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I beg to move,
That this House calls on Her Majesty's Government to fulfil its undertakings to Parliament and to the Community to introduce legislation for the purpose of holding direct elections to the European Parliament; notes that unless this legislation is published forthwith there will be insufficient time for the Boundary Commissioners to complete the necessary work to meet the official target date of May-June 1978; and recalls that failure to bring forward the Bill at the earliest opportunity may prevent such elections taking place in any of the member-states, as provided in the September 1976 Convention to which Her Majesty's Government was a signatory.
It is a great pleasure for me to move this motion, and I hope that hon. Members will consider this the right moment to do so. I hope I shall carry hon. Members with me when I say that this subject is every bit as important as the topic of devolution which is now being considered in Committee. The full implications of direct elections have not been considered by many people outside the House. This is understandable because the elections, as well as the underlying theme of our membership of the Community, still appear somewhat remote to the average citizen.
I wish to submit the case for the Government to press ahead, without further delay, the necessary legislation to prepare for direct elections to the European Parliament. While I am grateful to the Minister of State, Home Office, for being present to reply to the debate, I must register my disappointment that it is not the Home Secretary who is here to deal with the important constitutional matters that will face the House when the subject is deliberated upon in more detail, or the senior Foreign Office spokesman, who has an undoubted and unequivocal personal as well as ministerial commitment to the target date for direct elections and to ensuring that the necessary legislation is introduced as soon as possible.
The antecedents of this issue are well known and I need deal with them only briefly, but I must first express my regret that the debate is taking place, unavoidably, on the first day of a plenary session in Luxembourg when Members of the European Parliament, who might have wished to take part in this debate, have to be there. Some Labour Members on the Benches opposite might believe that the dual mandate should allow those hon. Members to be here, but I understand that there is important business in Luxembourg tonight which necessitated their catching an early flight.
The draft convention of the European Parliament sensibly pointed out in its explanatory statement in February 1975 that not only was the subject built into the whole thinking, strategy, philosophy and constitution of the Community as something to be aimed at but it was a topic which, for the original Members, was already becoming long overdue.
The practical and homespun rationale for direct elections is not so much the grand design or the development of political institutions within the Community. The draft convention noted:
The increasing problems created by the exercise of a dual mandate merely emphasise the urgency of direct elections.
Since then, we have seen that the work load of indirectly-elected Members is onerous enough to rule out the dual mandate. Today's unavoidable absence of our representatives at the Parliament is an example, and this problem will get worse. I argue not just the respectable doctrine of direct elections but also the increasing practical pressures which make them necessary.
The legal mandate is contained in the European Elections Act which was signed by the Council of Ministers and accompanied by a decision of the Council on 20th September 1976. The preamble to the Act set the target date for elections as May-June 1978. There can be no doubt that that is the official target date. Even though clever lawyers on either side of the argument may discuss the intrinsic legal nature and equality of the decision, the date has been agreed by the Council. The House now faces the obvious problem of meeting the target date with other member States.
I should prefer not to give way, in view of the relatively short time that we have for this debate. However, perhaps we might see how we get on or the hon. Gentleman can seek to catch Mr. Speaker's eye to make his point.
Before the Act for direct elections was signed by the Council of Ministers, having been built on the European summit target of the previous year, a Select Committee of the House—and work was also done in the House of Lords—had already urged the Government in its report of 15th June last year to agree in the Council that elections should be held by May-June 1978. The report said that was an attainable date which was totally within the practical compass of the House and the necessary changes that would flow from the legislative decision.
The work of the body that would incorporate the construction of the European constituencies was considered in some detail in the Committee and its subsequent report published on 3rd August. The question of the Boundary Commission doing the minimum of necessary work was raised. The deadline of May 1977 was discussed. It had already been set as the deadline for the enabling Bill, and the Home Office had earlier recommended that date to the Select Committee. That deadline would mean that the Boundary Commission would not necessarily have as much time as normal processes would allow for national elections. The report said:
if the House were to approve their recommendations in principle, it would be necessary for the Government to bring in a Bill in the early days of next Session and for it to complete its passage in both Houses by the end of February".
We are now at the beginning of the second week in February. Hon. Members in all parts of the House and authorities outside felt that the Select Committee was being over-anxious and that more time should be allowed. The matter is becoming out of hand. The Government must do something about it in the near future. I hope that the Home Office Minister will announce today a definitive date for the publication of this long-overdue Bill. Even if the original time table was a little over-anxious, we are seriously running out of time.
The Government repeated their commitment in the Queen's Speech and in their White Paper, Command 6695, "Developments in the European Community", published in December. That publication contained an unequivocal reiteration of the commitment to direct elections. That is official Government policy, whatever happened at the Labour Party Conference in the autumn. It is also the official policy of the Conservative Opposition and of some other parties in the House. The House has a substantial built-in majority in favour of a direct elections Bill, for the principle behind it and for it to be introduced without further delay.
In the final report of the Select Committee, which was published on 3rd August last year the Boundary Commissioners' evidence appears. On page 5 of the original memorandum the Boundary Commission seemed to be clear on the gravity and on the burden and measure of its task. Paragraph 17(d) of that report states:
if the Boundary Commissions are to make recommendations for the first direct elections, they should be enabled to evaluate the representations received in one month after publishing their provisional recommendations".
The Boundary Commission continues—and this is a serious matter for the House:
'but local inquiries should not be required".
The compromise approach of the Select Committee and other experts on this subject is that some form of local inquiry is needed along the normal lines of the Representation of the People Acts. The opinion is that one local set of inquiries should be sufficient, but that is for the House to decide. That is because the necessary amendment to the Act would allow the Boundary Commission to construct clusters of constituencies without creating new European frontiers but to base them on existing national parliamentary constituencies.
I do not say that that is the right approach, but if it were agreed by the House I imagine that that might allow the Boundary Commission to do the minimum amount of work necessary from start to finish, including all the preliminary work. I say that tentatively. It would allow the Commission to finish its work in between six and eight months—that is a conservative minimum to allow all the necessary evidence to be given and to allay anxieties about undue haste or fears that an acceleration of the official processes had taken place.
If the Minister would announce the end of June as being the date for the introduction of the Bill, the Boundary Comimssion could finish its work by February next year and official preparations could go ahead. I know that that is a short time before the May-June target date, and some hon. Members might argue that it is not long enough. If the Boundary Commission is to do its work, there is a strong case for introducing the Bill now and for not waiting for the Government to resolve differences in the Cabinet or among hon. Members below the Gangway. The Minister of State must bear that in mind.
Another vital point is that I fear that if any further unnecessary—I underline that word—delays are experieced with the Bill, it might be tempting for the Government to say that there is no time for the official processes and that they will therefore make the necessary changes in a schedule attached to the Bill. If that happened, the House of Commons would create its own constituencies. How could the House bear to imagine a Government producing schedules to a Bill along those lines, particularly as hon. Members will recall the gerrymandering of constituency boundaries in 1969? That would be entirely wrong, and the House should not allow it. A collection of politicians would be constructing that which should be constructed outside by an independent body with an arbitrary sense of natural justice. The public would not have the necessary confidence in a structure that would arise from a schedule to a Bill.
That is the background to the situation. If we examine the other member States, we see that other countries are beginning this essential process. For example, the Irish have introduced their Bill, which proposes three European constituencies which reflect their existing parliamentary system—the multi-Member transferable vote system. We should follow their example by proposing a system based on our own first-past-the-post system.
Other member States are beginning their preparations. The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office was incorrect when he said that other countries had not yet begun their preparations. I do not have time to read out all the details, but in Italy a Bill is to be published by the end of February and an announcement has been made. A Bill was published a fortnight ago in Luxembourg. In Holland a Bill has been available for some time and will be passed before Easter. In Denmark a Bill is expected to be published before Easter. The Federal Republic of Germany has published its Bill. There are problems, if any, most of all in Belgium, where there is still somewhat of a great debate going on, but it has nothing to do with the principle of direct elections.
It is a matter of sadness that in this country we see that the whole referendum about European membership is beginning to be opened up again when we should be discussing the next stage.
No, not necessarily. That will remain to be seen in the long-term future. There may be some who would like a federal structure in Europe, but that has nothing to do with the first set of direct elections. Most people would acknowledge that.
However, on the point about other countries—I think I am right in saying that I am looking only at a draft; therefore, one has to exercise caution—on 25th January last, as I mentioned earlier, the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, speaking to the House of Lords European Communities Committee, said
I think I am right in saying no other country has even started a formal, legislative process.
That was questioned, rightly, by Lord Gladwyn, who contradicted it. I wanted to remind the House of that and to repeat it, if only to underline that if there are Ministers at the Foreign Office—we acknowledge that they may have certain personal inclinations on this subject, which I would regard as being in the right direction—who can get matters wrong on this subject at this late stage, it only goes to show the insouciance of the Government and their carelessness about a subject solemnly promised in their own programme and which has not yet appeared although everyone agrees that it is well overdue.
As Baroness Elles rightly said in the other place when speaking in the EEC debate on 15th December, the last such debate that the other place had,
The Government will be aware of the bitter disappointment to those countries which are
actively preparing for these elections and which recognise the necessity for democratic control of the European institutions if we ourselves are not ready by the proposed date. How often were we told that the European countries in the Community, apart from ourselves, looked for guidance and inspiration to the United Kingdom as the home of democracy, with a Parliament and a Parliamentary system which is, or certainly was, the envy of the world. Have we even lost the entitlement to this claim, or are we in danger of losing it? So far as I am aware, other Member States have not expressed any doubt as to their capacity to be ready by May or June 1978."—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15th December 1976; Vol. 378, c. 996.]
The biggest sticking point recently was, of course, in the Republic of France, where perhaps the most severe test case of all—it was an interesting test case for the whole basis and the legal and constitutional rationale of direct elections —was resolved by a sensible and a correct judgment of the Constitutional Court, which, under the constitution of the Fifth Republic, is the final adjudicator on matters which appear under the relevant clauses of the Fifth Republic's constitution—the independence of the constitution, the sovereignty of the French Republic and the independence of the legislative body. The Constitutional Court found, with complete equanimity, I think, that these direct elections were in no way an infringement of the central sovereignty of both Houses of the French Parliament or the French Executive which is written into the French constitution as another arm of the total constitutional body.
Therefore, why the difficulty and the delay? Why are the Government vacillating on this matter when most people calmly and fairly expected the Bill to be introduced early on? February may seem as though there is plenty of time left here, and perhaps it could be March and there would be no problem. I have already tried to suggest that if the full processes were undertaken it would be very difficult indeed if no Bill came by the end of this month at the very latest, and even that would be one, two or three weeks too late.
