European Parliament (Direct Elections)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 25th March 1977.

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11.7 a.m.

Photo of Mr Peter Mills Mr Peter Mills , Devon West

I beg to move, That this House, bearing in mind the Government's repeated pledges to use its best endeavours to bring about direct elections to the European Parliament in May or June 1978, authorises the four Boundary Commissions to begin work forthwith. I am glad to have this opportunity to discuss these important matters especially since, in my 13 years in the House, this is the first time that I have been fortunate enough to win the Ballot. As the young lady clerk took my name I said "I don't suppose that I shall ever win". but I won on that same day.

I am presenting this motion to the House because of the urgency of the situation, the Government's failure to make up their mind on these matters, the growing need for some areas and counties to be represented in an elected European Parliament and, because we need to start to become good members of the European club and to play our part in a constructive way. Many other reasons could be given, but these were foremost in my mind.

I wish to make clear, and it will become apparent during the debate, that I am no expert on the details of this subject. However, I have a strong gut reaction that we should get on with the task. Many of us are fed up with the dithering of the Government. I hope that the House will realise that while I shall try to answer any interventions, I am no expert in this matter.

I submit that the motion allows a wide range of discussion today. Those who favour proportional representation can deploy their arguments, as can those who bitterly oppose the federal system— and those who are opposed to the Community and our entry can once again make their contribution. With respect to that latter category, I should have thought that the battle is over. Furthermore, the action announced by the Prime Minister in Wednesday's debate may also be debated, as well as the proposals to bring forward a White Paper with green edges. Certainly I should have thought that the Prime Minister's promises to the Liberal Party on PR are in order to be debated. All these matters can be discussed today.

I was amazed that the Prime Minister said recently that in these important and crucial matters, on which the country is looking for guidance, the Government will not make any recommendations. That is difficult to understand, and I hope that the Minister will clarify the position a little later.

As we review the scene in this area of activity, we realise that many feel that the essential co-operation within the Community is painfully slow. There is a sense that we have run out of steam and that the aim of unity has been obscured by selfish, national and political considerations. That is the view of many, and I tend to agree with it.

This country seems to put a spanner in the works every time its national interests are at odds with the interests of others within the Community. In the referendum we gave overwhelming support to the Community only to find that this Government are now back-pedalling as fast as they know how to prevent real progress. Are we too selfish to participate fully? I believe that, too, is the view of many people.

Since the Government have failed to make up their minds, we are bound to ask whether they are interested in going forward in these matters. The delay does not give much hope of progress. Our partners have met and made progress in the implementation of an agreed policy. Have we still no recommendations to make? Have the Government no advice to give to the House and to the people of this country? Surely the Government can make up their minds, and it would be sad if on 5th May, which is fairly soon, we are still dithering on these matters.

I remind the House that 5th May is European Day. European Week runs from 30th April to Sunday 8th May. It is a week when we dedicate ourselves to celebrate our heritage, the commitment to economic and social progress and the achievement of greater unity among the people of Europe. Will it be a celebration in which we may fully play our part, having made up our minds to go forward and to make progress on direct elections?

This dithering is yet another instance of the fact that this Government cannot govern. We have had other signs of this fact lately. The Government know what is right and have taken steps along the road to direct elections, but they fail at the last hurdle. I wonder why? Perhaps we shall learn today.

This motion should be supplemented by Government action. I realise that a Bill is required, but at least the four Boundary Commissioners should be enabled to get on with the preparatory work. Frankly, I appreciate that the motion possibly is not absolutely correct, but I have tried to take the initiative in these matters. I hope that after the motion has been passed by the House, it will galvanise the Government into action. Firm steps by the Government are required to be taken to implement the EEC agreement. Unless we do more, the blame will rest squarely on the Government's shoulders.

It is important to draw attention to the growing concern in the regions and in other areas of our country. People want an elected voice to be heard in the European Parliament. If I may turn to my own area, the people of Devon and Cornwall want an elected Member for each county. I mean no disrespect to my hon. Frends who have worked so hard in the nominated Parliament. I see my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset West (Mr. Spicer) in the Chamber, and I know that he and others have played their full part, but it is not like having a Member for Cornwall, a Member for Devon, and Members for other parts of the country.

We have great problems in our area and I passionately believe that the voice of Devon should be heard in the European Parliament, just as it is heard here. It should reflect the views of that area. We should be able to put our case, to question the Commission and the Council of Ministers, and to scrutinise legislation affecting that area. We certainly have problems in our area, and they have been brought up in the nominated Parliament. I cite for example that of fishing. Certainly on that matter the voice of Devon, Cornwall and other parts of the country most affected by it should be heard loud and clear. That argument also applies to agriculture, particularly on the topic of milk, and all the other areas of activity in the South-West where the specialist knowledge of elected Members should be brought to bear in the European Parliament.

Furthermore, there are all the problems of regional structures, and again that voice should be heard loud and clear. Looking to the future and the prospects flowing from the oil landings and the energy problems in the Community, we in the South-West want our voice to be heard.

I believe that there is an urgency in these matters and that only an elected Member can deal with them and give the full time required. I repeat that I mean no disrespect to those who have tried under difficult circumstances to represent our country at the European Parliament. They are often brought back to Westminster urgently for votes and debates, and this happened only recently when they had to leave debates on the important subject of agriculture. The voice of Devon and Cornwall and other parts of the country should remain to be heard in the European Parliament and to highlight our problems.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

The hon. Gentleman's voice in this House is always loud and clear representing the interests of Devon, and that is recognised. But is he saying that the interests of Devon and Cornwall should not be heard in the European Councils and represented in the EEC by our Minister of Agriculture? What powers does he envisage will back any voice of an elected representative from his area at a European Assembly, even though it is a loud voice?

Photo of Mr Peter Mills Mr Peter Mills , Devon West

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for pointing out that my voice is loud and clear. At the moment it is croaking a little. I believe that there is a place for both voices—a voice to be heard here in seeking to influence the Minister so that he is fully aware of the needs of our constituents, and a voice in the elected European Parliament to supplement and carry on that work. I see no clash of opinion whatsoever.

I believe that 410 full-time European Members of Parliament, each with a direct responsibility to constituents, will play a far more rigorous role in running the Community's affairs than is the case at present with nominated Members. It is a fact of life that elected Members will make all the difference, and I believe that most hon. Members will agree with that. The present system of nominated Members was introduced only as a stopgap, and we must move on as we seek to progress in these activities.

I turn to the question of power, and I know that the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) is concerned on that score. It is important to point out that powers will be exactly the same as they are now. The point is that there will be full-time representatives in the European Parliament vigorously opposing any line if they wish to do so. That is what is needed. We know that these powers cannot be extended without amendment of the Communities treaties, and over those each member State of the EEC retains a veto. The elected body would be extremely vigorous. Members of it would have to report back to their own enlarged constituencies and answer for what they had said and what they had not done.

I turn now to the question of being a good member of a European club. That is important. The general impression in Europe is that we are still reluctant to be good members of the Community. The Government may say that they are using their "best endeavours" and make other encouraging noises but the impression of reluctance remains. I am always rather amused by the phrase "best endeavours". When I was at school I used to plead that I was using my best endeavours because I was not very good. The masters rounded on me and said that that was not good enough. That is also true of the Government. There seems to be a spirit of reluctance.

On a recent visit by some of my hon. Friends and other hon. Members to Paris and Rome with the Select Committee, politicians said that they were concerned at the delay by the Government in respect of legislation for direct elections. Above all, they reminded us of the effect of a delay upon them. If one has freely entered into a community and agreed on a certain course, one should follow it and comply with that agreed course by trying to be good members of that club. Certainly, before the course is agreed one should argue and discuss, but once it is agreed— as it has been—one should get on with the task in the interests of all.

In agriculture in particular, our failure to be good Europeans does not help our bargaining power. If we are always being difficult and putting the spanner in the works, and if we are always saying what our interests are without considering others, we cannot hope to get the concessions and changes that we need.

I am passionately keen to change certain aspects of the Community and of the common agricultural policy in particular. But, we stand there without any bargaining powers because we have not been good Europeans. I hope that the Minister can give us an assurance that the Government will begin to try to become good European members. The patience of Britain's partners is not unlimited. "Partners" is sometimes a hollow word. Are we really partners? Have we forgotten the importance of being partners? Further delays could heighten the suspicions of other member States that we are not truly committed to the Community.

The green pound and the special subsidy on pigs are examples. What a fine example of being partners it is when we take unilaterial action in that way. That does not mean that we should not argue and fight our case, but we have clearly shown to the Community that we are not truly committed to the objectives of the Community.

My right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition recently said: It would be harmful and damaging to the national interest if our partners were ready to hold direct elections in 1978 and Britain alone held back because our Government had failed to bestir itself in time. How I agree with that. We, who were supposed to give leadership to Europe and have given it in the past, now fail, not only in the Community but in our whole foreign policy. We could lead in these matters but now we have failed.

My fourth main argument is the urgency of the situation. This was explained to the House far better than I can by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) in a recent debate. I have no hesitation in following up his arguments and those of my hon. Friends in that debate by putting them again. There is urgency. Time is running out. We need to get on with a Bill without delay, so that there is time for discussion and for the Boundary Commission to deal with the situation. If elections are to take place in May or June 1978 we need the publication of the Bill now. I hope that we shall hear from the Minister that the Bill is to be published.

The Government may be in difficulties over these matters. If they are, let them say so and be honest about it. Then at least we would know where we stand and our partners would know where we stand. They would have a clearer picture of our intentions. The Government are still relying on the old phrase "our best endeavours". We have had a White Paper, a Select Committee and now we are to have another White Paper. Are those the best endeavours of the Government? If they are, they are not good enough. We must move forward in some way. The situation is urgent.

My argument is backed up by Mr. Roy Hayward, the General Secretary of the Labour Party. He said: What is at stake is what is the best way forward for Britain. Let us discuss it openly together, and together let us make the decision. We cannot brush it under the carpet". Those are not Conservative words but the words of the Labour Party General Secretary.

If one looks at the country as a whole even the polls point in that direction. They show that people want to get on with the task. The future European Parliament will be a political experiment but people want it. They feel that we have gone into Europe, that we have taken the step and that the next step must be taken. In September 1973, 33 per cent. of the people of the United Kingdom were in favour of direct elections and 49 per cent. were against. In November 1976, 57 per cent. were for and 22 per cent. against. Almost all the other countries felt the same way. If one turns to what is happening in the Community one sees that real progress is being made in implementation. Each country is slowly overcoming its difficulties and problems. No one is suggesting that these are easy matters. There are real difficulties but the other countries are getting on with the task while we drag our feet.

Photo of Mr Hugh Dykes Mr Hugh Dykes , Harrow East

Does my hon. Friend also agree that all the member States are going ahead with their preparations and that they are all ahead of us with the exception of Belgium which has the particular problem of two linguistic communities?

Photo of Mr Peter Mills Mr Peter Mills , Devon West

That is correct, but even in Belgium I understand that legislation is coming early in 1977. The case has been proved. We need action. I hope that the motion will start the ball rolling towards legislation. Those with more experience than myself will fill in the gaps that I have left.

I have a gut reaction that people want to get on with the task. The Government stands condemned for dithering, for failing to govern, for failing to take the course that they have agreed. If they fail to take action and do not bring in legislation they will be condemned for misleading the people of this country and of the Community and it will be realised that they never really intend to go forward in these matters.

11.30 a.m.

Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Hammersmith Fulham

I agree with a great deal of what the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) has said, but I would take him up on his remarks on the green pound. He instanced the British Government's attitude to devaluation of the green pound as an example of our generally being bad Europeans. That argument cannot be sustained for a moment. We have all taken the view that the common agricultural policy in its present form is unsatisfactory and that this country is one of the chief sufferers. I certainly never advocated that we should go into Europe or stay there because of the CAP but rather despite it. We are all agreed that it should be substantially reformed.

At present, Britain gets one advantage from one facet of the CAP and I do not see why we should be denied it. We have to work in a framework with a policy which generally is not a good one and is not helpful to us. We cannot be asked in addition to throw away the one advantage that we get from it.

Therefore, the Prime Minister's stance recently that we should not be inflexible on this matter but that we could not consent to devaluation without a substantial quid pro quo elsewhere is entirely reasonable. There are plenty of examples of attitudes towards this and other matters taken by other members of the Nine which are much more nationalistic than that. I do not want to carry that point further— it is not our main topic today— but I do not think that the suggestion that Britain was a bad European because of the Government's attitude towards the green pound could be sustained.

Photo of Mr Peter Mills Mr Peter Mills , Devon West

The whole point surely is that no one is asking for a great devaluation of the green pound. What one is asking for, to show that we are good Europeans, is a move, a small devaluation. Then they would start to make changes themselves.

Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Hammersmith Fulham

I do not see that it is we who are in the position to have to make the first move, particularly when the Prime Minister has already said that this is a negotiable matter and that we are not absolutely rigid on it.

However, we are supposed to be talking about direct elections. The motion would authorise the four Boundary Commissions to begin work forthwith. With respect to the hon. Member, it could not of course do anything of the sort. I believe that a Resolution of the House of Commons would not be sufficient legal authority for the Commissions, so if the motion were carried, the Government need not be unduly alarmed.

However, I take it that the hon. Gentleman is seeking— here I am entirely with him— to tell the Government to get on with it. That is what we are discussing. Surely one must accept that at this stage opposition to direct elections is as futile as opposition to membership of the Community itself. Everybody knows, despite the attitudes of some people, that this country is in the European Community to stay, that we have to make the best use of that important fact. It is a fact which many of us— the great majority of the nation— believe can be of great advantage to this country.

However, we shall never reap those advantages if we are always going to play at trying to get out of the Community, which we know we do not really want to do. If we are in, we must accept the obligations of being in and there is no doubt that co-operating in achieving direct elections was one of the obligations of entry.

We were not obliged to agree to the first scheme for direct elections which was put up, but we certainly were under an obligation diligently to seek agreement for a scheme with our colleagues. An agreed scheme has been reached. All that we have to do is carry it out.

I hope that the Minister will be able to do today what he was not able to do on the last occasion that we debated this matter— that is, tell us more precisely how we stand in the race with the other nations. At one time, the Government were disputing that we were lagging behind. It would be gratifying to know where we are.

If we do not get elections, if we keep Europe waiting a long time, we shall have broken a pledge to this House, to the country and to our colleagues in the Nine. I do not believe that it can be said that if best endeavours were used, it would be impossible to get the elections, either on the due date or shortly after. It is to that that the Government must address their minds.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

My right hon. Friend mentioned a pledge. I understand that that is a pledge of the Government but not yet a pledge of this House.

Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Hammersmith Fulham

I was speaking of a pledge of the Government, given with the approval of a majority of this House, as my hon. Friend very well knows.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

Not on direct elections.

Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Hammersmith Fulham

Yes, the Government have pledged themselves. As a matter of fact, they did so as far back as 1949 in the Anglo-Italian

Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Hammersmith Fulham

Of course— I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. It was 1969. They could hardly have done so before the Community was founded. But it was done long before the present chapter opened.

One of the important reasons for getting on with direct elections is the profoundly unsatisfactory character of the dual mandate. All of us who have tried to bear that mandate— I hope that we have sweated away hard— know that it is not a satisfactory way of doing things. It means that the European Parliament can never take on any extra effort to move forward. Its members are too tied with unavoidable engagements in their own countries.

I know that part of the scheme is that even with direct elections, someone could be a Member of both Parliaments, but I should be extremely surprised if any electorate in this country would wants its Westminster Member to be a Member of the European Parliament as well. If anyone were up before a selection conference of any party for a candidature here and told it that he hoped to be a Member also of the European Parliament, his chances would be negligible— I think rightly. It may be a different matter altogether in a smaller country— Denmark takes a different view— but in this country I am sure that it would not work.

If we have a Parliament of directly-elected Members, able to give their full time, or nearly, to the job, the Parliament will inevitably be more influential. How long it will take before there are formal alterations in the powers of the Parliament is anyone's guess. That there will be an almost immediate increase in its influence is undoubted.

I repeat what I have said before, that it is an error to suppose that that increase in influence and power is at the expense of national Parliaments. It is at the expense of the other organs of the Community— the Council of Ministers and the Commission. That is a desirable development. Indeed, it is one that I think many in the Commission would welcome. They see their job as that of working with the representatives of the people. With the present members of the Commission, it is particularly desirable to step forward to an elected Parliament.

On the question how it should be elected in this country, I have never liked and do not like any of the varieties of proportional representation, although its disadvantages when electing a sovereign body such as this are much greater than when electing a consultative body, because the question of forming a Government from it does not arise.

Therefore, on the question whether elections to the European Parliament should be on the first-past-the-post system or on proportional representation, although my own strong preference would be for first past the post, I should not regard it as a matter on which to go to the stake. If it could be demonstrated— perhaps it can— that we can move to direct elections more quickly by the method of proportional representation, having to delineate not 81 constituencies but perhaps only 16, I should be content with that, and the more so since whatever system we adopt will be replaced in time by a uniform system for all the countries of the Nine.

Some people who, as I do, very much dislike the idea of proportional representation for this House, are afraid that, it that system is ultimately adopted for the European Parliament, it must necessarily be infectious for the House of Commons. I do not believe that to be necessarily so, because we shall in time have one uniform system for Europe, and it will not be the same as any of the nine systems now prevailing in the national States. I believe that we can be fairly certain of that. Europe will not take over lock, stock and barrel the electoral system of any one of the nine States. It will, therefore, be different, in greater or less degree, from each of those nine.

For example, I do not see the German people abandoning their system, a system carefully worked out to avoid the dangers of extremism, merely because the pan-European model is different. Nor do I see the French abandoning the second ballot, to which they are attached, simply for the sake of uniformity with the pan-European system. I see no reason why we should adopt any different approach.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

Is that not one of the reasons why we should stick to the first-past-the-post system when we introduce our direct elections to the European Parliament, since none of our European partners will be altering its method in its own elections for that purpose?

Photo of Mr Michael Maitland Stewart Mr Michael Maitland Stewart , Hammersmith Fulham

I agree. If we could arrange it on the basis of first past the post, I should be pleased, but, as I say, I do not regard that as something to go to the stake for, and if it can be demonstrated that we can fulfil our pledge to Europe more speedily by another method, I shall be content with that.

There are a good many people—I take this view myself—who do not regard the question of the method of election at the first election to the European Parliament as of major importance. Therefore, I believe that the Government are perfectly entitled to say that they will abide by a free vote of the House on the matter. The important need is that we get on as quickly as we can, have the free vote of the House, and proceed on that basis. My last word to the Government, therefore, in the context of the motion, is this. Let them get on with it, as they perfectly well can in the present situation if they have the will.

11.43 a.m.

Photo of Mr Jeremy Thorpe Mr Jeremy Thorpe , North Devon

This is a valuable debate, and I say at the outset that I in no way impugn either the sincerity or the enthusiasm for this cause of my constituency neighbour the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills). However, I must tell him that I do not believe that, in seeking to achieve what is a common objective between the two of us, he is necessarily going about it the best way. The Government, of course, are well able to speak for themselves—not always in the Division Lobbies, but certainly from the Dispatch Box.

The hon. Gentleman did not mention, although I know he will be pleased about it—no doubt, the full effects of the agreement between the Liberal Party and the Government have not yet been absorbed by the Tory Party—that we have gone beyond the phrase "use best endeavours" There is now a firm Government commitment that legislation for direct elections will be presented to Parliament in this Session.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

Could the right hon. Gentleman assist us by explaining how that goes ahead of the commitment in the Queen's Speech?

Photo of Mr Jeremy Thorpe Mr Jeremy Thorpe , North Devon

The Government indicated in the Queen's Speech that they would do so, but I remind the hon. Gentleman that there were other matters included in the Queen's Speech which will not be introduced this Session, and for some of that my right hon. and hon. Friends can take due credit. Further, I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he can put his hand on his heart and say that, because there was an undertaking about legislation for direct elections being introduced this Session, that was enough for him. If so, I can only wonder why Tory Front Bench spokesmen have been making the rumpus which they have quite rightly been making.

