Fifth Standing Committee on
Tuesday 13 March 2001
[Mr. Bill O'Brien in the Chair]
Draft European Elections (Franchise of Relevant Citizens of the Union)Regulations 2001
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Mike O'Brien): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Franchise of Relevant Citizens of the Union) Regulations 2001.
I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. O'Brien. I am sure that you will guide our proceedings with a firm hand and total impartiality, despite our similarity of name.
I am grateful for the opportunity to present the regulations to the Committee. They are necessary because of changes to the electoral registration system made through the Representation of the People Act 2000, which, along with subsequent regulations, introduced a rolling register of electors.
The regulations will allow citizens of EU member states who are resident here to register to vote in European parliamentary elections under the new rolling registration system. In other words, they will allow such citizens to register on the same basis as other UK residents. In the past, they were able to register to vote in European elections under the European Parliamentary Elections (Changes to the Franchise and Qualification of Representatives) Regulations 1994, which were based on a registration system that relied on an annual qualifying date. However, that concept has disappeared with the introduction of the rolling register. The regulations before us therefore replace those parts of the 1994 regulations that deal with the franchise to bring them into line with new registration provisions.
As I said, when the regulations come into force, EU citizens resident in the UK will be able to register to vote in European elections under rolling registration in the same way as other citizens. I recognise that very few EU citizens resident in the UK will want to register to vote until the next European elections, but without the regulations they would be unable to do so. The regulations therefore fulfil our obligations under EC directive 93/109, and I commend them to the Committee.
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Surrey Heath): I join the Minister in welcoming your chairmanship of our proceedings, Mr. O'Brien. The regulations give rise to one or two questions, and if the Minister is unable to answer them today I hope that he will write to me and other members of the Committee.
I understand that the introduction of rolling registers inevitably leads to changes such as this, and the Opposition welcome the introduction of rolling registers and the greater flexibility that they bring. The previous system required registration well in advance, and all hon. Members will remember that it was very upsetting for electors to be told that it was too late to register to vote.
The Minister will be aware of a long-running controversy in which many Opposition Membersand some Labour Membershave become involved on behalf of Gibraltarians. There is a huge anomaly, in that the citizens of Gibraltara country with which we have very friendly relations, and which has been of enormous historical, military and strategic significance to the UKhave been disenfranchised. Could the regulations have extended the right of Gibraltarians to vote in European elections in the way that Lord Bethell proposed, had the Government been so minded? During this Parliament there have been significant debates on the subject in both another place and the House of Commons. The Government have missed an opportunity if the order would have allowed them to correct that injustice. However, the Minister may say that that would have been impossible.
My second concern is that, although the United Kingdom is referred to in paragraph 1(3), the remainder of the order refers only to regions of the European Union. We are passionate opponents of regional government, so I want the Minister to reveal whether there is a subtext to the order. One can understand that he and his officials would try to stick to similar wording if the previous order referred to regions, but I must apologise, as I have not had the chance to consult the original regulations because the House sat late last night and I did not know that the order had been introduced until yesterday. However, I want to place on record that we would be much happier if the regulations referred to member states and nations. We believe in a Europe des patriesa Europe of nation statesso we consider references to regions to be inappropriate.
Will the Government produce explanatory brochures in relation to the order? The Minister will be aware that there is huge controversy about the publication at taxpayers' expense by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office of a glossy brochure that contains many inserts. Along with other hon. Members, I received a copy yesterday in my parliamentary post having read about the controversy in the weekend press. The Government have sought to put their political propaganda or spin in the document. There have been great complaints about the involvement in its drafting of both the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leicester, East (Mr. Vaz). Several commentators have described it as political propaganda masquerading as information. It is being produced at taxpayers' expense and it forms part of the Government's non-too-subtle handover plan that is designed to propagandise the case for the United Kingdom to enter the European single currency, which is something that we oppose.
Those are the points that I wanted to raise. We have no problem with the idea of rolling registers, but if the Minister cannot answer my questions today we would like him to write to members of the Committee and set out detailed answers.
