Perhaps I may tell the House that this is one of those occasions when there is an enormous interest in the subject. I have a very long list of hon. Members who have indicated that they hope to catch my eye. I want to warn the House that even with short speeches it will be quite impossible for them all to be called. Those of us who are in the Chair will do our best.
It was in March of last year that we held a full two-day debate on direct elections. We are now approaching the stage at which decisions must be taken on the questions discussed in the White Paper, Cmnd. 6768, which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have laid before the House. The views expressed in the debate today and on 25th April will be of great importance to the Government in considering what form of electoral process to recommend to the House.
In our debate last March we were particularly concerned with the questions which had to be discussed and decided at the Community level. During the debate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced the setting up of a Select Committee to study the issues. We are all indebted to the Select Committee for the speed and thoroughness of its work. It produced a First Report in June 1976 and the Government were guided largely by that report and by the views expressed on it in the debate of 12th July in the negotiations that led to the 20th September agreement on procedures in the Community for direct elections. The Select Committee subsequently produced two further reports dealing with arrangements for direct elections in the United Kingdom and a great deal of its work has been reflected in the White Paper.
Hon. Members will know that the Government are not announcing decisions at this stage. We shall want to listen and note all the arguments made in the course of debate. In the light of these the Government will immediately thereafter reconsider the issues raised in the White Paper on direct elections. The Cabinet's conclusions—both on the electoral system to be used for direct elections and on the related issues—will then be brought forward by the Government as proposals to the House. My purpose is to set out as clearly as I can the background to direct elections, which is too often misunderstood, and to explain how I see the rôle of the Assembly in the European Community and the way it is likely to develop.
In my first speech to the House as Foreign Secretary I said:
The Community needs, if it is to command greater public support, to become more relevant to people's daily lives."—[Official Report, 1st March 1977; Vol. 927, c. 200.]
I believe that one of the ways in which this can be done is to involve people in European matters directly through democratic elections.
The principle of a directly elected Parliament was incorporated in the Treaty of Rome 20 years ago as a necessary eventual part of the Community. The arrangement under which delegates were designated by national Parliaments was adopted in the interim but the goal of direct elections was clear and explicit. Participation in an eventual electoral system was one of the goals which we, too, assumed when we joined the Community.
But of course here, as in other member countries, participation is possible only on a basis agreed by our own Parliament. The renegotiation White Paper of March 1975 made this perfectly plain when it said that, if British membership of the Community were confirmed by the referendum, any scheme for direct elections would require an Act of Parliament. That remains the position. When the Government, in honouring their treaty obligation, come to introduce their Bill, it will be for Parliament to decide. But I do not believe that this Parliament, which has championed democratic involvement for centuries, will block the democratic objective which all the member States have set for themselves in the EEC Treaty and which is now close to realisation.
The target which has been set is, as hon. Members know, to hold the first elections in May or in June next year. This date was set in the course of successive meetings of Heads of Government in December 1974 in Paris and a year later in Rome, and was reaffirmed in the agreement signed on 20th September last.
If my right hon. Friend was announcing a couple of minutes ago that it is for the free wish of this Parliament to decide whether the United Kingdom should be committed to and hold direct elections, why does he say a couple of minutes later, in emotive terms, that he hopes that the House will not block it? Surely that is not the language that should precede a free decision of the House of Commons.
That was my view. It is what Parliament decides. I respect my hon. Friend's views on this matter. I am giving my interpretation of it. My words were "I do not believe". I do not think that that was very emotive.
I am very conscious that almost anything that is said in this debate will be considered emotive on one side of the argument or the other, and I am also conscious that sides of the argument go right across party lines. I am trying to give an intepretation of how I see both the agreement and the future.
This agreement is a statement of political intent to which the Government have subscribed. Textually, what the agreement says is that member States intend
to give effect to the conclusions of the European Council … that the election should be held … within the period May/June 1978".
The precise date will be fixed by the common agreement of the member States. It is clearly intended that this should cover a single four-day period for all member States, not a series of different dates. Indeed, the constitutional requirements of at least one member State may prevent its holding the elections unless all the member States agreed to do so together. The Government's political commitment is to use their best endeavours to avoid a situation in which delays in the United Kingdom put the target date out of reach for the whole Community.
Perhaps we may clarify one point. The White Paper commitment seems to me to be quite clear and explicit in terms of the commitment to the principle of a directly elected European Assembly and some flexibility on methodology. The question of methodology is for a Bill and the House to determine. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will confirm that the Government are committed to the principle of a directly elected Assembly.
Yes. I have made the Government's position quite clear. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) says, this is a question, as I have also made clear, for Parliament to decide. I have made clear that a Bill has to be got through this Parliament.
It might help the House if I tried to make clear to what we are committing ourselves. The treaties provided for an Assembly which was to exercise its advisory and supervisory powers in collaboration with the other Community institutions. While the founding fathers of the Community saw the Commission undoubtedly as the embryo of a future Government of Europe, no British Government have ever been committed to such a federal solution. While the founding fathers therefore intended the Assembly to exercise a power of democratic control, principally over the Commission, no British Government have ever accepted that the Commission should ever have such extensive powers. The Assembly was given the power, often known as "the unusable sledge-hammer", to dismiss the Commission.
What has happened, as in other areas of Community life, is that many of the Community's institutions have evolved in ways unforeseen by the founding fathers. In the event a very different balance, and in my view a much more realistic balance, has evolved between the Community's three main institutions, the Council, the Commission and the Assembly. According to the Treaty of Rome, the Assembly's opinion must be obtained on Commission proposals over a wide range of subjects before the Council can take a decision. This scrutiny is not a mere formality, as many hon. Members will know. The 14 specialised parliamentary committees can call on considerable sources of expertise and have done much effective work.
Perhaps the most important rôle that the European Parliament plays now is in the budgetary sphere, where to some extent it shares responsibility with the Council for the Community budget. It is formally the Parliament which adopts the Community budget, although the size and distribution of that budget is determined primarily by decisions of the Council. The Community's budget procedures are extremely complex. But I think it is true to say that the gradual evolution of these procedures and the establishment in particular of the conciliation procedure to try to concert views between the Council and the Parliament on new proposals with major financial implications are leading towards a more effective rôle for the Parliament in the field of Community expenditure.
The development of the conciliation procedure is also an important example of the welcome and, in my view, growing dialogue between the Parliament and the Council. This is in addition to the dialogue which has existed for some time between the Parliament and the Commission. The Parliament, for its part, has widened its horizons to take in the work of the Council of Ministers and the newly developed political co-operation machinery. Since the arrival of British Members at the Assembly this has taken on a new dimension, particularly in the Question Hour, which is in direct line of descent from our own Question Time in the House.
Many of the desirable reforms in the working of the Assembly have come about because of the work of hon. Members from both sides of the House, but I single out the work of the late hon. Member who sat for the constituency of Saffron Walden. I believe that all Members, wherever they sit, will join me in paying tribute to his work as a convinced and effective European. We all extend our sympathy to his family in their tragic loss.
So, while member States have been willing to permit a gradual extension of Parliament's influence in some quite specific areas, its powers are, by the standards of democratically elected Parliaments, very limited indeed. I have just returned from Strasbourg, where I reported this morning on behalf of the presidency on the Rome summit. I must tell right hon. and hon. Members who see grave threats to the power and position of this House that, having observed that Parliament, I can see no such threat, either at the moment or in the future. The development of the Assembly will depend on the future shape and organisation of Europe. In the last analysis, a clear vision of the Assembly's future presupposes the existence of a clear vision of the future of the Community. I am not sure that any of us has such a clear vision.
That the founding fathers had such a vision there can be no doubt. Their aim was a centralised Community in which the Commission would ultimately evolve into the Government of a united Europe. They believed that a federal structure should one day emerge from the Community. Inevitably, the Treaty's institutional structure had a natural centripetal bias.
In fact, events have shown that even if it were desirable, which I doubt, one cannot dissolve within 20 years national interests and traditions which in some cases, like our own, have had more than a thousand years of uninterrupted development. Running against any federalist aspirations are the continuing power of national sentiment, varying national interests and national perceptions and, regrettably, economic divergence within the Community.
If we compare the history of Western Europe with the history of the United States we can, I think, appreciate just how far we should have to go, even if we wanted a federal Europe. The United States developed a federal system in a society that was relatively homogeneous, both culturally and socially. The 13 original states had a common language and a common cultural, historical and judicial background. They came together against a common enemy and continued together in the face of a common challenge—that of the vast and largely empty continent which they came to occupy. It took a devastating civil war nearly a century after the founding of the republic to confirm the federation, which developed geographically and demographically, in slow and measured steps. Of course I understand the deep feelings which motivated the founding fathers in the late 1940s and 1950s to dream of a Community which might weaken the nationalisms which had brought Europe in this century to its own two disastrous civil wars. It is a measure of the Community's success that no one today believes that Europe is likely to face a third civil war.
But I think we must face facts and I should like to be blunt. It is scarcely conceivable that Europe, with its much greater national, regional, linguistic, cultural and historical diversity, could become a federal State akin to that of the United States within my children's lifetime, or even one's grandchildren's, still less our own lifetime. [Interruption.] Well, it is open to doubt and analysis. I can only give the House—
Does my right hon. Friend not see that in America there were not completely separate nations and nation States as there are in Europe and that the position was fundamentally different from what it is in Europe?
My hon. Friend makes very much the case that I have been attempting to make. I realise that there are many different views on this issue, but if we were to analyse a lot of the emotion and a lot of the anxieties about the whole subject of a European Parliament, we should find lying behind them the issue of federalism, and it is worth discussing it. It was never really fully discussed at the time of going into the European Community. It is quite right to say that there will be very many different views expressed in the House. I can only give my own best analysis of how I see the future development of Europe. But I am well aware that in 10 years' time events may have confounded any analysis that I make. The way that Europe has evolved has been extremely hard to predict.
In my view it is time that we all recognised how unreal the debate about federalism has become. The plain fact is that this House, with the national parliaments of other member States, will define the future shape of the Community. Without the agreement of this House, there can be no major change in the structure of the Community.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. He has just said that he is not sure about his prognostications being confirmed. But when he says that the Assembly shows no signs of becoming a federal threat at the moment, has he forgotten that it would have three times as many full-time Members and that the powers and ambit of responsibilities would be directly competitive with national Parliaments, particularly this House?
I am going on to analyse some of these issues, if the House will bear with me for a moment. I have just said that in my view at this moment the debate about federalism is pretty unreal.
Of course, we recognise that the Community is a unique structure, and what I have said about its development under federalism is not meant to detract from what I believe and have long believed to be a very important influence on the future of this country and of Europe. It is an economic institution, but with a developing political personality. It is an institution that combines elements of domestic and external policy. It is an institution with an inbuilt dynamism which has no parallel in other international organisation.
The pace and scope of the Community's development are determined by the play between national and collective interests. Certainly membership of it entails some limited pooling of sovereignty in those defined areas where there is agreement to develop common policies. But the development of the Community over the last decade has seen the balance between the Commission and the Council shift decisively in favour of the Council. This shift has found its visible expression in the creation of the European Council of Heads of Government. As the supreme guiding force of the Community, the European Council ensures that the ultimate political control of all major Community activities is retained by national governments.
This is the context in which we must view the future of the Assembly and the development of its powers. Direct elections will not of themselves increase these powers. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out last July that the European Parliament will be elected on the powers it has at present. The Members will certainly demand more powers—many of them do so now. They will perhaps put their claims more vociferously as a result of direct elections.
How far national Governments and national parliaments agree to these demands will be for them alone to decide. The European Assembly cannot seize powers; it can only take those given to it by the member Governments with the approval of their national parliaments. The current debate in France shows the extent to which that is recognised in countries other than our own.
There is no inherent reason why a European Parliament should be federally inclined. A directly elected Assembly will, or should, reflect public opinion in the nine member States on the rôle of the Community and on the powers of its institutions, as on other things. Matters of this kind will be legitimate issues in elections to the Parliament. People will stake out their claims in such elections.
If there is a federal sentiment in the member States—and I would expect to see less federalist sentiment in Britain, France and Denmark and perhaps more in the Benelux countries, Germany and Italy—this will be reflected in the Members sent to the Parliament and the views which they then express.
Does the Foreign Secretary appreciate that throughout his speech he has used the terms "Assembly" and "Parliament" interchangeably? Does he realise that the choice of term can have a significant effect on the public's attitude to the proper rôle of such an institution?
Does my right hon. Friend foresee a situation in which the balance of power will move from the Council to the Commission with the introduction of direct elections? Does he not agree that thereby one of the things that the founding fathers of the Community foresaw will have been created, with the Commission becoming the supranational body within the Community?
Not if I have anything to do with it. There has been a growth in the power and influence of the Community and I cited the European Council, which is a wholly new development, as an example of that.
It follows that if there is no federal sentiment in the United Kingdom, those who fight elections on that plank are unlikely to succeed. But if federal sentiment were to develop in the United Kingdom surely it would be right, democratically, that it should be represented by candidates chosen for the European Parliament. All we have to ensure, as I emphasised to the House on 1st March, is that members elected in this country are genuinely representative. It would be damaging to British democracy, to the standing of the members themselves and to the protection of British interests in the Community if the elections produced unrepresentative members after a low and unrepresentative poll.
I turn to a major practical problem which will be a foremost concern of a directly elected Assembly—the enlargement of the Community. Enlargement reflects the arguments about deepening or broadening the Community when looking to the future. This will be a severe test not only for the European Parliament, but for all the Community institutions, individually and collectively.
Nine member States and six Community languages already make it hard enough for the Parliament to act coherently, still less spontaneously. Those right hon. and hon. Members who make up the British delegation will know this from practical experience. I saw it vividly demonstrated to me today. It is absolutely right and normal that the elected representatives should, if they wish, speak and work in their own tongue. I do not think that anyone in this House can argue that we should add linguistic proficiency to the qualifications for election. Apart from the complications arising from the differences in national viewpoint and political alignment, the possible enlargement of the Community to include three Mediterranean countries—and who knows how many other States in due course?—could in the end add four or five further languages.
Some member States will query enlargement without institutional reform and argue for majority voting. But this has been firmly resisted by Britain and France in the past without some safeguard for their national interest, such as the Luxembourg compromise. This will continue to be this Government's position, although we are prepared to rally to the majority unless important national interests are at stake. In my view enlargement, for linguistic and institutional reasons, is bound to work against federalism.
The yardstick by which we shall judge the real worth and validity of the Parliament in the years to come will be its ability to reconcile national differences through effective co-operation within coherent and democratically responsive political groups. In this way the Parliament can contribute to the strengthening of European democracy and cohesion. This aspiration lies after all at the basis of the 'Treaty of Rome, the preamble of which speaks of laying
the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe
to eliminate the barriers which divide Europe".
This is a challenge which the European Parliament shares with us all. The formidable difficulties which it presents should in no way diminish the force of our commitment to overcome it.
Edmund Burke once defined Parliament as
not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates
but, he said:
parliament is a deliberate assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole …
If his words were a rebuke to Westminster in the eighteenth century, he might not notice a great deal of progress were he to return today. But if this is the case in Britain after a millenium of representative government, to fear that the European Assembly will become tomorrow a deliberate assembly of one nation—which is what the fear of federalism amounts to—is a fear which I hope I have shown has no foundations.
Our commitment to building a united Europe and a strong and prosperous Community, to which I hold strongly, is a commitment to participate constructively and positively in a long-term historical process. A directly elected European Parliament will be an indispensable and practical step in the construction of a more cohesive and democratic Europe.
Today's debate and that which will follow on Monday are of an unusual character. We are debating the motion for the Adjournment, and that has allowed the Foreign Secretary to range widely over the arguments about the principle of directly electing a European Parliament, whereas the White Paper addresses itself more closely to the practicalities of the electoral systems that might be devised. I have no dispute with the Foreign Secretary's approach, but I shall not follow him precisely, although I may touch on some of the issues.
We are not debating the principle of direct elections. I draw the attention of Labour Members to the fact that their own Prime Minister has repeatedly said that this matter is now beyond recall and that the principle is past. The Prime Minister said that yesterday in response to his hon. Friends.
I would not have any such thing. The hon. Gentleman knows me well enough to know that I attach such great importance to the position of Parliament in these matters that my integrity can hardly be disputed. The thought has never been even remotely in my mind that we could proceed to direct elections without the statutory authority of Parliament. That is an essential part of the process on which we are now engaged.
I make the important analogy that in what is generally the treaty-making process, whereby a Government proceed along treaty lines, there may be, in regard to the most exceptionally important matters affecting the fate of the country, a treaty subsequently presented to Parliament, and Parliament can reject it. Parliament has, on rare occasions, rejected it, because it was on a serious matter. But on this occasion, the Prime Minister has made the point, with which I agree, that Parliament has been fully consulted on the process to be used under the treaty-making procedure agreement. We have had repeated opportunities to discuss the matter. The result which was finally achieved in the concordat talks of 25th September was the end of a long process, not the beginning of one.
I believe that the purpose today must be to address ourselves more to the specifics of the White Paper than to the question of rehearsing once again the many arguments which are involved. That is what we are asked to do—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]. Labour Members should consult the Order Paper. After all, they are such keen parliamentarians. I see that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) is gesticulating as usual. He is one of the keenest parliamentarians I know. He is concerned with the contents of the Order Paper.
We are required to discuss a series of issues contained in the White Paper. The object of the debate is to look into the factors involved in the White Paper. It is largely concerned with the electoral method and secondarily with the vexatious question of the dual mandate. These are the two issues which the White Paper draws to our attention.
The provisions of the debate are difficult to handle in relation to the decision which must be reached. We are debating the motion for the Adjournment. Goodness knows what means, if any, there will be of debating the issue on Monday. As we are debating the motion for the Adjournment, we have no means as a House of doing what we are expected to do—namely, to reach a conclusive decision on the issues presented as options in the White Paper. We have no such opportunity.
In the light of further consideration by the Government we may find ourselves in a different situation next Monday but at present we have no means of reaching decisions on the options which the Government's White Paper presents. This is a somewhat anomalous situation.
The right hon. Gentleman will feel assured by my remarks, which will conform to Mr. Speaker's injunction to be brief and in which I shall try to deal with some of the issues concerned.