All I am saying is that there is now, for the first time, a move away from what I would call the solicitor's language of "best endeavours" to a firm commitment to introduce legislation this Session, and that there will be a free vote.

In such circumstances, the European-ism of hon. Members such as the hon. Member for Devon, West will be put to the test. I put it to them bluntly that many Tory votes will be needed in that free vote to get the legislation through for direct elections. It will not be the first time that the votes of other parties have been used—if I may coin the phrase—to sustain the government on such an issue. It was Liberal votes which enabled the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) to secure the Second Reading of the European Communities Bill, and I remember that the Labour Party was as angry with us then as the Tories have been with us this week. One cannot say, therefore, that there has not been even-handedness of treatment. But without those Liberal votes that Bill would not have had a Second Reading. Likewise, if it had not been for the votes of Conservative and Liberal Members of Parliament, the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) could not have secured the approval of the House for acceptance of the renegotiated terms.

All I am saying to Tory Members of Parliament is that their enthusiasm for Europe, which I do not doubt, will be put to the test because on that free vote we shall not get direct elections unless the overwhelming majority of Members in favour of our membership of the European Community and the attendant obligations vote across party lines for the European cause. I say that to the hon. Member for Devon, West as a friend and, if I may say so, as one whose Europeanism, I suspect, slightly predates his, although I do not say that my enthusiam is any more robust than his now.

Photo of Mr Anthony Royle Mr Anthony Royle , Richmond Upon Thames Richmond

I think it a pity that the right hon. Gentleman is adopting a party-political stance here. We remember well that the European legislation got through in both the last Parliament and in previous Parliaments because Conservative Members, Labour Members and Liberal Members who were keen pro-Europeans got together in the Lobbies. It was not done by any one party— neither the right hon. Gentleman's party nor any other.

Photo of Mr Jeremy Thorpe Mr Jeremy Thorpe , North Devon

I am sorry if the hon. Gentleman misunderstood me. That is precisely what I am saying. In order to get the legislation through, we shall need the votes of Tory Members. There is no doubt in my mind that there is an overwhelming European majority, so to call it, in the House, but the object which we seek will come about only if we put aside political differences and vote as we believe right, those of us who are Europeans voting in favour and those who are not going into a different Lobby. I accept what the hon. Gentleman says, and he makes precisely my point. I have no hesitation in saying that there is a majority in favour of elections to the European Parliament, although as I have indicated, I hope to show that the motion before us does not present the best way to achieve the greatest possible speed in the matter, although I know that that object is close to the heart of the hon. Member for Devon, West.

As I say, we are to have legislation introduced this Session. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out, of course, that there is no guarantee that it will go through, but at least we shall have the legislation. We shall have our debate, and, no doubt, the Minister will tell us when the White Paper with green edges will be produced publicly and can be debated. I hope also that he will give us some idea of the time scale. But what the hon. Member for Devon, West is asking is that we give instructions to the four Boundary Commissions to begin work. What instructions? Under what system? There are serious differences about what system should be used.

The Select Committee came out in favour of first past the post, and I was a dissentient, although there were others prepared at least to consider alternative systems. The Government will produce their White Paper, and, no doubt, the House of Commons will make known its views on that. But we cannot tell the Boundary Commissions to start work until we know what the system will be. I say, therefore, that the hon. Gentleman is not only pre-empting the report of the Select Committee, for a debate on which he has rightly been pressing, but he is seeking to pre-empt the White Paper itself, on which, no doubt, there will be a free vote.

The value of the hon. Gentleman's motion and our debate today is that we shall flush out the Government and induce them to give us a little more information. I very much hope that the hon. Member for Devon, West will not carry a motion telling the Boundary Commissioners to start forthwith before we even know what the system of voting will be.

The right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) was in favour of the first-past-the-post system. The hon. Member for Devon, West was a Minister in Northern Ireland and he will know the importance of maintaining a fair balance between the two communities. He must know that it was in order to ensure that at least one member of the European Parliament represented the Catholic interest that our European neighbours were persuaded to increase the number who could be elected from Northern Ireland from two to three, taking the total number from 80 to 81.

This was done to ensure that there was a chance of Catholics being represented and I think that the House would agree that that would be for the benefit of relations between the two communities. Our European friends are not quite as dumb as hon. Members sometimes seem to think. They have at least gently posed the question of whether, if the Roman Catholic community gets one-third of the support, there is any guarantee that under the first-past-the-post system it would get one-third of the seats. The likelihood is that it would not.

The Government started out on these lines "Why do we not have proportional representation in Northern Ireland, where suppression of the minorities matters, and have the first-past-the-post system in the United Kingdom, where we can get away with it?" The logic of that argument did not command support, and I think that it has been dropped. The electoral system will be of great importance in that limited sphere for a start. It is almost certain that under the first-past-the-post system, even if the Catholic community had 30 per cent. of the vote, it would not get a seat. That would be a very great defect.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

The right hon. Gentleman is, of course, absolutely correct. If the constituencies were constructed out of the counties of Northern Ireland as blocks, I think that they would yield "Protestant" results, but it would be possible, I believe, to construct them out of the local authorities as blocks in such a way that that result would not take place.

Photo of Mr Jeremy Thorpe Mr Jeremy Thorpe , North Devon

The hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English) has a great knowledge of these matters and one listens to him with respect. My view is that there would have to be some very great reason for doing as the hon. Gentleman suggested.

I would rather be in a position where I could put my hand on my heart and say that if the Catholics get one-third of the votes and there are three seats, the Catholics would get one of them. That seems to be the only guarantee of fairness.

Some projections have been done by Michael Steed about what would happen under the first-past-the-post system. [An HON. MEMBER: "He is a Liberal".]That is not necessarily a disqualification, and should not be for the Labour Party this week. The general view is that, because in the first-past-the-post system parties whose votes are concentrated do better than those whose votes are spread widely, there is a real possibility that the Scottish National Party would be returned with more seats in the European Parliament than the Labour Government.

Before we give instructions to the Boundary Commissions to begin work with an unknown quantity—namely the system we shall use—we have to decide what that system will be. I suggest that, if the hon. Member for Devon, West wants speedy elections, he could not choose a slower method than the first-past-the-post system.

There will be 81 separate Boundary Commission inquiries, at which any one of the half million or so electors in that area would be entitled to have their views heard, and presumably the local authorities and all local parties would wish to be represented and make their views known. It would be open to them to make alternative proposals and to say that the area, for example, should include this bit of the West Country instead of that bit of the West Country. All the people affected in different areas would then have the right to give their views by way of support or opposition.

There will also be areas where there is an overlap in the proposals between two first-past-the-post areas, and people from both sides of the boundary will be able to have their say. A situation would arise where one could almost guarantee that by grouping a certain number of seats in a particular way one party will be certain of victory. In that case the other party will probably demand a better balance.

We worked out that there were probably a million different combinations under the first-past-the-post system. If we try for the first-past-the-post system of election, there is not a hope in hell that the 81 Boundary Commissions could have completed their hearings and reported on the matter before the crucial date. Even if we accept that the House is prepared to forgo the second round of inquiries, I am not sure that it would get through the House.

Photo of Mr Peter Mills Mr Peter Mills , Devon West

Is it not true to say that the Select Committee took a different view? Did not the Committee say that there would not be enough time to get something done for elections by 1978 and that it could proceed with its preparatory work if the House gave a Second Reading to the Bill?

Photo of Mr Jeremy Thorpe Mr Jeremy Thorpe , North Devon

That is not wholly correct. The Select Committee said that it might be possible to have elections by the first-past-the-post system, provided the Government introduced legislation by February—which date is now past—and the Committee said that it would be assisted if we forwent the second round of inquiries, although it did not say that that was vital. It also said—with the exception of myself—that it was against other proportional systems. But the Committee said that it did not believe that a proportional system would necessarily introduce delay, and that although it disagreed with it, it would not wish to make the argument that it took far too long to implement. The Committee accepted in theory that it could be implemented. We do not have to rely on the theory of the Select Committee because we have the practice of Northern Ireland, where proportional representation was reintroduced for local government and Stormont in a very short time— as the right hon. Member for Huyton would have said, in weeks, not months.

I shall not go into the arguments about whether it should be by a regional list system or proportional representation— I prefer the latter— but basically it is by far the quickest way of election to have some form of proportional representation. It is certainly the fairest way and less likely to attract opposition and representations to the Boundary Commissioners. We want to get the quickest and fairest system available. I have no hesitation in saying that the quickest system is a proportional one, and we have the experience of Northern Ireland. Lord Bank's Bill in another place has already set out what the areas could be. No one would deny that it would be the fairest system, much fairer than the first-past-the post system. No, one has suggested that the first-past-the-post system is fair. All that its supporters say is that it works, and even that is not particularly true at the moment.

The hon. Member for Devon, West has done a useful service to the House in flushing out the Minister. I hope that we shall hear from the Minister, who was also on the Select Committee, and that he can give us more information. But I hope that the hon. Member for Devon, West will not push this to a vote which will mean that we are sending the matter to the Boundary Commissioners but totally omitting to tell them what the system will be.

The motion was put down before we knew that there was a firm commitment for legislation. If we pass this motion, to use a Devon expression, we shall have got the whole thing "backsi-for".

11.59 a.m.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

Perhaps it would be for the convenience of the House if I intervened at an earlier stage rather than risked being accused of reluctance by being flushed out later. I start by congratulating the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) on his luck in the Ballot in what must be an otherwise un- lucky year, this thirteenth year in Parliament. I do not think that the hon. Member needs to apologise for his lack of expertise. It is a lack of expertise that we all share, even those who profess to be experts on the subject.

A number of matters have been raised. I shall direct my remarks first towards how it is best to proceed and then deal with the motion, lest it should be thought that I was echoing too closely the remarks of the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe).

For some weeks the Home Secretary has been making clear— he did so on one notable occasion in a speech three weeks ago in Abertillery— that the Government have decided that the right course to adopt with direct elections is to publish a White Paper so that the House can debate the important matters which call for a decision before those matters are reduced to a legislative form. When my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister spoke in the censure debate on Wednesday he put forward the time of its publication as next week. I know that the right hon. Member for Devon, North will probably say that that is lawyer's language—

Photo of Mr Jeremy Thorpe Mr Jeremy Thorpe , North Devon

It is solicitor's language.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

Members of the Bar have to rely on the advice and instruction of solicitors, and I can instruct the right hon. Gentleman in this respect that "next week" to me means next week. The Government intend that the White Paper shall be published next week.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Devon, West both on his luck and on his ingenuity in framing a motion on direct elections that has not already been covered by other debates. We are going over much of the ground which was debated on 7th February but which has been overtaken, I believe, by the imminent publication of the White Paper. Therefore, I invite him to accept that a vote on this matter would be superfluous because the House will be debating the White Paper in the near future.

Sir Anthony Boyle:

I am not clear about one point. We have already had a White Paper from the Government. We have had three Select Committee reports. We have also had endless debates in the House. Why cannot the Government now publish a Bill next week instead of putting things off again for the whole of the Easter Recess before we see the Bill in the House of Commons?

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

With respect, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman meant to say that a Green Paper had been published by the Government and that there was then a Select Committee report. I shall deal with that matter later in my speech.

Today we are, as Aneurin Bevan said, looking into the crystal ball when shortly we can read the book. That of itself would be an argument for doing nothing this afternoon to prejudge consideration of the matter by the House of Commons as a whole. Today's debate may be fairly well represented for a Friday, but it is, nevertheless, a Friday House, and I am sure that the debate on the White paper will be one in which many other hon. Members will wish to participate. The House will then want to make a firm decision arising out of a rather more mature consideration.

To the vast relief of the hon. Members for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) and Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes), I shall not merely repeat what I said on 7th February. I hope to deal with some new points that have arisen during the debate. It is fair for me to restate the well-known problems facing the Government, problems that arise from the use of words. The decision signed on 20th September was a commitment to using best endeavours to holding the first direct elections in the May to June period in 1978. The hon. Member for Devon, West drew from his scholastic background to recall when "best endeavours" were not thought by his school teachers to mean best endeavours. But if his best endeavours could be improved upon, they were clearly not his best endeavours. His best endeavours could not have been improved upon. [Interruption.] I am invited to say which category the Government are in, and I would say that it is the latter.

Perhaps I may quote from the instrument which dealt with this matter. At some length it referred to the intention to give effect to the decisions of the European summit that elections should be held in May-June 1978. That is the instrument to which the Goverment are committed. We are committed also by the statement in the Queen's Speech, reaffirmed by the Prime Minister on Wednesday, that we intend to introduce legislation in this Session to give effect to that matter.

As the right hon. Member for Devon, North said, not all legislation foreshadowed in the Queen's Speech necessarily appears on the statute book. That is not only because of the absence of the divine intervention of the Liberal Party. Many aspects of Government policies set out in a Queen's Speech do not get transmitted into legislation for some reason or another. However, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister reiterated the Government's intention last Wednesday. It is an objective with which the majority of the House will agree—certainly, I sense, the majority of the Conservative Party does so.

What is really in dispute is how these aims should best be fulfilled and effected. From what the hon. Member for Devon, West said, and judging from the terms of his motion, he seems to believe that the matter is now so clear, in the light of what the Select Committee said, that legislation could be introduced without further decision. On the other hand, the Government believe that a White Paper is necessary, and I shall explain why.

The hon. Gentleman said that the Government were to make no firm recommendation. I noticed that it was the occasion of some noise in the House when my right hon. Friend first said that on Wednesday. It is a tribute to my memory that I can remember that noise from all the other noises in the debate. There are two misconceptions upon which any dismissal of that matter are based. The first is the misunderstanding and misconception perpetrated by the hon. Gentleman today. It was that the Government would make no recommendation. That is not what has been said.

The Government have said that they will make no recommendation on the White Paper. The whole point about that is that they would listen to the debate in the House and make their recommendation in the light of the free vote. But we have not said that at the end of the day there would be no such recommendation.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

Will the Minister clear up one point which is causing anxiety? Is the free vote of which the Prime Minister spoke to be on the principle of the Bill or on the electoral system to be used?

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I can do no better than to quote my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. It would be dangerous if I were not to do so. He said: To come back to the White Paper, whatever the final recommendation on these matters, it will be subject to a free vote of both Houses of Parliament. As far as the Government are concerned, all hon. Members will be entitled to vote in any way that they think fit." —[Official Report, 23rd March 1977; Vol. 928, c. 1307.] I have made the matter as clear as I can by quoting—

Several Hon. Members:

rose

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

The hon. Gentleman's complaint must be taken up with the Prime Minister.

Photo of Mr Jeremy Thorpe Mr Jeremy Thorpe , North Devon

I wonder whether the Minister and the House would agree that the statement agreed between my right hon. Friend and the Prime Minister on this issue was carefully drafted and accurately reflects the situation? If hon. Members would like to refer to it for greater accuracy, I have a copy of it with me. It said: We agree that legislation for Direct Elections to the European Assembly in 1978 will be presented to Parliament in this Session. The Liberal Party re-affirm their strong conviction that a proportional system should be used as the method of election. The Government is publishing next week a White Paper on Direct Elections to the European Assembly which sets out the choices among different electoral systems, but which makes no recommendation. There will now be consultation between us on the method to be adopted and the Government's final recommendation will take full account of the Liberal Party's commitment. The recommendation will he subject to a free vote of both Houses.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I understood that that clarified the position. I apologise, but I thought that the Prime Minister's words had been clarification in themselves. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his intervention.

The second misconception upon which the dismissal of the no-firm recommendation point was based was that it undervalued the importance of what we are doing. No one should be in any doubt about the seriousness of the step, whether they are for or against it, that we as a House of Commons are taking. It is one of major constitutional importance.

We have had another matter of constitutional importance recently, and that was devolution for Scotland and Wales. We are a little puzzled to know where the Conservative Party stands on this issue. The devolution Bill was preceded by a White Paper, which was fully debated. Nevertheless, there were many— I am tempted to say many, many— speeches from the Conservative Benches to the effect that on major constitutional matters it was the House of Commons itself which was sovereign and not any decision of Government.

The right hon. Member for Cambridge-shire (Mr. Pym), when commenting on the defeat of the guillotine motion, said that one of the most valuable lessons that this had taught was the reassertion of that particular doctrine. I understood that to be commonly agreed among Conservatives. But Conservative Members cannot have it both ways. They cannot say that it is for the House of Commons to decide on a major issue just by debating thorny and vexed questions before they come forward as firm proposals. During the devolution debate Conservative Members were talking in terms of two or three Sessions on the subject before a Bill would be got right. They cannot have it that way and say "the Government need not consult the House of Commons; let them come forward with their own proposals on the matter". I believe that is the wish of the House generally that these matters should be debated in an informed manner before final proposals are placed before it.

The next point I wish to raise is that I believe that such a dismissal seriously undervalues the political complexities that follow this decision. The more my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have delved into these matters, the more complex are the follow-up of any decisions we make. They are not as simple as they are portrayed by the more ardent supporters of direct elections. They raise many important issues of which two are the system of voting and the question of the relationship with, and the accountability to, a British Parliament that an elected presence in Europe would have.

It is notable that the Select Committee discussed the latter point but did not come to a firm conclusion upon it. There was a suggestion that the elected Members to Europe should all become members of the Lords, but it was felt that that idea was not free of difficulty. I believe that the House must at least express its views on this point.

I come back to the system of elections. The question, as hon. Members have said, is basically whether Members should be elected on a first-past-the-post system or whether the elections should be on a basis of proportional representation and, if the latter, upon what system of proportional representation. It has not been hidden from the House, and certainly there is no profit from disguising the fact, that there are all members of some parties and some members of all parties who favour a PR method of election. We believe that it is sensible to allow Parliament to express its view on the mode of election and finally to decide this by a free vote of the House of Commons. I would have thought that this motion is pre-empting the decision of Parliament upon that issue.

Photo of Mr Paul Channon Mr Paul Channon , Southend West

The Minister has made a very important statement. I understand from what he said that the House of Commons will have a free vote upon the system of election to be adopted for direct elections. Can the Minister say that, whatever decision the House of Commons reaches, whether it is first past the post or PR, the Government will then embody that particular system in legislation for the House to pass so that we can have direct elections at least under one system or another?

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

That would clearly have to be considered by the Government, but, in my view, obviously the vote of the House of Commons would be a matter which would decide the Government's attitude.

I come back to my point, and repeat it, because hon. Members opposite who have talked about the first-past-the-post system seem to have prejudged it. In fact, the doctrine of a free vote upon these matters has already been enunciated from the Conservative Front Bench by the right hon. Member for Cambridgeshire. When speaking on the PR amendment to the devolution Bill the right hon. Gentleman said: My right hon. and hon. Friends have approached the amendment on a free vote basis, which seems wholly appropriate".—[Official Report, 25th January 1977; Vol. 924, c. 1377.]

Photo of Mr Frank Hooley Mr Frank Hooley , Sheffield, Heeley

Has it crossed the Government's mind, or the minds of the proponents of the free vote. that on this basis the House might not give a majority for any system?

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

It has not, but if my hon. Friend would care to resume his discussion with me afterwards, perhaps he can elucidate what he has in mind.

Photo of Mr Peter Rees Mr Peter Rees , Dover and Deal

I am a little worried about the complexity of this vote. Are we to understand that the House, with the concurrence of the Chair, will be able to vote on various parts of this White Paper?

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I think that that will obviously be a matter of order to be decided by Mr. Speaker at the time. But I would remind hon. Members that, just as Mr. Speaker is very adept at saying when matters are not matters of order for him, I hope that I may be allowed to ask what are matters for Mr. Speaker to decide.

Photo of Mr George Thomas Mr George Thomas , Cardiff West

I was merely about to say that the hon. Gentleman has ruined my weekend.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I was about to say that all has not been lost by our debating this matter today.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I have only risen after an intervention and I think my hon. Friend must allow me to proceed.

