of the Government's position. I do not believe that this Bill will do the work that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, wishes it to do. However, I reiterate that we are committed as a government to giving effect to the ECHR ruling at the earliest possible date. I have to say--because I think it unkind not to do so--that I think that it is extremely unlikely that things will move fast enough to allow the Gibraltarians to exercise their vote in June.

I believe that we have taken on board our obligations pursuant to the judgment of the European Court. That judgment was given only this February. We announced our intention to seek the amendment early the following month--that is, this month--and we tabled our amendment on 16th March. So I do not think that it can be suggested that there has been any criticizable delay.

I believe that I have answered the questions put to me. I reiterate our support for the principle of what the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, has suggested. However, I do not believe that this Bill will do that work. Many details remain to be resolved, not least the question of where Gibraltarian voters would vote. Would they need postal votes or absent votes? What would be the registration procedure? I do not think that any of those points will be sorted out in time for the June elections.

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9.34 p.m.

Lord Bethell: My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have spoken in this debate and to the Minister, who has been more positive on this point today than on previous occasions. He has accepted in the most gracious fashion that erroneous advice was given. I am sure that that will be noted with appreciation by the people of Gibraltar, 90 per cent. of whom asked your Lordships to give them the vote in the June 1999 elections.

I hope that some progress can be made before 10th June. I am glad that the Minister speaks in terms of that being unlikely or very unlikely whereas the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary was more negative. He said straight out that it was impossible. So we are making some progress towards bringing about the conclusion that I believe we all accept must be reached sooner rather than later.

This debate will be observed most carefully by the Gibraltarians. They will be pleased that at last something is happening, but disappointed at the rather negative idea that this measure may not take effect in time for 10th June. However, I trust, that the principle having been conceded, the measure will eventually find its place on to the statute book.

On Question, Bill read a second time, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.

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