I return to the proposal which my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, (Mr. Channon) made yesterday to the Prime Minister—that there needs to be an opportunity, perhaps between the debate on the White Paper and the presentation of a Bill for Second Reading, for decisions to be taken on the issues rehearsed in the White Paper. If that were not so, if the first we knew of firm proposals, as opposed to the options presented, was within the framework of the Bill, we might allow ourselves to be drawn into a cul-de-sac.
I hope that the sensible suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, will be seriously considered. This has been put to the Leader of the House before, or at least something of the kind was put to him, and he has always taken careful note of it; but, characteristically, he has never done much about it. On this occasion I hope he will. It is essential that when we reach the point of having a Bill before us to which we must give a Second Reading and which thereafter must go through the remaining processes, we should have before us something which represents the conclusions of the House on the vexatious and difficult issues with which the White Paper presents us.
Would my right hon. Friend agree that we shall face great problems if the Government adopt the alternative course of publishing a Bill with one system or other in it? The Government are to allow a free vote on the issue and every hon. Member will wish to express his view in a free way. If the House rejects the Government's proposition it will be astonishingly difficult for the House to amend the Bill adequately to fulfil the conclusions which the House will have reached. That is why I hope my right hon. Friend's suggestion will succeed.
I wholly agree with that observation. I can even foresee a ridiculous situation in which a Bill was passed to become an Act without an electoral system being incorporated in it. That would plumb the depths of absurdity. I realise, of course, that some hon. Members would welcome such a situation, but I have a strong feeling that the majority of hon. Members would not.
I also believe that a conclusion which gave rise to a totally frustrated piece of legislation in one form or another—whether frustrated in the course of its passage through the House or frustrated in its final courses—could hardly be considered to concur with the Prime Minister's repeated assurances that he is committed to bring about the intention to which he was a party last year and to which his late right hon. Friend the then Foreign Secretary was also a party. I speak of the conclusion of 25th September.
It would be remarkable if such a conclusion as I have outlined could be reconciled with the clear assurances which have been given. If that were so, it would result in the Government becoming regarded not just as a dangerous element within the Community, which I think they have been by virtue of some of their activities recently, but also as a laughing stock. That would be a great pity for the country.
Mr. Eric S. Helfer:
Would the right hon. Gentleman care to elucidate this point about the Government being a dangerous element? Is he suggesting that the fight they put up in relation the CAP in trying to keep down prices for the benefit of the British people was acting like a dangerous element in the Community?
Yes, but I do not think that it is appropriate to go too deeply into that matter. The actions of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have been specifically counter-productive to the interests of the housewife. There is no doubt about that.
But I revert to our primary consideration. It is now clear that all of the other eight member States will certainly be proceeding to the necessary legislative provisions to enable elections to take place early next summer.
Would my right hon. Friend not agree that the Government are showing signs of getting themselves into the same position as that into which they got with the devolution Bill, when it appeared that there might well have been a majority in the House for devolution, but, because the Government did not take the trouble to find out on what terms, the Bill went to the wall? Would they not be wise first to find out, on a vote, what sort of electoral system would be acceptable to the House, lest this Bill goes to the wall in the same way?
I strongly believe that my hon. Friend is correct. I fear that the Government may be doing that, at least by default. Equally, there could be great shame in such an action. There is a majority in the House for direct elections to the European Parliament, and on a determined electoral system, and for us to fail to achieve that would be an act of ineptitude for which there is no excuse.
I return to the question of the dangers involved in being the sole failing country in the Community. Until recently, there were doubts about the ability or wish of other member countries to carry through the necessary legislative process to ensure direct elections. But those have been dissipated. At one time, there was some doubt whether Denmark was able or willing to do so, but it is clear that it is both able and willing to do so.
I was in France on Monday to try to clarify in my own mind the position there. There had been some doubt, but there is no doubt now that the Gaullists, the RPR, and the Communists, will not seek to obstruct the enactment which is necessary for France to proceed to elections to a European Parliament in May or June next year.
That being so, if we fail, we shall be the only member of the Community to do so, and if we are the only one, we shall stop the rest—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] There will be no forgiving and no forgetting the fact that we shall have done so. Therefore, unless steps are now urgently taken to clarify the process of what decision we take on the electoral system, we are in danger, by intent or by malintent, of failing to do so.
I turn now to the specific issues of substance within the White Paper. The first is the dual mandate. All the evidence leads one to the conclusion that it would prove virtually impossible effectively to discharge a dual mandate of membership both of this House and of the European Parliament at the same time. The parliamentary demands in Westminster are certainly much heavier than those of any equivalent Parliament in the Community. Adding to that what seems to me inevitably the growing weight of work in the European Parliament itself makes the combination of the two virtually unthinkable in the generality.
The Foreign Secretary referred to the greatly lamented death of Sir Peter Kirk, whom we all knew both as a very stout colleague and as a great friend. Undoubtedly, his death owed something to the extraordinary burdens put on people in discharging the dual duties involved.
I willingly accept that there may be exceptional cases in which, for specific reasons, there would be a need for an individual perhaps to fulfil a dual mandate, but that the generality of the 81 Members of the European Parliament could at the same time be Members of this House is unthinkable. Therefore, our conclusions should go towards making a dual mandate not impossible but at least unlikely. It should not be excluded, but it should certainly not be obligatory.
I take the view that the electoral method which is decided upon is of secondary importance to the attainment of direct elections themselves in line with the other eight countries. For my part, I am content to abide by the majority decision of the House on the electoral system that it desires. Whatever the House wishes—provided that it gets an opportunity clearly to declare which electoral system it favours—I am content to abide by it.
Labour Members would be hard-pressed indeed—[Interruption.] I wonder what the Foreign Secretary finds so curious about that. I should have thought that he among others would have been attuned to the thought that the will of the House should prevail on the electoral method involved.
I think that the right hon. Gentleman missed the crack which came from behind me, which was to the effect that he had no alternative—that is, that the House had no alternative. Whatever view one may take, eventually it is the House which will decide the system.
Of course it will. All the more reason, therefore, to ensure that the opportunity is provided for the House clearly to declare its will on the matter. This has not yet become clear from the Government side. The Government have not made it clear how they propose to deal with the matter.
Would the right hon. Gentleman make it clear from his side specifically what electoral system he would propose on behalf of himself and his colleagues?
But the right hon. Gentleman is the spokesman for the Opposition. I take the point that he has made, but would he nevertheless inform the House where he personally stands on the matter? Let us at the very least hear his personal approach to the question of which electoral system he would support.
It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman should put that question to me. Incidentally, he did not put it to his right hon. Friend. We have yet to have a full debate on this White Paper. It might be reasonable for us all to make it clear that we intend to listen to that debate, as I propose to do.
What we have said from this side is that, on the method, there will be a free vote. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right, that we are listening to the debate and that then, in the terms stated by the Prime Minister, we shall come back to the House. But am I correct in inferring from what the right hon. Gentleman has said that the official Opposition will have a free vote on the method as well?
Order. It is customary, when a right hon. Member has been asked a question, for him to answer that question before he deals with the next one. We might as well stay in order.
I am very grateful. There is one part of the White Paper in which the Government have declared their position on the electoral system—that is, paragraph 24, in which they say that, because of particular reasons in Northern Ireland, whatever reasons the rest of the United Kingdom has, there should be a system of proportional representation in that Province. Does the right hon. Gentleman at least agree with that recommendation and, if so, why does he think that a first-past-the-post system has defects which make it inapplicable in Northern Ireland?
I have it very much in mind to come to that question in a moment, so the right hon. Gentleman will get his reply. I repeat what I have said, that I personally consider—I do so against the background of an entitlement to a free vote on this matter—that in the event the electoral system to me is less important than the election itself.
I am convinced that it is necessary to proceed to these elections. I therefore judge my view as one Member exercising a free vote in relation to the situation I then find at the end of this debate. I hope that that adequately answers those who have probed these matters.
However, I should not be happy with an arbitrary assessment by the Government of the will of the House based simply upon the discussions within this debate. It will be unsatisfactory if the Government come back to the House with a Bill, saying that they have inserted such-and-such an electoral system because they judged from the debate held on this White Paper that that was the system preferred by the House. That would be inadequate in the absence of any vote at all. There must be a vote in this House to signify agreement with any electoral system. Surely that must appeal to Labour Members below the Gangway as much as it does to those above.
The electoral system chosen is of secondary importance for a number of reasons. First, it is probable that the election next year will be one operation which will be followed by subsequent operations, expectantly on an agreed common basis of voting throughout the Community. Therefore, we are not prejudicing future voting for a European Parliament by adopting any single electoral system next year.
Second, I doubt whether any major precedents will be set for our domestic elections. The nature of the election for the European Parliament will itself be very different from that of our domestic elections. We shall not be electing a majority party to construct an Executive or a Government. We shall be electing people to participate in a joint Parliament of many countries, where there is no purpose to elect an Executive or a Government. That is therefore sharply different from the case of a domestic election.
I now revert to the question of Northern Ireland, which was raised by the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe). I note that the Government have said that whatever electoral system is agreed elsewhere, there needs to be a particular system in Northern Ireland because of the peculiar circumstances that obtain there. I understand that comment, but I must say to the right hon. Member for Devon, North that I would find it a very unhappy situation if two different electoral methods applied in the United Kingdom. It seems very desirable that there should be only a single electoral method applied for these purposes throughout the United Kingdom.
Proceeding to elections is of paramount importance, whereas the nature of the electoral method itself is of secondary importance—first, because I believe that the European Parliament, when directly elected, will bring a kind of searching wind of true representative democracy into the council chambers of the Community, which it has hitherto lacked. That is very necessary.
Secondly, I believe that direct elections will buttress the capacity of Westminster to scrutinise and influence the activities of the Community. I speak with some experience of this matter, as I have been Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee for some considerable time. Despite all the arduous work that the Committee performs, and all its endeavours, it is still failing to scrutinise the totality of Community activities because of the inherent difficulties attendant on a Select Committee. It cannot call into discussion matters which are of primary importance for this country and this House in relation to Community activities.
I speak of commercial treaty making for instance, amongst other things. The Scrutiny Committee has no capacity to draw such matters into discussion and to present them to the House in a timely way. It is evident to me that the European Parliament, which has such capabilities, and is not impeded by the rules of this House—as I believe I was impeded as Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee—could act as a very worthy support to the House's activities.
Thirdly, I believe that a directly elected Parliament will bring the whole Community process much closer to the people. So far it is clear that the Community has seemed very distant. I do not entirely exonerate the Government from blame for this. The Community's performance has often been presented in a hostile fashion, and reports of its achievements have been adulterated by those who have no friendliness for the Community and who therefore present its activities in an unfavourable light. A directly elected Parliament will be a powerful force for avoiding those dangers. I see no danger of the European Parliament becoming a kind of power-hungry monster, and even it it were, its ambitions would soon be thwarted by the constitutional rules of the Community itself. I was not happy with the remarks of the Foreign Secretary on this matter. He was rather brushing aside the European Parliament as being of secondary importance in his remarks about his recent visit to Strasbourg. That is not my view. My view is that it has a major rôle of great importance to perform, because it has an extremely influential rôle, which will be the more so when it is directly elected.
I know that it is the habit of all executives—I do not exclude myself—broadly speaking to maintain that they alone are the people who decide everything and who make decisions in the light of pressures exercised upon them. It would be very unwise of the Foreign Secretary to try to diminish the potential importance of the European Parliament when it is directly elected.
I therefore firmly call on the Government not just to listen to the debate that will take place today and on Monday but to do what is necessary to ensure that when they present the Bill to the House they present it in a form which will allow it to proceed reasonably to its statutory conclusion. By that I mean that it should be preceded by a proper reference to the House on the question of the electoral method that would be employed and presented in the Bill. Without that, it will prove to be a frustrated and a frustrating Bill.
The right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) made a very curious speech. First, he implied that the principle of the matter was virtually decided and did not require much further debate from the House. But when he came to the details of the electoral system he failed to tell us either what the Opposition or he himself was recommending.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made a much more reasonable speech today than did the right hon. Member for Knutsford. My right hon. Friend made no attempt to pretend, as the Prime Minister has done on earlier occasions, that this country or the House is under a legal obligation from the Treaty of Rome to accept direct elections. I very much welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend took that line today, for there is really no doubt about the hard facts.
Under the Treaty of Rome there is no obligation on this country to embark on direct elections, and there is no mandate from the electorate to do so, either from a General Election or the referendum results. Until there is, I am wholly opposed to any such far-reaching constitutional change of this kind. It is worth looking at what Article 138 of the Treaty of Rome actually says on direct elections:
The Assembly shall draw up proposals for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States.
That is a legal obligation on the Assembly, not on member States. Article 138 then states:
The Council shall, acting unanimously, lay down the appropriate provisions, which it shall recommend to Member States for adoption in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements.
That is an obligation on the Council, not on the member States. Therefore, in the treaty, there is no obligation whatever on member States or on their Parliaments, which are perfectly free to do what they think right on the merits of the case. A recommendation from the Council is not, of course, binding.
Thirdly, no date is mentioned in the treaty by which direct elections have to be held. The White Paper quite rightly points out that the Community has carried on for 19 years without direct elections, and, as far as treaty obligations are concerned it could continue to do so as long as it wishes.
I think that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will agree that even the agreement that Ministers reached in the Council in September 1976 to name the date of May 1978 for direct elections was not a formal decision with legal effect but was simply a political commitment of the Ministers represented there. That, in effect, is what he told us today. But Article 138 says clearly that the elections to be held are to be by
direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all member States.
What is now proposed is not a uniform procedure at all. Therefore, far from being asked to carry out an obligation of the treaty, we are in fact being asked to act in a way that is contrary to the treaty.
I have the valuable testimony of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to that effect, when I asked him in the House on 22nd December, when he was Minister of State, whether the Government's proposals would honour the conditions of a uniform procedure. He gave this illuminating answer:
It will not be the first case, or the last, I suspect, when the literal interpretation of the Treaty of Rome is not followed."—[Official Report, 22nd December 1976; Vol. 923, c. 667.]
Since my right hon. Friend said that he has been made Foreign Secretary, so I suppose that he must have been right.
So do not let us have any dishonest pretence that we are bound to these proposals by the treaty, when the truth is that on any fair interpretation it is very doubtful whether they are in accordance with the treaty at all.
Next, there is no mandate for direct elections from the referendum. The electorate plainly voted in the referendum on the understanding that these further proposals would be a matter for Parliament to decide. I think that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary agreed with that today, and if he did I welcome it. Before the referendum the Government published, in March 1975, a White Paper on the results of renegotiation. It said of direct elections only this:
If British membership is confirmed, any scheme for direct elections to the European Assembly would require an Act of Parliament.
That clearly must mean that Parliament has the right to say "Yes" or "No" when the time comes.
Then, in the referendum itself, the Government's own referendum manifesto, which was pushed through every door in the country at public expense, made no mention whatever of direct elections. I am sure that the members of the Government are all honourable men. If they thought that the referendum authorised us to proceed to direct elections, they would clearly have said so in the prospectus that was distributed to the country at the time of the referendum. They did not do so, however. In that manifesto they said, in the section on the powers of Parliament:
No important new policy can be decided in Brussels or anywhere else without the consent of a British Minister answerable to a British Government and British Parliament … Thus our continued membership will depend on the continuing assent of Parliament".
That again means that this Parliament is perfectly free to say what it thinks right one way or the other.
When the right hon. Gentleman was speaking on this theme on 7th February he also referred to this aspect and to Article 138. Does he agree that since he stated then, from the quotation, that any proposal must ultimately be acceptable to the Parliaments of all the States, if there is a majority in the House for the direct elections Bill he will enthusiastically support it?
I shall do what I hope the hon. Gentleman does, and that is to accept the decisions of the House about Bills even if I do not agree with them. I should have thought that that was clear.
I have quoted the assurance that was given to the electorate at the time of the referendum. Any pretence now that direct elections were authorised by the referendum would be just another manoeuvre in this long and rather murky story. The record surely proves that Parliament is now perfectly free to decide what is right on the merits of the case. Parliament has the duty to do that. It is worth considering, therefore, what those merits are.
I am a little puzzled by the right hon. Gentleman's last remark. If my memory serves me correctly, the anti-Marketeers circulated several leaflets during the referendum campaign saying that the campaign was related to the question of a directly elected European Parliament. If the anti-Marketeers said that, it surely implies that the decision by the country by an overwhelming majority to stay in Europe should decide this matter.
The hon. Member is both incorrect and irrelevant. The important fact is the manifesto that the Government put before the electorate.
I come now to the merits of the case. I believe that we are now being faced with the fundamental dilemma that arises with a supranational, as opposed to an international, institution, a dilemma that has underlain this whole controversy. It is this: that a supranational body must be either undemocratic or it must be federal. If the legislative body is unelected, it is undemocratic. But if it is elected it is, of course, a federal system.
Direct elections are being urged upon us by those who support them precisely because they are a big step towards a federal system. It is no good anyone pretending that they are not. We have the authority of a publication called "Facts". It is one of the many glossy mouthpieces of the European Movement, which is the holy of holies in this whole operation. In the July and August issue of this paper last year the European Movement said:
In 2 years' time member countries of the Community will elect their first European Parliament. This historic decision represents the first step towards the creation of the United States of Europe.
Of course, direct elections represent such a step, but that is not what the electorate voted for. Even my right hon. Friend, now the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, agreed in this House after the referendum that it was not a vote for merging this country in a federation.
It is also worth remembering now that the whole purport of Hugh Gaitskell's memorable speech in October 1962 was that, if the merging of this country into a federation was proposed, the explicit assent of the electorate was essential.
Let us then consider the real practical consequences of direct elections. If they meant anything at all, it would be to diminish the power and authority of this House, and therefore of the British electorate, over legislation and decisions, which affect their daily lives. At present nobody disputes that Ministers are responsible to this House for what they do and for what they accept in Brussels, just as they are for what they do and accept anywhere else.
We often argue that this House has not as much control and influence over the Executive as we should wish, but at least it has some control. Ministerial responsibility here is a reality. The last six months have proved that by its decisions this House can control to a very great extent what the Government are doing, both in terms of some of the legislation we have had, and of the actions of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture in Brussels in the last few weeks.