Before I turn to the motion I should like to deal with the point which my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) courteously mentioned during the course of his speech. I am glad to see that he has resumed his seat in time for me to make the point. I am advised that none of the member States has yet passed or even introduced the legislation that is necessary— [Interruption.] I am sorry, but this is a statement that I am making to my right hon. Friend. To the best of my belief, we are not lagging behind any other members of the Community.

Dealing with the motion itself, I shall have to repeat the matters discussed by the right hon. Member for Devon, North in putting forward the Government's argument, although I hope that I shall be able to do it briefly.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

No. I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman; I must proceed with my speech. I have given way fairly liberally so far. I have said what, to the best of my belief, I understand to be the position and, for the convenience of the House, and of the many other hon. Members who wish to take part in the debate, I think that I must now proceed with my own speech.

I come to the terms of the motion. I believe that most right hon. and hon. Members will realise that it is putting the cart before the horse. Before the Boundary Commissions can be set to work, a number of matters have to be decided. The most important, perhaps, is what the electoral system should be. If the traditional method of first past the post were to be adopted, it would have the advantage clearly of the electorate having a more direct connection with its Member, to say nothing of a more geographical connection, although I accept that in the larger electorates the geographical connection is more tenuous than it was.

It is not good enough for the hon. Member for Devon, West to suggest, as his tone suggested to me, that Devon and Cornwall would want their own voices and that that was fairly self-evident. One of the points about separate representation for Devon and Cornwall is that to give a separate representative for Cornwall would be to depart from the numerical equality that we try to achieve. The White Paper will need to deal with these matters. But there are practical consequences arising from the adoption of the first-past-the-post system, and they will be spelled out fully in the White Paper next week.

Secondly, as the right hon. Member for Devon, North said, with a European Assembly, which at present has no independent legislative functions and no Government, there is the thought in some people's minds that it might be more suitable to have some form of proportional representation system. As I say, there are a number of forms of proportional representation.

Although the right hon. Gentleman says that the procedure would be quicker under such a system, I am sure that he will not resile from the fact that practical problems flow from whatever system of proportional representation we choose. On the franchise, for example, he mentioned the difficult and delicate problem of Northern Ireland. This will be dealt with in the White Paper, as will the other problems of proportional representation, and we can debate these issues on the basis of what is said in the White Paper about them. But the system of voting is what we have to decide and, until we do so, it is no good sending these matters to the Boundary Commissions and setting them to do work which may be unnecessary and which may incur expenditure and a proposal that is nugatory.

One other essential question must be decided before we can hope to ask the Boundary Commissions to begin work. It is how many seats there are to be in each part of the United Kingdom. We know what is recommended, but the motion seeks to pre-empt the decision of this House by accepting the recommendations of the Select Committee. This is a decision that will have to be made and, until it is made, we cannot ask the Boundary Commissions to draw up what may be an infinite number of boundaries.

Nor do the Boundary Commissions have any rules by which to be guided. We know that for parliamentary elections the number of constituencies is laid down by Schedule I to the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949. The Commissions are also guided by the need to secure the equality of electorates and the reasons why that criteria may be departed from.

It is not until our intentions are expressed that the Boundary Commissions can be set to work. I have no doubt that, once we have done that, the Boundary Commissions will proceed diligently with any work that they may be required to undertake. But, until they are given terms of reference, we shall be handing them an impossible task.

Nor is it free of doubt whether a motion of this kind would be sufficient to authorise the Boundary Commissions to proceed with the work, and certainly not without incurring expenditure. The Boundary Commissions are the creatures of statute and are charged specifically with looking at parliamentary constituencies. Since they are the creatures of statute, for them to act for some new purpose without money voted from Parliament and without new statutory authority might seek to suggest that they should act outside their existing legal powers.

It may be that the hon. Member for Devon, West will say that his motion is merely a way of seeking a debate upon the subject today. If that is the position, so be it. But if any vote were taken on this motion, it would be a vote for something which was wholly impracticable and useless.

I suggest that wherever possible this House should avoid putting an instruction upon another body which it could not and should not carry out. This is one reason why the Government cannot commend the motion to the House. However, we are convinced that consultation, by clarifying issues and narrowing the areas of difference, is the best way to proceed. This will commence with the publication of the White Paper, when the House will decide these matters. I suggest to the House that it is not possible to do that today.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Devon, West for the way in which he moved his motion and for the questions which he raised, but the House will return to this matter in the near future, and I hope that it will view the motion that light.

12.27 p.m.

Photo of Sir Peter Kirk Sir Peter Kirk , Saffron Walden

Although we are all grateful to the Minister for intervening early in the debate to clarify certain matters, I must tell him that for my part he has been largely counter-productive. I find myself more confused at the end of his speech than I was at the beginning. I hope that we shall not even have to wait until next week to clarify one or two matters that I shall nut to him later in my remarks, especially his exegesis of the Prime Minister's statement last Wednesday and of the agreement reached between the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Liberal Party, which was quite as unintelligible as any exegesis by my own father about the procession of the Holy Ghost.

I start by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) on putting down this motion. No one so far has noticed that today is the twentieth anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome and, therefore, that it is wholly appropriate that we should be discussing a matter central to the Treaty. What is more, my hon. Friend's timing has been exquisite in view of developments that have taken place over the past week or so. It does no harm for the Government to be reminded that their best endeavours so far have not been good enough, and it is useful to have a debate in advance of the White Paper— a White Paper whose greenness now appears to be becoming more pale than when it was originally announced.

The interesting feature of the debate so far, though it may not continue if some Government supporters catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is that the principle of direct elections seems to be accepted now by this House and in this House. That is excellent in itself. The discussion today, therefore, is a much more practical and sensible one—

Photo of Sir Peter Kirk Sir Peter Kirk , Saffron Walden

I thought that that might provoke an intervention.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I thank the hon. Gentleman for giving way. Whatever may or may not be the claims of this Government to any principle or duty, there has been no principle as such voted on in this House relating to the Government's view of direct elections.

Photo of Sir Peter Kirk Sir Peter Kirk , Saffron Walden

Both the acceptance by the previous Parliament of the European Communities Act and the acceptance by this House of the terms of the renegotiation is an acceptance by silence of the rest of the terms of the Treaty of Rome. If hon. Members did not like the provisions in the Treaty relating to direct elections, they could have asked the Government to renegotiate further. They did not, and that implies that the House has accepted these provisions. If the hon. Member wants to put the matter to the test, he can put down a motion disagreeing with the principle of direct elections and see how many votes he gets. He will not get many.

The only point that I wish to make about direct elections is that the proceedings of both the European Parliament and, to a certain extent, of this House, are beginning to be disrupted by the overlapping mandates of Members. The disruption in some cases can be dangerous to proceedings both in this House and in Europe.

I take for example the events of this week. We had a two-day debate in the European Parliament on agriculture prices. This must be regarded as one of the most important debates in the European Parliament. It is important from another point of view as well. It is what is called an obligatory consultation— until the European Parliament has given its opinion, the Council of Ministers cannot take a final decision. As hon. Members know, the Council of Ministers is meeting in Copenhagen today under the chairmanship of the Minister of Agriculture to discuss this matter. Because British Members were under such pressure as a result of developments that took place over the weekend and that no one could have foreseen, Labour Members felt it necessary to return here on Tuesday evening. We managed to stay until quite late on Wednesday afternoon, but we were put under such pressure that we got into the sort of procedural muddle that is not unknown in this House. Only with difficulty did we manage to emerge with any kind of opinion that was necessary for the Council of Ministers. Had we not done so, the Council could not have started work today.

It is not just that we think our opinion is important. The fact is that the insistence on a dual mandate is dangerous to the proceedings of the Community. It would have been even worse had we been dealing with the Budget. From 1st January next, if the necessary directive goes through, public funds will be levied by the Community itself. These will have to be levied by a certain number of members voting. There cannot be a vote of, say, 60 of the 198 members. At least half the members will have to vote in the lobbies, and two thirds of these must vote in favour. A very large quorum is required for that sort of thing.

It is becoming more and more impossible, given the growth of European discussions in this House and the growth of work at the other end, for Members to maintain their duty to both places and do their duty to their constituents as well. For that reason alone, leaving aside the obligations of the Treaty and the undertakings the Government have given, the need for speed is considerable.

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West is to be congratulated on urging the Government on after months and months of inertia in which nothing has happened. The Minister said that as far as he knew no other country had embarked on legislation in this respect. In the very strictest analysis of that phrase he is correct, but I stress that it is a strict analysis.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

As far as I understand the position, legislation to ratify the decision was necessary in Belgium, Luxembourg and Italy, and that ratification legislation has been introduced. But my information is that enabling legislation, which is what we are talking about, has not been introduced in any EEC country.

Photo of Sir Peter Kirk Sir Peter Kirk , Saffron Walden

That is the point. We ratify by prerogative in this country. Other countries do not, and therefore they cannot introduce enabling legislation until they have ratifying legislation. Even Italy has been moving with the speed of light and has got the ratification legislation on the President's desk ready for signature. I believe that Italy also has enabling legislation in draft. The Irish Parliament has considered in committee two alternative ways in which enabling legislation could be introduced, so not everyone is being as laggardly as we are. However, I believe that the Belgians are even further behind than we are. There is no agreement in principle about how the legislation will be implemented. Unfortunately, this sort of thing happens in cases like this.

What will happen now? What system of election will be used? At the end of the Minister's rather rough passage in the middle of his speech he said that the White Paper would be published next week and that a debate in general terms will follow shortly after Easter. That debate may take place on a motion to take note or on an Adjournment motion on which no one will vote. Following that the Government will then make a final recommendation and that recommendation, as the Prime Minister said on Wednesday, will take full account of the Liberal Party's commitment".—[Official Report, 23rd March 1977; Vol. 928, c. 1307.] Then, to come back to the White Paper, whatever the final recommendation it will be subject to a free vote of both Houses of Parliament. What is not clear is whether the final recommendation will be in the Bill, or whether it will come before the Bill so that the House can take a decision in principle before the Bill comes to the House. That is very important.

Many of us take the pragmatic view of the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart), who is prepared to accept any voting system in order to get the show on the road, because we know that it will be changed later on. I take a slightly less enthusiastic view about the first-past-the-post system as far as any non-sovereign legislature is concerned. The case for some form of proportional representation is pretty strong.

I voted for proportional representation in the devolution Bill and my instinct is to vote for it again in this case. The need for speed should not mean that we can just accept anything written in the Bill on the ground that, if we take it out, the whole Bill is lost. Unless we have clarification about the form of the final recommendation, and whether it will be a motion that can be amended proponents of the various schemes will not have a chance to put forward their schemes. Although the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) posed the question as if it were between the first-past-the-post or another comparable system, he knows as well as I do that every electoral system— first-past-the-post as well— has an enormous number of variations that could be introduced.

Proportional representation by itself has about a hundred variations. The scheme which some hon. Members proposed as an amendment to the devolution Bill was absolutely lousy, but I voted for it because I wanted to vote for proportional representation in principle. That I would be prepared to do on a general motion, but I would certainly not be prepared to do it in a Bill if there were a danger that the Bill would be lost.

The same is true of the list system. I and many others would not accept a national list drawn up by party headquarters. We might accept a regional list with some form of primary system, or something done through constituency parties. But there is a difference between the two. If we are simply told that the final recommendation of the Government, written into the bill, is a list system, or proportional representation, or whatever it may be, and that we either accept it or lose the Bill, as a House, and not just as individual Members, we shall be placed in very grave difficulty.

It is for that reason that I found myself rather more confused at the end of the Minister of State's speech than I was at the beginning. I hope that when the White Paper is published next week, this point will be made with some clarity. It is not just a question of exploring, as we should, the various electoral systems which may be needed, but of exploring also the most effective procedures whereby the systems can be implemented. The problem here, of course, is that whereas the House's normal method would be to set up a Select Committee to examine the matter, we have had a Select Committee already which has recommended one particular form of election that seems to have been the basis on which many people have made elaborate plans. Yet it has never been debated in the House, and apparently it can now be jettisoned without any other system being examined in the same detail and with the same care.

Therefore, because of the delay— a delay caused not by the problems of the electoral system but, I suspect, by the problems of the Government, who are divided on the issue— we are now in the position that if we wish to help the Government implement their best endeavours to have elections in May or June next year, as I hope, we may be asked to accept something which may be very much second best.

In the long run it could be said that it will not matter very much because this is a one-off job. But I wonder sometimes whether it will be a one-off job. As the right hon. Member for Fulham pointed out, the Germans are wedded to a particular electoral system and will take a lot of convincing to have another one. I am not sure about the French. I understand that their present proposal is for proportional representation, in the first election anyway, and not the double-ballot system. But we are as yet a long way off from the French placing legislation before their Parliament, because it has not met since the signature of the convention last September.

Undoubtedly there will be conflicting claims from conflicting Governments and conflicting parties as to what the best system should be. It could well be that the system that we are drawing up in the Bill here, which it is vital to get through this Session— I was horrified to hear the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) suggest yesterday that it might have to be carried through next Session, since that would mean that the timetable would be lost— would last for two or even three European elections, that is, 10 or 15 years. Therefore, it is essential to get it right— I agree with the Minister of State there— and in getting it right we must be assured that we shall not be faced at the end of the day with what is virtually a fait accompli on the part of the Government— "Either accept this or lose the Bill". We must put that marker down before we start on this course.

Having said all this, one comes to the problem of the motion. Clearly, it will not achieve anything if it is carried, except for one very important thing— to mark once again the House's determination to proceed at all deliberate speed with direct elections. On that understanding, if my hon. Friend puts it to a vote, I shall support it.

12.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr Bob Mitchell Mr Bob Mitchell , Southampton, Itchen

I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) on putting forward this motion. It is important that we should continue to prod the Government on this issue so that best endeavours can be turned into reality. I agreed with much of what he said, but I take him up on one point.

I wish that the present Leader of the Conservative Party would show the same enthusiasm for Europe and the European concept as did her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath). Her attitude may become at some stage important— indeed, fundamental— in getting the legislation through. Whatever the form of the legislation, we shall not get it through the House without the use of a guillotine. My hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and his colleagues will make sure of that. We shall see the same tactics— quite legitimate tactics— as were used on the Scotland and Wales Bill.

There will, therefore, have to be a guillotine if the Bill is to go through, and I hope that, when the time comes for that guillotine motion, the Leader of the Opposition will not start playing games and making a constitutional issue of it. If she wants the legislation, she and the Conservative Party as a whole will have to support a guillotine. They should face that reality now, and I hope that when the spokesman of the Opposition Front Bench intervenes in this debate he will give some indication whether they will be prepared to accept and vote for the guillotine when it comes.

At the recent Luxembourg sitting of the European Parliament, I spoke on behalf of the Socialist Group in a debate on the Commission's overall proposals, which include direct elections. On behalf of the Socialist Group, I called for the Governments of all member States to meet the target date of May 1978.

I must confess that my colleagues in the Socialist Group from other countries cannot understand the opposition in the British Labour Party and in this country to direct elections. They cannot understand why what appears to them to be a straightforward democratic process of people being elected directly by the electorate should be so strongly opposed here. I think that the reason for the opposition is that so often there is, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) has said, a complete confusion between two entirely separate issues.

The act of direct elections is one issue. The powers of the European Parliament are another. The one does not necessarily follow from the other. The mere fact of its being directly elected will in no way change the powers of the European Parliament. It may well be— and I suspect that it will be— that once the Parliament is directly elected it will demand more powers. But it is demanding more powers now. In every debate that we have in the European Parliament, it is calling for more powers.

But the decision whether it should be given more powers must rest, under the present arrangements, with the Council of Ministers. In the Council of Ministers, the British Minister has a veto, and it is up to this House to instruct the British Minister whether he should use his veto. So any transfer of sovereignty from this House to the European Parliament, which is genuinely feared by a large number of people in all parties, can take place only by the conscious act of this House.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way to me, because he knows that we differ somewhat on this matter. Did not my hon. Friend hear the comments about the debates which took place last week in the European Assembly on agriculture and the powers of compulsory consultation? Discussions of that sort are parallel to those which already take place in this House. If the Assembly has full-time Members, and those Members call for the same powers and procedures as we have, does not my hon. Friend think that, in effect, the influence of this House will be lost and the influence of the Assembly will be enhanced?

Photo of Mr Bob Mitchell Mr Bob Mitchell , Southampton, Itchen

But that applies now. The European Parliament has to be consulted on a number of matters. I cannot see that the act of direct elections would alter that situation of itself in any way.

I happen to be one of those who believe that it will take a good many years. It may come eventually. My children and my grandchildren may be much more willing to give up national sovereignty to the European concept. I do not think that it will come quickly. I do not see any major powers being transferred from this House to the European Parliament in the short term.

Photo of Mr Bob Mitchell Mr Bob Mitchell , Southampton, Itchen

What I do see happening is a change in the relationship and the powers inside the Community as it is at present. All we can do at present is to react to what the Commission says. I want to see the Parliament initiating legislation, and forwarding it to the Council of Ministers with a comment by the Commission, rather than the other way round where the Commission for- wards a regulation with a comment by the Parliament. But the Council of Ministers in the last resort will still have the last say and the veto.

If, as is sometimes argued, there is a qualified majority, and that is agreed to, the whole thing changes. Of course it does. But the act of changing it is an act in which this Parliament must be involved, because it can instruct the British Minister not to give way on the veto issue. I accept that we want a better system in this Parliament of controlling what the British representative at the Council of Ministers does. That is a matter for this Parliament and we should be able to do it effectively. We must find a better system.

There is nothing inherent in the act of direct elections to reduce the sovereignty of this Parliament. It may happen eventually, but only by the free will of this Parliament. That is an important point to make. This confusion exists in the minds of many people, particularly some members of my own party.

I want now to take up one or two issues raised in the debate. It is absolutely essential to the honour of this country that we are not seen to be the one nation that is delaying the target date of May 1978. We are discussing this at the moment in Europe. We in Britain are blamed for dragging our feet. What I have heard today from the Front Bench does not give me much encouragement that we shall speed up the process. Perhaps that will come. We must not be seen to be the one nation in Europe that is stopping the whole thing. Let us make it quite clear that if we do not have our direct election, our partners will not have theirs either. There should be direct elections throughout Europe at the same time.

We do not want to be in the position of holding up those elections. It would do us infinite harm in the political circles of Europe, upon which we rely economically, if we are seen to be the ones who are stopping this going through. It could do a lot of harm economically to this country, because if we want to go for another major loan our partners may not be so enthusiastic to give it to us if we are seen to be the ones who are stopping direct elections.

There is the second argument about what type of constituencies we should have. I have argued strongly in domestic British politics for the single-Member constituency. My argument has been that I believe fundamentally in the direct contact between a Member of Parliament and his electors. That contact is difficult enough with a constituency of my size, about 85,000. The difficulty about proportional representation is that there are larger constituencies and there cannot be that relationship. That is so in British politics. I would still oppose strongly the introduction of non-constituency type of proportional representation in British internal elections.

The same arguments perhaps do not apply for the European Parliament elections because the constituencies will have to be that much larger. Even if we have single-Member constituencies, they will be about 600,000. So the same direct contact argument does not apply.

It may be inevitable, particularly if we want to meet the target date, for us to come round to some form of proportional representation. One system has been floated. We have heard all sorts of rumours, and discussions have taken place in the Cabinet and elsewhere, about a system of regional lists. I am not happy about listing systems, because they can, if we are not careful, give far too much power to the party machine. If we have the list system, I ask that at least we adopt the principle that the electorate can decide on the order of the list.

There are systems, for example, where in a 15-Member constituency the party will choose its 15 candidates but the electorate will put them in order of preference. It is fundamentally important that the party machine, of whichever party, is not allowed to select the order for its members and to decide who goes to the Parliament. If we adopt that system, there will be little difference from what we have at present. The electorate must be allowed, in one way or another, to make the final decision.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham raised an important point which was echoed by the Minister about direct elections and the dual mandate. I am completely convinced, as is the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir P. Kirk), that a dual mandate is not physically possible in a directly elected Parliament at least not in a country of our size. What happened this week was a clear example of conflicting interests. We are certain that many votes in the European Parliament would have gone a different way if we had not all had to come home. Occasionally, we have incidents where the Whips on both sides of the House go mad and abolish pairing and then have to call us home. We have had experience of this. We cannot operate a European Assembly if, for ever more, our Members have to fly home to vote here.

