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Orders of the Day — European Communities Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th July 1972.

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Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Acton 12:00 am, 13th July 1972

It is a great pity, if that is so, that the Conservative manifesto did not spell it out. Quite clearly, it has been a case of negotiating less rather than more, and right from the start. But the right hon. and learned Gentleman has at least given us some information. As perhaps one of the last back benchers to speak on this momentous Bill, I tell the Government that one of the things which have given many of us concern is the lack of information we have had from them. Indeed, we have been concerned about the whole way in which the Bill has been mounted.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Cheetham (Mr. Harold Lever) pleaded that one of the reasons why we should think in European terms was that our friends in Europe want us in—as, indeed, I know they do—so that we can contribute that heritage of democratic government for which this country has been famous. But I fear that the example which the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Solicitor-General have given in presenting this Bill has not been a text book of the way democracy should work. First, as you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, know so well, we have not been free to discuss the treaties in detail. This House of the British people —which is what the House of Commons is—has been prevented by a procedural device from discussing the very treaties into which we are going and which will bind us in practice, if not in law, and that is a negation of democracy itself.

The replies we have had from the Government have often been evasive. We had an example of that tonight when the right hon. and learned Gentleman intervened in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Member for Stepney (Mr. Shore).When challenged about financial aspects, the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not say "Yes" or "No", but referred my right hon. Friend to a previous remark which he had made some days ago. If we look that remark up in HANSARD, we shall no doubt find that it amounts to very little. This is typical of the reaction that we have had from the Government throughout these months.

The nature of the Bill ties up material in such a way that it is difficult to get it out. When discussing Clause 1 we went on a voyage of discovery, as it has been described. We found that the Explanatory Memorandum which was supposed to tell us what the Clause was about was wholly inadequate. We had a disagreement between my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay)and the Solicitor-General about the powers of the Commission and the Council of Ministers which was never satisfactorily resolved. That was on 26th April. On the same day the right hon. and learned Gentleman did not even reply to an Amendment dealing with the phrase "enforceable Community right". That will echo into the future. That phrase is in the heart of the Bill—Clause 2(1)—and has never been defined. The Amendment sought to amplify and define it but the Government did not even reply. The right hon. and learned Gentleman merely asked the Committee to reject the Amendment without saying why.

That is the sort of democracy we have had during the Committee proceedings. I refer again to the point made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Cheetham about democracy and the power of the House to contribute to the Community. The power of the House has been abandoned by the Government in the way they have presented this legis- lation, and as a result we may well be prevented, whatever institutions develop in Europe, from bringing into the Community the essential freedom and the essential quality of the democratic life that we have in this country.

The essence of our parliamentary democracy has been the accountability of the Executive to the people. When we have talked of the powers and privileges of this House in making legislation and demanding accountability from the Executive, we have been talking not about the House or about ourselves as Members but about the rights of the British people, because the whole history of our democracy has been the development of the right of the people to demand an account from the Executive, whether it be King, Privy Council or modern Government. That is the heart of the matter.

If there were a chain of accountability inside the Community on something that we could accept or something that we could help and to which we could contribute, the whole argument might have been very different. But it has never been there. Therefore, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cheetham is on a loser when he says we should go in and contribute, because even that which we have has been worried away by Executive powers in the past.

My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) had a practical point. Consultation before legislation, representation and taxation, giving voice to grievances before adjournment, and accountability of the Executive, while they may be text book phrases describing the way our democracy has developed, are powers which can be exercised by back benchers upon the Executive, if they will. I fear that the rule of law in this country, which is greatly respected, will be muddied. We have seen it already in legislation on other matters.

Young people in this country now appear to be demanding things from Government very different to those demanded by even the previous generation. My experience of the feeling and atmosphere of the House leads me to believe that they are about 20 years behind the feelings and expectations of the young people outside. I feel this more and more strongly every time I come here. I do not say that what we have here is not good and of high quality. Of course it is. But in the future young people will no longer be prepared to take "No" for an answer. More and more will people demand not participation in the sense of the "with-it" phrase but participation through their M.P. We have already reached the stage where Ministers have to hope that the Commission or the Council of Ministers will reach a particular decision. The Minister for Transport Industries said it not long ago in the House.

At the moment when young people or others are discontented and complain, we can say to them "You have a vote. Turn out the Government or change your MP." But if Parliament passes the Bill tonight and if any Government are powerless to change what they have done or make a policy, the supporters of the Bill, like the rest of us, will be unable to offer that remedy to the dissidents. Whichever way those dissidents vote and whichever Government are elected, that power will have gone. If that safety valve disappears I fear that many people will take action which at the moment they can, with reason, be persuaded not to do My greatest fear is that as a result of the Bill the rising social and economic tensions in this country will nullify whatever economic advantage there may be in the Common Market, and I doubt whether such an advantage exists.

The House has been guillotined. Its head has been put to one side by the guillotine on the Bill. Its muscles have been affected. I do not believe it will be able to hold up its head in the same way again. But its vocal chords are not cut. They are not cut tonight, and they will not be cut in the future. I hope that the Executive of this country will always be accountable to this House. Whether the Executive is in Whitehall or in Brussels, the House of Commons will remain representative of the people. I hope that it will for ever bring accountability here, because that is where it belongs.