But what if we set up a rival elected Parliament elsewhere? Ministers will say that we may not like certain things, but that the Strasbourg Assembly has approved them, and that therefore Ministers do not care what we at Westminster may say. Does anybody really think that the British electorate will have comparable control over what happens in Strasbourg? Do we really think that a group of British Assembly men, each representing about half a million voters and totalling a minority of about one-fifth of the Strasbourg Assembly, can really exercise decisive control over what the Council and the Commission do? If ever there was a case of abandoning the substance for the shadow, this is it.
If, therefore, we are to remain members of the EEC, true democratic control is control at Westminster of British Ministers and what they do at the Council in Brussels. That is the heart of the matter.
Then there is the question of timing. At present Greece, Spain and Portugal are all seeking membership. As long as they are democratic countries, the EEC has no right to refuse their membership. Do we want to pass legislation setting up an elaborate system of constituencies, members, and national quotas. and then find that we have to unravel it again in a year or two because of the admission of a number of new member States?
On top of all this it is being suggested by the right hon. Member for Knutsford that we should rush into a new electoral system. If I understood him correctly, he said that we should introduce, half-heartedly and by the back door, some form of proportional representation into these elections. But whichever system of proportional representation is selected, it means that more power and patronage is given to the party machines. In this case it will involve offering people jobs with salaries of £25,000 a year, or something like that. That means that the public will be voting increasingly for parties rather than individuals. I am wholly opposed to moving any further down that road. I should have thought that we had enough examples recently in some of the Honours Lists, of what nomination and patronage can mean, even without the £25,000-a-year jobs being involved. Hon. Members may think that that is unfair, and an argument adhominem or perhaps ad feminam. But I seriously do not believe that this is an attractive prospect to introduce by the back door.
Whether one looks dispassionately at the grievous damage done to our whole economy by the CAP and the common fisheries policy, or at the danger that these present to the possibility of a pay agreement at present, the fact is that this has all happened because we joined the EEC. Do not let us, therefore, walk gratuitously further into this quagmire, until at least we know that the CAP has been drastically reformed, until the new member countries have joined, and, above all, until the British electorate has explicitly said "Yes" or "No".
I welcome the fact that the Government have published this White Paper. It is absolutely right that they should set out the options. Also, I am glad that we are having this debate on the motion for the Adjournment. I hope that when the debate ends on Monday there is no possibility of the Government putting down a motion on which we can vote. It would not be right for the House to take a vote on this matter at this time.
I think that the Government are absolutely right about coming to a firm conclusion on Northern Ireland. For the rest, I know what a heavy burden the Foreign Secretary has carried since he took up his office, particularly in the last 10 days. But I do wish that he had taken a more positive and forward-looking view rather than appearing to fight a long rearguard action on the question of federalism. I have long believed that whether we have a federal organisation or con-federalism, this is not the argument here.
I agree with the Foreign Secretary that we shall develop our own institutions to meet our own needs. That is what is happening now. I do not think that when the founding fathers began the EEC they thought that the Commission would become a Government. They could not have believed that Europe would accept a non-elected body as a Government. But they though that the Commission could provide proposals on which elected Ministers could take decisions, and amend or reject them. They set up a machinery by which the system could be made to work.
If we look at how the system has developed over the last five years, we see that in 1972 the Heads of Government came together for the first time and planned to meet the second time in 1976. However, they had to meet in 1973 because of the oil crisis, and then they agreed to have meetings every six months. Now the meetings are held every four months. This is an example of the organisation developing in a way that was not allowed for in the Treaty. But it is functioning and it would be impossible for the Community to work without it.
After this debate speedy action is required. Those who are trying to delay and procrastinate are wrong. I am reminded of 1973 when this House wanted to make a change in Northern Ireland. A major White Paper was published on 20th March, the legislation was law by the end of May and the elections took place on 13th June. That included a change to an electoral system of proportional representation. When this House makes up its mind to achieve something it can be done, and done quickly. I hope that the Government will give a lead from now on.
I have great sympathy with my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies), who spoke of the technical problems facing us in deciding on the system by which the elections will be pursued. It is due to the limitations of the House's procedure that if there are four main options open to us on which the House wants to take a decision, there is a problem how we can vote on them. This is a reflection on the procedures of the House. There is no device by which we can take decisions on alternative proposals. We can have one vote on an alternative and if it is carried a substantive motion is overruled. If it is defeated the substantive motion is then carried or defeated. There are two options only. The Government should devote their mind fairly speedily to the question how the House can be given an opportunity of taking decisions on up to four options on the electoral system required.
We shall not be excused for delaying. Other countries have been cited as possible members who are not prepared to take part, but that excuse is no longer open to us. Mention has been made of France, the Republic of Ireland and Belgium, but they are all prepared to take part, even if they delay. In my view, in this case we should give a lead. One of the fields in which Europe expected us to give a lead was in parliamentary affairs. Our European partners recognise that in our financial and economic difficulties we cannot come forward with proposals other than those that are in our own interests, but in parliamentary affairs we have much to give Europe.
The Community must be made democratic. I respect the views of those who thought that we should not go into the EEC, and I am glad to hear the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) say that he has accepted the verdict of the House and the referendum. We are in the Community and we are there to stay. However, I fail completely to comprehend those who accept that we are in the EEC but refuse to make that organisation more democratic by holding direct elections. One allegation of those who opposed our entry was the fact that the EEC was an undemocratic organisation. Now that it is proposed to make it more democratic these very same people are doing their utmost to stop further development.
The right hon. Gentleman asked a specific question. The answer is that it cannot become fully democratic unless the Assembly becomes a Parliament of a new federal State with all the powers that go with it. That is the answer we would give. Will the right hon. Gentleman say why in the 1971 White Paper issued by his Government he did not refer to the obligation which he claims to direct elections?
With great respect, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman listened to my remarks with his usual care. I did not say that there was the obligation of direct elections. I said that I believed the House should give a lead to make the Community more democratic and that other countries in the Community expected us to do so.
Where I differ from the hon. Gentleman and from the right hon. Member for Battersea, North, is that I do not agree that the existence of a directly elected Assembly will create a federal organisation. I do not think that any constitutional lawyer or historian in this country or in Europe would say that to have a directly elected Assembly makes it a federal organisation. Nothing could be further from the truth. I wish to deal later with the other argument—namely, whether this will automatically lead to a federal Assembly.
It is right that legislation is required to bring in direct elections. I do not understand why the right hon. Member for Battersea, North is making such a fuss. He will get his legislation and can express his view. I believe that we should deal with the matter on its merits. Let us not say that this will create federalism, because it will not. Let us deal with the merits of the case. It will create elected Members who will have more democratic control over the Commission and the Council of Ministers.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the House is not bound or committed by the treaty but is free to act on the main issue of the holding of direct elections?
I have the treaty with me. The Council makes a recommendation. The right hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that this has not been an official recommendation by the Council of Ministers, but is an agreement by the Heads of Government. I repeat that I do not understand what he is complaining about. The fact that it is a recommendation by the Heads of Government means that it is not bound up with Article 138, which is the other part of the treaty which the right hon. Gentleman has quoted. If and when the Council of Ministers makes an official recommendation, the question of uniformity will come into play, but the matter has been handled in a different way. Therefore, in many ways the situation is much more satisfactory. It gives flexibility to member Parliaments to decide how they will have their own elections. Since the right hon. Gentleman is always complaining about rigidity within the Community, I am sure that he welcomes this additional flexibility which is being put into effect.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that whether the procedure in Article 138 has been followed, this House is still free to take a decision on the principle whether to hold direct elections?
Yes, of course. What I have not been clear about when Labour Members have been shouting loudly on these aspects is why they wish to reopen the whole principle whether we should remain members of the Community. That is not the point. What we are now seeking to settle is the principle whether to have direct elections.
I believe that some of the problems that beset Labour Members, and indeed some of my hon. Friends, arise from a misunderstanding—the belief that direct elections will transfer power to the European Community. Some interventions in this debate by Labour Members have confirmed that impression. I must tell those hon. Gentlemen that direct elections do not transfer any power to the Community. The sovereignty pooled was transferred by the Treaty of Accession and was confirmed by this House through legislation, and the country through the referendum also confirmed the situation. We must decide whether to have a directly elected Assembly, and whether it is to have greater power and support to help it in the Community with the sovereignty that has already been pooled. That is the issue with which we are dealing.
I do not see how anybody with any experience of our democratic parliamentary background can doubt that we should have directly elected Members who can deal in the Community with that pooled sovereignty. It has not affected the way in which this House deals with sovereignty through the Council of Ministers and through ministerial committees.
I sum up this part of the matter by saying that direct elections, in my judgment, will change the balance of power within the Community but will not change the balance between the Community and member countries. I believe that there is a change which should be brought about in the balance within the Community. If power were to be changed, it could come about only by a change in the traditions and it can be ratified only by every member Parliament of the nine countries. Nor will direct elections in any way decrease the power of this House in overseeing instructions issued by the Commission, nor will they change the machinery, because that is entirely within our influence.
The right hon. Gentleman said that direct elections would change the balance of power within the Community institutions by increasing the relative power of the Assembly. Will he indicate which of the institutions will relatively lose power? Will it be the Commission or the Council of Ministers, or both?
I believe that it will be the Commission. I believe that an elected Assembly will bring much more influence to bear in the way in which we carry out our rôle in this House through challenge, debate and questions. That process can be directed at the Commission. I also believe that it will bring influence to bear on the Council of Ministers. In many ways this is desirable because it will be supplemental to the influence which national Parliaments bring to bear on their own Ministers. [Interruption.] I hear the babble among Labour Members, but there are many matters that are of common interest to all members of the Community. Community life is not just a question of nine constant battles between members. The one thing that a European Assembly can do is to influence the Council of Ministers in matters which are of common concern to all countries.
With great respect, it is not federalism, and it is a loose use of language to suggest that it is.
I have been dealing with the negative arguments, and I shall now attempt to put the positive arguments on direct elections. I shall briefly add one further negative argument. In regard to this Parliament, I do not believe that the system of indirect elections is workable. The combination of trying to serve in Westminster and in the European Assembly is not bearable, and I wish to add my tribute to Peter Kirk, who gave everything he had to the services of the Assembly, this House and Europe.
The first thing that direct elections will do is to give the Assembly greater status within the Community. That is desirable. Europeans want to see that they have directly-elected Members with proper status. Secondly, it will give greater influence over the Commission. Thirdly, it will afford greater influence over the Council of Ministers. Fourthly—and this is a most important matter—it will give the opportunity to constituents to lobby their European Assembly men, and constituents will be able to write to their representatives demanding that they should attend meetings, in exactly the same way as they demand such attendance from local councillors or Members of Parliament. That, too, is desirable. It will certainly be welcomed by industry and agriculture. They feel that this is a gap in the contacts which they have with representatives in Europe.
Fifthly, it will give the Community greater status and distinction in the eyes of the rest of the Western world and in the eyes of developing countries. That also is desirable. The Community already has agreements with 47 developing countries, and it is desirable that they should see the Assembly as represented by those who are directly elected.
I turn to the subject of systems, and I propose to declare my own views. The first-past-the-post system would produce constituencies of half a million people. That is in no way out of the question. There are other countries, including Commonwealth countries, that have constituencies much larger than that. But what I do not find acceptable is that with a constituency of 500,000 people the matter should be settled by one vote first past the post. We have a large number of constituencies—there are 630—and we have accepted that on the whole matters will average themselves out. However, with 81 constituencies the public will not take that view. The public have an instinct in these matters and I do not believe they will be prepared to accept a situation in which a considerable proportion of the 81 constituencies of half a million people may be settled by a very small majority on a first-past-the-post basis.
Secondly, I think that such a system would prevent smaller parties from being represented. I cannot believe that that is in the long-term interests of democracy. Such a system might appeal to the two major parties at any particular time but it cannot be in the long-term interests of parliamentary democracy.
I have heard the argument that if we allow the smaller parties a chance the National Front will come forward. I find that a contemptible argument. In any case, it is a matter that can be dealt with, as it is in the Federal Republic and in many other countries, by having a percentage limitation that has to be jumped before a party can go forward.
I do not wish to deal with the National Front in that way. The way to deal with the National Front is the way of dealing with all things that are objectionable in politics—namely, to out-argue it, out-manoeuvre it and beat it at the polls. That is what I want to do. It is a contemptible argument to say that we should not give small parties a chance because of the National Front.
The third reason is that with constituencies of half a million people the system will be open to widespread distortion, taking the country as a whole. It is said that we might get wide swings from election to election. Some of us have had experience of such swings since the creation of the GLC and the metropolitan boroughs. Originally the elections were every three years. They are now every four years. Instead of getting gradual changes and policies accepted we are getting wide swings. It means that in the term available policy cannot be created and implemented before there is a wide swing in the opposite direction. Policy is not implemented because the system produces wide swings. I am not arguing about who introduced the system. It is sometimes suggested that I should learn one or two lessons. This is one lesson that I have learned. I believe that we should not take this risk in respect of European elections.
My fourth reason for thinking that the first-past-the-post system is not acceptable is that in the rest of the Community, and in the rest of the Western world, it will be thought to be an unrepresentative system. That cannot be healthy for us, or for our standing in Europe or in the Western world.
My fifth reason is that I think there will probably be a change to a unified system in the next round of elections. No one can conceive that other countries in Europe will move to the first-past-the-post system. Therefore, it is better for us to make a move towards what will be a more representative system for 81 constituencies rather than saying, that we must do what we have always done in the past.
My right hon. Friend has indicated that there might be a change later towards a unified system in Europe which will not be a first-past-the-post system. To avoid confusion, would it not be better to keep to one system this first time and to change to the agreed unified system when that comes about? If we do not follow that course, there will have to be two changes.
I appreciate the importance of my right hon. Friend's point but I do not agree with him. First, I think that the other arguments I have advanced far outweigh the one that he has quoted—namely, the undesirability of making a change twice. Secondly, if we make a change which proves acceptable, we have a far greater chance of persuading the rest of the Community to move towards it than we shall ever have of influencing them if we continue to operate the first-past-the-post system. In future it is important that we should be able to influence the Community in that way.
My sixth argument is against those who say that the people will not be able to understand it, which is the argument at which my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford hinted. I cannot accept that. When we changed the system in Ireland it was only three months from White Paper to election. Northern Ireland had first-past-the-post elections and then there was a change. The people of Northern Ireland were able to understand it in the short time of three months. I do not understand why it is argued that the rest of the electorate in the British Isles will not be able to understand a change of system.
The other argument that is put forward is that if we do anything different from that which we do at this moment we shall have to change the electoral system at Westminster. I understand that argument when it is put forward by those who may be particularly interested, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford has said, here at Westminster we have a different purpose. We are here to see that a Government are created and supported. We are also here to legislate. That is not the case at the European Assembly. Those are two major functions that the European Assembly does not have to carry out. Whatever system we have for the European Assembly, it does not mean that it has to be adopted here. If by any chance it was thought to be a better system than the one we have at present, I do not see any problem. If it does not turn out to be so good, we can keep our present system.
There are alternative systems and I do not wish to be dogmatic. I am prepared to be influenced by argument, but the argument will have to be specific. My own view is that a regional list is better than a first-past-the-post system or a national list. I believe that a regional list would be more representative than the first-past-the-post system. I believe it would be preferable to a national list because the list would be shorter and more manageable. Those are two powerful reasons for giving serious consideration to a regional list.
A regional list is closer to the systems adopted by other countries, with the one exception of Eire. I understand that what will happen in some of the other Community countries is that when the election has taken place the Members in each party elected will agree among themselves as to the part of the area for which they will have responsibility. Surely that is a natural course to follow from the point of view of a party organisation once Members have been elected. If a Member does not represent a party when elected, he can announce whether he will look after the whole region or make an arrangement with someone else. This system gives the opportunity of having a type of constituency representation on a regional basis.
There is the additional member system, in which the Member's constituency would be very much larger than half a million. It would probably be 1 million. After the election it could be topped up from the list to give a proportional effect. There is the drawback that the constituency will be very much larger. I do not think it has any advantage over the regional list system. There will still have to be a list for topping-up purposes. I do not see that it has any advantage over a straightforward regional list election in which everyone can see for whom they are voting and the subsequent result.
Reference has been made to the danger of party influence. Of course this is a danger. It is one that we already recognise. We have seen it recently on both sides of the House—namely, the dangers in a constituency system of party choice. The way to deal with the danger is to ensure that we have an active democracy in terms of the people who are choosing. If we are to combine constituency representatives to make a choice for the region, that can be just as representative and democratic as constituency selection may or may not be.
The argument is not about the fact that there will be party influence but how it is handled, either in a constituency or from the centre. We should devote our attention to ensuring that there is a democratic way of dealing with these affairs. This is a matter that has been under discussion recently.
Many people have been discussing whether we should have primaries in elections. That is something that can be discussed further. In exactly the same way, the Foreign Secretary did not seem to realise that a great debate is now taking place throughout the country about federalism. That has been brought about by devolution and the problems that that has caused. It has also been brought about by those who believe that we should have a Bill of Rights inscribed into a federal system to maintain the liberties of individual citizens. The debate will continue. The debate about whether we can ensure democratic choice in terms of the list will continue as well. We must face the fact that other democracies do it extremely successfully. We ought to adopt some of the flexibility that we find elsewhere.
I want to deal with two other points. The first is the dual mandate. It clearly cannot be compulsory. On the other hand, I hope that the option can be kept open. It is possible that from time to time people will be members of both Westminster and the Assembly. That option will be kept open in the rest of the Community. Of course, other member States' representatives will have fewer problems, because the distances involved are smaller and often they are close at hand. It is up to them if they are prepared to do it. However, I hope that we shall keep that option open.
The second point concerns the importance of contact between Westminster and the Assembly. The Select Committee suggested that our Members of the European Assembly could meet Members of the House in a Grand Committee or that they could have seats automatically in the House of Lords for the period for which they were elected to the Assembly.
I do not regard that as sufficient. As this House is concerned with most of the matters dealt with by the Commission and the Council of Ministers, it is not satisfactory to have European representatives from the Assembly in the House of Lords. Nor do I think that a Grand Committee meeting is adequate for today's circumstances. Therefore, I make what is probably the most controversial proposal of all, which will produce an even greater outcry from below the Gangway—that those directly elected to the European Assembly should have the right to sit and speak in this House, but not the right to vote. I believe that would be an effective way of ensuring that they know the views of this House and that on European questions they would have the opportunity of explaining—
Perhaps I could finish the sentence first. On European questions they would have the opportunity of explaining here what action they had been taking in the European Assembly. Because of the nature of the task, it is unlikely that they will be able to attend this House, except on important European matters. I believe that will be more effective than having them sitting in the House of Lords or in a Grand Committee.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I believe that he has made an interesting suggestion. However, in practical terms, if we had 81 Members of the European Parliament sitting in this House, with our present system of Mr. Speaker calling Front-Bench speakers, then Privy Councillors by tradition of right, ex-Ministers and leaders of minority parties, when would an ordinary Back Bencher get into a debate at all?
