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  European Parliament and Gibraltar

This speech was given in the chamber of the House of Commons on 10 December 2002

Mr. Richard Bacon (South Norfolk): I am pleased to have an opportunity of speaking in the debate. I want to raise three specific issues. The first is about human rights, especially in relation to other overseas territories. The hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hoyle), who is not in his place, raised that point. Secondly, I want to consider the Electoral Commission and the role of the Lord Chancellor. My third point is about the operation of the combined region and proportional representation.

We are discussing the matter today because of the European Court of Human Rights and its judgment. The Parliamentary Secretary said that the Matthews judgment did not apply to the Channel Islands. However, the Bill and the other documentation suggests that the point about the Matthews case is nothing to do with the wishes of the Gibraltarian Government or those of any other Government of a British overseas territory. Two questions are relevant. Had the British permanent representative to the Council of Europe, who makes a declaration about the European convention on human rights, declared specific territories to be within the ambit of convention? Did any of those territories have the right of individual petition before the European Court? So long as both of those conditions are satisfied, and despite the stance, whatever it might be, of the Government of the Channel Islands—the Bailiwicks of Guernsey or Jersey, for example—it might be open to a citizen to petition the European Court, just as it was open to Denise Matthews to do so. Presumably, in the same circumstances, if the convention were applicable and there were a right of individual petition before the European Court, the Court would reach the same decision again. I would be grateful if the Minister would expand on that, because she did not go into the matter in detail earlier.

My next point relates to the Electoral Commission and the powers of the Lord Chancellor. Many hon. Members have commented that the Bill gives too many powers to the Lord Chancellor. My view is that any man who compares himself with Cardinal Wolsey probably deserves fewer rather than more powers, and that the House should not consider passing any Act of Parliament that might enhance his powers in any way. The Bill says, however, that the Electoral Commission has to consider which of the existing electoral regions in England and Wales should be combined with Gibraltar and, before determining what recommendation to make to the Lord Chancellor, consult with the Governor and the Chief Minister of Gibraltar. Under the Bill, the Lord Chancellor also has an obligation to consult the Electoral Commission.

That raises a number of questions, which I would be grateful if the Minister could answer. First, what weight will the Government give to the opinion of the Gibraltar Government - by which I mean the Chief Minister and the Government, in particular, and not simply the Governor? The reason that I ask the question in that form is that a press release of 22 November - the day on which the Bill was published, from the Gibraltar Government makes it plain that the United Kingdom Government gave no weight to the opinions of the Government of Gibraltar when they presented the Bill to the House of Commons. The press release states:

"The Government",

that is, the Government of Gibraltar,

"has examined the European Parliament (Representation) Bill published today by the British Government, upon the text of which the Gibraltar Government has not been consulted."

There are two reasons why that is strange. The first is that the British Government have made a commitment to more pre-legislative scrutiny, that is, more pre-consideration of Bills, so that they will be in better shape when they come before the House.

Secondly, given the thorough Horlicks that the British Government have made of their relations with the Government of Gibraltar, one might have thought that, on a Bill of this importance to Gibraltar, it might have been sensible to show the Gibraltar Government the finished text of the draft Bill before presenting it to the House, and to say, "Here is our draft text; what do you think of it?". According to the Government of Gibraltar, however, that was not done. An explanation from the Minister for that would also be helpful.

A further question that I would like to raise is on the nature of the combined region and how it will work in practice. With respect to what you said earlier, Madam Deputy Speaker - of course, I respect your ruling. The way in which the combined region that will include Gibraltar is to operate will involve the existing electoral system, and this will highlight the operation of that system more starkly than ever before. In my own electoral region for the European Parliament - the eastern region - there are eight MEPs. In the south-west, part of which is represented by my hon. Friend the Member for Poole (Mr. Syms), I think that there are seven, and in Northern Ireland, three. I was particularly attracted to the suggestions made by the hon. Member for North Down (Lady Hermon); she made a very appealing case.

So far as I understand the Bill, the system will operate in exactly the same way in the combined region, once Gibraltar has been incorporated into it, as it does now in, shall we say, my own eastern region. Each of the eight MEPs for that region, technically, is an MEP for the whole region. Similarly, the seven MEPs for the south-west are all MEPs for all the south-west. Thus, whichever combined region incorporates Gibraltar, all its MEPs will represent Gibraltar. We already understand the difficulties that this causes in practice. In my own area, the MEPs have informally cut up the region territorially, just so that they can begin to get a grasp of the job. I would be grateful if the Minister could address this issue, specifically in relation to Gibraltar. How will this work? If all the MEPs from a region represent Gibraltar, will they all fly off there regularly? Alternatively, will they simply have to cut up their region and decide informally that only one of them should take responsibility for the territory? If so, which one, and from which party? This raises real concerns in relation to the operation of the combined region.

I am pleased to see the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) in his place and participating in this debate as a true Eurosceptic. I gather that, at a tea party in his constituency a few months ago, he said that he had always been against the single European currency. It is a great pleasure to participate in a debate on the Floor of the House with him, when he takes such an important position on such an important question. With respect to his position on proportional representation, however, I suggest that the question of how the combined region would operate throws into stark relief the catastrophe that is proportional representation.