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House of Lords

Thursday, 20th February 2003.

The House met at eleven of the clock: The CHAIRMAN OF COMMITTEES on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Chelmsford.

Patient (Assisted Dying) Bill [HL]

Lord Joffe: My Lords, I beg to introduce a Bill to enable a competent adult who is suffering unbearably as a result of a terminal or a serious and progressive physical illness to receive medical help to die at his own considered and persistent request; and to make provision for a person suffering from such a condition to receive pain relief medication. I beg to move that this Bill be now read a first time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a first time.—(Lord Joffe.)

On Question, Bill read a first time, and to be printed.

European Parliament (Representation) Bill

11.7 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Lord Chancellor's Department (Baroness Scotland of Asthal): My Lords, on behalf of my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time.

The Bill has two functions. First, it will put in place a mechanism by which the number of United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament can be reduced to accommodate the effects of the enlargement agreed at Nice in 2001. Secondly, it will enfranchise the people of Gibraltar to vote in European parliamentary elections, following a ruling of the European Court of Human Rights which we have accepted.

Part 1 of the Bill will introduce a mechanism to allow the total number of United Kingdom MEPs to be altered to take account of enlargement. It was agreed in Nice that most existing member states would reduce their MEP numbers to make room for the new members. That will ensure fair representation while keeping the European Parliament to a manageable size.

For the UK, that involves a reduction from 87 seats to a final minimum of 72. That reduction will not happen in one go, but rather, as agreed by the Treaty of Nice, as new states accede. The first group, which will accede on 1st May 2004 and must therefore be accommodated in the 2004 European parliamentary elections, consists of 10 new member states. At the Copenhagen European Council in December last year, it was decided that the United Kingdom should reduce for the 2004 elections to 78 seats. However, the United Kingdom will continue, with France and Italy, to have the second largest allocation of MEPs—after Germany—in the European Parliament.

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When considering how best to implement the reductions, we concluded that to alter the boundaries of the existing European parliamentary electoral regions would run counter to the regional agenda to which the Government are committed. The approach we have therefore adopted is to redistribute, whenever a reduction is necessary, the number of MEPs across the 12 existing regions of the UK. In order to ensure that any redistribution will be accepted as equitable by all concerned, we have proposed taking the decision out of the hands of the Government and asking the independent Electoral Commission to make recommendations.

However, restrictions are placed by the Bill on the Electoral Commission's deliberations, so that each electoral region should have a minimum of three seats, whatever the voter population, and that otherwise the ratio of voters to MEPs should be as nearly as possible the same across the regions. That will provide the best balance between proper representation for all regions and a fair distribution of seats across the country as a whole.

The Electoral Commission's recommendations will be implemented by order by my noble and learned friend the Lord Chancellor under the affirmative resolution procedure. Any order made by him must implement the recommendations of the Electoral Commission or, if Parliament has previously considered and rejected an order containing those recommendations, have its consent and be an outcome that it could have recommended.

The mechanism that I have outlined is a crucial part of the process for enabling new member states to be effectively incorporated into the EU, to which the Government are firmly committed. We should strongly welcome the advantages that enlargement will bring for the accession states, which have worked so hard to meet the criteria for joining the European Union. More widely, enlargement of the European Union will bring improvements to stability and security across the whole of Europe. We must not underestimate the positive effects that enlargement will bring at home. For example, the economy will benefit from the expanding market, and we should see important environmental benefits as countries from the east of the continent are brought into the European fold.

Part 2 of the Bill serves to enable the enfranchisement of Gibraltar for European parliamentary elections from 2004 onwards. In 1999, the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the European Parliament formed a part of Gibraltar's legislature and held that the UK was bound by the convention to secure the right for the people of Gibraltar to take part in European parliamentary elections. The UK accepted the judgment of the court, and the second part of the Bill is the means of meeting that obligation by enabling Gibraltarians to have their interests directly represented in the European Parliament for the first time.

Gibraltar has a relatively small electorate—around 20,000 voters, as compared with the United Kingdom average for a European parliamentary region of

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around 3.7 million voters. That makes it not feasible for Gibraltar to form its own region. It will therefore be necessary to combine Gibraltar with an existing electoral region.

As with the issues covered by Part 1 of the Bill, we believe that the most suitable way of deciding with which electoral region it would be most appropriate to combine Gibraltar is to give that task to the independent Electoral Commission. The only limitation that the Bill puts on its deliberations is that the combined region must be either an English region or Wales. That is for purely practical considerations. Given the need to put into place secondary legislation to make the combined region work, we need to know now which set of detailed electoral rules to apply. The commission must report on its recommendation by 1st September 2003. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor will then present an order—again, subject to affirmative resolution—to give effect to the Electoral Commission's recommendation.

The underlying principle behind combining Gibraltar with a UK electoral region for the purposes of European parliamentary elections is that UK electoral law, as it applies to the European Parliament elections, should apply as equally as possible throughout the combined region. This is a question of ensuring fairness and equity for all voters in the European Parliament elections throughout the United Kingdom and Gibraltar.

Therefore, the Bill provides for the application to Gibraltar of the relevant provisions of UK law, modified as necessary. Modification is necessary in some cases to ensure that, in practice, the law makes sense in Gibraltar and still makes sense in the United Kingdom.

We believe that the most appropriate and, given the complexity of electoral law, only practical approach is for the detail of electoral law to be applied by orders and regulations. The Bill includes enabling powers to provide for that. This is very much in line with the way that electoral law is applied to European parliamentary elections in the United Kingdom. Importantly, that approach enables us to develop with the Government of Gibraltar the best way to apply the complex detail of electoral rules and to discuss and agree with them which elements it might be appropriate for Gibraltar itself to handle.

The Bill therefore addresses the key issues: the requirement for Gibraltar to maintain a register of electors for the European Parliament elections; the basic franchise and entitlement to be registered, in much the same way as is the case under the European Parliamentary Elections Act 2002; and it leaves the complex detail for orders and regulations.

The Government are considering a moderate number of amendments to this part of the Bill in order to address points raised in another place about giving a clearer role to the Government of Gibraltar in ensuring enfranchisement for the European elections. Those amendments will not affect the substance of our proposals or our overall approach.

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I have already pointed out that the Bill allows for a number of measures to be implemented by means of secondary legislation, as is already the case for European parliamentary electoral law in the UK generally. The Bill ensures that these enabling powers can be exercised only by the Lord Chancellor after consultation with the Electoral Commission. We have already amended the Bill to ensure that the powers we are taking are no wider than necessary and that they can be used only for the purpose intended.

Your Lordships' Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee reported its considerations on the Bill to this House on 12th February. Noble Lords will know that it made recommendations about the powers to be exercised by the Lord Chancellor—in particular, the degree of parliamentary scrutiny to which the exercise of such powers is subject. We are taking steps to ensure that we respond swiftly and positively to those recommendations. The noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor wrote yesterday to the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, who is the chairman of the committee.

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