I shall not be led down that path by my hon. Friend. That point has been made repeatedly since I came into the House in 1950 and it is still being made. It is a question for Mr. Speaker. We must recognise that a proportion has to be kept between all these matters. I think that my hon. Friend was hinting that I should draw my remarks to a close as soon as possible, and I shall immediately do so.
This matter has proved a challenge to Parliaments throughout the Community, and they are dealing with it flexibly. They look to us to do the same. We ought to try to discuss and work out among ourselves the best form of representation possible. The Government should then find a means by which we can express our views in concrete terms through the procedure of the House.
If we do not carry a Bill for direct elections now, if we prevent the rest of the Community from having the form of democracy that it wants, we shall be failing not only ourselves but the Community.
I listened with great interest to the speech by the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath). The right hon. Gentleman suggested that we should add to the burdens of this House by allowing the 81 Members who will represent us in the European Parliament to sit here. One of the difficulties that are often put forward is that Members who go to the European Parliament now do not have sufficient time to devote to their Westminster and European duties. I do not know whether they would have time to be in this House, and of course, they would not be accountable as Members are today.
The right hon. Gentleman said that elected Members at Strasbourg would take some power away from the Commission and would, therefore, have some effect on the Council of Ministers. If they have some effect on the Council of Ministers will that not lessen the effect that this House has on the Council of Ministers? We should be faced with the situation outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) in a very thoughtful speech—namely, that when we debate European matters we should be told by the Minister that a decision had already been arrived at in Strasbourg. However it is dressed up and however attractive the package is made—the right hon. Member for Sidcup tried to make the package attractive from his point of view—it means that we shall lose some democracy from this House. That is what we are debating today.
Whatever was said prior to the referendum, either in the White Paper or in the pamphlet that was issued, what was not discussed was a federal political union. Whichever way pro-Europeans may put it, this is a step along that road. It would be better for such Members to be honest with this House. If they said that it would be a step towards a federal Europe, that would be honest. Some pro-Europeans—I fully understand their argument, but it is not as strong as it was a few years ago—still deny that this is a step towards a federal Europe, but at the same time try to take us gradually in that direction. The White Paper on renegotiation stated that the Government did not accept any commitment to any kind of federal structure in Europe.
The pre-referendum pamphlet on Britain's new deal in Europe made no mention of direct elections. Indeed, it made great play of the right of veto on the Council of Ministers and the continued assent of Parliament as a condition of our continued membership of the EEC. At the time of the referendum, those opposed to the Common Market tried to point out that this could be one of the dangers which would result from membership. On the other side there was a complete denial of that assertion, or the argument was not pursued. That is the position in which we now find ourselves.
I accept that the British people overwhelmingly agreed to go into the Common Market. However, I find that, not only in my constituency, but in contacts with people in all parts of the country, people are completely disillusioned with the Common Market. They are absolutely fed up with it. They question—they have the right to question—what benefits we get from membership. Indeed, as far as I can see, direct elections represent a dead issue. People just do not want to know about them. Many who devoted a great deal of time and effort to the referendum campaign are now saying that our entry was the worst step that we ever took. Far from wishing to tie themselves closer to Europe they want to know whether they will ever have another opportunity to pull out of the EEC.
I agree that the right hon. Member for Sidcup was trying to overcome the problems. I understand what he meant when he talked about the 81 European Members also being Members of this House without voting rights, but that would mean that we would be setting up two types of elected representatives. I foresee that there will be all sorts of strains and difficulties between those Members and those of us with constituency responsibilities and with constituents to look after, and that frustrations will arise if there is an elected Assembly in Strasbourg. We shall have less power over decisions taken in Strasbourg.
I can see problems arising because European Members will have salaries of £25,000 a year, and they will be elected from a regional list, or they will have constituencies of 500,000 people. They will have little contact with the people who have elected them. The contact would be even less as a result of a list system than as a result of election on a regional basis. I do not know how a European Member would try to look after those who had elected him, but I cannot see that he would have many dealings with them. The people who would be seeking out these European Members and attempting to be in constant touch with them would be the powerful vested interests who would be setting up lobbies. There would be an industrial lobby, a fanning lobby and, no doubt, an oil lobby with its eyes on North Sea oil. Those are the people who would be interested in the Members of the European Parliament—not the ordinary people, who would find such Members remote, and the decisions taken in Strasbourg even more remote.
There is another danger. Many of us said during the referendum debate that we could see our powers at Westminster passing to Strasbourg and that the powers remaining here would be gradually taken away. In the end we would be left with not many more powers than those of an ordinary county council. I still think that that could be a danger that might arise through what is happening now. Some of us believe that this could happen as a result of a wrong decision. If it happened the public would wake up and there would be a backlash from the British people. They would want no part of it, and they would say that they wanted to be in control of their own destiny. Those views were put at the time of the referendum and they were thought by some to be extreme, but, because of steps that we have taken, we can now see that it could come about.
At the time of the referendum the Labour Party machine did not play a substantial r—le either regionally or nationally. I am not too sure about the Conservative Party machine, although I think that did the same. Despite that, there was a substantial poll. However, if European Members were elected through regional lists or large constituencies I doubt that people would turn out to vote. There would not be enough interest in those elections. We all know that there is not enough interest at present, and that people feel remote from the decisions taken by county councils. There are usually low polls in county council elections.
The situation would be worse if elections were extended to large constituencies or regional lists and if electors were asked to vote for a representative to have consultative powers in Europe. People would show little interest. Yet these Members would be powerful, and responsible to nobody. I cannot for the life of me see how this can be a step towards a democratic Europe. Taking away powers from this House is a step away from democracy, and the people of this country know it.
I understand the commitment that some people have to Europe, and I admire their enthusiasm, but I cannot understand how they can show enthusiasm for a body that has been shown to fail on every occasion. The right hon. Member for Sidcup said that Heads of Government met regularly, nearly every four months, but he did not go on to talk about the results of those meetings. They hardly agree on anything or on any policies. I have never understood the point of having meetings if they do not achieve anything. So we see a Europe in disarray. Although I understand the enthusiasm that some people have for Europe I do not understand why they want to rush us into the next stage of direct elections so soon.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North rightly pointed out that other nations now want to join the EEC—Spain, Portugal and Greece. Would it not be better to stand back and to wait to see whether they are accepted? I can see no reason why they should not join. They are all moving towards being democratic countries. If they joined the EEC we should then have to start all over again with the distribution of seats at Strasbourg.
This is far too important a constitutional decision to be rushed. I begin to wonder what activates those who want to move us towards direct elections so quickly and why they should say "Whatever the result, let us get it done and done quickly". Whenever something is done so quickly, it is usually a bodged job. This would certainly be far from perfect. Why can we not stand back, take our time, look at the matter carefully, hear all the arguments and work out the best possible system, instead of going headlong into this and setting a date? Why should we be rushing to meet a timetable?
I say to those in favour of direct elections that that is not the way that they should work things out if they want the backing of the British people. That is the way to create hostility to direct elections. All this is being proceeded with far too quickly. I doubt that we are committed to direct elections, and there are many hon. Members on both sides who feel the same. Instead of rushing towards direct elections we should think carefully before taking such a step. We should think not only of the immediate consequences for this House, but of the long-term consequences of a shift of power from Westminster and the first step towards a federal Europe. I do not believe that the British people are prepared to accept that.
The hon. Gentleman referred earlier to the remuneration of members of the Assembly. Does he not feel that the differential between the salary of hon. Members and the pay proposed for Assembly Members will cause considerable conflict and that those who go to Europe will have the grandeur, the glory and the gravy train while hon. Members here will have to do all the work and receive a pittance for doing it?
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As a good trade unionist, I have noticed this aspect, and, if pay is to be related to work load, I shall put in a claim, when we return shortly to free collective bargaining, for double the salary paid to Members of the Assembly. If they are worth £25,000, any hon. Member is worth double. We shall be taking all the responsibilities, while they will be responsible to no one, except the powerful lobbies which will be pursuing them. I can promise the hon. Gentleman that I shall do all I can to see that we get the right salary level in comparison with the people who go to Europe.
It will not be opportune to have direct elections in 1978, however they are organised. The British people would not thank us for them.
Rather than tying us more closely to Europe, the Prime Minister—if he wants to win the next General Election—should be thinking of ways to get us out of Europe. We have received no benefits from the EEC, and I cannot see how we ever shall derive any benefit.
I strongly suspect that even if the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Hoyle) were given all the time in the world for contemplation of this proposal, he would still come out against it. He is rather like the sinner who said "Cure me of sin, O Lord, but not yet". The hon. Gentleman's argument that we should have more time to consider the matter—during which time he would breach phase 3 and put in an equalisation grant for himself and his colleagues—carries rather less conviction than the arguments that we usually hear from him.
Our last debate on this issue was on 25th March and those who were here will remember poignantly the speech by Peter Kirk. I was privileged to be an undergraduate at the same college with Peter Kirk and I was up at the same time as his wife Elizabeth. I have known them for 30 years. Peter Kirk has always been one of my closest friends and colleagues in the House. I pay a very warm tribute to the selfless way in which he helped to maintain a British presence in Europe and to the part he played to restore the balance in Europe in which the British voice could be heard. I extend very deep sympathy to his wife and sons.
I shall leave the Government to convince their own supporters on the juridical argument. It goes without saying that there can be no direct elections without the necessary legislation being passed by the House, but to those who disagree with the Government I say that although Article 138 and the treaty are not strictly binding in law unless confirmed by this House, it has been customary for the past two or three centuries for treaties entered into by Governments to be more often confirmed than rejected by the House. It is extremely unlikely that the House would ever reject a treaty solemnly entered into by the Government of the day.
At no stage when the Labour Party was in opposition was there a suggestion that we should repeal the Treaty of Accession by which we adhere to the Treaty of Rome. Labour spokesmen merely said that they would renegotiate the treaty to see whether better terms could be obtained. Nor was there any suggestion in Labour manifestos that the treaty would be repealed.
I wish to concentrate on the dual mandate and the electoral system. In our debate last month, Peter Kirk referred to the obligatory consultations that have to take place with the European Assembly. There are certain matters on which the Assembly has to express an opinion before the Council of Ministers can act. Peter Kirk instanced the case of our two-day agriculture debate before the Copenhagen meeting of the Council of Ministers on agriculture. Because of the vicissitudes of this House and the fact that we were having a major debate here, it was difficult for the debate to take place in the Assembly, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that it was spatchcocked into the Assembly. If it had not been, the Council of Ministers would not have been able to take a decision.
The second example was that on 1st January funds might be levied by the Community. That would require a quorum of half the Members to be present with at least two-thirds voting in favour. That means that a high turn-out of members would be needed at the Assembly. It is not for us to say whether dual membership of this House and the Assembly shortened Peter Kirk's life or was the main cause of his death, but we can say that if the Assembly is to have ever greater control over the Community and the Commission, the civil servants of the Community, it will be increasingly difficult for Members to serve in both Houses.
I agree with the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) that we should leave open the possibility of dual membership, but it would be disastrous to make it mandatory and I do not believe that we could have two classes of Members in this House—one European and the other non-European.
I found the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) a little coy about the electoral system. He suggested that he wanted a debate and a vote first and enunciated what we may in future call Davies's Doctrine, namely "No vote, no views". Remembering the right hon. Gentleman's distinguished predecessor, I must say that it was never like that in Sir Walter Bromley-Davenport's day and I must warn the right hon. Gentleman that if this coyness continues, I shall be making strong efforts to see that Sir Walter is brought back at the next General Election, even if he has to stand as an independent.
The House may be surprised to hear that I shall be saying slightly more than the right hon. Member for Knutsford about the electoral system. The White Paper sets out the options with complete frankness and fairness and it details the defects of all the systems, because none of them is perfect.
I hope that the House will agree that there are certain criteria which we should seek to achieve in whatever system is used. The first is fairness of outcome. I cannot see that it is a merit of a system to be unfair, and therefore fairness should be one of the factors borne in mind. Secondly, we should consider the ease and speed with which a system can be introduced. This is not the only test, but it is a factor in favour of any system. Thirdly, there should be some guarantee that the system we use does not artificially distort the balance between the different party groups in the European Assembly. To do that would do grave damage to the democratic reputation of this country.
I say straight away that by these three tests the first-past-the-post system for the European elections is, in my view, condemned out of hand. It would produce a perfectly ludicrous result in the European Parliament, on the assumption, which I do not concede, that we could even be ready in time to hold elections under that system. I propose to say why.
The Government gave away the game in paragraph 24 of the White Paper. It was the one point on which I tried to get the right hon. Member for Knutsford committed, and even on that he was not very forthcoming. Paragraph 24 states
Whatever electoral system is used in the rest of the United Kingdom for direct elections to the European Assembly, the Government considers that the special circumstances of Northern Ireland would make it appropriate for direct elections there to be conducted by a system of proportional representation.
Of course, in saying that they were merely giving expression to the actions of the previous Conservative Government in 1973 when they reintroduced the system of PR in Northern Ireland. Why? What is wrong with the first-past-the-post system which, to quote the White Paper,
has stood the test of time."?
It is as English as roast beef, cricket and hanging, and is equally good for the character. The Government and the Opposition know why the first-past-the-post system had to go, and go very rapidly—because it could not guarantee fair representation for the Roman Catholic minority. That is the first point. The second reason is that there were constant allegations of gerrymandering, many of which were wholly true. Thirdly, without question it caused a polarisation between extremes.
When the summit conference took place, Mr. Cosgrove indicated that he hoped that, since there would be an increase in seats all round, enabling Britain to have 81 seats, there would be three seats for Northern Ireland. The obvious expectation was that the Catholic minority, which represents two-fifths of the community, would be entitled to at least one of those three seats. But, of course, under the first-past-the-post system this is very unlikely to happen.
There are 12 Westminster seats and if we group them into three groups of four, which is what we shall probably have to do under the first-past-the-post system, there is no contiguous group of four where the Catholic-based parties can win. The closest would be Fermanagh, South Tyrone, Londonderry and Mid-Ulster. But even in that area, where there are the most concentrated numbers of Catholic-based votes, in nine General Elections the total Catholic vote has been smaller than the Protestant vote. I therefore do not believe that under the first-past-the-post system the Roman Catholic minority would be fairly represented.
If that be the case it is extraordinary that there has never been a Catholic candidate fighting for the Unionists or a Catholic Minister represented among the Unionists. Of course some Catholics may have voted Unionist. It is a very strange world and I accept that that might have happened.
The basic fact is that the Tory Government in 1973 reintroduced the system of PR because it was the only way to stop the polarisation between extreme Unionists and extreme nationalists, and it was the only hope of getting the moderate centre. It was because of PR—
It did. That is the whole point. It was because of PR that we were able to get the power-sharing Executive elected. But six weeks after it was formed there was the February 1974 election to this House, under the first-past-the-post system, and 51 per cent. of those who voted were against power sharing. One would have thought that because of that they would have won six out of 12 of those seats but, in fact, they got 11 out of 12 seats. The power-sharing experiment was defeated by the distortion of the first-past-the-post system, which gave 11 out of those 12 seats to a group which received only 51 per cent. of the votes. That is why the power-sharing experiment failed, and that it why power sharing was never given an opportunity.
I believe this will be the first time that there will be all-Ireland elections. There will be an enormous benefit if the same system can operate north and south of the border. What I want to say to the Government is that I do not believe that the regional list system, although better than the first-past-the-post system—almost anything is—will achieve the desired effect in Northern Ireland, for the reason that under the regional list system two or more parties competing for the same vote—let us say the moderate centre—could split the vote one against the other and could contribute to their mutual defeat.
It would be ironic if the strengthening of the centre meant that that vote was split and the effect was to strengthen the extreme of the Right or the Left, the coalition of the UUUC or the nationalists. That is what the regional list system could do. There is no possibility of expressing a preference. One just has an X. One could, in fact, have a regional list system under which one does vote one, two, or three. But one could find that two parties competing for the same middle ground will cancel each other out and cause a split vote, as can happen under the first-past-the-post system.
The other factor is that if we have one member who has an enormous number of Xs, it may be that at the end of the day the regional list system ensures that we have a proportion of seats to the total entitled to vote; that is to say, in a seven-member constituency if a party gets three-sevenths of the votes, it gets three-sevenths of the seats. But the three who are elected are not necessarily the three whom that particular party wants most, because the man who gets most Xs may have an enormous surplus, which cannot be redistributed between the second preferences expressed on the voting paper.
Therefore, very often a minority view within a party will do better by putting up very few candidates than by putting up a lot. That is why the second person who gets in, although the next with the most Xs, may not necessarily reflect the views of the party as a whole.
The Foreign Secretary is right to rule out the first-past-the-post system in Northern Ireland. But if he has the regional list system, for the two reasons I have given, it might well defeat the objective we all have, namely, to see that there is a guarantee of fair representation for all shades of opinion not only between parties but within parties as well. We all know that even in our politics the differences are not merely between parties but within parties, for example, whether one is a Faulknerite or a Brookeboroughite.
There are the same manifestations in the politics of this country as well. It would be very odd if STV were used in Northern Ireland or that the best system was provided only when the gunman intervened first and a minority that is suppressed is one that will turn to violence: otherwise it does not matter. That would be the logic.
The first-past-the-post system, we are told, has
stood the test of time"—
whatever that means. It certainly has not stood the test of time when the Leader of the Opposition gets up and criticises this Government for having only 38 per cent. of the votes behind it but, when asked whether she would change the system, says "No". The first-past-the-post system is also linked to the Boundary Commission recommendations, with
the careful and objective drawing of constituency boundaries … the right of electors to challenge proposed boundaries and with the necessity for subsequent approval by Parliament.
That is in paragraph 10 of the White Paper.