I return to the Foreign Secretary's position. Is he leading the pro-direct elections lobby in the Cabinet and not succeeding very much? What is the position of the Lord President of the Council, who has let the House down grotesquely on devolution, a Bill that is already falling apart at its seams? Whatever one's feeling about devolution may be, that is quite clear. Therefore, what is the attitude of the Lord President, who has himself had to enunciate Government policy and say that direct elections are part of their programme and that something will be done? A day or two ago he referred to "problems". He was telling my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey, North-West (Mr. Grylls), at Business Question Time last Thursday, what the form was, and he referred to certain problems still being discussed.
The presence today of the Minister of State, Home Office gives us pleasure to some extent, but it worries me in one particular. That is that if the Home Office, charged with constructing the Bill—incidentally, one has heard that no draft is available, but that may be untrue—is beset by problems affecting, for example, essential adjustments in the Representation of the People Acts, the necessary questions of Government statutes, the status of a European Member of Parliament, the terms and conditions of elections, the length of the election campaign and the legal questions affecting returning officers and so on, why should all that, although one acknowledges its extreme complexity, be allowed to hold up the first target, which is to allow the Boundary Commission to commence its work?
Therefore, that leads me back to the compelling logic expressed by a number of hon. Members in the closing stages of last year—that is, that perhaps two Bills would be necessary. The first would be to get the process of direct elections started, and would seek simply that and nothing else. A relatively short, simple Bill, of perhaps 10 or 12 clauses, would be enough. The second Bill, which could even be taken in the next Session to make the Government's legislative burden easier—I put forward that suggestion to show how Opposition Members are anxious to help—would be to deal with the points that I have raised about statutes, the status of Members of Parliament and so on. That may be one reason behind which the Government may wish to shelter, but hon. Members should not allow them to do so.
Finally, there is on the Order Paper an Early-Day Motion on the subject signed, at least by Friday evening, by 69 Members.
I do not know. There were rumours over the weekend about some anti-devolution Members who want to use one or the other as a device for delay, and about others who could not care less about devolution but, none the less, wish to delay direct elections and so on. There are whole predations of resistance within the Labour Party, which may or may not be manifested. However, even if it is 80 Labour Members, mostly below the Gangway, who wish to delay this matter and open up the whole debate again and to see that this country, unlike all the others, is not represented at all—this subject has been debated already in the House, and I wish that it could be debated more—it is for the Government to introduce a Bill so that we can have a good debate on Second Reading.
Even so, bearing in mind what I guess to be the overwhelming will of the House that the Bill should be introduced, why should 80 Labour Members, who are not even members of the Government directly, delay the Government's programme?
Finally, we have learned over the weekend from the other place that there are some respectable distinguished peers from the Liberal Party who propose to introduce their own Bill in the House of Lords to deal with this subject. A statement was made over the weekend. Although I represent only myself, I would regard that as being totally unacceptable to this House. The direct elections Bill must come in the House of Commons. It is a major constitutional measure, and it must have the elaborate Committee stage that such a constitutional measure will need. All that that means is that the urgency on the Government is even greater. For those reasons, I feel that the Government should now press ahead with their objectives.
Before my hon. Friend ends his speech, will he deal with a point that I find very obscure? One understands that if the European Assembly, as it is called in the White Paper, is to be directly elected, it is to receive more powers of some sort to deal with the Commission as what is called the democratic reason for it. I do not think that that is denied by anyone. However, those powers have to be agreed between all the national Parliaments. I think that that is not denied by anyone. If, having got a directly-elected Parliament, the proposals for new powers are put forward and then blocked—for example, and quite possibly, by the French Parliament—the directly-elected European Parliament will have no extra powers. That is the point. Surely it is logical, as we are doing in our devolution legislation, to set the powers first and then to have the direct elections. It seems to be putting the cart before the horse to force or perhaps bulldoze through—perhaps that is an unkind phrase—direct elections like this.
I always admire my hon. Friend for his ingenuity. However, he is a number of jumps ahead. What he ought to do is to welcome the introduction of the Bill so that we can begin all that debate, which will undoubtedly begin as soon as the Bill is introduced. [HON. MEMBERS: "Answer."] I can answer best by quoting—in definite conclusion—the words of the Foreign Secretary, speaking to the European Parliament on 12th January, when he said:
A directly-elected Parliament will be in a better position to strengthen the democratic voice in the Community. It will be better able to fulfil its rôle in relation to the Commission, and it will, I have no doubt, wish to influence the Council of Ministers.
It is clear beyond doubt that the Government are committed to bringing in a Bill of this kind speedily. They are committed to their colleagues in the EEC where we have made it clear that we would use our best endeavours to make it possible for the direct elections to be held here and in the other eight countries by May or June 1978.
We shall be interested to hear what the Government have to say about the steps already taken by the other Governments. It may be that the answer given to us recently was correct but that events have moved on since. It would be useful to have an up-to-date account of what legislative steps or preparations have been made in the other eight countries. Even if it is true that none of the other countries has yet taken steps, this would not excuse our Government from taking them.
We were pledged to use our best endeavours. It must be plain to anyone that if each of the nine countries were to say "Why should we move? No one else has moved yet", nothing would ever be done. That would please some of my hon. Friends who do not want the Community to work.
I am certain that the Minister will see that it is not an adequate excuse to say that no one has done anything yet. Even if that were correct, the Government are still under an obligation to use their best endeavours. The Government are committed to this Parliament. We were told in the Gracious Speech that this measure would be introduced. It would not be sensible to introduce it so late in the Session that it had no chance of getting through, or that the work which had to be done would be so delayed as to make it ineffective. The Government are under a clear international and national obligation to introduce this Bill in good time.
I take up the point raised by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) when he argued that the powers must be increased if we are to do anything at all.
Well, let us spell it out. The argument that he was advancing was that if we had the direct elections and the directly elected European Parliament demanded more powers and that were blocked by one of the Governments, there would then be the frustrated situation of a directly elected Parliament unable to get the powers it hoped to have. That is one arm of the general anti-Community argument. The other is to ask how, if we urge an increase of powers, we can increase the powers of such an undemocratic body as the present indirectly elected Parliament. If we try hard enough, we can always prove that since A ought to be done before B, or vice versa, it is better to do nothing.
Whatever aspirations and sentiments different people may have on these matters, surely as a matter of law it is clear that direct elections do not change or increase powers, because any changes of that sort require an amendment of the Treaty which, under Article 236, requires ratification by the national Parliaments. It may be that in the course of time a directly elected Parliament will have a greater good will to increasing its powers by an amendment of the Treaty, but it can only be by that way and subject, therefore, to ratification by the national Parliaments.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the legal position is relatively unimportant? Once we have a directly elected Parliament it will give to those directly elected representatives the moral authority to enable them to argue for more powers.
I shall try to give way, but within reason. If I go on giving way, the whole of my speech will be made for me by those hon. Members who make interventions.
There is no automatic increase in the power of the European Parliament by virtue of direct elections, but the direct elections will give Members of the European Parliament more authority and, perhaps even more significant, more time to devote to the work of the European Parliament. Even with their present powers, they will become more effective users of them. Their capacity to criticise and to place under review the work of the Council of Ministers and the Commission will be increased even if there is no legal increase in powers.
In time, therefore, they will get the legal increase in powers as well. The job of a Parliament or an assembly within the Community cannot be done properly under the present arrangements. A number of decisions made by the Commission and the Council of Ministers would either not have been made or would have been made better if they had been subjected to the more powerful and constant parliamentary scrutiny that could come from a directly elected body.
No, my hon. Friend is still not taking the point. He has a bee in his bonnet about the extent to which this House can supervise the work of the European Parliament. I agree that it is a problem, but for that reason I want the European Parliament to be a powerful and constant reviewer and critic of the work of the executive arms of the Community.
My colleagues who were in the European Parliament with me did a conscientious job, and I trust that I did, too. We were all conscious of the fact that this can be only a makeshift arrangement. It faces the Member constantly with the problem of where he should be—in Luxembourg or Westminster.
The very fact that we are having this debate at a time when the European Parliament is sitting illustrates the difficulty. The person who has chosen to be a Member of the European Parliament has to make a choice of that kind. He may be quite sure that whichever way he makes it some ill-natured interpretation of what he has done will be put on it by hon. Members who do not like the Market. One gets hardened to this kind of thing after a time. It is not really suitable to the importance of the job which the European Parliament has today.
Therefore, this arrangement of the indirect election by national Parliaments of some of their Members to go to the European Parliament if it is continued will act as a drag on the proper development of the parliamentary element inside the Community and will create continual problems for Members who are honestly trying to do their duty as best they can both in this House and in the European Parliament.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way again, because he has given way many times. He has used an important phrase—the proper development of parliamentary scrutiny. Does he agree that if the European Parliament becomes a proper Parliament, it will legislate and tax and will control the European Council and Commission and become in effect a federal Parliament? Is that what he wants? Is my right hon. Friend a federalist or is he not?
I believe that one day the nations in the Community will be part of one federal State. I do not expect it to happen in my lifetime. It is a much bigger development than that. As none of us can foresee the future to that extent, there is not a great deal of point in arguing about it.
One thing is quite certain, however. A country cannot slip into a federal State unnoticing. That is exactly what cannot happen. It is extremely likely that the nine countries of the Community will practise an ever-closer union and that they will get a greater harmonisation of foreign policy and of economic and monetary matters. I think that that is likely to happen. However, it is not possible for a group of countries to turn themselves from being a group of nine sovereign States into a single federated State without being aware of the fact and without its being the conscious and willing decision of all the members of the federation.
That is why I say that for our purposes the point about federalism is not relevant to this Parliament. The idea that by making the European Parliament directly elected we shall somehow be lured into a federation without noticing it is complete nonsense. The decision to make a federation must be a conscious and deliberate one. Whether it will ever be made, I do not know. Looking back over the ghastly history of divided Western Europe for so many years, I feel that our descendants may be glad if it happens. However, that is not what we are arguing about now.
It is true, however, that the direct election of the Members of the European Parliament will help the process of closer co-operation among the nine countries. It is intended to do that. It will do that. If we are in the Community at all, we are committed to work for that. It is perfectly clear from the Treaty of Rome and from everything that has been said since that the Community was not intended to be a completely static body and that its members would work for closer union and harmonisation in many matters.
Anyone who objects to that is really objecting to British membership of the Community at all. That, one would have thought, was settled in the referendum. Some of us who do not particularly like the area of referendums agreed to it on the understanding that we would abide by the result. The extraordinary fact is that it is those who demanded the referendum most eagerly who are most unwilling to accept its result.
Would my right hon. Friend agree that whatever we think about the referendum it contained no mandate to enter a federal system or specifically for direct elections?
Quite clearly, the referendum contained no mandate for a federal system. I have dealt with that. That is not what we are arguing about. As to the holding of direct elections, that is mentioned in the Treaty of Rome. The referendum was held to decide whether we become members of the Common Market. Membership of the Common Market carried with it an obligation to work towards direct elections. That is plain enough.