I am convinced that the dual mandate, for Britain at least, is not possible. It could well be possible perhaps in a smaller country which has a different system of Government. This means that we have to have some relationship between the directly elected Members of the European Parliament and the Members of this Parliament.

I heard the Minister, perhaps inadvertently, use the expression "responsible to". In his speech he was talking about finding some method of making the directly elected Members "responsible to" this Parliament. I do not think that we need take too much from what he said. I think that it was a slip of the tongue and that he did not mean it.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I referred to the question of responsibility. I want to make it plain that I was referring to the more general problem of responsibility of Members to the European Parliament.

Photo of Mr Bob Mitchell Mr Bob Mitchell , Southampton, Itchen

I am sure that that is true. There are many suggestions that can be made in the long term, but the one I favour is to tie this in some way to the reform of the second Chamber. Perhaps the directly elected Members could become senators—call it what one will—in the second Chamber, although there are many other ways. We could have the equivalent of the Scottish Grand Committee—a European Grand Committee. Or, if the House accepted this, which I doubt, we could adopt the Berlin system and allow the Members to sit in this House but not to vote. However, I do not think that that would be acceptable. My preference, although it may take a long time, is to tie it to the reform of the second Chamber.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

My hon. Friend is now touching on an important point. How can any directly elected representative to the European Assembly at the same time, by whatever machinery he suggests, be responsible to this House? Surely that is constitutionally and logically impossible.

Photo of Mr Bob Mitchell Mr Bob Mitchell , Southampton, Itchen

That was my exact point. Of course he cannot be responsible to this House.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

My hon. Friend mentioned being directly responsible.

Photo of Mr Bob Mitchell Mr Bob Mitchell , Southampton, Itchen

No. I said that the Minister mentioned that. I was taking up the Minister on it. Of course a directly elected Member of the European Parliament cannot be responsible to this House. But it is important that he should have some contact with this House, and I was suggesting one of the methods that could be used.

I want to see the Bill published as early as possible. I am not quite sure what will happen. We are to have this White Paper. I am confused about this. Shall we have a debate on the White Paper on a "take note" motion, or will it be split into bits, where we can decide in that debate what form of representation we shall choose? I make a plea to the Government to try not to have a debate when the European Parliament is in plenary session. This usually happens on these matters. I hope that it will be different this time.

Shall we have separate votes on the different parts of the White Paper before the Bill is published or afterwards? I think that we ought to get that clarified. That is why I wished that the Minister had spoken a little later. We ought to have some answers to the questions, if the Minister has any answers to give us.

As I read the agreement which has been arrived at between the Liberal Party and my party and the Prime Minister's statement relating thereto, the question of a free vote applies only to the system of election. I want to see a free vote applied to the whole Bill. I want to see a free vote apply to the whole Bill. I want there to be a free vote for Ministers on the whole Bill. I see no earthly reason why the House should compel, or try to compel,—it would never succeed—my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South, or even one of the Ministers who is opposed to direct elections, to vote against his conscience.

It is well known that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment is opposed to direct elections. He was the only effective speaker in the referendum debate on the other side of the argument. I do not want there to be some sort of whipping system which will compel my right hon. Friend and people who think like him to go into the Lobby in favour of direct elections if they do not want to. I want this to be a House of Commons matter. Let the Executive keep out of it. Let the House make the decision by a free vote.

I again congratulate the hon. Member for Devon, West on introducing the motion and on giving the Government a little prod. I hope that the prod will be successful. The Minister has already given an assurance that we shall have the White Paper next week. I hope that the Government will then get on with producing the Bill so that we can meet the target date of May 1978.

1.2 p.m.

Photo of Mr Anthony Royle Mr Anthony Royle , Richmond Upon Thames Richmond

Like the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchin (Mr. Mitchell), I wish to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) on introducing the motion. It has enabled us to discuss in some depth the subject of direct elections and also to invite the Minister to answer questions.

Every Member who has spoken so far in the debate has supported enthusiastically the principle of direct elections and has pressed the Minister to introduce the Bill as quickly as possible. The only voice we have heard against this has been from an hon. Member who has interrupted from time to time, namely, the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who is against the whole principle.

All other Members who have spoken in the debate have spoken in favour of direct elections. It should be recognised outside the House that there is a general sympathy and the wish of the House to try to get the Bill through as quickly as possible.

The Minister's speech has added to the confusion rather than simplified the situation about the Government's intentions and plans. I hope that the Minister will make an exception and, with the leave of the House and with the leave of the Chair, Mr. Deputy Speaker, will intervene later, after my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) has spoken from the Opposition Front Bench, because certain questions have not been covered properly and great confusion has been created. The fact that there is confusion must be bad for the Government and bad for the whole concept of direct elections, and it is essential that certain points be clarified today.

We all know that the Government have been dragging their feet on this issue for the past 18 months. There is no need for me to go in great detail into the history of the Government's feet-dragging. There has been debate after debate on the subject of direct elections over the past 18 months. The Select Committee, of which I was a member, has deliberated for many hours and has produced three separate reports. The Government have produced a Green Paper. On many occasions senior Ministers of this Government and of the Government of the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson) made it clear that the Government are committed to use their best endeavours to introduce legislation on the subject of direct elections to the European Parliament, but nothing has happened.

My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir P. Kirk) indicated his view as to the reasons for the Government dragging their feet. It must be because of internal problems and difficulties that the Government face, for political reasons, amongst their own supporters that the Bill has not been brought forward before.

The Government now say that we are to get a new White Paper with green edges. The Minister said today on several occasions that there will be a debate on the subject of proportional representation, arising on that White Paper, and that a free vote will be taken in the House. That did not tell us whether, when the vote has been taken and the result incorporated in the Bill, there will be a free vote on the electoral system clause of the Bill. This is causing a great deal of confusion.

I hope that the Minister will clarify matters, otherwise when the White Paper.

which will contain various proposals, is debated, we shall not know which part of the White Paper will be voted upon, whether we are to go through the White Paper paragraph by paragraph and line by line, with a free vote on each issue, or whether there will be a free vote on the White Paper as a whole after which we shall have to sit back and trust the Government to bring forward a Bill that has been drafted so immaculately as to incorporate the views of the House expressed in the debate.

It would be much better for the Government to introduce a draft Bill for debate next week. They must have a Bill ready in the Department now. Why not bring it forward in draft next week? Let us look at it over the Easter Recess and, when we return, we can debate the Second Reading of such a Bill. Then in Committee we could have a free vote, which is what the Government apparently want to have anyway, on the type of system to be adopted.

The adoption of that course would enable hon. Members to table amendments to the appropriate clause, if they wished to do so, thus enabling debates to take place on the different possible systems on which Members may have ideas. Those systems could be voted on. That would be a much more sensible operation than what is proposed, which is that we should debate one more document and have yet another delay. It seems very unlikely that, following the debate on the White Paper and the vote thereon, we shall get through all the stages of the Bill before the Summer Recess. However, it is essential that the Bill be passed by that time if we are to meet the deadline which we all believe it is vital to meet, and thus keep in line with our friends in Europe and introduce direct elections for June 1978.

I had intended to say a few words about the question of the dual mandate. The need for speed in introducing direct elections in Britain is paramount because of the pressure on hon. Members who serve both at the European Parliament and here at Westminster. However, there is no need for me to say anything because the strains have been made very clear by my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden and the hon. Member for Itchen, both of whom are Members of the European Parliament. The stress to which Members serving in both Parliaments are subjected underline the importance of getting a directly elected system legislated for as quickly as possible.

When we in the Select Committee discussed the question of the system of election none of us was dogmatic. The view of the Select Committee, as appears from the published report, was that it was probably better to have the first-past-the-post system, because that would enable the legislation to get through the House quickly and the preparations to get under way.

It was thought by the majority of the members of the Select Committee that the introduction of a system of proportional representation would open the doors to the tendering of a constant stream of ideas from Members suggesting different systems that could be operated, and that would result in inordinate delay. For this reason, the majority report of the Committee recommended that a Bill should be brought in before the end of February because that would enable the Boundary Commissions to start work so that we could get the legislation through and play our part in the direct elections on the due date next year.

However, as the Government have been dragging their feet and have deliberately not brought a Bill forward, it is clear that we shall probably not get the Bill on the Floor of the House until May. In those circumstances, the House may probably wish to consider other systems of voting.

I do not object to that, but many hon. Members feel strongly that a first-past-the-post system will enable us to retain the links between a Member and his constitutents. It would be difficult to devise a PR system which could be incorporated in time for next year's elections and which would allow a Member to retain his links with the constituency. We should have to go back to the Boundary Commissions for drawing up new constituencies. Whether we use the West German system or some other. We are inevitably pressed back into a list system of some sort with all the disadvantages that other hon. Members have mentioned.

The right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) who was also on the Select Committee, is equally anxious about a list system devised by the headquarters of the various political parties. If we therefore embark on an examination of the various PR systems, there is a danger that we may delay things even more than by going for a first-past-the-post system. I hope that the House wilt agree to a first-past-the-post system so that we may have the elections on time I should not like to see the Bill delayed. I am keen to see it go through and I shall not be dogmatic about this aspect of it, because it is essential that the legislation should get on the statute book as quickly as possible.

The Government have wasted the last three years in which they have been responsible for our relations with the European Economic Community. The Government have an unfortunate image in Europe, not just on direct elections, but on a wide range of other topics. They give the impression, despite the referendum and all the votes in the House, of still being disenchanted with Europe, of being reluctant members of the Community, of dragging their feet on every topic and of a general insensitivity to the views of our friends in the Community.

If one joins any organisation, one does so either with enthusiasm to play a part and to try to give a lead, or one does not join at all. The Government must change their attitude. Their style and manner towards Europe should change and change quickly.

It is extraordinary that the Secretary of State for Energy, despite his hatred of the EEC, is the one Minister who has shown enthusiasm, leadership and style in his approach to problems in the Community. He is the only Cabinet Minister who has taken the trouble to is it every EEC capital during his chairmanship of the Committee of Energy Ministers and he has constantly taken the lead on energy policy and ideas.

One gets the impression that other Ministers are almost unaware that Britain has the presidency of the Council of Ministers. No initiative or leadership has appeared. The theme and tone of the Government's attitude is one of reluctance and fear of getting involved because of the reaction of some of their supporters in the House.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West on obtaining this debate and I again ask the Minister to answer some of the questions that have been raised since he spoke, because we are all in a fog of confusion about the Government's intentions on its so-called White Paper with its so-called green edges and their so-called Bill that we hope will become a reality. I know that the Minister is keen that the Bill should be brought forward and I hope that he will leave no stone unturned in pressing and pushing his colleagues to get on with the job of bringing the Bill before the House.

1.16 p.m.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

I support a great deal of what was said by the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Sir A. Royle) although he was less than fair in his strictures upon Ministers. I join in his tribute to the Secretary of State for Energy, but a number of other Ministers, including the new Foreign Secretary, even in the comparatively few weeks after the tragic death of his predecessor, have begun to make an impact.

As one who has dealings with Europe in another capacity, I recognise that there is, in my party, an element that believes that the Community is exclusively populated by that familiar trinity so often quoted in the House, namely French Communist millionaires who are intent on selling us short to the Soviet Union or on amassing for themselves wine lakes, butter mountains and so on.

However, most of us feel that there is in Europe a perception of the difficulties facing Great Britain in this post-imperial phase where we might easily turn in on ourselves in a mood of insularity, as have some other West European countries, notably France, in the past.

I am a member of another consultative assembly, the Council of Europe, and I have nothing against such assemblies. We see at the Council the great advantage of widespread parliamentary discussion between people of similar political philosophies from different countries with different national traditions and we see the nuances of view that begin to emerge on great issues of East-West relations, as well as on domestic matters affecting the countries in Western Europe, once parlia- mentarians are brought together. If those parliamentarians were brought together with a mandate—the directly-expressed will of the people—behind them, they would speak with even greater force and strength on these issues.

It has been a pleasant surprise to me during my two years as a member of the Council to see the extent to which we work with our European Socialist colleagues. I am sure that the same is true of other parties and applies equally within the European Parliament. It is interesting that we often see significant shifts of view among people such as, for example, the Italian Communists, who are now participating fully in the Community. These would not be understood if we took an insular stand and knew only the stereotypes of various characters of whom we had read and heard, but rarely met.

I am an unashamed supporter of the principle of direct elections. The hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) has done the House a great service in putting down this motion but, because of its phrasing, I hope that he does not press it to a vote. The debate has drawn from the Minister a number of indications about the way in which the Government may proceed and more may be forthcoming before the debate concludes. It would be unwise to proceed on the basis of the precise phrasing of the motion.

Let me address some remarks to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing)—who is now standing in for the legions of people who are endemically hostile to Europe, about whom we in the Labour Party are allegedly so worried. Surely the country is saying to us that we should extend the democratic principle of direct accountability to the European Parliament as to every other forum in which we attempt to check national, regional and now supra-national executives?

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

My hon. Friend says "Oh". Does he wish to turn that ejaculation into a comment?

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

My hon. Friend talks of direct accountability but surely the supra-national executive of which he speaks, the Council of Ministers, is not directly responsible to the Assembly. If it were, we should be in a federal situation, which I think my hon. Friend does not wish to see.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

I have no wish to be drawn into an argument whether ultimately we should be part of a federal Europe.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

Obviously my hon. Friend is obsessively worried by that factor. I am not. I think that a stronger European Parliament will assert itself vis-à-vis both the Commission and the Council of Ministers. It is misleading to believe that the greatest safeguard for the British electorate is to have a voice in the Council of Ministers instead of elected representatives in the European Parliament. It suggests that representatives of our Executive, because they are answerable to this place, are at all times the best guarantors of our liberties within a European context. I do not believe that that is the case. My hon. Friend must recognise that factor.

My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) recently wrote a passionate article in Tribune against direct elections in which he referred to a tiny minority of Euro-fanatics. He suggested that they were forcing through this matter against the wishes of the majority of British people. According to the opinion polls, I detect no hostility to the extension of the democratic principle even among those who are most sceptical about the performance of the Commission and of the EEC performance against the dream thus far. I believe that it is wholly wrong to suggest that direct elections would bring us to a situation in which because British Members of Parliament would be in a minority in the European Parliament they would be unable to protect British interests as well as representatives in Westminster could do.

Of course, we are in a minority as British Members within the European Parliament, but anybody who does not accept that does not accept the first principle of the Community to which we are committed by referendum, by many lengthy debates in this House and by the general wish of the British people. The whole point is to see that our interests are protected, not merely within a Council of Ministers but by pressing our views in the context of a political grouping within the European Parliament. That is what I want to see. I hope that as a result of this debate and of the White Paper we shall see a speedy introduction of a Bill to allow this House to decide on the precise form in which direct elections go ahead in the United Kingdom.

Those in the Labour Party who are opposed to the principle of direct elections are not alone. It is true to say that the French Communist Party is opposed to them, as are the unreconstructed elements of the Gaullists. However, those elements will not be slow in blaming us if we delay matters.

My hon. Friend the Minister said that we were not dragging our feet in relation to other countries. I do not believe that that is right. Several other countries are moving significantly forward and are beginning to introduce legislation faster than we are. All that we have on the table is a Select Committee Report suggesting that legislation should be introduced before the end of February.

I wish to see a free vote on this issue—not merely on the issue of direct elections but on the form of voting. I also hope that we shall have a free vote on the timetable motion. I wish to press the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd), who is on the Tory Front Bench, on that point. Willing the end and willing the means are equally important. If it is thought that the House should have a free vote on this important constitutional matter, surely the House should also be allowed a free vote on the timetable motion.

I appreciate that delay is a major weapon in the hands of the Opposition, although they have other weapons of opposition. The Opposition have accused the Government of dragging their feet, but I urge them to take the view that it is important to let the matter proceed with the utmost speed. It means that the House must decide without silly games being played between the two Front Benches on the timetable motion as soon as appropriate. With that done, I think that we can go forward to legislation this Session.

I was slightly confused when the Minister said that this matter, now enshrined in the great treaty between Labour and Liberal—which will be referred to in every debate for the next year by some Members of the Liberal Party—will be subject to a free vote in both Houses. I see possible problems arising if free votes on the form of representation in both Houses were to clash. What will happen if the House of Lords decides—as the House of Commons will not—on some form of PR? There are many ardent advocates of PR in the House of Lords and many have suggested. I think unwisely, that greater authority would be given to the House of Lords if some form of PR were used to elect that Chamber in future. They may wish to see it introduced into the House of Commons. Personally, I hope that that will not happen.

In the absence of any Liberal spokesman—obviously having made their point they have gone—I must tell the Liberals that I am not convinced that the use of PR in this context will be free from difficulty if introduced in direct elections. The PR proponents in this House run horses for courses. Sometimes they say that in the long term PR is the fairer system. In this context they say that PR is important because it is the only way these things will get through, the only way in which to save the Boundary Commissioners an onerous task, and the only way in which to stop all these inquiries and objections to proposals for all the 81 constituencies. There would be equal objections from the use of various methods of PR. Those objections could hold up proceedings for an even longer period of time—and on more profound constitutional grounds.

I have in my possession two glossy pamphlets in the same format but from slightly different sources. One is written by Michael Steed, of the National Committee for Electoral Reform, and the other is a pamphlet from the Labour Study Group on Electoral Reform, of which I had never previously heard, suggesting a different form of PR. The Labour document on PR suggests a form of single transferable voting. There are enormous difficulties involved in drawing up constituencies under that system. Mr. Michael Steed in his system of PR advocates the use of PR plus X. We are used to the "X" factor, but that system appears to allow a vote for any one individual among groups in multi-member constituencies. After that there would be a weighing of overall results by adding all the results in respect of candidates in a particular party or faction and declaring elected those, in proportion, with the highest number of individual votes. Again there are enormous problems that affect not merely the Labour Party but other factors involved in the drawing up of lists.

Do we or do we not put more power into the hands of the regional and national caucus? Are we not weakening on the very argument for—whilst acknowledging—the links between the single hon. Member and his constituents? For all those reasons the Labour Party should bite upon the bullet as well as upon the ballot even though we might do worse with our own single Member system over the term of one Parliament. On occasions we have done badly in the elections for the GLC and in local elections. The same is true of the Conservative Party when an unpopular Conservative Government have been in mid-term. I do not see that as an argument for changing the basis of the system, particularly when all the countries of the Community are committed to find, if they can, some common system for the future. All the other members of the Community who are committed are further along the road to direct elections than we are and they are using their own present system for elections in the first instance.

I take the point about the difficulties of Ulster but they do not necessarily mean that the representation of the 34 per cent. of the Catholics—assuming that they all vote for a single candidate—would not be elected. The Liberal Party, in its new statesmanlike rôle, sees real areas—perhaps the West Country is one—where the Liberals can become the alternative party and where they can even sweep out the hon. Member for Devon, West and his hon. Friends. If they do not, that is a counsel of despair to Liberal supporters. They are asking to be enshrined as the perpetual bridesmaids of the political system. That is not a good argument to put forward.

I now turn to the exhaustion of Members of Parliament who have a dual mandate. We should see proposals for direct elections to the European Parliament going ahead in the context of other reforms. I hope to see some reform of the second Chamber. Some of my hon. Friends believe that we should abolish the second Chamber. We do not like it. We do not like what it is doing and we do not like it in principle. However, there are arguments for a second Chamber which would include members of other elected bodies. That would give us a second Chamber in which those elected to some other function in the country become elected indirectly by appointment to the second Chamber.

At present there is an objection to any Joint Select Committee between the House of Commons and the House of Lords to examine European legislation. That is one of the reasons for delays in studying it. That objection might disappear if Member of the European Parliament were also Members of the revised second Chamber. That would give them a link with Westminster without having to bear the onerous duties of this elected Chamber, which operates longer hours and does more work to less effect than any other Parliament in the Western world.