The Government know that this is a very lengthy process. That is why they suggest to us—as did the Select Committee—that we truncate proceedings on this matter. They reluctantly say "We do not think that we can have no representations and no inquiries"—three cheers for democracy breaking out—"but we think that one round of representations and no local inquiries will be sufficient." I want to tell the House that that procedure does not have a hope in hell of getting through by 1978, even on the basis of the figures of the Boundary Commissioners themselves.
The Minutes of Evidence set out on page 164 the 18 weeks that it will take, plus the seven weeks it will take for preliminary consideration and preparation of papers. That means, assuming that we cannot start before Royal Assent, that we are therefore left, on the representations made to the Government, with a six-and-a-half month period that is required, which means that if the reports are to be ready by the end of this year—December—they must be in a position to start in July. We have got to get all the legislation through by July and start.
However, what that also assumes is that the analysis of the representations and the consideration of the Boundary Commissioners will be done in double quick time. There, again, I think that the Government are in for a shock. I am delighted to see the Minister of State on the Government Front Bench. In a reply to me yesterday he said that the Boundary Commissioners received representations on the last round for Westminster in respect of 350 constituencies in England which led to 78 local inquiries, and a period of three years and 11 months elapsed, using the full Boundary Commission procedure, for the delineation of the first-past-the-post constituencies.
The suggestions are that the analysis of all the representations from the 81 seats can be examined in two weeks, that they can, furthermore, be considered by the Boundary Commission in two weeks and that the Boundary Commission can draft its report in another two weeks. All that I can say is that I have never known civil servants work so fast in their lives. I do not believe that it will happen, and I will explain the reason. It is suggested that seven, eight or 10 seats should be bunched together to make one single-Member constituency. If one accepts what the Government say in paragraph 14—that under the first-past-the-post system differences are magnified, and
one of these characteristics is the tendency for swings in electoral opinion to be magnified in terms of seats won or lost"—
and there are hon. Members who think that anything providing a result is a virtue of our system—if it is magnified in the present constituencies that we have of 50,000, 60,000 or 70,000, it will be
magnified seven, eight, nine and 10 times over if we have 81 vast first-past-the-post constituencies.
Therefore, it is hardly surprising that there will be representations from political parties and local authorities objecting to the particular carve-up that is suggested by the Boundary Commission. If it is suggested that all that can be done in one month and considered in two weeks by the secretariat and that the Commission will give its views in a further two weeks, that is moonshine.
Will the right hon. Gentleman elaborate on why he thinks that large constituencies necessarily provide wider swings? In the United States most of the large industrial States produce Senators to represent 500,000 or 750,000 people, or even more, but one of the remarkable features of the United States Senate is not the wide swings but the stability that is shown over long periods.
First, the Senators do not pretend to be proportional to the electorate, unlike the House of Representatives. Secondly, as the hon. Gentleman knows, we are dealing simply with an arbitrary two Senators to be elected, the junior and senior Senators, for each State. They are practically always straight fights. If the hon. Gentleman is saying to me that there is much more stability in the United States political system than there is in ours, I agree. However, the fact is that in this country there is not that stability, and it normally needs only a 3 per cent. swing in a very few constituencies to change the whole Government. That is what is so crazy about this system.
I shall tell the hon. Gentleman why. We have a Government in power for whom only 29 per cent. of those entitled to vote voted. They now have the respectability of having a mandate of a majority of the electorate. [Interruption.] Perhaps I may deal with one Babel at a time. Of course the Americans' political scene is much more stable than ours. I wish that ours were as stable as is theirs. This is not caused by their electoral system, but our instability is caused, in part, by our electoral system.
What I find fascinating about those who are in favour of the first-past-the-post system is the touching concern that they have—I think that the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) has it—that in the five-year period in which the first-past-the-post system will be operating a Member will be able to have this close community of interest with the 500,000 people whom he represents, a closely-knit relationship with the 500,000 in his constituency. In order to do that and to get this close proximity they are prepared to have the whole rigmarole of the Boundary Commission, the 81 suggested carve-ups, the bunching together of seats and all the possibilities of objection, representation and delay. They are prepared to risk that for the touching spectacle of the European Assembly Member having this close relationship with 500,000 people when they know perfectly well that five years later the system will be swept away—unless a temporary fit of madness overwhelms the European Community and the Europeans see a virtue in our system which they have never seen fit to adopt.
Whatever system we have will need the Boundary Commissions. Therefore, there is a new system, so the idea that we are having the good old English system and that therefore everyone will find it easy is nonsense. But with STV or the regional list we can use the ready made economic planning regions which are already there.
Clearly, from the course of the debate it is clear that some of us who are in favour of direct elections to the Assembly will be forced to accept a voting position in an electoral situation that we do not like, whether it be the first-past-the-post system, the regional list, or the single transferable vote. There will be those who are in favour of direct elections who will not get the electoral system that they want. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that, whatever the system adopted, it is still more important to have direct elections than not to have them?
No, I do not. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] If hon. Members wish to express surprise, I must say that I happen to be, I hope, as good a European as anyone in the House. I voted quite consistently when the whole of the Tory Party and the Labour Party went in against us. I think that my credentials on Europe are clear. I should have a very troubled conscience in voting for an electoral system that I believed would produce a totally distorted representation in the European Parliament, which would make a farce of democracy, and which would, for example, possibly mean that the Scottish National Party, because it was concentrated, would have more seats than the official Labour Government. That is quite possible.
The hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) has asked me the question. I should have to look at it carefully, and I would find it very difficult—[Interruption.] I like the way that hon. Members scoff when their own Front Bench would not even indicate their line. I say to the hon. Member for Southend, West that I believe that it would make a mockery of this country if we had a first-past-the-post system because it would totally distort opinion in the country, and it would distort the balance of the political parties in Europe.
I also believe that the other reason is that we would not get through these elections in time, because the Boundary Commission must report by the end of the year if the Select Committee's recommendation is to be followed and on that I would not dissent. Therefore I ask the hon. Gentleman whether he is prepared to stick to the first-past-the-post system and vote for a system which may defeat the possibilities of getting legislation through. That is the question I ask the Tory Party, and I hope it will be answered in due course. We are not getting an answer from the Tory Front Bench.
If the right hon. Gentleman asks me that question, I personally take the view that the importance of direct elections is such that I would accept whatever system the House in the end decides to adopt. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman would take a similar position.
I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman, following good Front Bench practice, has not told us where he stands now. He is a first-past-the-post man and is prepared to take the risk of the measure not getting through.
I happen to believe that the problems which are being tackled in Europe are basically regional problems and not individual constituency problems, and I therefore see no objection at all to having a regional form of election. I think that a regional list system is a possibility, but I think that the single transferable vote system is the best possible system that could be devised.
I hope, therefore, that the Government will realise that we must have a system that is fair, logical and simple. I say to the Tories that they must ask themselves the question that Lord Chelwood asked them in his letter in The Times of 18th April. Do they adhere to their own preconceived views? Under the present system is the doctrine of unjust enrichment, as far as they are concerned, to take precedence over fairness and their determination to be good Europeans at the end of the day?
If the Government are to apply a proportional system in Ireland, to be logical they should apply it to the whole of the rest of the United Kingdom. The Tory Party had better be dragged into the twentieth century. Its own experiments in electoral matters have not been very impressive. It abolished proportional representation in Northern Ireland in the 1920s for very narrow party reasons, and had to reintroduce the system in 1973.
A fairly considerable number of Conservative Members are as passionately in favour of proportional representation for Europe as is the right hon. Gentleman himself.
The hon. Member for Surbiton (Sir N. Fisher) quite rightly reprimands me. There is a large and growing body of opinion on both sides of the House which believes that the electoral system can be improved. If my ire was aroused by the hon. Member for Southend, West—and indeed, by the neutral position of the right hon. Member for Knutsford—I stand convicted of having overlooked the more admirable, sensible, intelligent and forward-looking Members of the Tory Party represented by the hon. Member for Surbiton and many others like him.
The right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies), in speaking for the official Opposition, tried to suggest that the debate should confine itself to the various proposals put forward in the White Paper as to the methods to be adopted in relation to the voting system. Many of us believe that before we get to that stage the first matter to be decided is whether we are in favour of direct elections at all. It seems to me that this is the first question that we must think about.
The Prime Minister and many other hon. Members have said a number of times that the issue of direct elections was settled by the referendum decision. I beg to differ. In my view, the people of this country, when they voted in the referendum, voted on whether we should stay in or come out of the European Economic Community. This point was constantly stressed by the pro-Marketeers throughout the entire campaign.
It is true that in opposing our continuation in the Common Market some hon. Members pointed out their fear that if the vote went in favour of staying in, there would then be a move towards direct elections and ultimately towards some type of federal system. Some of us warned that this could happen, but it was not a central argument in the campaign. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Hon. Members. may say "Oh" as much as they like. It can hardly be suggested that I am mealy mouthed, particularly on this question, for I got rid of half my pay in one day as a result of the stand I took on the Common Market. I do not want lessons from anybody about the attitude I have taken on the Common Market.
I know that it might be pointed out that I once supported the Common Market. That is absolutely true. But I opposed the Common Market from the day I realised how great and how unbearable the burden placed on the shoulders of the British people would be if we went in. That was why I then decided to oppose the Common Market.
I am interested in this suggestion about the campaign against the Common Market. I recall that two pamphlets were issued. There was one issued by the official pro-Common Market grouping and there was a second pro-Market pamphlet issued by the Government. There were two pamphlets in support of the Common Market but neither stressed that if we remained in the Common Market, we would be moving towards direct elections and so on. I reiterate that in my view the people, when they voted to remain in the Common Market, were not voting to institute a system of direct elections. That was not a central issue of the campaign at the time of the referendum. Had it been a central issue, it would have been right for hon. Members who supported our continuation in the Common Market to say that it was a central issue. But it was not a central issue.
As I go around the country and around my own constituency, talking to all sorts of people, I find, usually in casual conversation, that very many people who supported our entry into the Common Market and our continuance within it, are now bitterly regretting that they voted for the Common Market. On Sunday, on my way back from speaking at a miners' weekend school in South Wales, I went into a hostelry in Ross-on-Wye for something to eat and a drink. The landlord, who had recognised me from my appearances on television, told me "I voted for the Common Market, Mr. Heffer, and I want to tell you that I bitterly regret it. I wish I had never voted for it."
Many people say this to me wherever I go. In fact, rather than talking about a Bill to introduce direct elections to the European Assembly, it would be better if the Government were saying to the EEC "If you do not end the CAP and do not radically change within three or six months the policies which are badly affecting our people, we shall leave the Common Market." If the Government were to do that they would be far more popular than they are at the moment and more in line with the thinking of the people in this country on this question. That would be far better than dealing with any proposals or discussions concerning any Bill on the Common Market that we are likely to have in the near future.
Why are we rushing this matter? Hon. Members may laugh, but let us examine the White Paper, which states:
However, for the past 19 years, members of the European Assembly have been nominated by national Parliaments from among their members in accordance with Article 133(1).
We have been in the European Community for four years. If one deducts those four years from the total of 19 years, we find that for 15 years the other members of the Common Market have not considered it important to go ahead with a scheme for direct elections. But, within three years of our joining we find that we must make up our minds quickly, at a time when the Portuguese, the Spanish and the Greeks, who now have democratic Governments, are talking about joining the Common Market. Before they enter and before they have a voice, direct elections are to take place.
Why are we rushing? The situation is interesting because this morning an hon. Friend said that it was only a minor matter of no importance but that direct elections would improve the situation. Since it is not an important matter, why are we to go ahead with it?
On the other hand, the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) said that direct elections would enhance the position and improve the status of the Cornmon Market. The right hon. Member put forward five arguments. First, he said that the directly elected Assembly would give the Community greater status. Hon. Members cannot have it both ways. If a directly elected Assembly gives the Community greater status, and therefore more power and influence, it cannot be a minor matter but one of some importance.
The right hon. Member for Sidcup said that an elected Assembly would have greater influence over the Commission and the Council of Ministers. Where does greater influence—and that means more power and control over the Council of Ministers—leave us? The right hon. Gentleman talked about the pooling of sovereignty in the Common Market countries.
My hon. Friend may say that. but what would happen if he put such a proposition to the electorate? Do the British people want to see the power, responsibility and control of the House of Commons diminished? I ask my hon. Friend to contrast that with what has happened since we joined the Common Market. I ask him to convince the British people that we should further reduce our power over prices, fishing, and so on.
Already the British people are asking what is happening. They ask why we cannot influence events, why prices are increasing, and what is happening to fishing and transport. Occasionally, we have taken a courageous stand, but we are then criticised by the right hon. Member for Knutsford for standing out. He says that we are letting down the Market and that we are not fighting hard enough for the common cause. Contrary to what hon. Members may believe, that is why I originally believed in the idea of some form of united Europe. But I do not put internationalism above the interests of the people whom I represent. I do not want them to be pushed down at the expense of others. That is what I fear has happened.
I understand the hon. Member and I am following his argument. Does he accept that there are certain interests that are common to Europe as a whole where the whole is larger than the part? Does he not accept that within the European Parliament there should be greater powers over the issues that touch the whole of the Community and that that does not necessarily—although it may sometimes—diminish the powers of the parts within that Community?
That is an interesting argument. The hon. Member is saying that there must be a fundamental change in the character of the Community, but even if we accepted the position as it is now, and that Members will be directly elected, we are told that they will have no more powers.
The right hon. Member for Sidcup says that he wants the Parliament to have more power because that is the right direction. The difference is that instead of being appointed, Members of the European Parliament will be elected by the people. When that happens, they will want more powers and it will be difficult to prevent them from taking more powers. Once an Assembly is created on an elected basis, the Members, whether one likes it or not, will be more power hungry and will insist on more power.
Where would we go from there? We would move stage by stage to a federal system or some type of European Government. That might sound marvellous in theory. If it were to be a Socialist United States of Europe, I might be more sympathetic to the idea, but I cannot see that happening at present.
The right hon. Member for Sidcup said that constituents would have the opportunity of lobbying Members of the European Parliament. That is an interesting idea, because it is part of the argument about the power and influence of such a European Assembly.
The right hon. Member's last point was that the Community would have greater status in the eyes of the world. The right hon. Member made a powerful case, but it is one which, in the circumstances and the experience that we have had in the Common Market, we can do without. We are always being told that if we would only take certain action, the situation would be better. Then we take that action and we discover that the situation is no better, but worse for our people, and the powers of our institutions are gradually diminished.
I turn now to the question of the methods of election and in particular to the list system. I am distrustful of the list system. I have suggested to some of my hon. Friends that perhaps the National Executive of the Labour Party should draw up the list—as long as I am on the National Executive I shall have a good voice as to who shall be on the list—but they do not seem to be very enthusiastic about it. I wonder why. They do not want to put too much power in the hands of the central body of the Labour Party, and quite rightly. The same applies whether the system is a regional or a national system. Again, it would put enormous power in the hands of regional committees.
I have a horrible feeling that blokes like me will never get on any list—not that I particularly want to get on that sort of list, but if we are to apply it to this House and to British elections, I can see a dismal future for many hon.
Members. I do not want to see that sort of power put into operation.
We ought not to have a list system. If we are finally forced into a first-past. the-post system, that would be much more acceptable. But I trust that we shall not be forced into it. Even if we have a first-past-the-post system, it will not matter, because, as the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) said, it will last for only five years.
I was interested to hear the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) give the whole game away. He said that it did not matter which voting system we had as long as we had the vote and direct elections. From his point of view it is most important to get any system, because in five years the whole matter could probably be brought together with one system operating in every part of the Community. We would have to be brought into line, and that is the key question: should we or should we not have direct elections? In my opinion the answer is "No".
The right hon. Member for Devon, North dealt with Northern Ireland at great length. I do not disagree with a great deal of what he said, because of the minority position of the Catholic community in Northern Ireland. We cannot and should not translate to the whole of the United Kingdom a system brought about by the unfortunate but special circumstances that exist in Northern Ireland. We cannot say because we had to take certain action because of those conditions that we have to apply that to the whole of the United Kingdom. That would be a serious mistake and I hope that the House will not accept it.
The question was raised about France and the position of the Gaullists and the Communists. It amuses me that some of us are always being accused of being wicked Marxists trying to bring in revolutionary politics, but that as soon as certain hon. Members want to advance their own arguments, they are happy to refer to what the Communists in France or Italy are doing. It is remarkable and It is not confined to the Opposition; it also applies to some of my hon. Friends.
The hon. Gentleman seems to be in some sense disputing that it is useful simply to refer to a matter of fact. I should have thought that that would be useful to the House. Is the hon. Gentleman not of that opinion?
That is right, but I was going to point out that what the right hon. Gentleman said was factual was not factual; it was a slight distortion of the position. One can read what The Times said about this matter. I have not been to Paris recently. The article in The Times makes it clear that the Gaullists, together with the Communists, insist
that the powers of the European Parliament should be limited strictly to those laid down in the Rome Treaty.
The article says that M. Marchais, whilst he is prepared to go part of the way because of the alliance with the French Socialist Party, nevertheless criticised the President because he felt that the President was going too far in suggesting what the direct elections should be. In other words, he was giving qualified and conditional support; that is not quite what is being bandied around by the Opposition.
The hon. Gentleman was here during my speech. He should know that I said that I understood that both those parties would not present an obstacle to the statutory provisions necessary to bring about direct elections. I should have hardly thought that that was in conflict with what the hon. Gentleman is saying.
We shall obviously have to agree to disagree on the emphasis and the conditions being placed on it.
It is not true that everyone in Europe is waiting and straining at the leash to, have direct elections. In my experience, there is just as much opposition, particularly in Denmark and other parts. of Europe. to the idea of settling once and for all on direct elections as there is in this country. I hope that the House, before it allows itself to be quickly manoeuvred into supporting direct elections, will think not once, not twice, but over and over again.
This is the first time that I have been as high in the batting order to follow the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer). I would rather model my speech on that of the right hon. Member for Devon, North than that of the hon. Member for Walton. I am not here to talk about the Treaty of Rome and Article 138 that stands part of it, or to say that we signed this treaty and that the referendum confirmed it. We are here to discuss the method of direct elections, and I shall try to do so to the best of my ability.
Before I discuss the Government's White Paper I should like to refer to two associated matters—the questions of the dual mandate and Scotland's representation in Europe. We must recognise that it is just not possible physically or mentally to do full justice at both Westminster and Strasbourg. The strain is too much and this has been brought home again to us all too sadly at the weekend by the untimely death of Sir Peter Kirk, who had already given so much and who had so much more to give to this country and to Europe.