I quite agree, but it remains true that any country that enters the European Community is committed by the Treaty to work for direct elections. I am quite sure that the opponents of our entry did not fail to rub in that point and to stress all the horrors of having to sit in a Parliament side by side with foreigners and exploit the argument as much as they could. The idea that the public were somehow hoodkinked—
—by the referendum will not stand examination.
It is possible to outline any number of difficulties about direct elections. The Select Committee has been sweating on the nuts and bolts. One can argue about such matters as how many sponsors there should be on the nomination paper, what the deposit should be, and so on. I do not propose to go through all that, because we all know quite well that, if the will is there to carry through this legislation, those matters can be solved.
The advice I would give the Government as to the nature of the Bill is to make it as simple as possible. It is a large new adventure for the electorate. It is never sensible to ask people to try to assimilate too many unfamiliar things at once.
That is why I hope that we shall stick to the first-past-the-post system of election. For one thing, if we change now to something else it may come about that later on all the nine countries will change to an agreed European solution. I see no point in our having two changes. I want the process of voting to be as simple and as straightforward as possible for the electors.
The need for simplicity is also a reason for taking what the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) called clusters of constituencies. I am sure that is the way to do it—to make each European electoral district a cluster or group of whole parliamentary constituencies.
As a matter of fact, the task of doing that grouping without gerrymandering will not be all that difficult. Of course, if one deliberately set out to gerrymander it, it could be done, but it would not be in the least difficult to get a group of fair-minded people who, looking at the straightforward geography of the matter, could arrange the constituencies fairly enough.
I have seen one such scheme done by psephologists who carried out the simple exercise of first grouping the constituencies as the ordinary geography would seem to suggest and then adding up the votes cast in every constituency in the October 1974 General Election and seeing how it would have worked out in the resulting 81 electoral districts. The result would have been to return the 81 Members of the European Parliament in roughly the same proportions as Members were returned to Westminster in that General Election. There is no mysterious process whereby the people's will would get distorted in this exercise, unless the groups of constituencies were arranged with the deliberate intent of distorting.
The hon. Member says that he dislikes the result. I dare say. It often happens that we dislike the result of an election, but I have never considered that that was a reason for wanting to alter the whole electoral system. For a long time I have believed in the validity and wisdom of the first-past-the-post system, and I have believed in it whichever party it worked to the advantage of, as it first works one way and then another. That is the way to approach the system we should use.
They were grouped by 81 areas of approximately equal populations. There is the difficulty we have in our own Parliament, that in some of the more thinly populated parts of the country we have to give the voters a bit of an advantage for otherwise a constituency becomes intolerably large geographically. I do not believe, therefore, that there are any insuperable difficulties about the mere mechanics of getting on with this exercise. The business of the Government is to get on with it.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) for raising this subject. I hope that we shall not have another Second Reading debate about whether we should join the Common Market. We are in the Common Market. The question that we should be discussing is how to ensure that we are properly represented there.
One matter that worries most hon. Members is the Government's interminable delay. In November 1975 the then Foreign Secretary—the present Prime Minister—when speaking about direct elections said:
That is a Treaty requirement and, of course, we shall honour it."—[Official Report, 10th November 1977; Vol. 899, c. 946.]
The Treaty requirement was for direct elections. The right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) may nod or shake his head, but it was always envisaged that direct elections would be held in May or June 1978.
It took the Government three months to bring out a Green Paper and another three months to set up a Select Committee. I should like to pay tribute to the Chairman of the Committee, the right hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving). The Select Committee, of which I was a member, lost no time in producing a report. It issued its first report within one month to enable the Foreign Secretary to meet a deadline in Brussels or somewhere else.
The first report dealt with the size and number of seats, the dates of elections and whether they should be held every four years or five years. The second report, which came out two months later, in August, dealt with some controversial matters, such as the allocation of seats among the component parts of the United Kingdom. That was done as far as possible according to the proportion of population.
The report also dealt with the first-past-the-post system and the Boundary Commission rules. The report was produced in time to allow the Government to meet the deadline for holding direct elections in May or June 1978, but it has not been debated in the House. That does not show much enthusiasm by the Government for direct elections.
How was it that in November 1975 the Prime Minister could give a categoric assurance about direct elections being a Treaty obligation and yet do nothing about it? We are now in February 1977 and still nothing has been done. These reports were produced to give the Government an opportunity to introduce the necessary legislation to enable direct elections to be held in May or June 1978.
The third report dealt with deposits, nominations, electoral law, dual mandates and links with the House of Commons. In one part of the report the Select Committee said:
The timetable envisaged by the Committee—which is the only realistic one consistent with the Boundary Commissions being able to complete their work—is dependent upon the first enabling bill dealing with the most urgent matters receiving the royal assent by the end of February 1977. Proceedings on a second bill (if such were found to be necessary) and on the motion to approve the Order in Council relating to the Community Decision and Act could be taken at a later date.
That was an all-party Select Committee which had the advice of many expert witnesses, including the Boundary Commission.
The Government should have stated by now that they do not agree with that paragraph in the Select Committee's report or they should have done something about it. It is not good enough for the Government to do nothing. Why are they delaying?
I do not want to be churlish or offensive about this matter. It is true that at the Labour Party Conference last year there was a vote against direct elections. Are the Government so scared stiff of their Left Wing that they think that they will not get the legislation through Parliament, or is the delay because of lack of parliamentary time? As my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East stated, there has been plenty of parliamentary time. It is only because of the incompetence of the Leader of the House that we have the present chaotic situation. It would not take much time to get the Bill through the House.
The subject to be dealt with in the Bill is the allocation of the 81 seats. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East said that he did not agree with starting the Bill in the House of Lords. I do not go along with him about that. I do not think that it would make any difference to the amount of scrutiny that the Bill receives. If the Government say that they do not have time in this House, the Bill could start in the Lords.
Is the delay because the Government want to determine the boundaries? This is what worries most people. Are the Government delaying the Bill so that at the end of the day they will be able to say to hon. Members "If you want direct elections in June 1978, alas, the Boundary Commission cannot sit." I remind hon. Members that Lord Thorneycroft, giving evidence to the Select Committee on behalf of the Conservative Party, said that it would be prepared to accept not the whole of the Boundary Commission procedure, but thought that there should be one appeal against a Boundary Commission report, which would cut down the time allotted.
I am not casting aspersions on the Government, but it is possible for psephologists to tie up 81 batches of constituencies. By including different places in different batches it is possible to achieve a different result with every play that is made. It is possible to ensure a Labour majority or a Conservative majority by changing the composition of the batches. Each Euro-constituency will be roughly the size of eight parliamentary seats. With respect to members of the Liberal Party, no matter how the psephologists play around with the batches of seats, it will not give them a majority in the EEC.
The one thing that is not a matter of controversy is that the United Kingdom should have 81 seats in a directly elected parliament. Why do we not determine them now?
Under present law, the Boundary Commission, in years to come is bound to make parliamentary constituencies conform with county boundaries. If we take the parliamentary boundaries as they are now—this was the reasoning behind the Select Committee's report—that makes it easy for the Boundary Commission to do its job.
As I have said, there will be an average of eight existing parliamentary seats to one Euro-constituency and the parties will have a great deal of organising to do. This applies to the Labour Party as well as to the Conservative Party. They will first have to select candidates. With the best will in the world, it is difficult to select candidates unless they can be told which areas they are to represent. Both parties in a Euro-constituency will also have to get the constituencies working together, which will not be done overnight. It will take time, particularly with voluntary party workers.
No doubt the controversial subject of proportional representation will be raised by Liberal Members. As we are committed between 1978 and 1982 or 1983 to harmonising our electoral procedures—
The hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) says "No", but this is the evidence of the Select Committee. We are committed to the harmonisation of elections to the European Parliament. If that is so—and that was the evidence before the Select Committee—it would be stupid for this country to select proportional representation, whether it is the alternative Member or the single transferable vote. We may pick the wrong one and have to change it again in 1982. In view of the time limit, proportional representation should have been dropped. In any case, I do not think that anybody in this House could possibly take the view that a Select Committee considering direct elections, important as it might have been, should take a decision on proportional representation. I think that that should be a matter for a Speaker's Conference or something of that kind.
No. Time is getting on.
I do not like links between the European Parliament and the House of Lords. The link should be with this place, with morning sittings if necessary, because this is the democratically elected Chamber, and I, as a Back Bench Member, should be able to question the 81 Members elected to the European Parliament. If they meet in the other place, I shall not be able to do that.
As the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) said, there are many other matters in the third report on what we should do about nationals voting, deposits, nomination papers, and so on. Whether we like it or not, we are in Europe. The Prime Minister has given a categoric undertaking to be ready for direct elections by May or June 1978.
I hope that in replying to the debate the Minister will say something definitive about direct elections. It is incumbent upon this country and the Government to bring these provisions into effect. We cannot continue with nominated Members. That is a killer. We do not have some of our colleagues here today because they are somewhere in Europe, and if there were 81 nominated Members the situation would be ludicrous. One has to look after not only the Westminster constituency, but the Euro one. If we are to be properly represented, we must have Members who can spend their time at the European Parliament.
I see my hon. Friend drawing his speech to an end. He speaks with special responsibility as Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party with an interest in party financing. He will recall the Houghton Committee, which recommended certain subsidies from Government money for political parties. The Conservatives turned their face against that. I take it that we shall use the same standard and turn our face entirely against any EEC money, which is partly British State money, being used for these direct elections.
It is very kind of my hon. Friend to add to my responsibilities the job of Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party. I do not lay down policy, but I can tell the House that the Conservative Party is diametrically opposed to the use of direct taxpayers' money. These direct elections will be an additional burden upon the British taxpayer because, presumably—[Interruption.] The hon. Member for Newham, South keeps saying things from a sedentary position, but to no avail.
For the direct elections we shall have free postage, and so on, such as one enjoys at a General Election in this country. The European Parliament is discussing whether it should bear some responsibility for some of the expenditure involved in direct elections. I do not think that that is analagous to the Houghton Committee recommendations. What we have to remember is that if Europe allocates some money for direct elections, eight member States will take it—France, Germany, and so on—and this country has to think seriously whether to refuse it. I hear someone say that we are different. We are different and we remain different, but we must not be stupid.
There can be direct elections only if we start now or if the Government are to determine the boundaries themselves. I was worried when the Minister of State, Home Office, Lord Harris, speaking in another place, referred to using a fairly full Boundary Commission procedure but said that the Government had not decided whether such a procedure was essential. The noble Lord went on to say:
My Lords, as I indicated when I began, the Government are determined to be ready to hold direct elections in May or June of 1978.
Thus, as recently as December, only two months ago, the Government gave that assurance.
The noble Lord went on:
I emphasise once more that the commitment to introduce legislation is there in the Gracious Speech. Nevertheless, it may be—and at the moment it is not possible to be definitive on this point—that in order to be ready for May or June 1978 we shall have to forgo certain procedures and certain modifications. …"—[Official Report, House of Lords, 15th December 1976; Vol. 378, c. 1007.]
