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European Parliament Elections: Gibraltar

Volume 597: debated on Thursday 25 February 1999

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3.30 p.m.

In the light of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights on 18th February, whether they will introduce emergency legislation to allow Gibraltarians to exercise their democratic right to vote in the forthcoming European Parliament elections.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office
(Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, we shall be taking all available steps to secure extension of the EP franchise to Gibraltar, in the light of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights. However, we can do so only by amending the 1976 EC Act on direct elections. That will require the agreement of all member states. Her Majesty's Government will seek such an amendment in the current negotiations in Brussels on establishing common principles for EP elections. We shall not be introducing emergency legislation because the UK does not have the power unilaterally to extend the EP franchise to Gibraltar through its domestic legislation.

My Lords, those of us who have supported Gibraltar on this matter will be extremely disappointed by the Minister's reply. I have read the judgment carefully. The vote was 15:2 that not only was the United Kingdom guilty, but that the remedy was a matter for the United Kingdom—not Spain, and not other European countries. Therefore, will the Government move quickly and without delay to bring in and secure for the people of Gibraltar the right to vote in the forthcoming European elections? Does the Minister agree that my noble friend Lord Bethell was absolutely right in his amendment and was supported by many Members of this House?

No, my Lords, I cannot agree. The arguments deployed by Her Majesty's Government over this case were largely the same as those deployed by the Conservatives when they were in power. That is the legal advice.

The noble Baroness is right. It is the obligation of the United Kingdom Government to comply with the judgment. But the way to do that is through amendment of the 1976 EC Act. To do otherwise through domestic legislation would put us in breach of that Act. If the noble Baroness is so keen on this, I point out that there were 13 years when her party was in government after that Act was passed when they might have taken that kind of action. Her Majesty's Government are moving swiftly. We shall table the amendments next week in Brussels, and we are briefing all our posts in Europe accordingly.

My Lords, whatever the faults of the previous administration in this regard and the doubt as to who is legally right, the Government or the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, will the Minister give an undertaking that the matter will be raised in a forum within the European Union? If it is not accepted, it will be very clear who is guilty. It should not be left to an uncertain arrangement as a consequence of the negotiations that are going on behind the scenes. Let it be seen clearly who is guilty.

My Lords, I hope that I have made it clear to the whole House that Her Majesty's Government will raise this matter in the discussions that we are having on the principles that bind us in relation to the way in which elections to the European Parliament take place. We shall also be briefing all our EU posts accordingly. The reason that this is important is that the obligations placed upon the United Kingdom Government, direct as they are, are also, by extension, placed upon our partners, and that includes Spain.

My Lords, I think that it is the turn of the noble Baroness, Lady Williams.

My Lords, we on these Benches welcome the Government's eagerness to comply with the decisions of the European Court. We also welcome the strong support that the Official Opposition has given to that position. Will the Minister confirm that it is probable that efforts to bring about changes in legislation will not be in time for the next European elections. However, will the noble Baroness and the Foreign Office consider other ways in which, until elections occur with the full representation of Gibraltar, other steps will be taken to allow the concerns of the people of Gibraltar to be registered in this House, not least through the scrutiny committee on European legislation.

My Lords, regrettably, I agree. I do not think that the timetabling will allow any changes to be available in time for the European elections. No one is in any doubt that negotiations to secure the unanimous agreement of our EU partners will be extremely difficult. Having secured that agreement, if it is possible, we shall then have to go through a ratification process. In the meantime we shall have to consult about the ways in which we can do our best to take into account, as we always do, the feelings and wishes of our friends in Gibraltar.

My Lords, however hard the noble Baroness tries to pass the buck back to the previous government, the decision of the European Court of Human Rights was given this month. The court made it perfectly clear, and perhaps I may quote from the press release rather than the longer judgment, that,

"notwithstanding the transfer of competences to the European Community, Contracting States remained responsible for ensuring that Convention Rights were guaranteed".
That is straightforward. It is our responsibility. If the Government bring forward a Bill, we will expedite it through this House to make sure that the citizens of Gibraltar have their rights respected in June, so that the human rights convention, which the Government are always keen to obey, is followed. Is it not better to be in breach in a manner that Spain does not like, rather than continue to be in breach of the human rights convention?

My Lords, I am not passing the buck anywhere. I have stated a matter of fact in relation to what the previous government did. The noble Lord cannot gainsay that, however hard he tries. I have been very clear about the responsibilities: they are for Her Majesty's Government. The Government will shoulder those responsibilities unshrinkingly. We hope to do so next week, and we shall brief everyone accordingly.

My Lords, I think the feeling of the House is that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, should be heard.

My Lords, will the Minister confirm that the Prime Minister is to meet his Spanish opposite number in the next couple of days? Will she indicate whether it is likely that Mr. Blair will raise this matter with Mr. Aznar? Will she also confirm that, whatever the outcome of those meetings, it is only the Foreign Office's opinion that domestic legislation will not work? The Foreign Office's opinion on this question has turned out more than once to be erroneous.

My Lords, I can confirm that my right honourable friend is to see his Spanish counterpart, probably within the next 24 hours. It is very likely that these matters will be considered, although I have not seen an agenda or any briefing papers for the meeting.

I have spoken to the House, as did my noble friend Lord Williams, on the basis of legal opinion. At the risk of making the noble Lord, Lord Mackay, very cross indeed, I point out that legal opinion has been pretty consistent throughout. The difference now is that we have a judgment from the European Court of Human Rights which places obligations not only upon Her Majesty's Government—I have been very clear on that point—but also upon Spain and our other European partners.