Since last century we have had to work out this liaison problem between local government representation and those representing the same electorate at Westminster. We can operate similarly after the establishment of a directly elected European Assembly. Our political parties can ensure that their own elected representatives at all levels maintain close contact on all procedures, policies and plans for all the tiers of administration and government.
When it comes to the representation of Scotland in Europe no one can deny that its allocation of eight seats is fair when Scotland is to enter Europe as an integral part of the United Kingdom, which will give it considerable advantages. We shall possess the same "clout" as Germany, France and Italy through being part of a 50 million-plus Power. The years of the European Assembly show that the smaller nations cannot extract or expect the same conditions as the larger ones. The history of the veto shows this.
However, for Scotland—and, for that matter for Wales and Ulster—a minor departure could have been made. For the purpose of the argument I shall stick to Scotland. Scotland is a nation, not a region of another country. That is recognised in the fact that we give Scotland a slightly higher representation here than it is entitled to on a purely per capita basis. Similarly, for Europe, while, in order to maintain the full United Kingdom "clout", it is impractical and unfair that we should have the same representation—16 seats—as Denmark, which has a similar population, there is a case for treating Scotland in Europe in the same way as it is treated at Westminster.
Rather than the eight seats which are mathematically correctly proposed for Scotland, compared with the 16 allocated to Denmark, Scotland should have 10 or 12 seats in Europe. That would only be carrying the Westminster policy and principles into Europe. Geographically, Scotland has a third of the United Kingdom land mass and around her shores are the main energy and fishing reserves of Europe.
But there is a practical way out of this difficulty. At the moment, Scotland is technically over-represented here, but, as I have said, there are sound traditional reasons of distances, geography and population spread for that fact. In those circumstances, it is difficult to expect to receive more than our mathematically correct share of eight places. But the sensible and obvious solution, on the assumption that Scotland will have a meaningful directly elected Assembly, would probably have to include a reduction in Scottish representation at Westminster. In those circumstances, there would be a clear case for raising Scottish representation at Strasbourg. The increase in Europe would be somewhat less than the reduction here.
The best description of the White Paper was that given by one of the political correspondents of The Scotsman, who referred to its approach as "negative neutrality". That is what the White Paper offers—no leadership, no view, nothing but negative neutrality. The reason is the same as we saw in regard to devolution—this Government continue to play party politics with vital issues. The devolution Bill failed because it was based not on principle or conviction but upon the forlorn hope of preserving Labour seats in Scotland.
Similarly, the machinations, delays and equivocal statements over Europe are taking place only because a substantial part of the Labour Party is against the European ideal anyway. They are merely opposing and obstructing direct elections as a part of their Marxist-oriented plans to weaken Western Europe in every possible way.
However, reverting to the White Paper let us consider the style of the constituency and the method of election that we should adopt. First, on the constituency, if we are to adopt the Westminster style, that would mean combining the present Westminster constituencies in bundles of about eight to form Euro-constituencies. That has the advantage which we all understand, of single-Member representation, accountable to the electorate concerned.
But it has three disadvantages. First, those bundles of eight would have no common bonds or distinct entity within themselves and would be difficult for the electorates to recognise as obvious units. Second, there is just not time now for the Boundary Commissions to go through all their correct procedures of recommendations, representations and inquiries before the first election is due in May or June of next year. Third, no other country in Europe intends to operate such a system. That in itself should give us cause to ponder awhile and wonder why.
So we come to the list system. Objections are sometimes made to that system because it breaks the single-Member constituency principle of responsibility and representation between Member and constituent. On the other hand, apart from its use generally in Europe, we have used it over the years in local government. Many hon. Members must have sat as list members in local authorities. I myself was a member of a local authority for 10 years in Scotland. I was one of three representatives for one ward of a Scottish burgh. I was also on a list of 12 elected to a Scottish county council from one burgh. The system worked very well. Many would say that it worked better than that which has replaced it in Scotland.
I am trying to follow my hon. Friend's argument. Is he suggesting that in the cases to which he refers there was not one vote for each elector per candidate? Were people casting one vote for a complete list of candidates?
I am saying that three members represented a whole ward. Therefore, an elector did not have to get in touch with one individual: he could contact any one or all three. There is no difficulty in a list system if the will is there. Wy may have to change again in Scotland to a list or constituency system of one-tier, all-purpose local authorities, on the assumption that a Scottish Assembly is functioning.
It is interesting to note that every other member of the Community, apart from France, uses a form of list system for elections to its own domestic Parliament.
If we can have a list system in the United Kingdom elections to the European Parliament, the obvious areas would be Scotland, Northern Ireland—possibly, as the right hon. Member for Devon, North said, the whole of Ireland—and Wales, joined by the existing eight economic planning regions of England, which are easily recognisable and already accepted as understandable units by those living in them. Such a United Kingdom breakdown would give 11 electoral regions, ranging from three Members from Northern Ireland to 14 from South-East England, excluding Greater London, which would be a region of 10 Members.
So much for the style of constituency. What about the method of voting? How that could be on any other basis than proportional representation I find it difficult to understand. Let us consider two of the proposed English regions, each returning seven Members—West Midlands, and Yorkshire and Humberside. Let us assume that in one slightly more Conservative votes than Labour are cast and that the picture is the other way around in the other. If we stick to our first-past-the-post system, one of those regions will be represented by seven Tories and the other by seven Socialists. No Liberal or member of any other party would be returned. That is patently ridiculous.
In the case of Europe, every member country, including France, intends to use a system of PR for the European Parliament. Anyway, the second lot of European elections are meant to be held by a uniform method in all member countries, so we might just as well start by trying to get it about right the first time. The Mother of Parliaments is in danger of becoming like the admiring Scottish mother who was proudly watching her recently joined-up son marching down the street with his kilted platoon and was heard to exclaim, "Look! a' body's oot o' step except oor Jock."
It has been suggested that the British electorate might have difficulty in understanding or adapting to new electoral systems for the European Parliament. Apart from the fact that we made such a change in Northern Ireland, it is somewhat damaging to assume that the British electorate will be unable to understand or to operate systems used successfully by our European partners.
I cannot accept the argument that a different method for Europe would cause infection at Westminster. Plainly this House operates a two-party system of Government and this is absolutely not the case in Europe, where we are dealing with a multitude of parties and alliances with totally different responsibilities and functions. Similarly, because of the different situation in Scotland, where three parties currently command similar electoral support, the Kilbrandon Committee came down unanimously in favour of proportional representation for the Scottish Assembly, without disagreeing with "first-past-the-post" system at Westminster.
Let us not be dogmatic in these matters. Let us use the system that is in the best interests of those whom we represent in Scotland, the United Kingdom or in Europe.
I turn finally to by-elections, where there are notorious mid-term swings in this and some other countries. As the European Parliament would be elected for a fixed four-year term, any vacancies in the elected Parliament should be filled from the party that held the vacant seat.
Let us stop being the brake in Europe and become an engine. Let us proceed to direct elections by proportional representation or a list system and take our place in Europe as leaders and not as laggards. I shall continue to work, campaign and to vote to this end.
I honestly believe that no hon. Member in the House would possibly object if faced with the purely formal question of whether there should be elections to the European Assembly and whether those elections should be democratic. There is no formal objection to having democratic elections. Everything that we have been brought up to believe in this country is dependent on the democratic principle. The European elections are no different from any other elections that we have held.
The argument today is not about whether we should have democratic elections, but whether we should have elections at all. My hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and other of my hon. Friends have put the case clearly that they recognise that democratic elections to the European Parliament are likely to lead to that Parliament having more power, and when that Parliament has more power, it is likely to produce a form of united Europe. Whether that will be a federal form or a system something like the one we have in the United Kingdom, and whether it comes sooner or later, that is what it will lead to.
My hon. Friends have recognised this, and it seems perfectly proper that they should recognise it and argue against direct elections not on democratic grounds but because, if we have direct elections they will bring about what they do not desire, namely, a united Europe. I admit that I was fairly disappointed by the opening remarks of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. When discussing the possibility of a federal Europe, he used the words "fear" and "the threat of a federal Europe". It is important that the House realises that many Labour Members do not view a federal Europe with fear or see it as a threat, but as a hope and a promise. That is precisely what we are arguing for. It is exactly what we want.
I take a position directly opposite to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Walton, but based on exactly the same grounds. The very things that my hon. Friend fears will happen are the things that I wish to happen. I wish to merge the sovereignty of this country into the sovereignty of Europe. I wish to see this country becoming an integral part of a greater whole.
I do not believe that at this stage in the evolution of a democratic Europe we shall gallop willy-nilly into the position that I wish to see, but I certainly believe—apparently against the belief of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, who said that his grandchildren would see some form of united Europe—that we are on the way. I sincerely hope that we shall see it, otherwise I and many other people will feel that all the effort that we have put in in recent years will have been wasted. I do not intend that that effort should be wasted, and I do not believe that a majority of hon. Members wish to see it wasted.
Another argument that we have heard is that no mandate for direct elections was given in the referendum. I am prepared to accept that. One of the major arguments used by the anti-Marketeers was this very fear that there would be direct elections, and that from that would follow greater powers for the European Parliament, and that from this greater power would flow a federal systme. Even so, I am prepared to accept that that is not what people voted for in the referendum.
I did not want a referendum. I believe that it was for this House to decide whether we should enter Europe. Equally, I believe that it is for this House to decide whether we should have direct elections. I leave it to the House to decide whether we should have direct elections and what form they should take.
We are wasting a great deal of debating time considering the possibility of a dual mandate. It seems to me of no importance whatever that the House should pass an Act providing that there should be a dual mandate. The fact is that there will not be a dual mandate. There is no way in which anyone can effectively be a Member of this House and of the European Parliament. We can do what we like, but it will not make any difference. In the first six months it will be clear that no dual mandate can exist. There is no point in passing a large and complex piece of legislation saying that it will exist or does exist, because in practice it cannot do so.
However, in practice I believe that there can be some advantage for the House, and for a directly elected European Parliament, in retaining contact between the two Parliaments. It should not be beyond the wit of Westminster parliamentarians to devise what form of contact this should be. I do not believe it is of great significance whether United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament should have some non-voting membership of this House or whether they should be made temporary Members of the House of Lords during their term of office. If it is considered beneficial that there should be contact between Members of this House and Members of the European Parliament, this could quite easily be devised, and we ought to set our minds to doing it.
A much more important question arises over the form of election. The great majority of speakers have recognised that the first-past-the-post system for European elections could hardly be described as fair. The fewer the number of scats in a first-past-the-post system, by definition the less fair that system becomes. We should have 81 Members in the European Parliament, but there woud not be a single Liberal representative. It does not matter whether the Liberal vote is 1 million or 5 million. Either way, it would be indefensible if there were not a single Liberal representative in the European Parliament. The first-past-the-post system falls absolutely on the ground of fairness.
If we look at the reasons for having a first-past-the-post system at Westminster, we see that these also fall rapidly. There seem to be only two reasons why we have a first-past-the-post system here. The first is that we have the much lauded constituency contact between hon. Members and their constituents. It does not seem to be something that we could not manage by other means.
The only other legitimate reason for having a first-past-the-post system is that it produces majority Governments, but that argument falls when the system fails to produce a majority Government, as at present. The one great claim that people could make in the past was that the system produced majority Governments, but it also gave Governments untold power over Back-Bench Members, and I should be delighted to see those powers taken away.
In fact there is no relation whatever between the Westminster model and the European model. We are not talking with the European model about the possibility of constituency representation, and nor yet are we talking about a situation of majority Governments. The Westminster model as such does not exist in the same form in a purely legislative body. Equally, the purely United Kingdom membership does not constitute a majority of one kind or another in Europe.
On grounds of practicality, therefore, the only way to approach the question of elections to the European Parliament is by some form of proportional representation. We have to decide in this House which method we should use for these elections. It may turn out that the system we choose for the direct elections is not the system we should choose for Westminster elections. But I believe that some form of PR is essential.
There are three models to consider. There is the straightforward region list system. The difficulties with such a system appear to be for independent candidates who wish to stand, and for the electorate in having any element of choice in the people who represent it. An elector may wish to vote Labour, but he may not wish to vote for the Labour candidate at the top of the list. In areas which are traditionally Conservative the top man on the Labour list is almost certain to be elected. Of course, the same applies in strong Labour areas with the top Conservative candidate. In the South-East of England the top Labour man is much more likely to be elected than the bottom Labour man on the West Midlands list when the regional list system is used.
It will be most difficult to decide how to give the electorate an element of choice among those members of the party it favours most. I do not see that problem being solved by the single transferable vote. The finest STV system run in Europe is operated by the French, because they have two elections. That gets rid of the element of the STV which I know appeals to the Liberal Party but which does not appeal to the Labour or Conservative Parties. That element is that the STV would naturally favour a minority party. France gets rid of the minority parties before the second election.
I hesitate to interrupt the hon. Gentleman, to whom I am listening with intense interest. May I suggest, however, that there is no automatic moving to the centre or to the minority parties? All that happens is that the opinions that exist are fairly reflected. That is the experience of the Republic of Ireland. That is what democracy should be about.
I accept that, but equally I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept that opinion, when polarised between two extremes and when given an opportunity to be expressed a second time, is unlikely to move to either extreme. It is much more likely to move to the nearest position in the centre. That is the inevitable consequence of the STV, and the French system manages to avoid that.
There is one system which I would commend strongly to my Front Bench for examination. It is the system which is used in Finland, where there seems to be at least some attempt to overcome the difficulty of a party list system and the preference for an individual candidate of an individual elector. That is where a vote is cast either for a party or for an individual member of that party on the panel. Only one vote is cast, but it enables an effective vote to be cast. That vote goes into the overall PR pot, as it were, but the individual vote for one particular candidate expresses a preference on the part of that elector. These preferences can then be summed and an order of preference is provided among the candidates of the party chosen by the electors.
As I understand it, the system put forward by the Government only allows a particular listing of the members from an individual party, and does not give the option of only voting for the party. I accept what my hon. Friend said, but I have not understood the Government's proposal in the same terms. If that is the system proposed, it has merit, but the difficulty is that it gives only an indication of what may be the overwhelming first preference of voters for a particular party.
One can imagine a Labour Party list on which there was an extremely prominent figure. He would naturally attract the great majority of the votes cast. I cannot think who that might be in the West Midlands, but this seems to be one of the major problems to be faced with any kind of list system. As my hon. Friend the Member for Walton said, it puts enormous power into small and local groups of people.
There is already sufficient criticism of the machinations within the general management committees of the Labour Party. I have no doubt that the same is true of the management committees of other parties. These committees are drawn from just one constituency, but if we reach the situation in which perhaps no more than 25 or 30 people on a regional council out of an entire region of 4 million electors are deciding not only who will be the candidates but in what order they will appear, I imagine that there will be some feeling on the part of the electorate that it is being completely bypassed on the question of who will represent it in Europe.
That would be the central problem of this system, although the list system, of the systems put forward, is the only one which satisfies the criteria we have to meet of getting everything ready rapidly in order to have the elections in 1978, of being fair and of being seen to be fair, and of producing a proper representation of this country in a European Parliament.
I believe that European Members are much more likely to operate on a regional basis than are Members of this Parliament. We in Westminster tend to regard ourselves much more as Members of a national Parliament representing the nation and to do our constituency work as another factor of our existence here. The Member who is elected to the European Parliament is much more likely to regard his rôle as being a representative of his region. Regional representation will therefore become extremely important, and that is a factor which must be taken into account.
I return to my original remark that I accept that a vote for direct elections is a vote eventually—I hope sooner rather than later—for some form of United Europe. I accept the right of other hon. Members who are opposed to Europe to oppose these forms of democratic elections. I believe, however, that this is, the first and probably the most fundamentally important step towards a United Europe. It is something I fundamentally believe in and desire to bring about. I believe that it is one of the greatest movements of the twentieth century, and I hope that my party will be involved in it.
May I ask the hon. Member a question for clarification? He has given his views on the need for some sort of PR system in preference to the first-past-the-post system. Does he think that the first-past-the-post system is so objectionable that the principle of direct elections should be cast aside were we to be landed with the first-past-the-post system?
I am sorry that I have not made my position absolutely clear. I believe that direct elections to the European Assembly are absolutely essential and are a commitment by the Government and, I hope as well, by the official Opposition. As for my particular preference for the method of election, I believe that a proportional representation system is essential, but that this is secondary to the absolutely essential factor, which is holding direct elections. Without direct elections we cannot move towards a united Europe and I am committed to that.
I notice two very strange things about this debate. First of all, on the rare occasions on which the Government ask us for practical advice—in this case on the conduct of the elections—a great many hon. Members seem extraordinarily reluctant to give it. I am not often sympathetic towards the Government. but my heart bleeds for them on this occasion. I do not know what they will make of this debate. They have brought it on themselves by not giving us the opportunity to express our voting opinions. We can give only our views.
Secondly, whenever hon. Members have spoken today on the principle of direct elections there has been a good deal of noise, but whenever they have spoken on electoral methods there has been an attentive silence which is generally more constructive. Therefore, I intend to talk more of method than of principle, and I shall presume rashly to give advice to the Government in order to fill any void that there may be in the advice that they have received so far.
Those of us who are convinced that these elections must take place at the appointed time must be guided by certain obvious priorities. Strong views will be expressed on the most desirable method of electing members to the European Parliament, but I believe it would be tragic to allow arguments about the means to delay or frustrate the attainment of the end.
Whatever electoral system is chosen, there are other decisions of importance that are required, for example on the matters expressed in paragraphs 32–42 of the White Paper, and on the compulsory dual mandate on which I have heard nothing favourable this afternoon, and to which I shall add nothing favourable.
The choice between the first-past-the post system and some form of proportional representation is by far the most important issue on which we are now asked to give some kind of lead to the Government. I hope that we shall be guided by the principle of ensuring that 40 million electors should be able to make as effective a choice as possible of the 81 men or women who are to represent them and Britain in the European Assembly.
I hope that we can dismiss the thin-end-of-the-wedge argument, mentioned by my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath)—that if we have PR in Europe we shall soon have it in Westminster. The Government have never fallen over themselves to introduce electoral change for Westminster, but they have pointed out in the White Paper that
a different form of institution might warrant a different system.