Does the noble Lord mean that we shall have the right of appeal in the Boundary Commission? Perhaps the Minister will answer that. It is essential that in the setting up of these batches of eight constituencies the public have the right of at least one appeal.
To have two appeals would take longer.
The local elections are to be in May 1978, and from an organisational point of view it would be better to hold the direct elections to Europe at least a month later—in June 1978.
We must not be the odd man out. I have proved conclusively that the Government have delayed taking action. They cannot blame the Select Committee. If we are to have the elections in June 1978, it is essential to have the Bill now. There could be two Bills—one setting up the 81 seats and letting the Boundary Commission getting on with its work, and another dealing with deposits and the other nuts and bolts.
Whatever we think about it, we are in the Common Market, and it is essential for us to be properly represented there. I am convinced, as I think most people are, that direct elections are the only way in which we can be democratically represented in Europe. Consequently, I ask the Government for an assurance that the Bill will come to the House within the next week or two.
The debate has touched on the referendum and what was agreed then. In making the case for the motion references have been made to promises, to target dates, and so on. I propose to refer to the White Paper that was issued as part of the discussion at the time of the referedum.
Paragraph 134 on page 39 of that White Paper said:
Thus, membership of the Community raises for us problems of reconciling the system of directly applicable law made by the Community with our constitutional principle that Parliament is the sovereign legislature and can make or unmake any law whatsoever. That principle remains unaltered by our membership of the Community. Parliament retains its ultimate right to legislate on any matter.
—The note at the bottom of the page says:
Legal and constitutional implications of United Kingdom membership of the European Communities, Cmnd. 3301 May 1967, paragraph 2 and paragraph 23.
We should bear this in mind. No mention was made of direct elections at the time of the referendum.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) is an honest man. He has a vision of a united Europe, one country depending upon another. To simplify the argument, if it has the climate, Italy will grow the tomatoes and we shall provide something else. It is a dream, an ideal. I do not disbelieve the proposition. It follows from that that we need a Parliament to legislate. My right hon. Friend's time-scale was out, but he had no doubt that we should evolve to a federal system.
I did say that, but I pointed out that that was not germane to what we were talking about, namely, the desirability of a directly elected Parliament in the Community as it is now.
It is germane to what we are discussing. That is the point.
A multiplicity of legislation is being pushed out and we need time to discuss it. There is an order coming before us tonight. It is said that our people in such a Parliament will be able to give detailed scrutiny to these matters. What is this body we are to set up? Even a parish council has its duties delineated—it looks after burial grounds. What about these representatives? It is an axiom of common sense that they will evolve powers. They will have powers of scrutiny. I do not object to those in favour of the concept of a united Europe with a directly elected Parliament putting these ideas forward but they should be honest about the argument so that we can debate the subject properly. That is what this is all about.
It is said that our decision represents the first step towards the creation of a United States of Europe. This issue makes our current devolution proceedings look pretty small beer. It affects the whole nature of this House of Commons. The least we can do as adults is to recognise the implications of our action. A directly elected European Parliament will mean that its members can say to us "We have the votes from your constituents, we have equal authority". That is fair. We should recognise that point because it will arise.
I was coming to that. Hon. Members will have noticed the Early-Day Motion which has about 60 or 70 signatures and which deals with this point. It points out that:
whatever the basic view on the desirability of Direct Elections … wide and careful debate of such fundamental issues is necessary.
It refers to the size of the electorate, methods of election, administrative arrangements, numbers of seats for various parts of the United Kingdom, and so on. So far, all that we have mentioned is whether there should be proportional representation or a first-past-the-post system and how the constituencies will be organised.
It is a pity that no hon. Member representing an Ulster constituency is here today. They have a different problem over there which merits discussion. How will their three seats be delineated so that all sections of that unhappy community are represented? All of these matters of major significance remain to be debated.
This motion is all about whether we have the time in this Session to produce a Bill dealing with direct elections. Whatever our views, that is the basic point. Further, we are told that we are to be the ones who will make decisions, that Members of a European Parliament will have no powers. How are we to keep in touch when they are over there? There is the suggestion that they should all be given life peerages. God forbid that we should ever do that. Are we to have these people sitting in the House, acting as passing strangers who report to us?
The Select Committee produced two huge reports that have never been discussed. The only part of the Select Committee's conclusions which was produced in heavy type said:
The Committee have made this Second (Interim Report because they regard it as essential that, if this country is to continue to seek to hold direct elections in May or June 1978, the House should be invited to take decisions at an early date on the allocation of seats between the component parts of the United Kingdom, the electoral system and the terms of reference and procedures to be given to the Boundary Commissions. They therefore urge that the Government should find time for a debate in the House on these issues in the autumn"—
that was last autumn.
at the earliest possible moment. In any event a short Bill should be introduced at the outset of the new Session.
These are weighty matters which have not been debated. We have not had the Bill.
There is no time in the present Session to deal with these matters. It is completely unrealistic to think that it can be done. It is no good Conservative Members flapping their hands. That is the position. The Select Committee, which was heavily in favour of direct elections, made the point that a short Bill should be introduced at the beginning of this Session. Conservative Members have been sitting on their bottoms for a considerable time. It is only in the past few weeks that they have become alerted to the situation.
The hon. Gentleman is making a powerful indictment of the Government for allowing the report, now six months old, to accumulate dust without taking any action on it. Contrary to what the hon. Gentleman says, we have been pressing for action for a long time. Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that at the summit meeting at which the right hon. Gentleman will take the chair in Rome next month the Prime Minister should say that we in Britain propose, contrary to what the Prime Minister has previously said, to do nothing in time so that the whole experiment founders?
I do not speak for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister: I speak as a Member of this House. I believe that the hon. Genteman was on the Select Committee. He should not put the burden on me, someone who was not a member of the Select Committee, or on my right hon. Friend, or anyone else. I gather that the hon. Gentleman was in favour of the report, which said that certain things should happen. He has not raised the matter at every business question time. I am a fairly workaday Member. It seems to me that only in the past few weeks has the Leader of the Opposition started raising the matter at business question time. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] It is no good the Opposition shouting "No". Days are set aside when they can raise their own business.
The hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) is to be congratulated on taking the initiative. The rest of the Opposition are being dragged along on his coat-tails. The Opposition have been supine in this matter. [AN. HON. MEMBER: "Answer the question."] I have dealt with the question.
Some of us will not make these weighty decisions unless sufficient time is given to consider them and the implications are debated. The House is always fair. At this point in the Session to talk about rushing a Bill through is wrong. We should serve our country ill if we went into such detailed and important matters speedily and dealt with them in an ill-considered way.
This is not the time to talk about whether we are to have direct elections. It is a question of how we are to have them. It is all very well for the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) to give us rhetoric, though it has its place, virtue and point. But the hon. Gentleman, not we, is very much out of touch with political reality if he thinks that hon. Members have not thought about the matter during all the debates leading up to our accession to the European Community in 1972, the debates in the referendum campaign, consideration of all the questions leading up to the Government's commitment in the Queen's Speech and all the debates leading up to the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary's commitment in the Council of Ministers. We have thought about how Europe should be democratically controlled, as have many people in the country.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) is much to be congratulated on initiating the debate. It is a pity it is timely, because the Select Committee said that there should be a debate much earlier and that a Bill should be introduced much earlier.
In my limited time I wish not to cover the ground that others have covered but to direct attention to the second part of the motion of the hon. Member for Harrow, East, which says:
notes that unless this legislation is published forthwith there will be insufficient time for the Boundary Commissioners to complete the necessary work to meet the official target date of May-June 1978; and recalls that failure to bring forward the Bill at the earliest opportunity may prevent such elections taking place in any of the member-states".
The first point is that although some member States have indicated their intentions and have produced Bills, as in Eire and other countries, no Government so far have engaged in legislation—not even France, which intends to embark upon a fundamental change in its electoral system. In other words, the matter has become so urgent entirely because of the Government's intention to create those large, first-past-the-post constituencies so extolled by the hon. Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Clark) throughout the United Kingdom, with all the attendant problems of boundary changes and inevitable Boundary Commission arguments. It was extraordinary to hear the hon. Member for Croydon, South saying blandly, as if this were part of the Holy Writ of
democracy, that we can always work the matter out in a way that ensures fair play to all. The two sides will work it out and make a ploy between them.
I said "throughout the United Kingdom". Before I go into that question, I should like to ask whether an exception is intended in Northern Ireland, as has been rumoured. We know of Eire's lead. We also know what will happen if there are first-past-the-post constituencies in Northern Ireland. The hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe, who is so anxious about democracy, calmly said "I hope that in Northern Ireland all elements in the divided community will be properly represented in three seats". The fact that the hon. Gentleman should care about that in Northern Ireland and seemingly care for it nowhere else seems an extraordinary piece of double-think.
There is no doublethink. The present situation in Northern Ireland must cause concern to us all, and that gives reason for picking out Northern Ireland. The hon. Gentleman is unfair, because Northern Ireland must occupy the minds of all of us to a great degree. Although the hon. Gentleman and I come to different conclusions, my care for democracy in any part of the United Kingdom or of the world where we have some influence is as great. Northern Ireland is a special case, and it was in the context of that unhappy community that I spoke.
Those of us who have argued for a fair proportional relationship between votes and seats find it deeply depressing that only where violence is bred do some people give attention to the matter.
If we alone in Europe have a non-proportional system when the elections take place, as seems likely, that will have a direct effect on the balance of influence on European opinion. We are talking about influence, not a legislative Assembly. We are not talking about electing a Government in Europe. The influence that the British exert could be contradictory to the voting balance that the election is supposed to test.
My third point concerns the Select Committee. I should like to skim through its five basic arguments against changing the system. First, it was against two changes in a short time—in May or June 1978 and then four or five years later when we should have to standardise this. To change from 635 constituencies to 81 is a massive change. Surely it is better to adjust to such a change rather than to hang on to something that will inevitably be changed, as even the hon, Member for Croydon, South would concede.
Secondly, there was the question of practicality. That is a matter of political will and is not something that one can argue about. We can see even in the production of a devolution Bill that it is a question of political will. If anyone had asked the Labour Party five years ago whether it would produce a devolution Bill, its members would have laughed in his face. The Labour Party did it eventually because political realities affected it.
Thirdly, the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) and others say that the existing system is familiar. It was depressing to hear the right hon. Gentleman say so in the light of the Northern Ireland experience, where a new system was introduced in a troubled situation in a very short time and was easily understood and assimilated and voting took place under it. Fourthly, it is argued that it would be difficult for constituency organisations to operate a new system, but it will be difficult for them anyway to operate in large groups of constituencies on the present system.
Finally, it is argued that the present system would be easier for the voters in that they would associate with existing constituencies. But surely it would be easier for voters to associate with, for example, Greater London, Yorkshire, Scotland or Wales than with any of the clusters of constituencies that can be worked out.