If we could get them to see that they could work with their colleagues in that way, we could persuade the British people who are hostile to the idea of direct elections that it is an extension of the principle of accountability to other institutions that now have some sway over their lives. That is the first step towards moving mountains, even butter mountains.

1.34 p.m.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) on his luck in coming top in the ballot and on his choice of motion. The timing of the debate is appropriate and I congratulate my hon. Friend on the vigorous and robust way in which he set about his task. He was right to concentrate on the main arguments of the case because that is of the greatest interest to most constituents. He argued his case well, particularly that for the West Country, an area that is not represented in the present European Parliament.

My hon. Friend did not claim that his motion was in itself a sufficient instrument for getting things moving. It will have to be supplemented by Govern- ment action. My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir P. Kirk) reinforced my hon. Friend's argument about how this week's events have shown the impossibility of functioning under the dual mandate. Two important debates took place in the Parliaments this week. That coincidence made it impossible for Members of the European Parliament from this country to take a full part in the debate on farm prices in Europe.

Hon. Members with a dual mandate have to divide their time in three parts—first in this House; second in the European Parliament; and third in aero-planes and airport lounges. This week's experience makes clear that that arrangement has no future.

I thank the Minister for the amiable manner in which he intervened earlier. I shall back up the plea of my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Surrey (Sir A. Royle) that the Minister should ask the Leader of the House to speak again before we end the debate. It is common ground amongst all who have spoken since that there are a number of matters of importance on which we need to be clear about the Government's attitude and upon which it is reasonable to expect a statement from the Government. The Minister spoke with an air of amiable but vague benevolence that is characteristic of the Government's attitude. It is time the House pinned the Government down to give precise answers to precise questions.

The Minister's comment on the free vote was an amazing illustration of the state into which we are getting. When asked a plain man's question about whether he was talking about a free vote on the principle and the Second Reading or whether he was talking about a free vote on the particular electoral system, the Minister did not know. He simply read from Hansard a quotation from the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister was talking amidst interruptions and his statement was not clear.

We had a helpful intervention from the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe)—the assistant or supplementary Minister. He read out the appropriate text from which it was clear that the free vote simply applies to the electoral system. The hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) has thrown doubt on the situation and we are now back where we started. It is necessary to press the Minister for a statement this afternoon on this vital matter. Will it be possible for the Secretary of State for the Environment and the Secretary of State for Energy to vote against the principle of direct elections? This is not a piddling, technical matter. It goes to the root of the problem.

If the Government have made a commitment in Europe—and they have—will they see that members of the Cabinet ensure that the commitment is carried through? If there is a free vote that enables Ministers to vote against direct elections, that will be seen in Europe as bad faith and as the final collapse of the Government's authority over their Members.

Two Labour Members naturally pressed me to say something about the guillotine. They have both been here a considerable number of years—longer than I—and they would not expect me to give an answer. [An HON. MEMBER: "It is a significant question."] I am coming to the significance of the question, but we are a White Paper and a Second Reading debate away from that—if the Government's plan is followed.

It is interesting that that question should have been addressed to me, because it underlines a point that I intended to come to even if hon. Members had not pressed me. That is the point made by the right hon. Member for Devon, North that the Bill depends upon Conservative support. Either it will carry with our votes or it will fall. That means that Ministers—and assistant and supplementary Ministers—should pay a little more attention to views expressed on these Benches on this subject than they have shown signs of doing in recent months.

It is precisely because we are involved as prime movers and necessary supporters in this exercise that it is natural that we should be pressed, albeit prematurely, about the guillotine and other matters.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

The Bill will pass if it has not simply Conservative but House of Commons support. That is the principle of a free vote—to put a free vote at some stage to the whole House. Therefore, what the hon. Gentleman says about the attitude of his party is crucial.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for underlining my point. I do not follow him in the further stage of the argument that he advanced. I believe that if Ministers are permitted to vote against this major part of Government policy, that will be in breach of faith and a clear sign of collapse of authority.

It is impossible to discuss this matter fairly without agreeing that it is set against a background of almost incredible delay. The pledges have been repeated over and over again but have not been honoured. It is more than a year since we had a Green Paper. It is a year almost exactly since the House spent two days debating direct elections to the European Parliament. It is seven months since the Select Committee produced a detailed plan for carrying out the Government's pledge as a matter of urgency. We worked at a pace, we took evidence at a pace and we produced a Report because we knew that if it was to be done sensibly, action had to be taken quickly.

The Leader of the Liberal Party yesterday and the right hon. Member for Devon, North today claimed great success in having moved the Government forward on this matter. But that success consisted of a precise repetition of what was said in the Queen's Speech. The right hon. Gentleman made a fair point—that no one necessarily supposed that the Government's intentions as proclaimed in the Queen's Speech would still be their intentions three or four months later. We have come to accept that.

Nevertheless, this pledge has been repeated by Ministers of the Crown—small Ministers, large Ministers, trotting up and down Europe—at intervals of about a week ever since. I have here a whole batch of quotations from the Minister's colleagues, making this point over and over again—abroad. Severe harm is being done, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Surrey said, to Britain's influence in the Community by this carrying on.

Yet even after this catalogue of delay, we are still in great difficulty. We have been promised a White Paper next week. The Government are colour-blind. It is clear from everything that we have heard that it will be not a White Paper at all but a Green Paper which on crucial points will simply set out, as Green Papers do, the options open to the Government. Thus, one year after the first Green Paper, after a full year of "best endeavours" by the Government, we are to get another Green Paper. That is progress of which even the slowest snail would feel ashamed.

We have spent a good deal of time today discussing systems. That is right. The debate centres on that point. But we must not forget the basic arguments for direct elections deployed by my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West. My hon. Friends and I who sat on the Select Committee always had the thought at the back of our minds that if direct elections were to be held in 1978, questions of direct elections and questions of electoral reform should be kept separate. To put it the other way around, if those two arguments, about direct elections and electoral reform, were to be confused, the direct elections Bill was at risk.

We held that view although we were not at one about electoral reform. Personally, I am in favour of it. The reason that we thought that the two arguments should if possible be kept separate was very simple. We knew that many right hon. and hon. Members on this side, and I think on the other side, as the hon. Member for Derby, North has exemplified, believe in direct elections and believe that there should be greater democratic influence at the heart of the Community but are opposed to proportional representation.

If those hon. Members are forced to chose between those two beliefs, the Bill for direct elections will be at risk, because they will not all make the same choice in that dilemma. That fact was very much in our minds. That is why the Select Committees, seven long months ago, drew up a scheme for using the present electoral system for the first round. The Government would be in a much happier and easier position—so would the House and the country—if they had acted on that advice at the time. We should all have been spared a great deal of trouble and difficulty and should not be in the position of uncertainty vis-à-vis Europe that we are in now.

The right hon. Member for Devon, North made a cogent speech, but there is a danger that the Liberal Party is showing some naivety. They must realise that many Ministers want neither direct elections nor proportional representation. I should not be at all surprised if they found, when they put the case to the Government, as they will, for a proportional representation clause in the direct elections Bill, that several Ministers were very willing takers. Those Ministers, wanting neither direct elections nor PR, would see that linking the two inextricably would be the best chance of the Bill failing without the Government appearing to be associated with its failure.

That is a real danger. I hope that Members of the Liberal Party, in the excitements of their new liaison, do not end up by doing some harm to the cause in which they strongly believe. It is still possible to redeem the situation. The best course would be the one which would flow from this motion and which several of my hon. Friends have urged—dropping the idea of a White Paper and proceeding to a Bill.

We had a debate—the Minister was not himself involved—a year ago which lasted for two days. We have had several similar debates since. There can be no accusation that on this matter anybody is being hurried or hustled. The best plan would be to proceed quickly to a Bill—it must exist in draft—and then to argue in the debate on the Bill the case for this system or that.

If the Government object to that course, which seems to us a straightforward approach, and stick to their present plan, we shall obviously have to consider the options which they list for electoral systems. The first of those options could be having boundary details as a schedule to a Bill, but we are strongly opposed to that and I think that the Government have already seen that it will not do.

In the light of everything that has happened—I do not want to go into the detail now—we should reject for the first-past-the-post system the fixing of boundaries not by the Boundary Commissions but by the Home Office. We could not regard that as a fair and sensible way of fixing boundaries.

Moreover, I believe that most of my right hon. and hon. Friends would be opposed also to a single national list. I think that most unlikely to command majority support in the Conservative Party. We believe in the territorial principle, that is, that Members of Parliament should represent actual cities, towns and villages, which they could do under proportional representation by regions, which they could do by first past the post, but which they could not do if there were a single national list. I am not making that, as it were, as a Front Bench pronouncement, because the proposal is not concrete yet, but, for my part, I warn the Government against plumping for that course.

As for other choices, we shall have to see what the Government say and how they state the arguments. Nevertheless, I must say now that I believe that we should resent it on these Benches if, purely by delay, the Government ruled out, or pretended that they had ruled out, the option which the Select Committee recommended seven months ago. We could not regard it as treating the House fairly if we were told that there was no question of following the advice of the Select Committee merely because the Government had sat on their hands for seven months.

I do not accept that it is too late to proceed in that way. For example, we did not in the Select Committee consider in any detail the proposal that the Boundary Commissions should start after Second Reading but before Royal Assent. There may be other ways—the Minister will be better able to pronounce on them than I am—by which we could save time while following the main lines of the Select Committee's report. All I am saying now is that we should resent it if that option were excluded from the White Paper simply because the Government had delayed since the Select Committee reported.

My main point today—this is my most serious word to the Minister—is to reinforce what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden. When the Bill comes, there will have to be a clause in it defining the electoral system. It is possible, especially on a free vote, that that clause, whatever system it proposes, will fail. What is crucial is that the failure of the clause, the failure of that particular proposal for machinery, should not destroy the Bill, which it could easily do if the Government so handled the matter.

There are various ways by which that outcome could be prevented. As has already been suggested, there could be a preliminary vote in the White Paper debate on the specific question of electoral systems, and the Government could then devise the relevant clause of the Bill in the light of the Commons decision already taken. That would be one way of doing it. Another way, though this would be a more difficult procedure, would be to have the clause and then, if it were knocked out, be ready at once with an alternative clause reflecting the view which the House would then have uttered.

What would be really disastrous in the national interest, I believe, would be the frustration of the will of the substantial majority which exists in the House for direct elections—the substantial majority which believes that the Government were right to pledge this country to carry out direct elections and, we hope, will be right in deciding to honour that pledge—simply because the Government, or perhaps the Government with the Liberal Party, got their calculations wrong about the piece of machinery required to put those elections into effect. That is the main point which I press on the Minister, and I ask him to comment on it.

We need an assurance that in some way the Government will separate, or enable the House to separate, if it wishes, these two questions and come to separate decisions on the principle of direct elections and on the actual choice of system.

Photo of Mr Bob Mitchell Mr Bob Mitchell , Southampton, Itchen

How would the hon. Gentleman answer the question previously put by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Healey (Mr. Hooley)? What happens if, on a free vote, none of the various electoral systems proposed gets a majority in the House? It could easily happen.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

I am not sure that it could easily happen if the Government showed proper skill in handling the matter.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

I agree that it is a big "if". The hon. Gentleman need not rub that in. But if we have a debate on the White Paper concluded by a vote on systems, that should give sufficient guidance to the Government in drafting the clause accordingly. I should add, however, taking the hon. Gentleman's point further, that if, even so, the clause ran into trouble, the Government should be ready with another clause reflecting the views of the House. There are different ways by which they could do it. It should not be beyond the skill of Ministers to round that corner successfully. It might come to grief, but what we are asking is that they should prepare themselves to allow the House to reflect in a decision the wish which, I believe, the majority holds that there should be direct elections next year, and be sufficiently flexible and supple in their reactions to the view of the House on electoral systems to make that preponderance of view prevail.

We believe that the Government have dawdled painfully on this issue, for reasons advanced by some hon. Members on their side who have not appeared today. We reject those reasons. The fact that criticism of the Community is widespread on certain matters does not destroy but actually strengthens the case for direct elections. I have never understood the argument that, because people dislike the common agricultural policy, because people dislike surpluses or dislike this and that, they should be denied the right to elect representatives who could press those criticisms at the heart of the Community. That seems to me to be a profoundly illogical argument, although we have heard it many times in the House and may well hear it again today.

The truth is that decisions taken in Europe now, because of the outcome of the referendum and because of our accession to the Community, more and more affect the livelihood of individuals and communities in our towns, cities and villages. It is becoming more and more important that those individuals and communities should have their own elected representatives at the heart of the Community to represent their views. I therefore join my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West in pressing upon the Government a far greater sense of urgency and a much greater degree of political skill in moving forward this important project.

1.57 p.m.

Photo of Mr Bryan Gould Mr Bryan Gould , Southampton, Test

The House on several occasions has debated different aspects of the subject of direct elections. Indeed, I believe that this may well be the fourth or fifth debate on the subject during the past 12 months or so. What the House has not yet done is make any decision on the principle of direct elections. Nor is it invited to do so today. Presumably, that day will come at some point, and when it does, if I am lucky enough to catch the eye of the Chair, I shall hope to make the case against the principle of direct elections.

The motion before us today, in effect, urges the House and the Government to speed up the process. In other words, what we are discussing now is not the principle but the timing, should the House at any point accept the principle of direct elections.

I, therefore, address myself to the simple question: why the hurry? At this moment, Heads of Governments throughout the Community are celebrating, if that be the right word, the 20 years of the Community since its establishment. In other words, the original members have had 20 years of membership in which and with which to prepare themselves for this further and considerable step towards a form of European federalism which many people in this country have never even considered yet, let alone endorsed.

We in this country, on the other hand, without yet having completed even our transitional stage of membership, are being urged and hustled along towards the arbitrarily fixed date in May 1978, a date which, I should add, does not appear in any form of agreement on the subject. We are urged to cut corners, to resort to all sorts of subterfuges and to change the procedures and conventions of the House in order to meet that date. I do not know why.

It certainly cannot be that there is any enormous swell of public opinion demanding that the Government should act in this direction. It would be very surprising if that were the case, since we all know that the reaction from our experience of Common Market membership ranges from disillusion at one end of the scale to outright anger at the other end. It would be very surprising if the British public showed any willingness to go any further down the road, which they know from recent experience to be strewn with so many minefields.

Throughout the debate hon. Members have referred to an opinion poll commissioned by the European Commission purporting to show that 57 per cent. of the British people are in favour of direct elections. That is quite a useful total. However, I believe that there is something ever so slightly suspicious about those figures.

A more recent poll, conducted by the Gallup organisation, demonstrated that only 55 per cent. of the British people had ever heard of the European Parliament or Assembly, so it is difficult to see how 57 per cent. could have been in favour of direct elections. When we look even further into the results of the Gallup poll we discover that not only had 55 per cent. of British people not heard of the European Parliament, but only 32 per cent. were even aware of direct elections. Only 10 per cent. of the electorate knew anything at all about direct elections before the referendum.

There is little evidence to suggest that there is this great demand from the public to move in a direction of direct elections or European federalism, so why the hurry? This is an issue of major significance. I do not suppose that anyone on either side of the House would deny that the outcome of this issue will crucially determine the type of Community to which we belong, and its future development and evolution.

No one would deny that the issue of direct elections will make an enormous difference constitutionally to the way in which this House operates. It will make a difference to the United Kingdom constitution. The whole unity and survival of the United Kingdom will be affected. Anyone who denies or doubts the enormous stimulus to centrifugal pressure in this country that has been given by direct elections is living in cloud cuckoo land.

One need only discuss this with members of the nationalist parties to see how much advantage they see in being able to bypass the House of Commons at Westminster and operate from a Scottish or Welsh Assembly direct to a European Assembly, leaving out Westminster altogether. That is why the representatives of those parties, although they continue their opposition to the Common Market, are nevertheless in favour of direct elections.

Direct elections will also have major consequences for our electoral system. Little else has been talked about today. Whatever we do in the first round of direct elections, everyone agrees that for the second round of direct elections we shall be adopting a uniform electoral system, as we are required to do by Article 138 of the Treaty of Rome. I am not saying whether that is good or bad, but merely that it is important and something that we should take into account.

It has always puzzled me how the Government can claim so firmly that by legal obligation under Article 138 we are proceeding towards direct elections on the basis of universal suffrage, while at the same time they can miraculously opt out of the other requirement for a uniform electoral procedure. No doubt the Government have their own experts on these matters.

The reason for the hurry is not that there is any demand from the people of this country. This suggests to me that the whole impetus of the campaign towards direct elections derives much more from a small and, I am glad to say, a dwindling minority of Euro-fanatics rather than any demand for democracy from people in this country. I would expect some kind of humility, circumspection and caution on the pact of those who are anxious to tread this path, especially when they look back at what they have led the country into in the past few years.

But democracy is not something that can be imposed by a small, elitist minority, Democracy is something that evolves and grows. I do not think that anything of that sort is involved in the campaign for direct elections. It has much more to do with federalism than with democracy.

I issue a challenge to those who say that they are interested in increasing democratic control over existing Community institutions. If that is what they are interested in, and if, as they say, this is an urgent matter, let them join my hon. Friends and myself in tabling a motion next week requiring the House to give firm instructions to our Ministers before they go to Brussels, and for them to be accountable to the House when they return. That is the way in which to secure enormous democratic control over decisions made in Brussels, and it is entirely consistent with the present situation in the Community.

The problem of that course is not that it is sufficiently democratic but that it is not sufficiently federalist. We have to look at the motivation of that small group overtly in favour—I welcome the fact that it is overt—of further progress towards European federation or European union.

Photo of Mr Bob Mitchell Mr Bob Mitchell , Southampton, Itchen

Can my hon. Friend explain to the House in fairly simple language how the act of direct elections would change the constitution of this House, or be a move towards federalism? Surely all those things will have to come by decision of this House. How does the act of direct elections change that?

Photo of Mr Bryan Gould Mr Bryan Gould , Southampton, Test

My hon. Friend tempts me to speak on a subject that I had forsworn, namely, the argument on the principle of direct elections, but my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) is a member of the delegation to the European Assembly and he will know better than most that no one on the Continent so much as mentions direct elections without linking them with the whole proposal to expand the powers of the European Assembly. That is certainly the case, and it could hardly be otherwise.

Photo of Mr Bryan Gould Mr Bryan Gould , Southampton, Test

I do not wish to spend longer on that subject. It would be time that I could spend more fruitfully or another occasion.

The whole impetus of the movement to direct elections comes from those who wish to see this happen. Few hon. Members who have spoken in support of direct elections would deny that that is what they have in mind. We should look further into the motivation of such people.

Photo of Mr Phillip Whitehead Mr Phillip Whitehead , Derby North

My hon. Friend said that on the Continent of Europe most people see the move towards direct elections as a move towards federalism. How does he square that with the recent decision of the French constitutional court, which suggested that there was no secession of sovereignty involved in the principle of direct elections?

Photo of Mr Bryan Gould Mr Bryan Gould , Southampton, Test

My hon. Friend is quite right. I would not go so far as to say that there is unanimity on the part of every political party or every country in the Community. If anyone believed that the French Gaullists, M. Chirac, or the French Communists or other political groups in France, or Denmark or elsewhere, were uniformly in favour of direct elections he would be mistaken, but those who are arguing passionately for direct elections do so on the basis that this is the way of expanding the power of the European Asembly. I am tempted to go into whether this is democratic, but that must be left for another speech.

The point of principle that I shall take up is a point made, unfortunately in my absence, by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) when he talked of what I had said in a pamphlet on this subject. He said that it was my view that direct elections could not be democratic because the British delegation would be in a minority. That is a statement of fact, but it would be a ridiculous argument. It would be akin to saying "I shall not join this game because I cannot guarantee that I shall win".

That is not my point. My point is that elections alone do not guarantee democracy. A minority can be democratically represented, even with direct elections, only if there exists a willingness on the part of that minority and a recognition that it has a sufficient community of interest, and a willingness, therefore, to have major decisions crucial to its interests decided not by itself but by a body in which it is in a minority. That is what has arisen from the current situation, and that is why direct elections alone cannot be equated with democracy.