It is important to look at the overall picture and try to see what such elections might be like. I cannot imagine that, for the first election anyway, there will be enthusiasm for electing European Members in any way comparable with the enthusiasm for electing us; or conversely, with the wholly misguided determination of some of our constituents to see that we do not get here at all.
This is an argument for making the system as simple as possible. That is why some people favour the continuation of the system that is familiar to us—a simple majority in single-Member constituencies. That is not the preference expressed by a clear majority in a recent opinion poll in which more than half of those questioned said they would prefer a system of proportional representation for the European elections. I believe, with the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), that the first-past-the-post system will not look so familiar when applied to the European elections with constituencies of half a million people. Electorates of this kind exist elsewhere, and I am not suggesting that this kind of giant constituency is unworkable, but if we are discussing the first-past-the-post system in relation to Europe, we have a wholly new phenomenon very different from the traditional elections that we have always known in this country.
The first-past-the-post system for Europe, apart from being less familiar than its supporters claim, is open to other criticisms. There was an interesting analysis in the Economist last October based on the figures for the October 1974 General Election in 81 possible single-Member constituencies. Not surprisingly, the results were somewhat similar to those of the General Election. Yet even on this analysis, these figures, when applied to 81 rather than 635 constituencies, contain some features that nearly all political parties in this House would think wholly undesirable.
The Labour Party, apart from London, would have won only one seat south of a line drawn between the Severn and the Wash. My own party would have won no seats at all in Wales or Scotland. The Liberal Party, with nearly one-fifth of the votes, would have been not only underrepresented; it would not have been represented at all. Some of my more headstrong hon. Friends might think that that was not a bad thing, but I cannot feel that it is wise, whatever happens in the future, that a party supported by several million votes should be entirely voiceless in the European Assembly. That would be thought strange in this country and it would be thought to be very strange in Europe.
The results of a European election which did not coincide with a General Election here—and such coincidence is most unlikely—would be infinitely more haphazard. On the assumptions about likely voting patterns today—exactly two and a half years after the General Election, and theoretically halfway through the life of this Parliament—we should face up to the possibility that all 70 seats in England and Wales would be divided between the Labour and Conservative Parties, with the Labour total being counted on one hand, possibly excluding the thumb and one finger. The Scottish National Party would win all eight seats in Scotland and the Ulster Unionists all three in Northern Ireland, unless the Government's recognition of the special circumstances there, which are mentioned in the White Paper, led us to adopt a special electoral system there. But if in Ulster, why not elsewhere?
Some of my hon. Friends might be overjoyed by this vast Conservative majority in the British delegation. I beg them to exercise a little caution and to stare with me into the cloudy crystal ball. Some people say that when the present green leaves of spring have fallen from the trees there will be a General Election here, and most people think that the Leader of the Opposition will then move gracefully across the Floor of the House and sit opposite the other Dispatch Box. I welcome that, but I am aware that life on the Treasury Bench would not be a bed of roses for my right hon. and hon. Friends. If my right hon. Friends do what they should do when they are in office, they will not be universal pin-ups in 15 months' time. In those circumstances, the prospect of the first elected British component of the European Assembly consisting overwhelmingly of Members of the Labour Party is as uncongenial to me as it is to my hon. Friends.
Whatever the circumstances, I think it wholly undesirable that the overwhelming majority of the British representatives elected to the European Parliament should be diametrically opposed to the contemporary activities in Whitehall. It is wrong that the total Scottish representation should be based on a minority of the Scottish vote, and it is also wrong that any party with substantial public support should be entirely unrepresented. The limited enthusiasm which British voters are likely to feel for these elections will evaporate if they lead to those ridiculous results.
What is the alternative? The White Paper says that there are three. They include the single transferable vote, which I am ready to admit would produce the most equitable results. It is an insult to the intelligence of the voters to suggest that they would be unable to express up to 10 or 15 preferences on the voting paper by putting "1", "2", "3" and so on against several candidates' names. In my view, it is not the voting on STV that is complicated, but the counting. This is what makes me doubtful about the operation of STV in constituencies of 2 million or 3 million. I shall need a long course of instruction from the right hon. Member for Devon, North and other experts before I am convinced that there would not be in several cases under STV an agonising and intolerable wait between polling and the declaration of votes, especially if the result in any of the large regional constituencies were close.
One of the main arguments against one of the other alternatives, either the national or regional list, is the power they would put in the hands of the party organisation, an aspect which has been mentioned by a number of hon. Members. That is undeniable, but I myself doubt whether this accretion of power would be significantly greater than that wielded by the party organisation in constituencies comprising half a million voters under the first-past-the-post system.
Members of the European Assembly are, I am told, not going to serve in the European Parliament wholly unrewarded. For that reason alone we could expect a fairly keen competition for the single-Member seats. The choice of one candidate out of, say, 50 or 100 applicants— which would not be unreasonable in these giant constituencies—would not be markedly more democratic than the compilation of regional lists, particularly if the choice of the caucus in a single-Member constituency could not be effectively presented for approval by party members, as is the case, at least in theory in our existing national constituencies.
My point is that under any possible system of direct elections, including the first-past-the-post system, party patronage is likely to be increased but by little more under the regional list system than under the first-past-the-post system in a large constituency.
Apart from their more equitable results, lust because the necessary constituencies are already there, either STV or the system based on regional lists could be introduced more speedily than the first-past-the-post alternative. Even under the so-called Option B, which the Government have reluctantly recommended, the time schedule looks uncomfortably tight if candidates are to be in position by the beginning of next year.
Most of us would agree that it would be necessary for a candidate in one of these large constituencies at least to know the way round his constituency. It looks to me as though elections in the summer of 1978 will be botched jobs if both the legislative process and the drawing of the constituencies are not completed by the end of this year. It is possible that time alone will rule out that alternative. We shall see.
I should therefore greatly prefer to see the system of regional lists, or the single transferable vote if it were not for the Herculean task of counting the votes after the election. None the less, in my view it is far preferable to hold the elections next year under what I believe to be a defective system than to frustrate them entirely by insisting on a better one.
I hope that the Government will introduce a Bill without delay. I shall do all I can to hasten its passage. This is one pledge made by the Government in the last few years which I am determined to see honoured. It could be of far greater importance to us and for future generations than all the vacuous legislation with which the Government have so far wasted the time of Parliament.
It is evident that something of a trench warfare still continues between pro- and anti-Marketeers on the subject of direct elections. However, we must accept the fact that we are in the Community—and not only has that been approved by this House but approved by the referendum. That still leaves it open to us to determine the kind of Community institutions we should have. This is made evident in the White Paper—namely, that it is important that we should consider the implications for our own governmental institutions and for those of the Community.
We talk a great deal about democracy and, as I have listened to the various contributions, I have had the uneasy impression we shall have so much democratic institutionalism that there will not be enough people to take an interest in many of those institutions.
The right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) said earlier that he did not see a directly elected European Assembly as being a power-hungry monster. The right hon. Gentleman the Foreign Secretary in opening the debate left me with the impression that it will be some kind of tame lion. We have the job of supplying it with the teeth. But what will the Assembly feed on? It appears to me that it will be expected to feed on the same diet on which the existing European Assembly now feeds—namely, it will remain advisory and supervisory in its functions.
I made this point with the Secretary of State this afternoon, because I believe with a directly-elected Assembly the power of the Commission within the Community, rather than the Council of Ministers, is bound to become a more central and focal point of power. I wonder whether it is envisaged that in time the European Assembly should appoint the members of the Commission, because one of the biggest powers of patronage available to member Governments is their power to appoint their respective Commissioners—although, once appointed, those Commissioners are no longer expected to owe allegiance to the member country but to the Community as a whole.
I am concerned that the existing Community is not grappling with the problems that worry the man and woman in the street. The standard of living and the question of employment, now and in the future, are the two main considerations in which the Community has not given the leadership that many people expected of it. I know that the fourfold and almost fivefold increases in oil prices which have been experienced across the board in Western Europe over the past three years or four years cannot be dismissed lightly. Obviously they have had a major impact on the housekeeping of all nine member countries. But where are we going in respect of the common agricultural policy, which is a kind of precursor—
I shall bear your rebuke closely in mind, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I was about to say that the CAP was in existence when Britain became a member of the European Community. At that time there was no regional policy. This is one of the areas of policy that is now being actively discussed within the Community. We are talking about an evolving Community. The White Paper, in the proposals for direct elections, is seeking to give a political face to an economic Community. Is it seeking to do so a bit too quickly before the enlargement that we expect will come about within the Community?
In that context we may come up against some major problems in terms of the formula that is adopted for the distribution of seats. The hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Fairgrieve) referred to the proposed allocation to Scotland. It is proposed that the United Kingdom be given 81 of the 410 seats. If distribution were on a strictly population basis, the United Kingdom would have 89 seats and Luxembourg would have one instead of six. We shall come up against some real problems of equity if we persist in the idea that we can have a Grand Duchy with six seats within the European Assembly when major powers such as the United Kingdom, Germany and France are each to have 81. Allocation should be based on population if we are seriously talking about direct elections.
That raises a point to which the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) referred—namely, the direct access that will result between Strasbourg and the United Kingdom with the introduction of direct elections. Westminster will become the lost chord of British politics. There will be direct access between the Assembly and the business world in respect of legislation and major global matters. There are considerable pressures building up within the trade unions over collective bargaining on a European Community basis rather than on an individual member Government basis. There are pressures in respect of agriculure and consumer proection.
The ability of the British to absorb is considerable. We have already absorbed decimalisation and metrication is coming upon us. I have no doubt that in time we shall be expected to harmonise our electoral law. Although it is proposed that there should be a one-off job in 1978, there is no question in my mind but that we shall not be allowed to go our own way in making arrangements for our own electoral law.
A matter that will show up as a great anomaly is the proposed co-existence of proportional representation for Northern Ireland alongside a first-past-the-post system for Scotland, England and Wales that appears in the White Paper. It is one thing to change our system. It is quite another matter to envisage that there can be two separate systems of electoral law existing for the one set of elections within the same member country.
It seems that the proposed Speaker's Conference will have to take into account the harmonisation that might be necessary in respect of the franchise. That is because voting law is not necessarily the same in all member countries. Belgium, which has just had its election, has a system of compulsory voting. There are many changes that will have to come about. Whether we like it or not, it seems that we shall be driven to a system of proportional representation.
I feel that the single transferable vote would be the fairest method. I was impressed with some of the more detailed practical arguments advanced by the right hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) in respect of the large size of multi-Member constituencies. That makes it appear increasingly likely that elections for a directly elected European Assembly will be fought within the television studio in front of the television camera and will not necessarily be especially relevant to the everyday life of our people.
I may be wrong, but I believe that no one has mentioned in this debate the Tindemans Report of 1976. That report gave the spurt to some of the energies that are now going into the concept of a directly elected European Assembly. Mr. Tindemans has had his problems lately. There has recently been a General Election in Belgium and one of the issues was the decentralisation that should take place within that somewhat unhappy land with its linguistic, cultural and economic problems.
The Tindemans Report made the point that a directly elected European Parliament will be decisive in the development of the European Union. Mr. Tindemans obviously envisages some form of federated set-up at a time when within Belgium there is a growing demand for some form of federation, although at present it cannot be decided whether there will be a federation of two areas or of three areas, bearing in mind the Brussels problem. The logical conclusion is that within Europe there will subsequently be a move towards monetary union, with all its implications.
This debate about a directly elected European Assembly should not lose sight of the fact that in the Community at present we are desperately searching for solutions to the problems that are arising for industrial societies in Western Europe. These problems are arising at a time when the Third World is becoming more vocal about its place within global affairs. In all our talk about directly elected assemblies we are becoming so constitutional in our approach that we are in danger of losing sight of the duties that will fall on the politicians to devise effective policies in respect of energy, industry, trade, agriculture and fishing.
Some Members saw devolution as a diversion at a time when this country has major industrial, economic and social problems. My fear about the White Paper is that some people will place direct elections to the European Assembly too high on the list of priorities. Direct elections may occupy the minds of politicians, but we must ask whether that is true of the people who sent us here. I think that they are more concerned about living standards and employment prospects within the community at large.
The Heads of Government committed themselves to using their "best endeavours". That is a very good phrase. I should like to see the best endeavours of the Heads of Government devoted to some of the more real and pressing issues facing a community of 200 million people.
One problem which we see constantly in this House is that people place too much faith on institutions per se. We talk about democracy. If democracy is to survive—indeed, to flourish—it must take account of the results.
At times I worry about the extent to which I sense that people feel that the Government are failing to provide the results. Therefore, despite the blandishments of the right hon. Member for Devon (Mr. Thorpe) about sinners, I should like a little more time for this country to digest the full implications of what is proposed, not because we should be wriggling out of our responsibilities within the Community but because we should be diverting our energies within the Community to tackling some of the problems which are on the minds of the people of this country.
Whenever we discuss the European Economic Community in this House, even at Question Time, there is always a tendency on both sides of the House for hon. Members who were disappointed with the decision taken by the British people in the referendum to raise the question whether we should stay in or come out of the Common Market. That has happened again today. I regret it, because I believe that the subject of the debate is, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) said, the White Paper on Direct Elections to the European Assembly.
While on that subject, I think that it is important to decide what to call that body. There will be confusion if at one time we call it the European Parliament and the next time we call it the European Assembly. I understand that in the Treaty of Rome it is described as the European Assembly. Therefore, I believe that we should standardise on that description.
I am in favour of direct elections. I believe that we have a moral obligation to use our best endeavours to ensure that they take place in May or June next year. I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) that, although the European Assembly is not a Parliament in the sense that we are a Parliament here, in that it does not elect a government and does not have power over the whole budget, it is an influential body and would have more influence and certainly more effect on the Commission, if not on the Council of Ministers, if it were directly elected. Therefore, I hope that we shall make progress towards direct elections as quickly as possible.
I agree with the hon. Member for Glasgow, Maryhill (Mr. Craigen) that as politicians we must take account of the feelings of the British people. They are getting fed up with being pushed around the whole time. They have had to put up with metrication, decimalisation and new currency. They have had local boundaries mixed up with the reorganisation of local government. Even proud Yorkshiremen do not know in which county they were born. That is very sad.
We are in danger, if we are not careful, of subjecting the British people to a system of voting which is totally alien to their traditions. Proportional representation has many permutations and combinations. In essence, it destroys the personal responsibility of Members of Parliament to their constituents, and I do not like that at all.
I believe that the British people want to see their Members. Therefore, I am in favour of 81 different constituencies. That will be the simplest method for the Boundary Commission to amalgamate six, or seven, or however many contiguous constituencies produce the 81 seats. The argument on both sides of the House about the list system is that it puts a tremendous amount of patronage and power into the hands of the Government of the day, or of the party bosses of aspiring Governments of tomorrow. I do not like that and I do not think that the British people will like it either.
At the risk of being called old fashioned, I believe that we must adhere to the simple majority or the first-past-the-post system to which the British people are accustomed. I say that because I am convinced that within five years the Community, under the Treaty of Rome, will decide that we must have a common system of election to the European Assembly. Therefore, I do not see why we should subject the British people to a new system now which will be changed in four years. Leaving out Northern Ireland, they would have three different voting systems within three or four years. Therefore, I am in favour of 81 constituencies with the first-past-the-post system. However, I am prepared, when the Europeans have put their own house in order and agreed a system among all the nations in the Community, to move to a proportional representation system.
I should like to mention two other aspects. The first concerns the compulsory mandate for dual membership of both the European Parliament and this House. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup put forward an ingenious scheme which involved having an extra 81 Members of this House who could speak, but not vote. I do not know what they will do or where they will sit. If they speak, when will ordinary Back Benchers get a chance to speak? It is difficult enough nowadays to catch Mr. Speaker's eye. The idea is ingenious, but we have had the tragic example of what happened to Peter Kirk, who did such a marvellous job in Europe. It is folly to believe that we can have dual membership of the European Parliament and of this House.
It is right that there should be contact between the people at Strasbourg, Luxembourg or Brussels, or wherever they are to meet, and Parliament. However, I believe that that can only be in a revised Second Chamber, and that is a long way off. I do not think that dual membership is at all feasible. Such a system will kill people one after the other overstrain. I know that myself, because, as Leader of the Conservative Group at the Council of Europe, I have to spend 100 days a year in Europe. The minimum at the European Parliament is double that—200 days a year. This is putting far too great a strain on the human frame, and therefore the Government must think again about a proper system of liaison. This is not the occasion to go into discussion about joint committees or whatever, but the system advocated in the White Paper is inadequate.
Lastly, I want to deal with the franchise. I raise my voice on behalf of the thousands of British subjects who have spent years—sometimes as much as 25 years—working in Europe for such bodies as the Council of Europe, NATO, the Western European Union and so on. They have shown by their feet which way they want to vote. If we can allow the franchise to be granted to soldiers serving in Germany, as we propose in the White Paper, is it not scandalous that we cannot devise a system whereby the tens of thousands of British business men now working within the ambit of the EEC and the civil servants occupied in these various European organisations who through their efforts have made the possibility of a Community become realised, can vote? Is it not wrong for them to be disfranchised? It is not beyond the wit of civil servants in the Foreign Office or the Home Office to devise a system so that they could be registered quickly and given a vote through embassies and consulates.
Is my hon. Friend aware that the Select Committee recommended that the people he has just mentioned should have the franchise in direct elections to the European Parliament? In the evidence that was received during the Select Committee's consultations, from both the Home Office and the Foreign Office, indications were given that it would be perfectly easy to organise this. Therefore, I share the views of my hon. Friend that the Government should consider this.
I remind hon. Members that the winding-up speeches will begin at half past nine, so we have about 90 minutes left for 11 hon. Members who wish to speak. They can work out their own arithmetic.
There is some irony in this debate that those who are most concerned and, indeed, opposed to the concept of direct elections are those who are most concerned about the supremacy of the power of this House. The fact that we are having the debate at all indicates that, in vital matters in Europe, this House is still supreme and rightly has the power in its hands to decide whether there shall be in this country direct elections to the Assembly and, if so, how they should take place. Therefore, there is some sense of irony in the whole argument.