What will happen if we have first-past-the-post elections? This is a matter for concern even if we create these large constituencies on some sort of accelerated procedure, which seems to be the only possible way to do it. For example, it seems that Scotland is to have eight seats. According to all the computations and what the psephologists say, if the Scottish National Party drops back a bit, as it might, and it is arguable that it will give a few votes to the Conservatives in the North-East of Scotland, it will get no seats out of 27 per cent. of the poll, which would cause trouble.
On the other hand, suppose that one-fifth of the Labour vote in Scotland went to the SNP for one reason or another. It is possible in some circumstances that the SNP could get almost the lot, with perhaps a Tory seat in one area and a Liberal seat in another.
Throughout the United Kingdom there is a swing towards the Tories. If that persists into next year, we could end up with a share-out in which the Tories had over 60 seats while the Labour Party was down to a derisory five or 10 seats. That is possible because not even the strongest supporter of the first-past-the-post system will deny that it produces violent swings for a small shift in voting strength.
I summarise my case in four brief points. First, the second European election will require a common system. As it will be on proportional representation, we should move towards it now. Secondly, for the Government nationally, let alone in part of the country, like Scotland, to put themselves so tremendously at risk to voting swings seems incredibly foolish. Thirdly, any proportional representation system is easier to legislate and quicker than the first-past-the-post system with large constituencies.
Finally, in Europe we are, after all, electing an Assembly to advise, not a Parliament to legislate or a Government to govern. What we want are the people's views. It would be deeply sad if this country, with all its long democratic traditions, should be the means and the cause of delaying that happening.
May I appeal for a sense of fair play? I am grateful to the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) for his brevity. There is less than an hour for everyone who wishes to speak to be called before the winding-up speeches. I hope that hon. Members will be brief.
I agree with at least one statement made by the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes)—that this subject is at least as important as devolution, to which we have been devoting so much time. I am afraid, however, that I agree with very little else that the hon. Member said. What he seems to be trying to do is to push this country into a federal system in the EEC without having the honesty to admit to the public that that is what he is doing. That is not fair to the electorate.
I shall make only two points—rather fewer than those put by the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston). The first is that the Treaty of Rome, which almost no Opposition Member has mentioned, lays no obligation on any member State to introduce direct elections, still less to do so by any specific date or year. Secondly, the referendum gave no mandate whatever from the electorate for direct elections, or for the major step towards merging this country into a federal State which direct elections imply.
Let us look at Article 138 of the Treaty of Rome. It is well known to all those who have studied it—and I suppose that the hon. Member for Harrow, East has done so—that it lays no obligation on member States for direct elections and mentions no date for them. I only regret that earlier on some Foreign Ministers seemed to imply that it did. Article 138 is remarkably clear. It involves two obligations. The first of these is that:
The Assembly shall draw up proposals for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States.
That point will be of interest to the hon. Member for Inverness. Those words lay an obligation on the Assembly but not on the member States. They leave the member States free to assent or not as they please. When the Assembly has drawn up its proposals—this it has to do and has done—then, whatever happens to them, that part of the Treaty has been honoured. But let us note that the elections have to be
in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States.
Secondly, Article 138 lays down that
The Council shall, acting unanimously, lay down the appropriate provisions, which it shall recommend to Member States for adoption in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements.
That is an obligation on the Council and, again, not on the member States. It is an obligation first, to lay down provisions
and, secondly, to recommend them to the member States. Article 189 states very plainly:
Recommendations and opinions shall have no binding force.
Therefore, there is no obligation on the member States as such—I think that the Minister will agree with me—but only on the Assembly and the Council respectively.
Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that clever constitutional lawyers, taking all sorts of views, have suggested that "uniform procedures" can mean a range of things from—at a ridiculous extreme—all ballot boxes being painted green to a totally harmonised electoral system? Surely the word "recommendation" in the form quoted by the right hon. Gentleman is not "Recommendation" with a capital R as received from the Council of Ministers, which is an operational word and something on which agreement has been reached unanimously.
I do not think that there is any dispute about the word "recommendation". There is no dispute that it is a recommendation. But it is not binding on the member States.
But there is a provision in Article 138 that if there are to be direct elections, they must be by uniform procedure in all the member States. I think that the hon. Member for Inverness would have made an even better speech if he had quoted those words. If, however, there were not a uniform procedure, the elections would not be legal under the Treaty. Without purporting to be a constitutional lawyer, I agree that one can argue about what "uniform procedure" means, but it must mean something. Surely most people would suppose that it must mean in practice a procedure such as proportional representation, since many of the other member States will be adopting that sort of procedure. Whether it means that or not, clearly there has to be a uniform procedure.
Perhaps I can come to the right hon. Gentleman's aid. In the agreement or decision that the Ministers reached in Brussels on 20th September 1976 setting out all this stuff about direct elections, they referred to proopsals for a uniform electoral procedure. I do not know whether I am right in thinking that they knew what they were talking about, but if they did they must have had the same thing in mind as the right hon. Gentleman when they agreed to that proposal.
The hon. Gentleman has anticipated me. I was just about to turn to the statement made by the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office on 22nd December. I took the occasion to ask the Minister of State whether it was the Government's intention to honour the obligation to adopt a uniform procedure. I draw the attention of the House to his rather remarkable answer. He said:
It will not be the first case, or the last, I suspect, when the literal interpretation of the Treaty of Rome will not be followed."—[Official Report, 22nd December 1976; Vol. 92, c. 667.]
That appears to be an admission by the Government, or at least by the Foreign Office, that the proposals contemplated are not in accordance with the Treaty of Rome, because they do not provide for a uniform procedure. We seem to have reached the curious position in which the Foreign Office asks us to adopt direct elections because of a Treaty obligation, although they then admit that the proposals are not in accordance with the Treaty. It is, of course, said that we must not be too legalistic, but this does not seem to be a very satisfactory situation. Even if we are not legalistic, let us at any rate be legal.
So the truth is that under the Treaty there is no obligation on the member States to adopt direct elections by any specific date. They are perfectly free to do what they think right on general political grounds and in their countries' interests. If there were an obligation to adopt elections by a particular date, it would be remarkable that we have already carried on for 18 years since the Treaty of Rome without the adoption of direct elections. If it is legal to do without them for 18 years, it is legal for 28 years, 58 years or even longer.
The second relevant fact that I wish to argue is that, whatever is in the Treaty of Rome, the referendum, the result of which I hope we all accept, gave no authority from the electorate for direct elections, still less to adherence to any federal system or unitary State. Indeed, the whole tenor of the Government's referendum manifesto was precisely the opposite. I am sure that that is something to which the Manifesto Group will attach great importance.
In the manifesto—I mean not the "Yes" pamphlet which was distributed throughout the country, which was no doubt partisan, but the official Government manifesto which was adorned not merely by the signature but by the photograph of the then Prime Minister—there was no mention of direct elections. If the Government believed that there was a commitment to proceed to direct elections, why did they not mention that in their official manifesto?
In fact, they said something very different. When referring to the Community the Government said:
our continued membership will depend on the continuing assent of Parliament".
If that is so, it follows even more clearly that involvement in a more closely-knit and more federal system must even more so depend. The same manifesto then stated categorically:
The Minister representing Britain can veto any proposal for a new law or a new tax if he considers it to be against British interests.
Article 138 is subject to this veto because it states that the Council has to be unanimous. The manifesto concludes:
All the nine countries also agree that any changes or additions to the Market Treaties must be acceptable to their own Governments and Parliaments.
If my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr.Stewart) were in the Chamber, I should draw his attention to those words. In fact, those are the words and the pledges on which the country voted. Clearly there is no mandate for any sort of direct elections or any further step towards a federal State. To pretend that there is such a mandate would seem to me just another deception in this long story of attempts to mislead the public.
To be fair to the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir P.Kirk), he admitted after the referendum—this was what he told the assembly at Strasbourg—that the result was not a vote for any sort of federal system. The then Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office—the present Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection—is recorded by Hansard as nodding assent when I asked him on 3rd December 1975 whether he agreed with the hon. Member for Saffron Walden that that was the position. Therefore, we have it on the authority of my right hon. Friend and of the hon. Member for Saffron Walden that the referendum was not a mandate for proceeding from the present Common Market to a federal system.
Some hon. Members—the hon. Member for Harrow, East did this a little earlier—may argue that direct elections are not a step towards federation. I am glad to see the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) nodding his head. It is argued by some that direct elections have nothing to do with that. If that is the view of hon. Members, I refer them to "Facts" one of the expensively-produced and freely-circulated publications which are published monthly by the European Movement. I suppose that in some sense it can be claimed to be authentic. This publication is dated July-August 1976. In especially black type it states:
In two years' time, member countries of the Community will elect their first European Parliament. This historic decision represents the first real step towards the creation of the United States of Europe.
That is the view of the European Movement. Some people in this country may agree with that and may favour such a development, but it was precisely this proposal that caused Hugh Gaitskell to say in his memorable speech of 1962 that, whether it was right or wrong, it was not a decision to be taken lightly after many centuries of British independence. It is not to be taken lightly, certainly not after three hours' debate in the House tonight.
But whatever else we may believe, it is perfectly clear that there is no mandate from the British electorate for any further developments of this sort. Unless and until there is, I hope that such proposals will be firmly rejected by the House.
Like many others, I very much welcome the initiative of my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) in bringing forward his motion, but I find it extraordinary that it should have been necessary. That it is necessary is due entirely to the dilatory conduct of the Government in not having produced their own Bill long since.
The right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) became very involved with all the old Common Market arguments that I had hoped we had done with by now. He questioned whether we have treaty obligations to do this, that or the other. One thing is quite certain—namely, that the Government have an obligation as a result of repeated ministerial statements to the House to bring forward a Bill and to do so without any further delay. Therefore we are not, or should not be, discussing the principle.
To do so is to rehash all the old arguments. Nor are we discussing the date. We know the date. We are committed already to the summer of 1978. We should be discussing the various methods by which the end is to be brought about.
Quite apart from the arguments in principle, I am told by my hon. Friends who serve in the European Parliament that in practice it is becoming quite impossible to cope with the strain due to the immense work load and constant travelling which membership of both Parliaments involves.
I come, then, to how we are to organise the elections and on what system of voting. It seems to me that 81 single-Member British seats in Europe would have to be very large constituencies with probably about 500,000 electors in each. They would be much too large to retain much of the personal relationship between a Member and his constituents which we in this House value. However, that is not really necessary, because the personal problems which are brought to us at our surgeries and in our mail of housing, pensions, social security, unemployment and so on are not those which arise nearly so often in the context of the European Parliament.
Moreover, the boundaries of 81 individual constituencies in Britain, quite apart from being extremely difficult and time-taking to draw, would be artificial and would not correspond to any existing political organisation or, indeed, to local newspaper, radio or television coverage in a given area.