Several hon. Members rose
The Chairman: Order. I hope that we shall not enter into a wide dialogue on European business, and I hope that the Minister will take note of that.
Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome): We shall be unlikely to oppose the order, but that is contingent upon the Minister's reply. We broadly welcome the proposals, albeit that it is an imperfect system to deal with an imperfect European Union electoral arrangement. I want to raise two points, one of which has already been mentioned by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins).
My first point concerns the mechanics of the process. Would a person who takes advantage of the regulations have to submit a new application and declaration should he or she move between regions of the United Kingdom? In other words, will the entire application system start again if someone who has been resident either permanently or temporarily in, for example, the south-west moves to the north-east?
My second point concerns the definition of a citizen of the European Union. We already have an anomalous position with regard to the Republic of Ireland. I understand the historical reasons why the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are currently treated differently. I hope that we shall reach a point when the Republic of Ireland is treated as a partner in terms of both the European Union and our electoral arrangements. As the hon. Member for Surrey Heath said, what is more important is the fact that 17,000 citizens of the European Unionthe residents of Gibraltarhave no right to vote anywhere. That matter has been raised many times in the House and in Committee. It is not good enough for the Government to assert that they are bound by the terms of the treaty of Utrecht. It has all sorts of sanctions that no longer apply, so is hardly relevant.
It is not sufficient to say either that Gibraltar was not mentioned in the original terms of the accession of the United Kingdom to the European Community. Clearly, there are other countries with similar overseas territories, such as the French departements d'outre-mer and territoires d'outre-mer, the Spanish enclaves on the north African coast and the Dutch and Portuguese possessions overseas. They all have EU citizenship and the right to vote in European parliamentary elections. There is no obvious reason why the United Kingdom cannot define its citizenship under the terms of treaty, and extend to the citizens of Gibraltar the same rights as are extended to every other citizen of the EU. We shall keep coming back to the issue.
The Government have already been shown to be in breach of their obligations to the people of Gibraltar. It is time that the anomaly was ended and the United Kingdom treated the citizens who happen to be resident in Gibraltar in the same way as every other citizen of the EU.
Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): I want to focus on a narrow point, covered in regulation 1(2), which states:
```citizen of the Union' is to be determined in accordance with Article 17.1 of the Treaty establishing the European Community . . . and `relevant citizen of the Union' means such a citizen who is not a Commonwealth citizen or citizen of the Republic of Ireland.''
My hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath and the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath) rightly emphasised the anomaly regarding the citizens of Gibraltar. None of us takes pride in the pusillanimous attitude of Her Majesty's Government in not facing down the Spaniards to ensure that the Gibraltarians have the chance to exercise their vote in elections to the European Parliament.
The anomaly raises the wider issue of Commonwealth citizens, who enjoy all the rights that we, as British nationals, enjoy. They can vote in elections, both national and local; they can serve in the armed forces and police; and they can be members of the civil service. The European Parliament has powers that are growing all the time, including powers of co-decision, making amendments to the budget and causing the Commission to resign. To say that the European Parliament is a body of little consequence is not true today, and it will become less true in the future.
As the European Parliament's deliberations affect people resident in the United Kingdom as a whole, it is only equitable that all persons resident in the UK should have the right to vote in elections that affect its composition. The distinction between European citizens and Commonwealth citizens is invidious and wrong. It is wholly artificial and a denial of their human rights. There is no way that people from Pakistan, India, Uganda, Kenya, or anywhere else, who have acquired British nationality, and are thereby so-called citizens of the European Union, are distinguishable from Commonwealth nationals of those countries. They enjoy the same rights, except in the narrow area of entitlement to vote in European Parliament elections. It is invidious and wrong, and Her Majesty's Government should put it right, although I doubt that they will. They have been pusillanimous about Gibraltar, and have shown that they do not have its people's human rights at heart in terms of their ability to participate in elections to the European Parliament.