Let me go back to the reasons for the hurry. There is a widespread feeling that the Community has somehow lost its way, that it is making painfully slow progress in some direction, and I would not disagree with that too strongly. There is, therefore, a feeling that somehow this modification, this sense of urgency, this possibility of achievement, must be reconstituted, and that is why we are presented with deadlines to meet and why there is a sense of urgency that doing something—anything—is better than doing nothing.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

Does my hon. Friend agree that the report in The Guardian today—I do not know whether it is correct—of £200,000 being provided to British political parties to prepare for elections—itself an irony since it is taxpayers' money—is a further example of the urgency of which my hon. Friend speaks?

Photo of Mr Bryan Gould Mr Bryan Gould , Southampton, Test

There are certain ample resources with which to prepare the ground for direct elections and, no doubt, eventually to ease the way of those who wish to fight them.

The second reason for the great haste, however, is much more important. It is that we are on the verge of enlarging the Community substantially, a process which I strongly welcome. But within another year or so we shall be engaged in negotiations for the entry of Greece and Portugal. Those who wish to see a centralised federal structure in Europe recognise that the possibility of imprinting that pattern on the Community will be gravely weakened if that enlargement takes place or gets under way. In other words, the possibility of a supra-national element in the Community will be substantially delayed.

Those who favour such a structure therefore seek to achieve a fait accompli so that those who join the Community in the future must join an organisation with these centralised political institutions established. That is a close analogy to the way in which the common fisheries policy was rushed through in preparation for our membership so that we, too, were faced with a fait accompli in that sense. Therefore, it seems that the real explanation for the haste with which we are being urged to approach this matter is that it is important to those who want a federal Europe that the system should be in place before the Community is enlarged.

There is a third reason. It is that those who want a federal Europe are concerned that the efforts by national Parliaments, particularly by the Westminster Parlia- ment, to develop new procedures and conventions for controlling Ministers in Brussels will, if they are given the time and allowed to succeed, strip away the pretence that the only way of achieving democracy in the Community is by having direct elections.

The federalists are terrified that the national Parliaments, and this Parliament in particular, true to its traditions and history, will devise new means of pulling back the Executive to within its control, ever at the moment that the Executive escapes to Brussels. We are painfully proceeding towards that objective and it is in an attempt to abort that development that people are so concerned and keen to have direct elections by May 1978.

These are the reasons for the urgency with which we are asked to approach this problem.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

The hon. Member has spent a long time in not developing his own views but in putting views into the mouths of those who disagree with him. I do not recognise those views. The great majority of my right hon. and hon. Friends believe strongly that this House could improve its methods of pulling back or pushing on Ministers who go on our behalf to Brussels. That has nothing to do with the argument for direct elections, however. We need both Parliaments operating effectively, one on British Ministers and the other at the centre of the Community, to maximise the democratic influence in the Community.

Photo of Mr Bryan Gould Mr Bryan Gould , Southampton, Test

The hon. Gentleman should consult some of his colleagues and consider particularly what the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Maudling) said in an earlier debate. He clearly laid down that he believed that there would have to be a clear division between the matters within the competence of this Parliament and those within the competence of the European Assembly.

One can see all too clearly what would happen. There will be decisions of importance to the people of this country initiated in Brussels. When we in this House try to have some say in the matter, we shall be told that it has been debated and discussed by the European Assembly. When we say that the matter affects our constituents, of whom we are directly elected representatives and whose interests we are here to protect, we shall be told that there are equally directly elected representatives in Brussels who are there to represent our constituents on such issues.

There we shall come to the point referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North from the pamphlet I wrote. The protection offered to our constituents will be, since we shall be in a minority, that much less effective. If it is less effective, that means that democracy will be that much less effective.

I have spoken for longer than I had intended and I have strayed on to subjects that I had hoped to save for another occasion. However, I believe that there is no ground for undue haste in this matter. I believe that it is much wiser irrespective of the view we might take of the eventual outcome, to proceed cautiously. The Community is a permanent institution and it has a long development ahead of it. What does a month here or there matter? Why the hurry? I hope that Ministers will take note of some of the arguments that I have advanced.

2.17 p.m.

Photo of Mr Paul Channon Mr Paul Channon , Southend West

I welcome the intervention by the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) because he has shown quite clearly the arguments that the House will have to face over the next few months. Until he spoke we seemed to be having an unrealistic debate which gave the impression that everyone in the House was in favour of direct elections.

I disagree very strongly with his conclusions. I could hardly believe my ears when he asked "Why the hurry?", and then at the same time pointed out that the Treaty of Rome was signed 20 years ago. I was also amazed by the prescience and brilliance of this mysterious small group of elitists with a blueprint for federalism. They foresaw that Portugal and Greece would be seeking to join in the not too distant future when Portugal was still a dictatorship and Greece had only just emerged to a democratic State when the blueprint was first being considered. These people are better than Herman Kahn. They could take over the whole business of prophecy in the future if they are so brilliant. They could tell us what is to happen in European developments many years hence.

I cannot accept that there has been any hurry. My complaint about the Government is that there has been insufficient desire to proceed with any reasonable speed. Equally, I cannot agree with the hon. Member that the survival of the United Kingdom is at stake and is dependent on the decision whether we have directly-elected or indirectly-elected Members of the European Parliament.

I believe, like the majority of Members in the House, including my hon. Friends the Members for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) who has so wisely devoted his time to the motion today, and Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) who did the same last month, that it is essential for us to live up to the commitments we entered into when, rightly or wrongly, we signed the Treaty of Rome—I believe rightly.

It is misguided of this House to go on fighting time and again the battles of the last 15 or 20 years over whether we should join the Common Market. We made that decision. It may have been the right or the wrong decision. Perhaps it is too soon to tell. However, the decision has been made, and we cannot go back on it with honour or with ease. It is wrong for the hon. Member for Southampton, Test to attack the Common Market by a side wind and try to stop it developing to direct elections in the way that it was always intended to do.

I wish to devote the few remarks that I want to make mainly to asking the Minister a number of questions. He has answered them already in a somewhat ambiguous way, but I hope that later this afternoon he will give clearer answers. It is extremely important that the House should realise at the earliest stage what it is being asked to undertake luring the next few months.

Before I come to my questions I would say one thing about increased powers. The hon. Member for Southampton, Test was quite wrong to assume that directly-elected Members to the European Parliament will have their powers increased. In fact, we know they will not. That will be done only by the Ministers of the various Governments themselves coming to a united view that the powers should be increased. I see no prospect of that happening for a long time. It is extremely unlikely that the French will allow that to happen, and it will require a constitutional amendment in Denmark. I cannot see the British Government allowing it to happen. It is only a smokescreen.

The other important point, as my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir P. Kirk) has pointed out, is how can we reasonably expect Members of Parliament elected to this House to spend their lives in the way that they do at present, rushing backwards and forwards to the European Parliament? It means that they are sometimes unable to speak in important debates in this House and are unable to take part in important debates there. The whole House, regardless of its views about the Common Market, is totally indebted to those hon. Members who have been prepared to take on this onerous task. Some of them, like my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden, have been doing it for nearly five years. It must be a very great strain and I congratulate them all on their achievement.

The simple solution would have been for the Government to have the wisdom and foresight to accept the first report of the Select Committee last June, and the second one in August and the final one last autumn, and bring forward the Bill, as mentioned in the Queen's Speech, at an earlier date at the time when the Select Committee recommended. If the Government had done that they would have avoided many of the problems that they will now face.

Until recently, we had some suspicion whether the Government would live up to their undertaking. That undertaking was clear and I hope they are intending to fulfil it. But we now come to the very difficult situation as a result of the events of last Wednesday. I imagine that the Prime Minister's speech was extremely carefully worded. I would refer the House to part of the Prime Minister's speech when he said that the White Paper would set out a choice among different electoral systems, but it will make no recommendation. The purpose of doing that is to enable the Government to hear the views of the House". As I understand it, we shall have the White Paper and then the views of the House will be heard. The Government will then consult the Liberal Party on the method to be adopted and the Government will take full account of the Liberal Party's recommendations. But the crucial passage is in the next paragraph, when the Prime Minister said, To come back to the White Paper, whatever the final recommendation on these matters, it will be subject to a free vote of both Houses of Parliament. As tar as the Government are concerned, all hon. Members will be entitled to vote in any way that they think fit."—[Official Report, 23rd March 1977; Vol. 928, c. 1307.] When the Prime Minister says "all hon. Members", does that include Ministers of the Crown? Will they be entitled to vote in any way that they think fit"? Will the Minister also say whether this free vote will be confined to the method of voting in the European elections or will it be concerned with the question whether there will be direct elections at all?

As I understand the position, after the White Paper has been debated by this House the Government will presumably come forward with a Bill which must contain at least some clauses dealing with one electoral system or another. They just cannot leave the situation blank. The House will then be asked to decide whether it approves, presumably on a free vote, the proposals that the Government put forward.

We have heard from the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), and from other hon. Members. There are some hon. Members who are extremely persuasive about the need for having a PR system. Personally, I have grave suspicions about introducing PR into the elections for the European Parliament. It is quite wrong to endanger the whole introduction of this new system of voting, and this new system of election, by muddling it up at the same time with a change in the voting system itself.

I also believe that changes of this kind should be preceded by a Speaker's Conference. Attempts should be made to get agreement in all parts of the House on any changes in the electoral system rather than the Government suddenly introducing some new system in the Bill. There will be long and difficult controversy about the system of election and, if we are not careful, we could endanger direct elections themselves.

I believe that there is likely to be a majority opinion in this House in favour of the first-past-the-post system. None of us can be sure of that. I may be wrong. But with regard to the not dissimilar proposition about a system of PR for the proposed Scottish and Welsh Assemblies, only 62 hon. Members in the whole House voted in favour of PR. Only three Members of the Labour Party, out of the whole representation of the Labour Party, voted in favour of such a system. Only 36 of my hon. Friends did so, including my hon. Friends the Members for Saffron Walden and Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) who both fairly declared their own personal views today.

Photo of Mr Paul Channon Mr Paul Channon , Southend West

I hope my hon. Friend is not in the van on this particular occasion. I hope that he will prove to be mistaken. But whether he is right or wrong the question remains: how will the Government deal with the situation? On the figures that I have produced there is a strong possibility that the House will wish to retain the first-past-the-post system. What happens then? May we have an absolute assurance that if that should be the decision of the House it will in no way prejudice the Government's intention of proceeding to get the Bill passed and on to the statute book?

If they take a different view, they are not, in fact, offering the House the free vote that they are purporting to give. It is extremely important that we should know this today. We must know what the Government proposals are with regard to handling this situation.

I believe that I speak for many of my hon. Friends, and also for the hon. Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead), who made a penetrating speech today just as he made a penetrating speech in a similar debate on the Scottish and Welsh Assemblies. There are many hon. Members who are in favour of direct elections who are also extremely nervous of the idea of a PR system being introduced. So nervous are they about it that it will make it difficult to decide whether to vote for such a Bill. That will make it very difficult for those who are in favour of direct elections, just as it will make it difficult for hon. Members who have no strong views on direct elections but who will probably go along with the majority view of their party one way or another. If they are asked to swallow these two things, I wonder what effect this will have on the progress of this Bill to the statute book. We know that there will always be those who are opposed to the whole idea of direct elections and who will use the proportional representation stick to try to flog the direct elections horse to death.

If the Government want to get their Bill through, as I believe they do, they must let us know at the earliest opportunity how they propose to handle these matters. We cannot have these two issues so bound up together that we are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bath water. I hope that we shall be told today that the House will be given an opportunity at some very early stage to express its view on how the elections should be conducted and that, in the light of that view, expressed as a free vote, the Government will proceed either to draft the Bill in the first instance along those lines or immediately to amend the Bill so that the will of this House may be carried into legislation. If the Government do that, although they will have many difficulties, they will carry the overwhelming majority of Opposition Members in support of the Bill. If they do not carry that overwhelming majority, they will have great difficulty in getting through the Bill at all.

2.31 p.m.

Photo of Mr James Spicer Mr James Spicer , West Dorset

I am very sorry that the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) has left the Chamber. I must direct my first remarks to him and to those who stand with him in this matter. He spoke at some length about a small elitist group. I throw that back into his face and say that he and his friends are the small elitist group and that their sole aim and object in all our debates on this subject is not to accept the will of the British people which has been expressed so clearly but to act as wreckers of the Community which between 65 per cent. and 70 per cent. of our people accept as a necessity.

The Community has its faults, of course. We all know them. None of us likes butter mountains and the other stupidities emerging from the Commission or from the Council of Ministers. But, above all, the overriding principle of the Community is to bring about the peace of Europe, and we must all adhere to that.

The hon. Member for Southampton, Test and his friends will use every trick in the book to turn back the argument, and that is why the hon. Gentleman asks "What is the hurry?" The hurry is that we have a clear commitment with the other members of the Community to these direct elections in May or June next year. If that commitment is not met by this House and this country, it goes by default in the other eight member States and the stock of this country in the Community, which has never been lower, will plunge through the floor, which could lead eventually to the break-up of the Community. That is what the members of this small elitist group are hoping to achieve by their constant interventions and by the way in which they prepare their arguments.

We have a Summit meeting in Rome today, and the Prime Minister rightly takes the Chair at that meeting. I imagine that the right hon. Gentleman is in a fairly cheerful frame of mind. He is still Prime Minister, and he might not have held that Chair in other circumstances. He is in a position firmly to inform his colleagues, when they come to this item on the agenda, that "best endeavours" really means "best endeavours" and complete commitment.

It has been claimed by the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) that this is the doing of the Liberal Party. I hesitate to rate it that high. In my view, with the collapse of the devolution Bill, the situation was completely changed. The pressure which had been put upon the Labour Government by their Socialist colleagues in Europe to press on with direct elections has now become overwhelming. But, at any rate, the Prime Minister has accepted that principle, and I think that we can now look forward with some assurance to its implementation.

There is a certain amount in what the Liberals say. There is no doubt that, if we did not go forward with the complete assurance of direct elections, the kissing which has already started with the Liberal Party would stop almost before it had started.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman wants to be fair. We cannot equate the collapse of the devolution Bill with the "best endeavours" clause. He will know that that instrument was signed a considerable time ago and that the Queen's Speech in the autumn, long before the devolution Bill hit this temporary obstacle, said that the Government would introduce legislation in this Session.

Photo of Mr James Spicer Mr James Spicer , West Dorset

The Minister is right. But, although he may say that it is a temporary obstacle, I suggest that the disappearance of the devolution Bill has removed the Government's excuse that there was not sufficient time. That excuse has emerged time and time again in the Assembly in Strasbourg. The President in Office of the Council and the acting President have said "We have a very full timetable, but we are using our best endeavours and will include this at the earliest opportunity. That is our commitment". But always I have had the sneaking suspicion that the Government hoped that the devolution Bill would get them out of trouble. With it disappearance, they have now to come face to face with reality.

I turn to the Report of the Select Committee. On behalf of the Conservative Group for Europe, I gave evidence to the Committee. I realise the strain which the Committee was under, and the way in which it worked to produce these three reports was remarkable. It did it on a very tight timetable. It was told by the Government that this was a matter of great urgency because they had to act on this if they were to achieve what they wished to achieve. The Committee did its work in record time. It reported in seven months. Nothing has happened since.

The Committee came to its conclusion on the first-past-the-post system not because it believed that this was the only way to do it. It was not, of course. But the Committee said that it was the only way which would win the support of the House and meet the Government's commitment on time. I believe that that is the only clear way in which the Government can be sure of getting it through the House on time.

In the Committees discussions and in its interviews with those who gave evidence to it, it asked whether, if we were to have a change to another system for the second election of the European Parliament, it was right to submit the people of this country to two changes in a period of seven years, and was not it better to go straight to the system which people understood and to leave it to the change which would take place throughout the Community when we came on to a single system for the second election?

But there has been a change of heart. There is a change of emphasis, and various ways will be put forward in which this might come about. People are now talking about either a party list or a regional list.

I have great fears about the way in which the idea of even a regional list would be received in this House. It involves, inevitably, a certain amount of patronage. Several Government supporters have said to me "If you think that we shall allow that sort of patronage to be placed in the hands of the devil knows who, you are mistaken. We would be hard put to it to vote for that." In every sense, the only certain way of getting this Bill through the House is by opting for the first-past-the-post system.

I turn to the speech of the hon. Member for Devon, North. I worry about the Liberal Party. I was especially worried today about the implied threat in the right hon. Gentleman's speech. He made much of his European connections. He described how he had been a lifelong European. Time and time again from the Liberal Bench we have had the threat that if we do not have some form of proportional representation, and if we do not have at least a regional list, Liberal Members certainly will wreck any attempt at single-Member constituencies through objections coming through. That was said in this House only a few weeks ago. In each of the 81 constituencies there will be objections and the proposal will never pass through the House.

I want to know whether the Liberal Party intends to carry that threat through, following a vote in the House in favour of single-Member constituencies. If so, its Members should stand up and say so. Undoubtedly, the single-Member constituency system could be wrecked if there was a concerted attempt by a party in this House in every one of the 81 constituencies. We could be forced into a situation of having to accept proportional representation, and that is a situation that I and many of my hon. Friends would find intolerable.

There is, of course, a very simple way to short-cut all the problems of single-Member constituencies—that is by going back to the county system. At one stage in his speech, the Minister pointed out the difference between Cornwall and Devon. There is a population of 308,000 in Cornwall and 678,000 in Devon. There is a very wide disparity between the two, but if we are to move quickly to direct elections, I would be perfectly prepared to accept some sort of disproportionate figures, such as we have now, and translate them into terms of European constituencies. I know that that is not acceptable to some hon. Members, or to all the 81 seats in the country, but the Boundary Commission could work on 55 with no objections coming through at all. Whether they should work on the 500,000 figure or on the county boundaries is another question and problems would only arise in the main areas of urban population.

I represent West Dorset and I take slight issue with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) when he said that the West Country was not represented in the European Parliament.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

I think that I said nowhere west of Dorset was represented.

Photo of Mr James Spicer Mr James Spicer , West Dorset

I thank my hon. Friend for that. I was about to say that he identifies West Dorset with the Wessex area. But we hover on the brink, and we believe that we are more West Country than those just across the border.

It is absolutely wrong to have a regional list system. We might not get a Member for Cornwall representing the vital fishing interests of Cornwall and Devon. Someone from further afield in Dorset or even from the North might have to represent those people in that respect. The bulk of people identify with their Member of Parliament and we would wish that identification to be carried through this time. I think that represents the view of the majority of people in this House.

At each Session of the European Parliament for the last two or three months and at every Session until July, one question always appears on the paper addressed to the President in Office of the Council. That question asks what progress is being made in each member State towards implementing the declared policy of proceeding to direct elections in May or June 1978. Over the past three months, those of us who have the honour to represent this country have been distressed to find the British President in Office of the Council always holding back in his answer and always taking refuge in the "best endeavours" clause.

I hope that when we next meet in Strasbourg in April the President will speak not only as President in Office but as the British Foreign Minister and say in loud and ringing terms that there is a firm commitment in this country— that the Government are committed and that the House of Commons and the people want to see the commitment implemented at the earliest possible opportunity.

2.45 p.m.

Photo of Mr Nigel Fisher Mr Nigel Fisher , Kingston upon Thames Surbiton

At the risk of reiterating what has already been said by my hon. Friends the Members for Saffron Walden (Sir P. Kirk), Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) and Richmond, Surrey (Sir A. Royle), I must say that the Minister's speech was the most confused, disingenuous and unclear that I have heard in this House for a long time. I do not want to be disagreeable, because the Minister is a very nice man, but he did not even seem to be particularly well briefed and he did not appear to know what Government policy is until he was informed by the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe). I hope that he will intervene again later to clarify the Government's position. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Oxon, that it would be better to proceed now with a Bill than to resort to a second Green Paper.

Although they are not strongly represented in this House— in fact, not represented at all at the moment— I recognise that there are still some hon. Members who so dislike our membership of the EEC that they would do almost anything, including breaking our word as a nation, in order to get us out of the Common Market altogether or to prejudice the effective working of the organisation to which we now belong. Their views are strongly held, their convictions are sincere and no doubt unalterable and I would not presume to try to change their minds. I do not therefore address my remarks to them, but the majority of hon. Members are either convinced Europeans, as I am, or are at least reconciled to our membership of the EEC and want to make it work as effectively as possible to our own advantage and to the benefit of Europe as a whole.

It must be obvious to everyone that dual membership of the House of Commons and the European Assembly does not and cannot work efficiently. We are committed to direct elections in May or June of next year and every other European country of the EEC will adhere to the agreed timetable. Only Britain's position is in doubt, due to the Government's disgraceful delay in bringing forward the necessary legislation.

This delay is partly due to the abortive and time-taking Scotland and Wales Bill, but that has now collapsed and cannot be revived with any prospect of reaching the statute book in this Session of Parliament.

Photo of Mr Nigel Fisher Mr Nigel Fisher , Kingston upon Thames Surbiton

I cannot believe that it can be revived this Session, and if it is, I am sure that it will suffer the same fate as before.

The other reason for the delay has been the deep division in the Labour Party over direct elections, but that factor, too, may now be less relevant. There is one advantage in the deplorable deal made this week between the Government and the Liberal Party and that is that Ministers, at least temporarily, may be more influenced by their new Liberal allies than they are by members of the Tribune Group— not because they want to be, but because in present circumstances they have to be. Part of the deal was the introduction of a Bill for direct elections under a system of proportional representation. Unlike some of my hon. Friends, I welcome that, and as a matter of self-interest the Government probably should welcome it, too.

I ventured to point out in the debate initiated by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) on 7th February the probably bizarre results of elections to Europe by the first-past-the-post system, because the normal swings would be much magnified in very large constituencies on what would probably be a lowish poll. I shall not quote again the examples of the freakish results which might develop and which I gave then.

Few would deny that the Government are unpopular at present. I make no political point of that. Most Governments in mid-term are unpopular. But under the present system of voting the outcome of the European elections next year could well be that the Government party in Britain would have a humiliatingly few representatives in the European Parliament, whereas under a proportional representation they would at least be represented in proportion to the votes they secured.

So a change in the system for Europe would have several advantages for the Government: they would serve their own self-interest, they would honour their commitment to their new Liberal allies, and they would conform to the system adopted in every other EEC country. The fact that a proportional representation system would also be much fairer than the present system ought to weigh with hon. Members in every party.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

It has been suggested on a couple of occasions that the Government are committed, as part of what the hon. Gentleman describes as the "deal", to introduce a Bill with proportional representation. If the hon. Gentleman reads the speech by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, he will see that the commitment is to take full account of the Liberals' views on this subject before making a recommendation.

Photo of Mr Nigel Fisher Mr Nigel Fisher , Kingston upon Thames Surbiton

The hon. Gentleman will have heard the right hon. Member for Devon, North reading out the terms of the deal in much more detail than the Prime Minister was able to give the other day, and certainly with far greater clarity than the hon. Gentleman himself has expressed in the House today. That is why I asked the hon. Gentleman to speak again later so that we could have a more definitive statement. I am prepared, in the absence of any further intervention by the Minister, to accept the word of the right hon. Member for Devon, North. If the right hon. Gentle- man has not spoken the truth, perhaps the Minister will put him right in a later intervention.

Owing to the delay in bringing forward a Bill, it is now really too late to devise 81 new constituencies. The boundaries would take some time to work out. They would be disputed, and there would certainly be time-taking appeals against many or all of them. Probably those appeals would be initiated by the Liberal Party. So the whole thing would be very time-taking, as the right hon. Member for Devon, North pointed out.

In any case, there is really no point in having 81 single-Member constituencies for Europe. The main argument for it—and it is valid for this country—is the personal relationship that we value between a Member and his constituents, which our present system ensures. But we in this House have on average about 50,000 or 60,000 electors each. For each of the 81 European seats, there would be more than 500,000 electors. That is a very large number for a genuine personal relationship.

Nor is it necessary in the European context. Almost all my constituents who approach me—and I am sure that the same applies to every other hon. Member—do so about personal problems, such as the need for a house or a job, or difficulties over their pensions or social security benefits. Those are the features that affect their day-to-day lives. But the European issues do not affect them nearly so personally or nearly so directly, so I do not think that there is the same need for the close personal relationship that we have in Britain.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

Will the hon. Gentleman take into account the reasoning of the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) that because, for example, the fishermen's interest should be represented was precisely why there should be a geographical nexus between a Member and his constituency? Obviously, either the hon. Member for Surbiton (Sir N. Fisher) is right or the hon. Member for Devon, West is right. Both cannot be. The hon. Member for Surbiton would do well to agree that there is some difference within his own party on this issue.

Photo of Mr Nigel Fisher Mr Nigel Fisher , Kingston upon Thames Surbiton

There may be an element of truth in what the Minister has said. I am coming to the possibility of regional lists, which would to a certain extent take care of that point. The real reason why the two main parties dislike the idea of a proportional representation system for Europe is that they are both afraid that, if they bring in a fair system of voting for Europe, they may eventually have to agree to a fair system of voting for this country too and they think that that might not be in their own party interest. It might favour the Liberals.

In this week of all weeks no Tory feels very well disposed towards the Liberal Party, but I suggest to my hon. Friends that they should rise above such party considerations and decide this important issue on its merits. I believe that on merits, a regional list system would be the easiest, the quickest and the most practical. There would be 12 multi-Member constituencies in the eight English regions, plus Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and London.

A regional basis is rather important because the needs and interests of each region are different, and under a regional list system each would be fairly represented. It would be fair to the political parties and fair to each area— not to each district, I admit, but certainly to each broad area. It would also correspond well to the organisational arrangements of the political parties and make it easier for them to organise an election campaign. There would also be the additional although relatively minor, advantage that a regional basis would fit in quite well with the existing television areas.

Photo of Mr Michael English Mr Michael English , Nottingham West

Surely the hon. Gentleman is not suggesting that we should decide the machinery of Government on the basis of television.

Photo of Mr Nigel Fisher Mr Nigel Fisher , Kingston upon Thames Surbiton

I did not say that. I listed the major advantages of such a system and then added that an additional but minor advantage would be the one I mentioned. I agree that of course it is not a major advantage.

The Government have no excuse for delaying the Bill any longer. To meet their own deadline they must bring it in soon and get it on the statute books by the end of this Session. It should— this is a purely personal opinion— be based on proportional representation, and regional lists would be the best and most con- venient method within that system. I believe that the Government would have a majority for this legislation, and I urge them to introduce it without further delay.

2.59 p.m.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

The hon. Member for Surbiton (Sir N. Fisher) has drawn an interesting distinction between the domestic requirement of one Member per constituency, and the intimacy and direct contact with citizens which is the hallmark of such a system, and the need to regionalise this for representation to the European Assembly. In doing so he has admitted something else which such a system would inevitably import, because with the introduction of a party list system, whether or not on the basis of proportional representation, the position of the parties would be more entrenched and would become more important constitutionally, at least on the European scale, than they are at present on the domestic scale.

I think that this is a significant step, because, as those who have come back from the European Assembly are constantly reminding us, the whole Assembly operates on a pan-European party basis. Some wag once said, "We are now becoming l'Europe des parties rather than l'Europe des parties". The implications therefore of a list system, whatever the merits of proportional representation— I know that the hon. Gentleman has other reasons for supporting it in the domestic sense— is that it brings in a new element which so far has not been mentioned in the debate.

Photo of Mr Nigel Fisher Mr Nigel Fisher , Kingston upon Thames Surbiton

I must take up the hon. Gentleman on his last remark. I have only one reason for supporting pro portional representation and that is that I think it would be a much fairer system of election. I do not know why the hon. Gentleman referred to some other aspect, which he did not explain, of any personal reason that I might have.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I thought that the lion. Gentleman was referring to the fact that he was personally in favour of a fairer system also in domestic legislation in the future.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I thought so. There is one point of agreement at least between myself and the hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Sir P. Kirk), namely, that there has been no commitment by Parliament, as distinct from the Government, to the principle of direct elections. I think that I am right in saying that I shall be the first Member in some four hours to question, or at least to comment upon, the principle as such, of which I am not a supporter, and to which so far this House, let alone the British public, has given no specific support.

We know that Parliament is not committed because of the debates, referred to by the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd), that took place about a year ago, and the letter from the Prime Minister when he said that whatever the Government's commitment Parliament is not committed and he did not take Parliament's permission for granted. It is perfectly clear that while the Government accept their own commitment, whatever that may be, they do not say that Parliament is yet committed. Concerning the people, we have a rather sorry story to tell. The "consent of Parliament and of the people" is an important phrase in the saga of our relations with the European Community.

The European direct elections have not played a major part in the publicity. We all know about the red, white and blue paper published at the time of the referendum in which two pages were devoted to answering the question— Will Parliament lose its power? There was no mention of direct elections. Moreover, there was a whole page which described what would happen if we said "Yes". We said "Yes" and we are now told that there is an obligation to direct elections. But the people were not told at that time, other than by people such as myself and my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), who pointed out the possible dangers of saying "Yes" in respect of direct elections.

The Government's own White Paper made reference only to the fact that if these matters came up they would require the permission of Parliament. It was not put as an obligation. Hon. Members who say that it is an obligation have to explain this. Here we are within 18 months of the referendum faced with a series of Select Committee meetings, a White Paper next week, which will be a substantial constitutional document by any standards, a major agreement between the minority parties in the House this week, in which the direct elections played some part—some might feel a crucial one—and a constitutional Bill of major importance before the end of this Session.

If we are having all those things within 18 months of the referendum, how is it that there was nothing in the official literature at that time to tell the British people that it was an obligation? Not only has Parliament not yet given assent in principle to direct elections, but the British people have never been given the opportunity to debate the issue. If they had been given such an opportunity at the time when there was a 10 to one imbalance in the resources available for publicity at the time of the referendum, I suggest that the vote would not have gone exactly as it did; the implications of saying "Yes" in terms of direct elections and a possible movement to federalism would have been different.

The hon. Member for Mid-Oxon shakes his head. He has a right to say that he disagrees with that view, but he has no right to say, and he cannot claim, that it was made clear either by the Government or by those responsible for publishing the "Yes" document at that time. That is unquestionably a fact.

I enjoy the contributions that the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) makes to debates on the common agricultural policy. He is often heavily critical of the CAP and wants the Government to do more—quite properly so. However, it is worthy of note that he urged the House and his constituents to support Britain's entry to the Common Market and he voted for Britain to do so.

The hon. Member, like so many other people in the country, became mixed up between what he takes to be the motivations of the Common Market and what happens in practice. The word "community" is a nice co-operative, family sort of word. In thinking about the Community one thinks, perhaps, about co-operation, about partnership, and about the longings of the people of Europe for peace and prosperity. Those are nice, emotive phrases. The hon. Member for Devon, West repeated them today and implied that, because we were not going as fast as he wanted towards direct elections, and because some of my hon. Friends and I do not like them anyway, we were against those things. Nothing could be further from the truth, because we are certainly for those things.

It is quite another question whether in reality the Common Market is for those things. The Common Market is not based in essence upon those things, whatever the aspirations and the propaganda might be. It is of course based upon a competition among partners, free movement of labour and capital, and all the things that do not necessarily lead to fraternal attitudes or to a close community or even —as the hon. Gentleman said— to a sense of unselfishness.

Indeed, it could be said that the constitution and operation of the Common Market are themselves structured to do the very opposite. I shall come later to the question of the constitution, because the constitution of the Common Market in terms of its executive powers and its legislative powers are fundamental to any discussion or consideration of direct elections. I therefore suggest that, far from the Common Market being in practice all the things that the Community in its propaganda says that it wants to be, it is indeed the reverse.

Hon Members opposite have said continually— my hon. Friend the Member for Derby, North (Mr. Whitehead) was on this theme, too— that failure to provide a voice and a vote at the heart of the Common Market is a failure to discharge a democratic responsibility. This has been the continual theme of some hon. Members and, indeed, is the theme of the European Movement. I know, too, that it is the theme of my right hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart), for whom in many ways I have a deep respect— at least as far as the white cliffs of Dover. When my right hon. Friend and I get beyond there, we have differences.

A vote is not the only thing in democracy. There is much more than that. People on the Continent were voted into power by popular votes, and we had a war about it. A vote must be coupled to a complete mechanism of accountability. It must be coupled to the purposes of the institution. It is coupled to the power structure within that institution. It is related to the sanctions that the representatives of the public can bring to bear on the Executive, as it is in this country, and how easy and frequent it is for them to exercise those sanctions. We have to do that every night in the United Kingdom, where the Executive is under constant scrutiny and threat of extinction, as we know only too well. Regard must also be paid to the consequences of any new structures that are created. The Common Market structure on to which direct elections are to be superimposed presents a very curious picture.

Let us consider the rôle of directly elected Members. It is clear from our debate that there will not be a division of responsibilities between Members of the European Assembly and hon. Members here. That was the call of the right hon. Member for Chipping Barnet (Mr. Maudling), but it clearly cannot happen. The hon. Member for Devon, West showed in his opening speech that it could not happen.

The hon. Member is an excellent representative of Devon agricultural interests and he makes effective speeches in the House. He said that we also needed a voice in the European Assembly, but we should then be saying virtually the same things on virtually the same issues on the very same documents, dealing with milk, pig food and so on, that we debate here late at night. Those documents are also sent to the European Assembly for the observation of the Agricultural Committee. There is no guarantee that any hon. Member from the South-West, from whatever party, will get on that committee. There will be only 10 Members from this country on it. Far from being complementary, the responsibilities will be virtually parallel.

There is virtually no subject of domestic interest to this country, whether it be tractor headlights, the weight of lorries, the licensing of vehicles, or the constitution of mayonnaise, that is not within the competence of the Assembly to discuss. The Assembly can also deal with foreign affairs.

Because so much of EEC legislation concerns business and economic affairs— which is not surprising since the EEC is an economic community and not the great warm fraternity implied by its propaganda— lobby groups and corporate interests will begin to home around the Assembly. I notice that the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon is nodding his head. Interest groups in this country whose affairs may be influenced by European legislation will say to themselves that they will have to open a branch in Strasbourg, Luxembourg or Brussels—or a branch in all three cities, since the Assembly meets in them all from time to time—so that they can influence and lobby Members. So far, such interests have tended to come to this place.

Photo of Hon. Douglas Hurd Hon. Douglas Hurd , Oxon Mid

The hon. Gentleman is developing an interesting argument, but he is missing the point. There are already many subjects that are discussed both here and in the European Parliament, but the impact of the debates and questions in each House go to different places. We question and influence British Ministers in this House, but we cannot influence or question Commissioners of the Community or the Council of Ministers. If we want the greatest possible democratic influence in the Community, we need a Parliament that, even on many of the same issues, can question, criticise and stimulate the Commission and the Council of Ministers.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I am grateful for that intervention. The hon. Gentleman is putting the other side of the case which is contemporary to what I am saying, but my next point may assist him, at least to understand the argument, if not to persuade him.

Many of us take our system of government for granted. The way in which the Executive and legislature in the Community work is quite different from the operation of our system. There is a two-headed monster consisting of the Commission and the Council. In one we have accountability involved in a legislature through to the Council and through to ministerial accountability. In the other we have the Assembly route through to the Commission.

It operates not as a triangle on a base, but as a square. The relationships between Council and Commission are, to say the least, complex. There is a European Commission, which must propose matters because the Council itself cannot propose legislation. I repeat that legislation can come only from the Commission.

The Commission is part Civil Service and part political; it is part legislative, part executive and part monarchical. The Council of Ministers, in theory, and I believe in practice, cannot do anything unless it is proposed by the Commission. The Commission can throw decisions out. I understand that in Brussels the Commission has a branch inside the offices of the Council and sometimes a paper is discussed in the Council and is rapidly dealt with. But the Council cannot amend a proposal unless it returns to the Commission. I understand that such a matter can be handled inside the building and can be handled quickly. That is inevitable in the box-like structure of the EEC. It is not treated in terms of normal government, but in a structure of some complexity.

The Assembly must be consulted by the Council before it proceeds to a decision. The relationship is extremely complex and full of criss-crossing webs of accountability, quite apart from the fact that meetings are held in different places at different times. Therefore, far from there being a clear source of power or decision-making, the chances of accountability are blurred. It is unclear where the final responsibility lies, and in that case it is easy for other people to come in and operate the power behind the scenes.

If somebody wanted to construct a constitution that is likely to encourage impasse and blockage, this is it. That is why we cannot easily change the CAP. Once an agreement is made and set in motion, it cannot be changed, but it goes on because the constitutional structure is geared in such a way that one has the maximum difficulty if one wishes to change it.

If the Assembly becomes stronger, if only by virtue of the time available and the number of Members attending, the Commission will have to answer questions, will have to become more accountable, and therefore the Assembly de facto would have obtained more power for itself. It may be that that power does not exist in the constitution, but we know that this House gained its power not initially by any stroke of the pen by the monarch, but by insisting on the right to consult, the right to legislate, and the power to tax. We must remember that the Community has power to tax anyway.

We have a situation in which power is not clearly defined and, in the end, we obtain a degree of bureaucratic and political cramp. That is why in any action taken by the EEC there is confusion and difficulty and problems arise because, initially, they were not seen owing to the very structure of the Community. We find difficulty in this House in dealing with the EEC legislation, even on matters such as direct elections. We constantly come across procedural difficulties. It is no accident, because the systems are based on two different sets of assumptions. Although we in this place are not perfect, nor is our Executive, I believe that we have a greater degree of democracy and accountability in the traditional British structure than has probably any other country.

What is happening in the present system? My hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) said that few people knew about the Assembly or about direct elections. The Guardian today carries an article by Richard Norton-Taylor suggesting that a sum of £ 150,000 will be available to the Labour and Conservative Parties— I understand that the Conservative Party will receive nearly double the sum given to the Labour Party— in political education to prepare for direct elections to the European Parliament. The article said: Mr. Roy Jenkins, President of the European Commission, has promised to consult the Parliament on how to share out among the Nine member countries a further £ 400,000 put at the Commission's disposal for the purpose".

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

It may have got it wrong. I am willing to believe what my hon. Friend has said. It is not accurate. Perhaps my hon. Friend can tell us what the figures are.

Photo of Mr Bob Mitchell Mr Bob Mitchell , Southampton, Itchen

There are two separate sources of money. A total of 1 million units of account is under the control of the Commission for information services about which the Commission has agreed to consult the Political Committee. A further 3 million units of account is under the control of the Parliament. That is the money that will be distributed to the political parties. That sum is not Commission money but belongs to the Parliament's budget.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He is saying that the moneys are there at the behest of the European Assembly and not necessarily of the Commission. The sums that my hon. Friend mentioned are considerable. Three million units of account is a large sum of money. I take it that that covers not only the preparations for the elections but the direct elections themselves. That brings into British domestic politics—particularly if, as the hon. Member for Surbiton says, there is to be a list system —a new element of money that is available to political parties, not just for fighting elections but for preparing a public forum.

That raises big constitutional issues. The Conservative Party has already said that it will not go along with the Houghton Committee recommendations on United Kingdom domestic expenditure. I do not know whether hon. Members know of the £ 150,000 that The Guardian says is on offer for political education. I wonder what sort of political education it will be for the preparation of direct elections. Developments of that kind are contrary to the British tradition of democratic government and democratic elections.

There will be a great deal of difference of opinion in the country on that principle alone, let alone the principle of direct elections. First, we have no obligation to that principle as a House and as representatives of the British people. We represent the British electorate. Should we not have been told of this obligation at the time of the referendum, at least by those who were in favour of a "Yes" vote? We must go carefully in respect not only of the principle but of the practice.

Those who say that they want more democracy must therefore say "All right, we shall have it through and by this House". In terms of time, influence and opportunity there is de facto power and a switch towards power. We must insist that that power be exercised through this House. If there is to be any democratic accountability in the European Community it must be in, by and through this House, by the accountability of its Ministers and through those Ministers who go to the Council of Ministers. The line of accountability to the British people must be through them, the House and existing Members of Parliament.

The Community is to become a co-operative venture—as many of us on this side of the House would prefer to see since we do not like the present methods of the operation of the European Community. That is not because we do not believe in the European community—with a small "c" — because we do. The trouble is that the European Economic Community does not fulfil the aims and objectives that the hon. Member for Devon, West outlined in his speech: I wish it did.

The only way that we can make it a co-operative, growing and fraternal community is by ensuring that co-operation is more marked than competition and that accountability and democracy are given to the people of the United Kingdom through this House and in no other way.

3.25 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Osborn Mr John Osborn , Sheffield, Hallam

First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) on raising this subject and on the date of his doing so—the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome.

This Government have a responsibility to be decisive, particularly since they have the Presidency of the Council, but they are not giving that impression at the moment. The success of any proposals for direct elections will depend on the good will of hon. Members on this side.

My hon. Friend felt that we were the only member of the Community out of step. After two years as a member of the European Parliament, at times I share his view. Too often, because of our economic troubles, fellow members of the Community, especially Germany, have regarded us as a millstone around the necks of the economies of their electors. They have often felt that politically, under the leadership of this type of Government, this country has been dragging its feet.

During my two years in Parliament I have seen the need for us to give a lead and develop the Community in the interests of the people of Europe as a whole as well as in our own. Perhaps it is a task of Government to underline the advantages to the British people and to the Community of such a lead—particularly in view of the speech of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing).

The House of Commons takes seriously its rôle in the Community, but, as I have said already this week, in our system of a Scrutiny Committee and Select Committees we have been more assiduous than any other member of the Community.

Some people have asked me whether I am still as dedicated to the European ideal as I was 20 years ago when I entered the House and toured the Community. My answer is that, in the interests of the people of Europe and of this country, I am.

The Community has its difficulties—sometimes the relationship between the Commission and the Council of Ministers is difficult, but the "elite", as they have been described, in the European Parliament want to make it work better. Confrontation politics may have been too much a feature of this country. Such an approach does not pay. I welcome anything that makes the institutions stronger and better.

In contrast to the early part of this century, industrial, commercial and professional people at all levels—particularly scientists and engineers—are now coming together in the fields of technology, science, development and research. The Economic and Social Committee brings qualified people together in a third Parliament. Forty years ago, the nations of Europe were in conflict.

In the East, we look to our relationship with the Soviet Union on subjects like human rights, the Helsinki Agreement and detente. A common foreign policy for the Community is surely stronger. Across the Atlantic, we must consider the relationship between the industries of the Community and the supremacy of the United States. One can compare the patent royalties flowing to the United States from the Community with what we ourselves earn in the Community.

This joint relationship and approach may be developed over landing rights for Concorde. France and Britain can make their views known, but with the help of other EEC countries we can better influence the United States. Next week, indeed, I shall be discussing in the Energy and Research Committee of the European Parliament the problem of air traffic control arising out of the Zagreb air disaster. It is essential to attempt to achieve over the skies of Europe the uniformity which has been achieved in the United States. Surely, it is better for Parliaments, Governments and experts to come together than to be in conflict.

I believe that the European ideal is worth fighting for, and I look to a Commission controlled by a Parliament which can look to the East, to the Soviet Union, which can perhaps deal with trade with Japan and can recognise our relationship across the Atlantic with the United States.

There have been references to the common agricultural policy, and I relate that to regional policy. There is now a theme, a policy throughout the Community, especially after the oil crisis, that we should be more independent of the rest of the world and not be so vulnerable through our need to import oil and materials. There is, therefore, a relationship between regional policy and agricultural policy, and it is connected as much with employment and the balance of payments as it is with the interests of the farmers. In this respect, we have in Commissioner Gundelach an excellent representative.

I have already touched on the technological aspects and co-ordination of research in many projects. One has in mind here, for example, reactors— I recognise that there are environmental problems— new sources of energy and the JET programme. In such projects, combined effort and a bigger central budget properly watched will give the whole of Europe better results than the efforts of nine nations in nine different ways, perhaps out of tune with one another.

Parliamentary pressures, therefore, are all-important, pressures exerted by people who can give their time to being in the European Parliament. I am concerned for the better working of the Community as such, and I am concerned therefore for the better working of its Parliament. There have been references to the Council of Ministers. I must say that at times I find a certain disdain as well as a lack of continuity in the Council of Ministers, and this is a source of concern which I hope to see removed as the years go by. I believe that the system under which a nation holds the presidency for only six months— Britain has the presidency now— is a bad system, and I should like to see some such arrangement, such as the chairman of each Council committee coming from the Parliament for the life of that Parliament. But it is too early yet to discuss that. The whole structure of the Council of Ministers needs improvement, and I believe that that could be better done by pressure within the European Parliament than by pressure from the National Parliaments.

For too long, one has felt that the Commission has been uninhibited because the European Parliament has been too weak. But that Parliament has now asserted its right over the budget, It is becoming stronger, and it must go ahead more rapidly.

My hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir P. Kirk) and other hon. Members have spoken of the dual mandate. If there had been a General Election here at this time, perhaps announced next week, there would have been British Members of Parliament wondering whether to go to Brussels, to Rome or elsewhere. There have been of late many elections among the Nine, and there have been times when committees and meetings with Commissioners and others have been sparsely attended because Members from other countries of the Nine have had to go back to their own constituencies or to win elections to their own Parliaments.

There has been reference to the fact that, until five o'clock or 5.15 last Wednesday, there was a debate on the common agricultural policy and on agriculture matters generally at the Luxembourg Assembly. Of course, the procedure there is a little haywire, but there were parties there—perhaps the French and the Germans—who may well have been interested in leaving the latter votes until nearly all the British had returned to deal with one of their own crises. Therefore, the dual mandate has limitations if the Parliament is to work effectively.

Turning to the Minister's comments although he has been questioned on this I am not certain what we are going to see in the White Paper and how Parliament will devise a motion so that the Government can decide what sort of system to use after the debate. That will need clarification.

Turning to the number of seats, under the agreement in the Community, England has been given 66 seats, Scotland eight, Wales four and Northern Ireland three. Perhaps those figures are tentative and perhaps there will be a change—

Photo of Sir Peter Kirk Sir Peter Kirk , Saffron Walden

There is no agreement in the Community on this. It is only a recommendation of the Select Committee of this House.

Photo of Mr John Osborn Mr John Osborn , Sheffield, Hallam

I thank my hon. Friend for that information. I have mixed emotions about proportional representation. I have ideals that are Conservative, or certainly anti-Socialist, and I am aware that the first-past-the-post system would at present give Conservative representation an advantage over the other parties. My hon. Friend the Member for Surbiton (Sir N. Fisher) raised this point.

Those who are open-minded about this must accept that if we accepted proportional representation it would mean a slightly different balance from that which we would have if we upheld the advice of the Select Committee. Within the European Parliament, Socialist Party or Labour Party, Members have combined in a Social Democrat group. The Conservatives have examined relationships with their Danish Conservative colleagues and at time working relationships have been made with Christian Democrats and the DEP. The differences in philosophy and politics that one reflected here must also be reflected in the European Parliament. Therefore each party must be interested in its own self-interest in the long term, if it is wise, rather than in the short term.

It is my impression that every country in the Community is as jealous of its sovereignty as we are. A committee has looked at relationships between State Parliaments and Federal Parliaments in the United States, Canada, India and elsewhere. I think that I am, but I must accept a confederal situation ultimately because of the sovereignty and pride of the different nations and the different cultures that make up the Community.

After the election it is vital that there should be contact between directly elected British representatives to the European Parliament and those who are elected to this Parliament, whether to this House or another place. This is an issue that we must look at more closely.

I have an open mind on proportional representation. There are different systems. The French system is one, and that used by the Germans and other European colleagues is another. A part list, part constituency representation system has advantages.

Having lived with a system in the European Parliament that is not a two-party system, I say to hon. Members that although we decry the two-party system, it has its virtues at times. It is a system that people can understand. Therefore I must hope that the system we have, namely the first-past-the-post system, will operate in the first direct elections, a view which I share with many hon. Members.

I might, as a concession, accept the concept of Members ultimately being elected from regions. But if the advice of the Select Committee is not followed there could be difficulties. The Government should be careful about adopting a system to which we are not used in this country.

But there is a need for a system that will enable the Community to work better, with Members of the European Parliament having enough time to attend, and not wanting to be in two places at the same time.

When the Speaker visited the European Assembly I explained to him that there were difficulties in this House in catching Mr. Speaker's eye. The system of lists and short speakers in the Assembly has its virtues, and I hope that there will be a move towards a system such as this in the House here.

My main theme is that direct elections will make the Community work better, and I hope that this country will not be the laggard when the time comes.

3.40 p.m.

Photo of Mr John Cockcroft Mr John Cockcroft , Nantwich

I have listened to a great deal of the debate and I feel that to some extent the motion pre-empts the issue. The Government's proposals on this ancient issue are now at long last imminent, and we shall have to take the matter forward from there.

The Government gave a pledge, and therefore I believe that it is immensely important that we should meet the deadline for direct elections in the summer of next year. It would be extremely undignified if the British Government alone failed to meet the deadline. The pledge was freely given and it could have been withdrawn, but it was not. Unless the Government are defeated on the issue, we in this House are committed to that pledge.

It may be argued that over the last 25 years since the negotiations at Messina all British Governments have adopted an undignified stance in Europe. We were late in getting into the Community when we could have gone in at the start. It may be felt, therefore, that one more undignified stance will make little difference.

I disagree with that approach. We are now fully committed members of the Community. Our decision to join was backed by roughly a two-to-one majority in the referendum. Therefore, the way in which we proceed as members of the Community is all the more significant.

I take it that the purpose behind the motion for direct elections, that we should get on with them as quickly as possible, is as much as anything to reduce the power of the bureaucracy or the Eurocracy in Brussels. Much has been made of the issue by anti-Marketeers. Surely the best way to get round the problem is to make the Common Market Commission responsible to some democratically-elected Assembly.

I take it also that we assume that the working of the Council of Ministers is not exactly ideal. A compromise was struck at Messina between those who favoured a federal system, who were influenced by what happened at Annapolis and Philadelphia when the American federation was evolved over 200 years ago, and those who believed in l'Europe des parries, a federation.

Since then the Holy Writ of the Treaty of Rome has been interpreted in different ways. Whatever one has felt in the past, I think that there is a general feeling that the power of the bureaucracy in Brussels is too great, that the system of having three centres for the working of the Common Market is out of date and must be changed, and that the system of the Luxembourg compromise— giving the power of veto to even the smallest country— means that the progress of the Community is that of the slowest member. These things ought not to be allowed to continue indefinitely if we are serious in our desire to build a new order in our continent which has contributed so much to the future of the world.

A good deal has been said about the size of constituencies, or whether we should have constituencies. That was why earlier I said that to some extent the motion pre-empts the issue. I have some doubts about whether this is the best way to go about it. I am aware of what Burke said about the relationship between Members of Parliament and the electors of Bristol, and there has been a long and ancient tradition of this House of a direct relationship between a Member and his constituency on the basis of 635 Members of Parliament and a population of about 55 million.

It is not necessarily the case that we could expand and adapt that system to a very much larger electorate and a wider European scene for which there are no precedents. Certainly there would be vestigial relationship between a Member and his enormous constituency. No doubt he would continue to have surgeries. Let us suppose that I was the Member of the European Parliament for Cheshire. I expect that I would hold surgeries all over the area, but I wonder to what extent it is practical to continue this relationship in the way that it has existed in the past.

I am also concerned that time is running out for us to do it that way. It is most important that the Government should not be able to use the excuse that constituencies cannot be set up in the time and that there should be no direct elections, in spite of all the talk from the Liberals this week.

One turns to the alternative which seems to have become extremely fashionable in the last fortnight, but which was barely known before that, of having regional lists. There is something to be said for that sort of compromise, as there is for the single transferable vote if we are to persist with single constituencies.

Photo of Mr Hugh Dykes Mr Hugh Dykes , Harrow East

Does my hon. Friend not agree that there is one country in the world—the United States—where the good, strong Anglo-Saxon relationship of the Member to the constituent does persist despite the large size of its constituencies?

Photo of Mr John Cockcroft Mr John Cockcroft , Nantwich

That is quite true. Even in Delaware, which is the smallest American State, where there are two senators, and in New York and Illinois it works to some extent. I am not saying that it is impossible. All I am saying is that there are difficulties in view of the short time.

I turn to the alternatives to a regional list or direct nominations by the Whips or the leadership of the parties. There are clearly considerable dangers that the powers of patronage in this House would be increased and that the power of the individual Member, which I believe is already too little, would be decreased. Presumably the pressure on a man to toe the line on a three-line Whip would be increased.

Photo of Mr Nigel Spearing Mr Nigel Spearing , Newham South

I should like to get the record straight. Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the Parliamentary Labour Party has elected its delegation to the European Assembly and that it has not been nominated?

Photo of Mr John Cockcroft Mr John Cockcroft , Nantwich

I am well aware of the decisions and the problems of the Labour Party. I was trying to lift up my eyes unto the hills and look at some of the wider issues. But I was aware of what the hon. Gentleman said.

With regard to dual mandate, several hon. Members have suffered enormous pressures through having two jobs in two places—or five places, if one includes Luxembourg, Brussels and Strasbourg. This cannot be allowed to go on for much longer. I hope that it will be stopped in the early summer of next year whatever the new system of election is. I personally believe that there is a case for keeping some sort of link with West-minster—even if it means giving life peerages to some members of the European Parliament—in order that there should be some communication between the two. I believe that this is still being discussed. I hope it will continue to be so.

One thing that is fairly predictable when parties start deciding in earnest about who should go to Europe is that people will be criticised for opting for Europe—if there is such an option, because they will have to go before selection committees at some level—because of the money. It is an embarrassing issue. I shall not mention the sums that are being bandied around, but they are considerable compared with the pittance that we receive at Westminster. That is a verboten subject, but we are paid too little here. Probably the European Members of Parliament will be paid too much and the truth lies somewhere in between.

Britain is now one of the poorest countries in Europe and because of that, in terms of income per head, the salaries which will be offered to European MPs must seem enormous. These points have to be made because I am sure there will be a row about this issue if there is not one already.

Europe could clearly attract the wrong sort of people. When the time comes for the selection of people for the first democratically elected European Parliament some regard should be paid to what people's views have been on this historic and great issue for many years because there will be a tendency for some people to get on the bandwagon.

I regard the division of the functions of the European Parliament, the Brussels Commission and the Council of Europe—which was part of the original plan at Messina—as being long out of date. The sooner these functions are moved into some European capital the better. If we are to have a new capital, let it be chosen as quickly as possible. I think that Brussels is the obvious place in which to have the capital of the European Communities. Apart from suiting Britain, it also suits the Scandinavian countries involved in building this great ideal.

We ought not to get too bogged down in the details of how the direct elections to the European Parliament should take place. As Wodehouse said in many contexts, speed is now of the essence, and the first essential, however it is done, is to meet this deadline.

3.50 p.m.

Photo of Ms Audrey Wise Ms Audrey Wise , Coventry South West

The hon. Member for Nantwich (Mr. Cockcroft) said that it would be undignified if we did not proceed with direct elections at the stipulated time. I suggest that the indignity lies in the haste with which Opposition Members wish to drag us into making these sweeping constitutional changes. I find it extraordinary that any hon. Member can say "Let us not bother too much about the electoral details" when speaking on a motion which seeks to set the Boundary Commissioners in motion. If that is not a matter of electoral detail, none can exist.

We must look at why there is this haste. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Osborn) suggested that all this debate was about the "European ideal". He used the phrase several times. But I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). The European Economic Community is not a matter of ideals. It is a matter of an economic structure and, what is more, a highly bureaucratic economic structure artificially created and involving false harmonisation in many matters, erected for the sole purpose of maintaining the existing capitalist economic system.

I suggest that the anxiety for direct elections is to give this structure an apparent legitimacy. But it will be only an apparent legitimacy. By no means will it be a real one.

In my view, we should think a little about the problems of the ordinary citizen in dealing with the European Parliament. One of my hon. Friends referred to the difficulty of lobbying. It is a cause for pride amongst all right hon. and hon. Members of this House that we are directly accessible to our constituents. They know who we are and that they can come here to meet us, to lobby us and to pressure us. Who would be best at lobbying and pressuring the European Parliament? Would it be the old-age pensioners in my constituency? I think not.

Photo of Ms Audrey Wise Ms Audrey Wise , Coventry South West

It would be the big business interests which would find it convenient to lobby the European Parliament. The ordinary citizen would be simply left out. The ordinary citizen would suffer from justifiable bewilderment about where responsibility lay. Endless opportunities would be given for passing the buck. I suggest that there are already too many opportunities and that people already suffer because of our many layers of government, some of them inflicted upon us by previous Conservative Administrations.

With a European Parliament apparently legitimised by direct elections, we should have a situation which the ordinary citizen of this country would find intolerable. Disillusionment with the whole idea of democracy would grow. That is extremely dangerous.

Photo of Mr Hugh Dykes Mr Hugh Dykes , Harrow East

I am grateful to La Pasionaria for giving way. One idea that has developed is that the Members of the European Parliament should have local offices so that their constituents can keep in touch with them directly at grass roots level. That is what is needed in Europe.

Photo of Ms Audrey Wise Ms Audrey Wise , Coventry South West

Real contact is a much bigger thing than simply having local offices. If by his epithet the hon. Gentleman intended to indicate that I was speaking with feeling, it is very appropriate that someone should speak with feeling on this matter.

Not one of my constituents has suggested to me that his or her interests would be better served by direct elections. Since the referendum I have heard not one word of praise for the operation of the Common Market. I have heard a lot of fears and complaints expressed about many things, ranging from the weight of lorries to the price of food, above all. I am very pleased to note that the food manufacturers are at last realising the error of their ways and are worried about the operation of the common agricultural policy. I wish that they had worried before the referendum.

The CAP is depriving British people of cheaper food. All hon. Members are well aware that the High Commissioner for New Zealand has said that New Zealand is eager to supply Britain with cheap butter, cheese, lamb and beef. Indeed, butter could be retailing in our shops at half its present price— at 28p a pound. Many of my constituents would be astonished to know that, and we should enlighten them and make them aware of the consequences of membership of the Common Market.

I consider that those interested in extending democracy should look to a system of extending it nearer to the people, in order to preserve the responsibilities of this House, but improve the situation in ways which retain our advantages of openness and accessibility, while also giving more power to the people. Taking power further away from people is exactly what British democracy and the British people do not require. I am absolutely opposed to this motion.

3.58 p.m.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

With the leave of the House I shall rise to clear up any misunderstandings, or errors that I may have made. I will not make any excuses, lest what was clear in my own mind when I first expressed it becomes unclear in the translation into speech. It would be to the advantage of the House if I cleared up these matters at this stage.

I confirm that the free vote that was referred to in the Prime Minister's statement on Wednesday was on the system of elections that will be adopted. Of course, I am not the business manager of my party or an expert on the procedure that will be adopted. Following the publication of and discussions on the White Paper and the consultations that the Government have agreed to undertake, the Government will come forward with a final recommendation on the method of election which will take full account of the Liberal Party commitment on this matter. This recommendation will be the subject of a free vote in both Houses of Parliament.

One way of doing this might be to vote on the relevant part of the Bill, but I take note of what the hon. Member for Surbiton (Sir N. Fisher) said this afternoon about possible difficulties that have arisen. I have taken note of all the views expressed. The Government are anxious to be as helpful as they can in dealing with procedure. I will draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the points that have been made and the anxieties expressed about whether one can sunder the White Paper, and on what basis one debates its status. I give no commitment on time but the Bill will be brought forward at the convenience of the House.

Photo of Mr Douglas Jay Mr Douglas Jay , Wandsworth Battersea North

The Minister said on the issue of representation—

It being Four o'clock, the debate stood adjourned.