This means that there is a great deal to be said for taking the existing regions as the representational basis—presumably the eight English regions, plus Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, organised as multi-Member constituencies. That would be the same basis as that used already for the GLC, as that used for Northern Ireland in the days of the Assembly there, and as that which the Government now propose to use for the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies.
I am suggesting that it should be on a regional basis, and a multi-constituency basis within the regions.
The point which I am leading to is the voting system. We could, of course, retain the present first-past-the-post system for Europe as we now have in Britain. But all the other eight countries, including France, which does not have a PR system for its national elections, will elect their European Members by proportional representation. We do not have to do the same, of course, but we shall almost certainly conform, if not in the first elections, certainly in the second and subsequent elections, to that sort of system.
Moreover, the results of the first-past-the-post system for Europe would probably be grotesque, as the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) pointed out. On that system, for instance, the Labour Party might not get a single seat in the South of England and the Conservative Party might scarcely get a single seat in the North of England. If the European elections were held at a different time from our national elections, which is highly probable, we could get a situation in which a British Government, unpopular in mid-term, as most Governments are, might have very few representatives of its party in the European Parliament.
The normal political swings would be magnified by low polls in very large constituencies and might well result in either of the main parties securing a large majority of seats in the European Parliament for a minority of votes in Britain. The Liberal Party, whose vote is evenly spread across the country, on an October 1974 voting pattern, would not have a single seat in the European Parliament, although its vote in Britain on that voting pattern would exceed the total populations of either Denmark, Southern Ireland or Luxembourg, which would all have seats in the European Parliament.
On the other hand, a regional party like the Scottish National Party, which I see is not represented in the House today, could obtain all eight of the Scottish seats in Europe although its vote in Scotland might only be about 35 per cent. of the electorate. In Northern Ireland the situation would be very serious. The Catholic minority would be unlikely to get any of the Ulster seats although the Catholics comprise almost 40 per cent. of the population of Northern Ireland.
The supporters of our present system of voting, of whom I am not one, rest their case on the argument that it produces effective single-party government. As one hon. Member has pointed out, however, that proposition, quite apart from being of very doubtful validity in itself nowadays, has no relevance whatever to the European elections because there we are not voting for a Government anyway. We are voting for a fair representation of all the main political parties in the Community, and the one outcome which we do not get from our present system of voting is a fair result. The outcome is very much the reverse. Even its strongest supporters would not seriously argue that our present voting system is fair.
Last summer, the Select Committee undertook to research into the electoral systems of, say Germany or Finland and heard no expert evidence. The Select Committee simply voted for the Westminster system on the grounds, as I understand it, that there was insufficient time available to agree about an alternative and that the present system was understood by the electorate and was easier for constituency organisations to operate. I do not regard any of those reasons as overriding or even as necessarily accurate.
I believe that the present system might produce a most unfortunate, indeed, bizarre, result. To take Scotland again as an example, the Select Committee recommended eight European seats for Scotland, which on the October 1974 voting figures would have produced six Labour seats and two SNP seats. The Scottish Conservatives, although securing 25 per cent. of the votes in Scotland, would have been unrepresented in the European Parliament. The Labour Party would have got three-quarters of the European seats for about one-third of the votes in Scotland
However, before the Government think what a good system that must be, let me point out to them that if only one-fifth of those Labour votes switched to the SNP, which is quite likely at present, every one of the eight European seats would go to the nationalists, and a minority party committed to separatism would speak exclusively for Scotland in Europe.
On the other hand, as the hon. Member for Inverness pointed out, if the SNP lost a little ground to the Tories, which again is very likely, the opposite result would follow and the SNP might fail to win a single seat in the European Parliament. So the outcome of elections to Europe on the first-past-the-post system is a complete lottery. It will throw up totally unrepresentative results depending almost entirely on the political climate in which the elections are held, on the date on which they are held and on very small voting swings either way. If, on the other hand, we decided on a PR system—almost any PR system would be preferable to first past the post—at least we should get a fair result and one which was in proportion to the votes cast.
It is not too late for the House of Commons to think again on this important issue, and I hope very much that it will do so.
I do not want to follow the points raised by the hon. Member for Surbiton (Sir N. Fisher), not because they are not important but because I think that it is vital that direct elections should take place under whatever system is used and Parliament should then settle the electoral system for itself for the future.
I must quarrel with the somewhat disingenuous way in which some of my hon. Friends have tried to pretend that the issue of direct elections will have been sprung upon them at the last minute if a Bill comes before the House in the next few weeks, as I hope it will. Direct elections have been on the agenda of Europe since the beginning of the European idea and the development of the European movement.
I do not intend to quote, but one could look back to the Treaty of Paris in 1952 and the Treaty of Rome, which has already been mentioned and quoted. Also, decisions were taken on this matter in 1960, 1961, 1967, 1969 and 1974—all before the referendum. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) made the point for me when he quoted High Gaitskell in 1962. Mr. Gaitskell realised how important an issue this was and that the debate would go on in Europe and in Britain for many years. When this debate ends tonight, it will not be the end of three hours' discussion but will be the end of three decades' discussion on direct elections.
I do not know. I did not draw up the manifesto. But in the many meetings which I held during the referendum campaign the people who attended were in no doubt whatever that the issue of direct elections was one of the implications of the referendum. It is disingenuous of the opponents of the EEC to suggest that this matter was not raised repeatedly during the referendum campaign. If the opponents did not raise the issues of direct elections and sovereignty during that campaign, they did not do their job properly.
Of course we raised it, but can the hon. Member explain why there was no reference to direct elections in the Government's document? If this is such an important issue, why was it left out?
As I have said already, I am not in a position to tell the House that. Perhaps when he replies the Minister will answer that question. But the question is irrelevant. The issue of direct elections was raised repeatedly in the referendum campaign. If any hon. Members suggest that when the British people voted overwhelmingly in favour of the EEC they were voting for standstill, the status quo and an organisation that was frozen in aspic, they have a very odd idea of their constituents' political thinking.
It appears that some hon. Members who oppose this measure seem to want the European Council of Ministers to sit down and draw up in detail an elaborate system of federal government which we could then spend two or three sessions debating in this House. But that is not the way we do things in Britain, and neither is it the way they do things in the Common Market. It is a gradual process of development, and always has been.
It is for Ministers to answer for the Government and it for me to answer for myself. I shall come to the issue of federalism later.
One of the most important aspects of direct elections is that of democratic control, which is not possible at present. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart), with all his experience, looked at the present situation, and I want to look very briefly at the situation facing an elected Member to the European Parliament. He would be spared the enormous case load of constituency work and the long hours spent in this Chamber. That is why he could devote himself full-time to representations on behalf of his constituents on the many matters which can only be decided, or, at least, must be discussed, at European level—macro-economic policy, questions of human rights and the opportunity to control the multinationals, to mention just a few.
My hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) asked to whom elected Members would be responsible. That seems a very strange question for any Member of Parliament to ask. These directly-elected Members will be responsible to their constituents, just as every Member of this House is responsible to the constituents who elected him. Also, our directly-elected European Members will be responsible to the nation as a whole, and to the party organisation which selected them to stand and which helped with their election.
In terms of a mandate, there will be no responsibility to this Parliament at all. No directly-elected Member will have any responsibility to this place. [AN HON. MEMBER: "What an admission."] It is not an admission, it is a statement of fact. It would be ludicrous to suppose that any party would not take steps to ensure intense consultation and co-ordination between its Members in the European Parliament and its Members in this House. [Interruption.] I heard laughter from some of my hon. Friends below the Gangway. I sympathise because I notice the extent of the interest taken by this side of the House in our delegates to the European Parliament, and I agree that the actual consultation and coordination has not been considerable. However, the Labour Party would want to arrange things so that Members could take advantage of such consultation.
Another important objective of European direct elections is that these will mean that there will be greater control over the activities of the Commission and ultimately the Council of Ministers. Many hon. Members who opposed our entry into the EEC complained repeatedly over the years that there was no democratic control over the Commission. They complained about these bureaucrats—although the bureaucracy in Europe is very tiny compared with our own—and said that there was no way of controlling them. We are now finally getting to grips with the problem of democratic control, and this will spare many of my hon. Friends from long weary hours in this Chamber and "scorched earth" tactics late at night when they are trying to control European legislation. That burden will be taken from them by directly-elected Members who will have the time to deal with it.
My hon. Friend has made an admission that after direct elections control of European legislation will not rest with Members of this House. That means that the Community will be a federal State, and he must be a federalist.
My hon. Friend keeps trying to push me into telling the House that I am a federalist. I am quite happy to say it. He and other hon. Members shout that word across the Chamber as if it is a taboo word, like "racist" or "parliamentary leper". It is a simple term which describes some—but not all—of my political views. I am happy to admit to it. Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham, I believe that direct elections will be another step in the process of Europeanisation and will lead ultimately to the United States of Europe. I have no hesitation in stating that. To me there seem to be reasons for advocating that kind of federal unity which are neglected.
I hope that when we come to direct elections and we inevitably go over the same ground there will be an opportunity to discuss at greater length why those of us who favour that kind of movement do so. My right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham mentioned the need to end once and for all the devastating wars into which this Continent has plunged itself. There is the need to unite and rid ourselves of the narrow nationalism which is so characteristic of the people who oppose the Common Market. There is also the need to take decisions at the European level on economics, where there is an increasing need for such decisions to be taken.
Let me conclude with two questions to my hon. Friend the Minister. I have spoken not in order to bare my breast and come clean and say that I am a federalist—my hon. Friends know that anyway. My purpose in speaking has been to press the Government, as the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) sought to do, to reveal their intentions. Are they honourable intentions? In the Government's estimate, how long will it take to get the Bill through Parliament? I know that it would be easy for my hon. Friend to say that this is a matter for the Leader of the House. I ask him not to shelter behind such a parliamentary subterfuge. He is far too good a parliamentarian to do such a thing. Let him give us his estimate. After all, he will be responsible for the Bill.
Will my hon. Friend give a pledge that for him and the Government the direct elections Bill, which is as important constitutionally as the devolution Bill, will get as much parliamentary muscle from the Government as the devolution Bill?
We have been urged to be brief and, therefore, I shall make only one point. All along and for years the hon. Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar) has admitted being a federalist, and we respect him for doing so. I regret so much, however, that others in favour of direct elections have shied away from that phrase. We know perfectly well that most, if not all, of them believe in some kind of United States of Europe, even a supranational institution with powers that prevail over the subordinate national institutions. In plain words, they would like a European Parliament to take over the powers of this House. As the hon. Member for Belper was good enough to recognise, it is only when that is done that, in their view, they will have sufficient power over the European Commission and its bureaucracy.
