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Select Committee on Parliamentary Reform to discuss proposal for backbenchers

Proposals to enlarge the Gibraltar Parliament from its current slate of 17 MPs to 25 through the addition of backbenchers will be discussed at a meeting of the Select Committee on Parliamentary Reform today.

The proposal under discussion is to have 15 MPs on the Government side – five of whom would be backbenchers – and 10 on the Opposition side, three of whom would be backbenchers.

Under the 2006 Constitution, such a proposal would require the backing of two thirds of Parliament – at least 12 MPs – in order to be approved.

In theory at least, if the proposal ultimately received that backing, it could be expedited and the necessary mechanisms put in place ahead of the next general election, meaning voters could be required to select 15 candidates instead of the usual 10.

The Chronicle understands that the proposal will be discussed during today’s meeting of the Select Committee, which has not met since 2014.

The cross-party committee’s members include Chief Minister Fabian Picardo, Dr Joseph Garcia, Neil Costa, Samantha Sacramento, GSD MPs Daniel Feetham and Roy Clinton and Independent MP Marlene Hassan Nahon.

This is one of a number of issues that the Committee was tasked with analysing within the context of wider proposals to reform the parliamentary and electoral systems in Gibraltar, some of which have already been acted upon and implemented.

Proposals to enlarge the House have been mooted since 2011, when the then GSD Government under Sir Peter Caruana brought a motion to parliament proposing the creation of a system of backbenchers in line with the constitution.

But the move was voted down by the then GSLP Opposition, which opposed such a move without prior consultation and analysis.

An independent commission was subsequently set up and tasked with examining all aspects of the parliamentary and electoral system in Gibraltar in order to make recommendations to parliament.

This included the issue of enlargement but the idea was rejected by a majority of the Commission’s members, who concluded that the electorate was well served by 17 elected members and that the additional expenditure would be “unwarranted”.

Commission members included Adolfo Canepa, Charles Gomez, George Mascarhenas, Robert Vasquez and Fabian Vinet.

Although the majority of members of the commission agreed that there should not be an increase in the number of elected members, Mr Vasquez dissented.

In a minority report he said: “I disagree with there being no increase in the size of Parliament and to the manner in which the majority argues that backbenchers could be provided.”

“I think it is important that backbenchers should be elected by direct election in wards, thereby representing their respective constituencies, and that such elected representatives should not be eligible to be Ministers.”

The Select Committee on Parliamentary and Democratic reform was subsequently established to adise parliament on the implementation of the commission’s recommendations.

The Committee has already implemented a number of these recommendations such as monthly meetings of the House and televising sessions.

The Committee met for the first time in November 2013, when Mr Picardo said there were “huge possibilities” for meaningful parliamentary reform but voiced caution on the issue of enlargement, insisting that it may not be appropriate.

GSD MP Daniel Feetham, the then Leader of the Opposition, expressed his party’s support for the enlargement of parliament via the creation of backbenchers.

But Mr Picardo urged him not to see the Committee as a “one-trick pony” that delivers for the GSD its ambition of enlarging the House.

“I remind them of the fact that, although the Constitution requires a two-thirds majority of this House in order to be able to enlarge it, they [meaning the GSD] never moved, when they were in administration, until the last meeting of the House before the election, that the House should even consider those issues,” Mr Picardo told Parliament at the time.

Additionally, he told MPs to try and consider “what is the best progress that we can make for this community in amending the way, changing the way that this Parliament works and how our democracy works, and not just concentrate on enlargement.”

The Government declined to comment on the issue yesterday until after the meeting.

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