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House of Lords

Thursday, 14th March 2002.

The House met at three of the clock (Prayers having been read earlier at the Judicial Sitting by the Lord Bishop of Bristol): The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Gibraltar: European Parliament Elections

Baroness Hooper asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to implement the Matthews judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in order to give the people of Gibraltar their right to vote in the next elections to the European Parliament.

The Minister for Trade (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, we are committed to extending the European Parliament franchise to Gibraltar in time for the 2004 European Parliament elections. The Government are now seeking legislative time in order to introduce domestic legislation for this purpose. We are currently considering the detail of the legislative and practical arrangements, in consultation with the Government of Gibraltar.

Baroness Hooper: My Lords, I had been hoping for some good news today and I therefore thank the Minister for her very positive reply. To clarify the position further, will she tell the House whether this issue was on the agenda at the recent discussions between her right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary and the Spanish Foreign Minister? If so, has Spain accepted the decision of the British Government to implement the decision of the European Court of Human Rights? What is the timetable? In other words, when may we expect to see the Bill?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I must make it clear that bringing forward this legislation is not a matter for negotiation with Spain under the Brussels process. The two issues are quite separate. The Brussels process does not impinge on this issue. After the 1999 ECHR judgment, the Government of Spain would not allow an amendment to the 1976 Act to go forward. We are therefore proceeding to domestic legislation because, although Spain's position might or might not be challengeable, there is a political commitment on the Government's part to enable the franchise to be completed in time for the 2004 elections. That might not be possible to achieve were we to try to do that outside domestic legislation.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire: My Lords, are there any plans to extend voting rights in the European Parliament elections to Britain's other two European territories; namely, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man? I suppose it might be argued that the Isle of Man

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is outside the European Union as it was once part of Norway. As I understood from a remark made by the noble and learned Lord the Leader of the House some time ago, the constitutional relationship between the Channel Islands and the United Kingdom is governed by an Act of 1204 of the Crown as Duke of Normandy. It seems to me that it is rather hard to argue that the Duchy of Normandy is outside the European Union.

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, the noble Lord certainly has me stumped on legislation going back to 1204. What I can tell the noble Lord is that the Channel Islands are outside the European Union and, as such, extending the European Parliament franchise to them is not possible.

Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, I, too, thank the Minister for her positive and detailed reply. Frankly, I was expecting the Answer to be more ambiguous and vague. I am pleasantly surprised that the Government are pressing ahead with these plans. Will the Minister tell us how the process will work? Presumably, Gibraltar is much too small to be a Euro-constituency on its own. Is the plan to annex it or append it to, say, the London bureau region or to some other southern region of the UK; and will the Gibraltarians thereby be voting with their British counterparts as part of a list of members of the European Parliament in the future? How will the process actually work?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Lord thinks that we are not being ambiguous and vague on this matter. Let me try to be even clearer. We began discussions with the Government of Gibraltar on this issue on 24th January. The noble Lord is right: Gibraltar, with only 16,000 on its electoral list, will not make up a European constituency on its own. So the issue is to which United Kingdom constituency or constituencies it might be linked. The Government of Gibraltar have accepted that that is the position. The discussions on this matter are proceeding. We hope to send a detailed letter to the Government of Gibraltar about the way forward before Easter, and to allow the Government of Gibraltar adequate time to consider the position and to respond to it. I hope that that gives a fairly good view of the imminent timetabling of how the exchanges are proceeding.

Lord Howe of Aberavon: My Lords, will the Minister accept that the Government have much sympathy as regards the tenacity with which they are pursuing the negotiations? I welcome the announcement that she has just made. It is important to get out of the deadlock which has prevailed for so long. Does she also recognise that, if the agreement that is to be arrived at is to have any chance of success, it must not be presented as a "take it or leave it" agreement, unsupported by good will on the part of Spain? It will be essential, if the people of Gibraltar are not to reject what might otherwise be a sensible conclusion, for the proposed agreement to be accompanied by solid, strong evidence of good faith and good will on the part

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of the Spanish. That must go beyond gestures—such as the granting, for example, of telephone lines without being prepared to grant recognition of the international dialling code. Will the Minister accept that it is crucial that any agreement that might result should be endorsed and accompanied by pre-emptive demonstrations of good will on the part of the Spanish Government?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I want to make it clear that the discussions about the franchise for the European Parliament in time for the elections in 2004 are completely separate from what is happening under the Brussels process and the possibility of proposals being put forward to the people of Gibraltar in a referendum. It is essential to make clear that these are two entirely different issues—although they are both about Gibraltar and it could perhaps be argued that one may influence the other in the minds of the people of Gibraltar.

So far as concerns the other issue—the negotiations through the Brussels process—I agree with the noble and learned Lord that any proposals that are put forward must be attractive to the people of Gibraltar. It has to go beyond gestures. I personally do not believe, as we have discussed, that telephone lines are a matter of gesture. However, there are still difficulties on the issue, because Spain has still not acknowledged the international dialling code for Gibraltar, which leaves us with a certain number of problems. These are substantive difficulties with which we are dealing—border delays and other issues of which the House is well aware. It must be made clear in the negotiations that any agreement must be sufficiently attractive to the people of Gibraltar to enable them to support it in a referendum.

Prison Education

3.8 p.m.

Lord Quirk asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have to improve the provision of education in HM prisons.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the Prison Service and the Department for Education and Skills launched a partnership last year which created the new Prisoners Learning and Skills Unit. Its purpose is to improve the quality and quantity of education in all establishments and ensure that prisoners have the opportunity to gain the skills and qualifications to find work or pursue further learning on release. We will look at targets and funding, and at developing basic skills and other provisions. We will introduce a national quality improvement strategy to raise standards and we will support continuity of provision when prisoners leave custody.

Lord Quirk: My Lords, I take some comfort from that reply and I am grateful to the Minister. But is he

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aware that in our biggest prison of all, HMP Wandsworth, the otherwise attractive education unit can provide for barely 90 prisoners at a time, and, even so, is open and available for only 20 hours a week? Is not this grossly inadequate for a prison housing some 1,400 inmates?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the noble Lord has drawn attention to pressures in the system. I recognise the point that he makes. He will appreciate that we are increasing the resources for the provision of education by 15 per cent over the next three years. That will help in providing additional facilities across the system. He will also recognise the intense pressure on the system with the increase in numbers that has occurred in recent months.

Lord Glenarthur: My Lords, is the noble Lord able to tell us the ratio of teachers to the total prison population at the moment?

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I have a swathe of statistics, but I do not have that one, so I cannot give it to the noble Lord. The only comfort that I can give him is that the intention behind the quality unit is to ensure that the provision of education reaches the same standard as that for people outside prison. Therefore, I think that I can assure him that resources will be made available to that end.

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