Of course, the transfer of power cannot take place until the European Parliament itself is democratically respected, hence their plea now for direct elections. But they run away from the question of what precise powers they would wish the European Parliament to have. I have heard certain postprandial indiscretions on their part that catalogue a list of functions to be removed from this House that would make this House but a puny waif of its present self. We know that the federalists believe that progress towards a United States of Europe is along a series of ratchets. A directly-elected European Parliament is one such ratchet. Once over it, there is no going back. We would have to press on towards the transfer of power from the national Parliaments to the supranational version.
If this House in due course concedes that there should be a substantial transfer of power from it to Strasbourg, that Assembly should be directly elected. I hope we all agree about that. But there is no certainty that this House, with the democratic Assemblies of the other Eight, would in due course concede this transfer of power and functions. I therefore do not understand the necessity for all the paraphernalia and the expenditure of a European general election if there is not to be such a transfer of power and function.
I think my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) said that we were putting the proverbial cart before the horse. The first question that the European Council, as it is now called, must answer is, what do we want a European Parliament to do? What functions will it perform and what powers should it have? If the answer is that it should be no more than it is at present, there seems to be no case for direct elections. If the answer is that there should be simply a modicum of transfer from this and the other democratic Assemblies, equally there might be no case for direct elections.
Only if we want to see a substantial transfer of power and functions from Westminster to Strasbourg is there an argument for direct elections. As we have yet to agree to that transfer, it seems premature for us now to proceed with direct elections. I hope, therefore, that all who are not federalists will see the argument in that light.
The hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) has pointed out that the process of direct elections is inevitably and inexorably a movement towards the federal system. My hon. Friend the Member for Belper (Mr. MacFarquhar), whose straightforwardness I praise, made the point exactly in his speech. Hon. Members forget that we are subject to a legislature outside this House. The European Communities Act lays it down very clearly. That Executive takes advice and consults, but it does not consult this House; it consults the European Assembly.
The phrase "Parliament and people" has now gone into the political folklore of this country since the phrase was used by the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) some time ago. I think that everybody in this House must recognise that Parliament and people are not bound by the Foreign Secretary's agreement to the September instrument. That instrument makes that quite clear when it states:
the provisions annexed to this Decision which it recommends to the Member States for adoption in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements".
This House has not ratified that document covering the principle of direct
elections. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) pointed out, it is arguable whether there is an obligation under the Treaty of Rome anyway.
It is now becoming clear that either one takes the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Belper and the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir P. Kirk), and maybe of others, that we believe in a federal State, in giving effective legislative powers either to the Assembly or to the Council of Ministers and the Commission, and in becoming part of a larger federal State, or one does not. The problem is that many hon. Gentlemen on the Opposition Benches do not make clear which side of the fence they are on. Direct elections make sense only if one believes in a federal State.
Perhaps I may direct the attention of the House to the statement by the right hon. Member for Sidcup, as contained in The Times of 30th April 1975. He is reported as follows:
The first myth was that Community membership put the Queen at risk, he said in Chelsea. 'I say now that that suggestion is nonsense, total nonsense, and dangerous nonsense.'
We must look at that statement, because clearly it puts the Queen at risk, not in a personal physical sense but in the sense of the Queen in Parliament. That is the constitutional significance of direct elections.
We are bound under an obligation under Section 2 of the European Communities Act. We are bound to the Treaty. I shall read part of Section 2, because many hon. Members may not be aware of what it says:
All such rights, powers, liabilities, obligations and restrictions from time to time created or arising by or under the Treaties, and all such remedies and procedures from time to time provided for by or under the Treaties, as in accordance with the Treaties are without further enactment to be given legal effect or used in the United Kingdom shall be recognised and available in law, and he enforced, allowed and followed accordingly".
That is the obligation to accept inside this country direct legislation from outside this country. That is part of the European Communities Act, and it is part of what going into the Community means.
Legislation concocted elsewhere has to have a consultative procedure. The history of the House was relate to its consultative powers joined to its powers of Supply and taxation. These powers have already been conceded by the system of direct resources to the EEC. We do not vote money out of the Consolidated Fund to the European Community. Direct taxation goes straight to Europe and the House does not control that. That is what happens now. Consultation before legislation is a historic function of the House, but it has virtually gone. We have consultation in Europe through an indirectly-appointed Assembly. That is where the official consultation takes place.
Of course we have our late night debates here, such as the one later tonight, for which we do not even have the necessary documents. The Minister will listen to our remarks on the taxation of road vehicles—a very important issue—but we are not properly consulted. If we want consultation, that should be the channel. That is how parliamentary democracy could really work. But if the Conservatives have their way and the electorate directly vote for people who will be consulted about legislation that will come from the EEC into this country—I mean consultation and not power—that consultation will short-circuit the House and the Queen in Parliament. The result of that consultation will be imposed on the Crown itself.
The Crown and the Queen's Government is a vacuum, filled by the majority party in the House. That would not be so in the case of the European Parliament, because it is not involved with the machinery of the Crown and its legislation is directly applicable to all British citizens and to British legal bodies, whatever the House may say or think. We found that in the matter of skimmed milk. We were able to do nothing about that.
The right hon. Member for Sidcup said at the time of the referendum that the position of the Queen was not at risk and that any such suggestion was
nonsense, total nonsense, and dangerous nonsense.
He was wrong. The position of the House and the Queen in Parliament will not be merely put at risk but will be destroyed by direct elections, because the system of consultation that took place here before 1640 will leave the House
and go to institutions across the Channel. Constitutionally, that cannot be gainsaid.
We must also consider whether the situation is worth that. I return to the remarks of the right hon. Member for Sidcup. I told him that I would be making these points today, and I hoped that as a great believer in direct elections he would be here today. Many hon. Members have said that direction elections would be worth all this to avoid the terrible risks of war. I do not decry that view. It is an honourable position, but it is trying to stop the Second World War which has already happened. The generation that fought and defended our freedom in that war, including the right hon. Member for Sidcup, were rightly obsessed with stopping the same thing happening again. But they ought not to judge the past and mix it up with the future.
The danger of a third world war is not between the old countries of Europe but between the Third World and the developed world, between the so-called rich and inward-looking blocs, of which the EEC is one, and the countries which, rightly or wrongly, are crying out for justice. That is where the dangers lie and where the problems will be. That is where the House and the country could play a positive, independent and proper rôle. If it is a matter of the Commonwealth against the Common Market, the House has already chosen the Commonwealth. The nations of the Commonwealth contain all sorts and conditions of men.
We see the problem that now exists in Rhodesia, and it may occur later in other parts of the world. There are elements within the Commonwealth that combine and cut across political views and aspirations, measures of wealth and levels of education. There is a band through the world of which the House and the country should be proud. If the country is to help to prevent a third world war, it will be through those institutions. We will not be able to help if the country is kept bound and captive inside a European federation.
I have only a few minutes in which to speak, so I hope the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) will forgive me if I do not comment on the points that he made. He would not expect me to agree with them.
The Government owe it to the House to come clean one way or the other. I think all hon. Members would agree with that need, whether they agree with direct elections or not. I want the Minister of State to answer one question. Do the Government intend to honour their obligations as spelt out by the Prime Minister and the Foreign Secretary, and, if so, how? Do the Government intend to honour the undertakings that have been given in frequent speeches to colleagues in Europe? It does not matter whether they were wise undertakings or not, although I think that they were wise.
There is increasing scepticism in the House and in Europe about whether the Government will honour those obligations. How will they get the legislation through the House in time? When will the legislation be produced? We have been told how tight the parliamentary timetable is and we do not yet see any sign of the Bill. In the final resort, the House has the right to decide whether direct elections should take place. It is intolerable that the House should be denied the right to express that view because the Government are letting the matter go by default and not presenting the Bill.
Both sides of the House want to know from the Government, fairly and squarely, whether they are going to come forward with the Bill. The Government should say whether they intend to break their word—for reasons that would be pleasing to some hon. Members—or whether they will go forward with the legislation to which they are committed, and which the overwhelming majority of hon. Members wish to have and will be prepared to support. When will the Government do this? It is not enough for them to say that they will honour their obligations. They must give evidence. We are not fools and we know the parliamentary timetable. The Scotland and Wales Bill is going through the House, so there is a shortage of time, and, unless this legislation appears soon, we shall know that the Government do not intend to honour their obligations.
I hope that the Minister of State will tell us tonight that the Government will publish the Bill within the next two or three weeks, and that time will be given for it to go through the House. If the Minister does that he will be doing both the House and the country a good turn. It will be intolerable if we go away tonight without having had a clear and definite answer to that question, and I ask the House to insist upon it.
The House owes a debt of gratitude to my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) for raising this matter. I applaud him for doing so and I applaud the terms of the motion.
My hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) has rightly put the matter with extreme urgency and emphasis. The House, and particularly this side, has great anxiety about the Government's intentions. They may be circumscribed by the problem of finding time in the House, but there may be more dubious reasons, and I think that the Minister of State ought not to miss this opportunity of relieving the anxiety and ensuring that it does not subsist.
What I have to say will pick up on large parts of what has been an interesting debate. Some parts were rather like listening again to an old 78 rpm record, but we have become accustomed to that in our discussions of Community affairs.
The internal reasons for urgency in this matter were fully dealt with by many hon. Members, although perhaps some did so inadvertently. One of the reasons for this urgency is the complexity of the arrangements which we shall need to work out before holding the elections. The hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis) considered this difficulty and reached the curious conclusion that the Government should break their word.
The hon. Gentleman is incorrect. There is still enough time to undertake this operation, but only if the Government show the necessary degree of resolution, bearing in mind that their only alternative is to break their word.
There can be little doubt that if we are to work out the appropriate procedures for the elections to be held in May or June next year we have a great deal of work ahead. We have much more to do than have other countries. For example, France will vote on the basis of a single constituency for the whole country. Just think of the difference that involves in preparatory arrangements. The Government have to rescue their credibility, and they must do so at once.
There are also external reasons for urgency. The Government's handling of European activities in the past three years has not created great confidence among the other member States. If that were reinforced by a growing suspicion that the Government mean to welsh on their undertakings on direct elections it would have the most damaging effect on our interests.
There are so many issues of prime importance before the Community in which our interests are deeply involved. I need not recite them all; hon. Members will be able to think of so many. They include the important problem of fisheries; the impact of food prices on our agriculutral industry; the difficulties of our Minister of Agriculture, who has been arraigned by the Commission for breaching the provisions of the Community; and the problems of our pig producers who are in total disarray. There is also the question of developing, for the future, the regional and social funds, and political co-operation in areas of primary interest, including Rhodesia, Cyprus and the Middle East. These are all matters which we have a fundamental interest in seeing settled within the framework of the Community. If we created the belief that we are going to abandon our undertakings it would be intensely damaging for us in these and other areas.
What the right hon Gentleman has just said is important, but let him suppose that there were 81 elected Members from the United Kingdom who were discussing all these matters. Where does he think that the discussions should take place, and where should the interested parties and pressure groups go to make their representations?
I shall come to that question. It has been of particular interest to me, and I shall not finish my speech before saying a word or two about it.
I wish first to deal with the difficult problem of the relationship between the European Parliament and the Westminster, or any other national, Parliament. No hon. Member would charge me with anything but a determined defence of the interests of Parliament over the Executive, whether that Executive is here or in the Council of Ministers. In the past three years, I have shown clearly my determination to ensure that Parliament has the greatest opportunity to voice its views on these matters, and it would not be in character for me to abandon that position. However, I must stress that the value of an efficient European Parliament to our activity is enormous. The House finds it virtually impossible to cope adequately with both the enormous stream of domestic material and the European legislative process. The European Parliament has complementary advantages to us. It would greatly facilitate our ability to exercise the sort of influence which we, as a Parliament, ought to exercise on our Executive, and to secure the right degree of impact on European legislation.
Members of the European Parliament have the opportunity, which we do not have, of speaking to those who formulate directives within the Community while the drafts are being formulated. We do not have that opportunity even in relation to our domestic legislation, but the European Parliament maintains a constant dialogue with the Commission and, through its committees, tries to improve the legislation and to bring into view national questions and ensure that draft directives and regulations take as much account as possible of the views of member States, as represented by the delegations. That Parliament has a capability which we neither can, nor should, have.
Another important factor is that the European Parliament can maintain that dialogue throughout the emergence and development of the legislative processes in the Community. Many hon. Members know how difficult it has been to keep up to date with the evolution of those processes. Members of the European Parliament can exercise pressure on individual Ministers in the Council and through the Secretariat.
The advantages of the European Parliament are of great value to us co-operatively. It is a wild misunderstanding to believe that the European Parliament has competitive functions. On the contrary, it has complementary functions which can be made to work admirably. If hon. Members have it fixed in their minds that they will not tolerate such an arrangement, it cannot be made to work, but if they take my view, that this is an instrument which, if used properly, could ensure that the legislative system of the Community is kept under surveillance, the influence of the national parliaments within that organisation will be of the greatest value.
I cannot. I have refused many interventions and I am sure that I am about to deal with a matter which will interest my hon. Friend—increased powers and federalism.
Nobody could seek to identify me as a committed federalist. That is not my view. The Community will develop in all aspects with which nation States gradually find themselves unable to cope. Whether that leads to some form of communal government I do not know, but if it does, it will be long after I am gone. Over the years matters will arise which exceed the capability of individual nations effectively to control. For example, our shipbuilding industry faces problems. It would be folly to imagine that we could organise effective safeguards for that industry on a national basis. We must look for international solutions.
To those who complain that we are surreptitiously seeking to pass off to some external organisation the rights that we should exercise, I say that that is not so. What will happen is that certain matters will gradually exceed our capability, and we shall find that there is a body that is capable of dealing with those matters. The increased powers issue is a red herring. The powers of the European Parliament are circumscribed by the Treaties and some slender amendments which have been passed in the last couple of years concerning budgetary restraints. There is little probability that these powers will be exceeded in the foreseeable future. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) is constantly referring to a phrase in the Tindemans Report, but he must remember that that phrase is a personal one and has been universally set aside by the Governments of member States.
The House would have to agree to any extension of powers. Such an increase in powers in the legislative and executive sense would require more drastic action in other countries. In Denmark, for instance, it would require a change in the constitution, and similar action would be required in France. Both countries would have to introduce major internal Acts. Not one of the French parties that is concerned with the future of the Community would subscribe to direct elections if the executive and legislative powers of the European Parliament were to be extended.
The powers of the European Parliament are those of influence. They will be exercised more effectively when Members are elected, and when the Community embarks on further external action, not least on political co-operation. It is important that we should have in the European Parliament people who are representative of constituencies in this country and who take an active part in our affairs. By virtue of the evolution of external foreign policy the Community will have a formidable rôle to play.
The House is grate-to the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) for introducing the motion, but his welcome for my appearance on the Front Bench was less than enthusiastic. I was a member of the Select Committee for a short time and I warn the hon. Member that when the legislation appears he will have to get used to my more frequent appearances. It is, therefore, not inappropriate that neither the Home Secretary nor the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office is here to answer this Motion.
I shall set the framework in which the debate has proceeded, and I should proceed by making clear the Government's commitment. On 20th September 1976 we said that we would use our "best endeavours" to hold the first elections in May or June 1978. Hon. Members have said that there have been other unspecified assurances, but that was the Government's commitment. The second commitment was contained in the Queen's Speech. It was to introduce legislation this Session. Since the Chamber will be more crowded at the end of the debate than it was at the beginning, I shall tell the House that we have no intention of abandoning that commitment to introduce legislation this Session.
No one can deny the importance of the issue or of the debate. It is a constitutional matter, and all legislation of that nature is bound to be regarded seriously. I was about to say that it is an issue which arouses deep passions, but it is unnecessary to say that of a European debate. If we lacked evidence of that today, we can certainly see the deep passion in the Early-Day Motions and in the wide differences of opinion. It is not necessarily a question of being pro-or anti-Market. One can be pro-Market without being in favour of direct elections, and one can be anti-Market without being against direct elections. When we are proposing to elect people for a five-year period, we must ensure that the arrangements are as good as possible.
My hon. Friend will be interested to know that one or two hon. Members who have signed my Early-Day Motion did so with the conviction that the issues involved were so important that there was not time to have direct elections by the stated date. They made that clear and said that that was the reason for signing the motion. My hon. Friend is right.
I am glad to have my point confirmed.
The importance of the issue has been highlighted by some of today's contributions. Some hon. Members have asserted that it is comparatively simple for the Government to rush forward with a Bill. One would have thought that there would be general agreement about the measure, but that is not so. We have heard speeches by the hon. Members for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) and for Surbiton (Sir N. Fisher). They challenged three of the fundamental recommendations of the Select Committee's Second Report. They denied the first-past-the-post principle by disagreeing with the econstituency basis which was recommended by the Select Committee. Therefore, I should like to review the history of the matter and of the Government's commitment.
As I have said, on 20th September 1976 my right hon. Friend signed a decision of the Council, which dealt with the—
The hon. Gentleman may know all that, but I intend to put on record what the Government say on this issue, despite what he says. The point I am making is that the United Kingdom Government, like other Governments of other member States, attach very considerable importance to the "best endeavours" clause which they signed upon that occasion. However, it is equally right to point out to hon. Members, who have sought to suggest it—and some have done—that there is no binding commitment on any of them. The commitment is to use best endeavours.
Until a uniform electoral procedure enters into operation, the electoral procedure is governed by the national provisions of each member State. In view of the debate today, I hardly need stress the complexity of this matter. I stress that it is less than five months since that decision was signed on behalf of the Government. I do not believe that in a major constitutional issue it is very wrongful of the Government, or that it need excite considerable criticism, that they have thought it right to think carefully about the nature and the form of the legislation that they propose to introduce, on this occasion, because it is important.
What I have found singularly surprising is that the Opposition—here I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis), who said that the Opposition have never raised this matter; in fact, the Opposition were raising it within two and a half months of the instrument being signed—
I do not intend to give way. I must get on to making some of the points that I want to make on behalf of the Government. At one and the same time, I am being invited to deal with the Bill and am then effectively being prevented from so doing.
However, I am coming to the points about the Select Committee, which, as has been said, started work in May. It produced its First Report, which was agreed to on 15th June, and it was debated on 12th July. As hon. Members have said, the Second Report, which deals with a number of very complex measures, such as the allocation of seats, the electoral system and the constitution of the constituencies, was agreed to on 3rd August but has not been debated.
Those are some of the matters that have excited controversy, not only between those of pro-Market and anti-Market persuasions but between even Opposition Members who support the legislation being brought forward. There are profound disagreements about that. If there is room for such disagreements between those who support it, that only heightens the importance of the Government thinking carefully about the legislation before it is introduced.
What the Select Committee did, at the end of its Second Report, was to recommend that a short Bill be introduced at the outset of the Session. From the start it was quite clear that the Select Committee was not at the end of its labours and that there were many things of great importance that needed to be dealt with by a third report. That is why the Third and final Report was published towards the end of November, and it was quite clear even on publication of the Second Report that what the Third Report would recommend would require legislation.
I am sure that the Minister is not trying to blame the Select Committee for any delay. The delay has been on the part of the Government. I should like to ask one question. The Second Report recommended 81 Members for representation of the United Kingdom. Why cannot the Government say what those 81 areas are in the United Kingdom? That is all that is being asked. One can argue about proportional representation and so on afterwards, but until we have the 81 Euro-constituencies no political party or Government can do anything.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman intervened, because I was about to make precisely two of the points that he made in his intervention. First, it was not part of my remit to blame the Select Committee, which worked on a very difficult subject with the utmost expedition. However, the suggestions in its Third Report, some of which extended the franchise, for example, to people living abroad, were matters of great controversy. I do not in the least say that the Select Committee was to be criticised for taking so much time. The inherent nature of the subject demands careful consideration before legislation is brought forward.
It is said that the only issue to be considered is that of the 81 seats, yet that is not what has been suggested today. Many other issues have been advised as being essential parts of this legislation. When we have a major constitutional Bill on the Floor of the House at present, what is being proposed is that there would be not one more major constiutional Bill on the Floor of the House but two such Bills, one coming very quickly and another later. I do not believe that that would have been possible in this Parliament. That was why we chose to wait until the recommendations were complete and to enshrine them in one Bill.
No, I shall deal with the hon. Gentleman's point. [HON. MEMBERS: "What is the date?"] The point I wanted to make is that it does not breach any of the commitments that the present Government have given to the hon. Gentleman. [HON. MEMBERS: "What is the date?"] We have said that we shall use our best endeavours. As I have reiterated today, we intend to honour that commitment.
The right hon. Member or Knutsford (Mr. Davies) himself said that it was perfectly possible to meet the date if legislation were to be introduced. The hon. Member for Harrow, East seems to have suggested that it should have been introduced last week. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] The Bill will be introduced when the Government's contemplation of the contents and the nature of the Bill is completed. That is the way in which all Governments deal with such matters, and right hon. and hon. Members know that that is the usual point that is made on such occasions.
Therefore, this is the answer that I give to the House. We do not intend to go back on our major commitments, and we have not gone back on our major commitment to the House, of using best endeavours and introducing a Bill this Session. That is what we propose to do. It does no good to the House to underestimate the complexities of these matters and to minimise the difficulty of the argument and the necessary time that will be taken on this occasion. We believe that consideration on one occasion rather than on two occasions is to the advantage of the House in considering this matter.
That does not mean that anyone other than a very blinkered observer of the scene—[Interruption.] It is only two months since the Third Report from the Select Committee, which raised the point about significant extensions of the franchise for these elections alone, was received by the Government. It is right for the Select Committee as well as for the House that these matters should—