There are two reasonable and logical ways of dealing with the European Assembly. We can abolish it and say that it is not necessary in the EEC concept to have any Assembly at all. Obviously, the EEC must have a secretariat and therefore the Commission must exist. Obviously, there must be a mechanism for Heads of Governments constituting the EEC to meet, and so the Council of Ministers must exist. However, it is not self-evident that the Assembly must exist. It therefore seems to be logical that one should either get rid of it—and I should be happy about that, although it is not the proposition before us now—or, alternatively, it can be elected.
I, like many members of my party, have a great dislike of nominated bodies, whether they are nominated to run the local health service, or gas board, or nominated for some rôle within the Common Market. Nomination means patronage and, generally speaking, arbitrary selection. Elections, however faulty the system or inadequate the means, ultimately put some power, through the ballot box, into the hands of those electing the representatives concerned.
Therefore, the sensible alternatives in relation to the Assembly are to get rid of it or to elect it. Since there is no proposition to get rid of it and it seems unlikely that such a proposition will emerge over the next decade or so, it ought to be elected. However, I am bound to say that I share the views of those who do not regard this as an urgent and pressing matter. I do not see why there should be some particular magic about the year 1978 and I certainly agree with the view put forward about the admission of the new members—Spain, Portugal and Greece. That is far more urgent and important than the matter of elections to the Assembly.
Indeed, it is a bit odd in a way that the Europeans should be pressing for an elected Assembly before important decisions have been taken about expanding the Community and drawing in Mediterranean members. I should much prefer the matter of the admission of democratic Spain, Portugal and Greece to have been settled before we started tinkering around with direct elections to the Assembly. That point will certainly weigh in my mind when casting a vote in the House on direct elections.
There has been a great deal of bandying of semantics regarding federalism and non-federalism and so on. The development of the EEC will be determined by the economic and political power of its members and the way that they choose to exercise it and by the impact of international events and the use of international bodies as problems of relationships grow in the world at large. I regard the institutions of the IMF, the World Bank, the North-South dialogue and the whole relationship between the developed world and the Third World as infinitely more important than fiddling questions about elections to the Assembly.
I do not regard direct elections as a fundamental matter for the development of the EEC. It is the economic power of Germany, the possible political transformations within France and Italy that we may see during the next two to five years, and our own economic problems in the world and in Europe that will determine the structure and development of the Community. Direct elections to a European Assembly are a minor matter compared with these other forces.
The right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) made an interesting aside when he pointed out that one of the most significant developments in the Community has been the more frequent meetings of not only Ministers but Heads of Governments. In other words, it has become clear that the important decisions within the Community will gravitate increasingly into the hands of those who are directly directing the destinies of the member States. The reputation of the Commission will undoubtedly decline in future years, partly on account of its own absurd behaviour in certain fields.
I do not regard this as a fundamental constitutional argument. It is a stage of development of the Community, but I am not sure that it is of the greatest importance. I believe that this House will retain the control of those issues that it clearly has at present and will also retain control in any other matter that the nation considers to be vital. I am not persuaded that direct elections will undermine the authority of this House or derogate from it.
I share the view of those who regard the dual mandate as a nonsense. I have always believed that being an hon. Member is a full-time job and I do not agree with those who believe that they can pursue professions outside. There is plenty to do here and if our procedures were modernised, reformed and made more efficient, we could do even more.
It is wrong to suggest that an individual could fulfil a rôle as an active and effective Member of this House and of an Assembly on the Continent. It may be going too far to prohibit such an arrangement, but I should strongly discourage it and should certainly oppose the absurd suggestion that such an arrangement ought to be mandatory.
I am sorry that opinion in the House and the country is so rigidly conservative on the question of technique of election. A great opportunity was missed in the reform of local government for some experiments for systems of proportional representation. There has been an exception in Northern Ireland, but generally we have become a bit mesmerised with our obsession with the wonders and brilliance of the first-past-the-post system and excessively concerned about the dangers of departing from this principle.
Some system of proportional representation would be essential for elections to the European Assembly if we are to avoid grotesquely distorted results in each of the 81 constituencies. I am impressed by the argument in the White Paper which says about the single transferable vote system:
This system gives maximum influence to the elector, who is able to express a preference between the different candidates of the
Party of his choice as well as between the candidates of other Parties.
I am not an expert on systems of proportional representation but I understand that this system does away with what I dislike about the lists system and would give us an opportunity to produce a reasonably fair balance of representation in the Assembly between the parties and would avoid the grotesque distortions that the first-past-the-post system would produce. I hope that when this exercise takes place we shall have an experiment along these lines.
I am attracted, perhaps a little naively or academically, by what would be a unique political experiment. I know of no other assembly where the members have been directly elected across international boundaries. There may have been such a system in ancient Greece or Rome, but I do not know of it.
I am not saying that such a body will work—it will be a weird conglomeration of 39 parties, 12 nationalities and 17 languages—but in terms of the evolution of the political development of mankind it is an experiment that should command the assent of those who are interested in different forms of international development and co-operation.
I know that this is a highly naive simplistic and un-party approach which is probably unworthy of a practising politician, but I find it intellectually fascinating and I shall be interested to see in 20 years' time how or if it has worked.
During the debate, some hon. Members have uttered, almost audibly, sighs of relief that direct elections, at least for the next month or so, will displace devolution as the main subject of discussion in the Chamber and the national Press. I think that they are mistaken. They fail to understand that there is a direct connection between the two and that the future links of the United Kingdom with the European Communities will be a major determinant of where Scotland is going constitutionally.
Given the United Kingdom's accession to the Communities, the great issues of centralisation, decentralisation, growth at the centre in Europe and corresponding balancing growth at the periphery are too large and complex to be decided at West- minister alone. Lord Kilbrandon appreciates this. Despite his massive Royal Commission Report, he is now on the record as saying something different. He sees a new relationship emerging between Edinburgh and Brussels, with the London link gradually withering away.
The trouble is that the "ultras" in this House do not recognise that reality. As with the Scotland and Wales Bill, les extrèmes setouchent. The hardliners of the Labour Left have joined with the imperialists of the Tory Right in defence of what the SNP regards as the increasingly tattered remnants of British sovereignty.
The arguments they use against the Communities are the obverse of those used against Scotland in the devolution debate. The people who are frightened of a further diminution of sovereignty within a larger European whole are simultaneously frightened of conceding a drop of self-government to the people of Scotland or parity with Denmark for the people of Scotland within the Communities.
If the referendum result in England was the final formal abdication of sovereignty, it led in Scotland to a reawakening of a possible rôle for our country as a small North-European State in our own right.
The SNP will contest direct elections with, as my hon. Friend the Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing) has said, vigour and determination. She gave two reasons. First, we are conscious of the undemocratic nature of the Community processes and of remoteness and bureaucracy. We believe that direct elections are an assertion of faith in the democratic process.
Secondly, my hon. Friend said that the SNP is prepared to fight anywhere at any time for the people of Scotland and we welcome the opportunity of a new forum within the Communities to press our case for self-government for Scotland.
That does not mean that the SNP has gone overboard about the Common Market. We are only too well aware of the adverse effect of Brussels, decisions on our fishermen, farmers and housewives, but we recognise that without an independent Scotland at the top table of the Communities, with a Scottish Commissioner, there is little we can do about that —as yet—but perhaps that day too is coming.
We shall fight the direct elections in the same spirit as we fight the elections for Westminster, which we are going to leave, and the Scottish regions, which we shall dismantle. We believe that only the people of Scotland can decide our ultimate relationship with the Communities in a referendum at the time of independence when they will be offered two models—the Norwegian model of associateship or the Danish model of membership of the Community. At the end of the day the only people who will decide that are the sovereign people of Scotland at home.
In terms of the representation which Scotland is promised by the Government I have to state now that eight seats are totally unsatisfactory. The offer of eight seats, when Denmark is getting 16, is an insult to one of the oldest nations within the European communities. Luxembourg, with half the population of our capital city, Edinburgh, is to get six seats. Southern Ireland, with 2 million fewer people than Scotland, is to get 15 seats, and Denmark, with almost the same population as Scotland, is to get 16 seats.
It becomes even more noticeably adverse for Scots interests when one looks at the representation per Member within the European Assembly. One Scots MEP will represent 470,000 constituents. One Luxembourg MEP will represent 60,000. One Irish Republic MEP will represent 205,000. One Denmark MEP will represent 315,000.
I believe that my reservations are shared by hon. Members from Wales and Northern Ireland. It is perfectly obvious that the only way in which Scotland will get equity within the European Communities is by the restitution of full national sovereignty to the Scottish people.
This anger is not unique to the SNP. As a member of the Select Committee on direct elections, I was impressed by the general Scots consensus against only eight seats being awarded to our people. That consensus represented farmers, academics and politicians of other parties. The Labour Committee for Europe said:
This gross disparity can only lead to a strong bias against individual communities in areas such as Scotland.
I happen to believe that that is perfectly true. If one looks at the evidence submitted by an all-party body, such as Scotland in Europe, it says:
The view is very strongly held in all sections of the Scottish electorate that some way must be found of giving Scotland sufficient seats in the European Parliament to bring it into some sort of balance with a country like Denmark which has a similar size of population.
… the question of Scottish seats will rumble on as a political issue for years and years.
Politicians from all parties in Scotland recognise the truth of that remark.
I do not believe that I am engaging in any special pleading. The SNP evidence to the Select Committee was based on equity throughout the European Community. I would remind hon. Members that the evidence put forward took careful note of the difficulties of ensuring adequate representation for small distinctive countries such as Scotland, as against the regions in Europe and of the big four The SNP proposed a simple formula that for elections to the European Parliament: every existing member State should have three seats and, thereafter, there should be one seat for every 650,000 voters. That would have produced something like parity throughout the Community between Denmark, the English regions and Scotland. We were prepared to go further if necessary and to allow six seats for every existing Member and 700,000 votes for every MEP. That was firmly ruled out.
The Government argued that special arrangements ought to be made for distinctive small nations. Gaston Thorn in Luxembourg ought to be accommodated. Six Members were necessary for Luxembourg because Luxembourg would otherwise not have representation for Luxembourg's six parties. If Luxembourg has to have six seats, Southern Ireland 15 and Denmark 16, there are two obvious lessons from that. First, the only way in which Scotland will get equity within the European Community is by the restitution of full self-government to the Scottish people. Secondly, if the United Kingdom Government are willing to make special arrangements for small distinctive nations within the European Communities through a special arrangement for them, it is high time that there was a simultaneous arrangement or special deal for the people of Scotland.
Within the European Communities, the Scots nation is a unique case. Traditionally in this House there has been about 11 per cent. weighting for Scotland, and for good reasons. The first good reason is that we came into this House as equal partners in the United Kingdom. Secondly, we have at present some 34 per cent. of the geographical land area of the United Kingdom. If we consider the eight MPs from the North-West of England, and consider the land area, we find that the land area in the North-West is ten times smaller than the land area of Scotland. We have eight Members of Parliament for 29,000 square miles.
According to the figures given by the Labour Committee for Europe, there are about 200,000 voters difference. The areas are broadly comparable in population size.
There are, however, certain other good reasons that I should like to advance to the Treasury Bench for Scotland getting parity with Denmark. We are one of the oldest nations in Europe in our own right. We have 1,000 years of history behind us. Second, we are unique in having our own distinctive legal and administrative system based on continental models. Third, we are situated on the northernmost periphery of the European Communities. Fourth, we have energy and marine resources which the European Communities covet in their own right. Fifth, we have our own regional diversity and an extremely scattered population. Lastly, we have in Scotland a position of utmost strategic importance to the Western world. All of these are good reasons for a higher weighting of seats for Scotland.
If the Government will not concede that, let them examine what one or two of their European colleagues are doing. I understand that the Danes have come to a special arrangement which will allow one Member of the European Parliament after direct elections to represent Greenland. At the last count Greenland had a population of about 40,000. In Italy, I understand that several regional lists are being produced to ensure MEP representation for such areas as the South Tyrol and Sardinia. In the South of Ireland Republic there is a weighting for areas such as Gaeltacht. It is obvious that there are already plans within the European communities for weighting towards areas of special regional or national identity. Why not on Scotland?
Lastly, I come to the "how and when" of direct elections. The SNP believes that they should be held within the same period of three or four days throughout the EEC, come May or June of next year, with elections in this country being held on the last convenient week day before the Sunday on which most of the European countries will poll. Of course, we should keep elections to Europe distinct from General Elections or from regional and district elections and from the Scottish Assembly elections.
With regard to the method of elections to the European Parliament, we find ourselves—as other speakers from other parties have indicated—on less sure ground. There are two main reasons. The first is simply the tight time scale which the Boundary Commissions would face in redrawing the constituencies between now and May or June of next year. Again, on the Select Committee, one heard quite distinctive evidence that the normal inquiry procedures would have to be severely curtailed to allow elections to take place at that time.
The second difficulty results from the fact that there will be strenuous efforts throughout the European Communities to have some uniform method of voting by the time of the second elections in 1983. I wonder whether it is right to have two voting changes within the United Kingdom during that period especially as direct elections themselves are a novel addition to the method of electing representation in this country.
Within the SNP we think there is value in electorates identifying with "their" MEP. We think that ideally seats should cover existing geographic and political identities rather than arbitrarily move conjoined Westminster constituencies together. We still reserve our position about the actual form of elections, but we are not too happy about the list system. We do not like power being handed over from the people to the apparatchiks or party functionaries.
We believe that there should be some form of PR, because clearly it would be ludicrous in a new European Parliament to have, as may be possible with the first-past-the-post system, the Liberal Party getting 4 million to 5 million votes with no representation whatsoever. We suggest that the Government might have a look at an EEC elections Bill introduced in another place by Lord O'Hagan in May 1974. It was based fairly on individual constituencies with MEPs elected by the alternative vote. We see that as simply one contribution to this debate.
In terms of the dual mandate we think that there should be a transitional period during which the mandate is neither compulsory nor forbidden, but, frankly, we think that at the end of the day, given the volume of work in this House and the plethora of work in plenary and committee sessions in Luxembourg and Strasbourg, the normal constraints of health and of constituency and party pressure will ensure that by the second elections to the European Parliament MEPs will have to decide one way or the other.
We are concerned, though, about links with this country. We think it ludicrous that contacts and cross-fertilisation should be through MEPs having membership of the House of Lords. It is absolutely ridiculous that British Members of the European Parliament should have to become peers in order to go to Strasbourg. There is obviously some sense in a Joint Westminster-MEP Standing Committee. The still promised Scottish Assembly does however afford us a unique opportunity for Scottish cross-fertilisation, for the good reason that the European dimension will be a totally inescapable part of the work of the Scottish Assembly Committees from the start.
Given the growing stream of regulations from Brussels on such subjects as health, education, transport, social policy and so on, it would be right and proper that Members of the European Parliament should have temporary membership of the Scottish Assembly. They would have the ability to initiate debates and to speak, but not, of course, to vote. Again, we throw that out as a contribution to today's proceedings.
Finally, the Foreign Secretary, in introducing the debate referred to the continuance of what he called "national interest and national perceptions". It is a pity that he forgot the national interest of Scotland and the national perception of the Scots people. We welcome the opportunity of a wider forum in which to plead our case for self-government and the opportunity to talk oil and fish to the people of Europe. We think that there may just be a chance, as in the Irish Republic, to counterbalance Scotland's traditional dependence on London through the European Community. But at the end of the day only the Scots people are sovereign—not this House. It will be up to the people of Scotland to decide for themselves their own future relations with the European Communities in the circumstances obtaining at independence.
I find it encouraging that the last Scottish Commissioner, Lord Thomson, gave his first interview after demitting office to a Scottish newspaper, the Daily Record, and had this to say, while stressing his personal preferences, as an ex-member of the Labour Party, for the continuation of Scotland as a member of the British unitary State:
Europe would welcome an independent Scotland.
The hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) has stated again the stark choice that will face the Scottish people at the next General Election—and we should be grateful to him. It is whether, in his words, they wish to be a small northern State on the periphery of Europe or to remain part of a major European country. I have no doubt that the Scots will vote overwhelmingly to remain British at the next General Election and any election thereafter.
Until the beginning of last month I was a member of the delegation to the European Assembly. It was an assignment that I found interesting. Some cynics may say that I even found it rewarding. But at least I got some first-hand experience of the workings of that Assembly. I am aware, of course, of the limitations on the powers and influence of the Assembly, but I have no doubt of the need to exercise some form of parliamentary control over the activities of the Council and of the Commission.
The structure of the Community requires this to be done on a centralised basis. It would be quite impossible for this control to be exercised to any extent by the nine separate Parliaments of the member States, least of all by this overworked and disorganised House of Commons. Therefore, I have been fascinated by the arguments of some Labour Members about whether there should be direct elections.
It is hardly very wise to dismiss the European Assembly as totally unimportant just because the occasional political excitements that exist at Westminster do not come to the fore at Strasbourg, or because the Press in this country tends to ignore, for the present at least, the business that takes place at Strasbourg. However, much as some hon. Members may dislike Britain being part of the Community, surely they would not dispute the fact that the Council and the Commission both have a great deal of influence over the affairs of the British people. I hope that they are not suggesting that we should curtail our influence over the affairs of the Community itself. One way to do that would be to withdraw completely from the whole argument and the participation in direct elections.
I think that arguments that the Assembly has little power and even less influence could be extended to at least some of our local authorities in Britain, yet I do not believe that any hon. Members are suggesting that there should be no direct elections for local authorities. On the contrary, the House is looking forward to the results of next month's local authority elections in Britain, particularly Opposition Members. It may be that the burdens of office have made Labour Members a little resentful of local elections, by-elections or even General Elections, but that is not so on the Opposition side of the House.
However, those who oppose direct elections should say what they would do about the present situation—whether they would argue to maintain nominated Members there, or whether they would go for something like the French system of substitution. I hope that they would agree that the present situation cannot continue and that there is a need for some change and a fresh approach.
I am one of the few who have always been strong supporters of the EEC but who have grave reservations about now, immediately, going into direct elections. My hon. Friend asked what we would do. I think that we should leave things as they are and have nominated Members.
I am grateful for that intervention, but it does not answer the question, because that would mean that we should continue with the dual mandate. I should have thought it obvious that Members trying to do a job in both places are severely strained physically—as the sad events of last weekend have shown. Therefore, those who oppose the idea of direct elections must come up with something better than merely continuing with things as they are, but there must be some fresh approach on their side if they want to be taken seriously in the debate. I say that with the greatest respect to my hon. