European Parliament (Direct Elections)

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

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Photo of Mr Paul Channon Mr Paul Channon , Southend West 12:00 am, 25th March 1977

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.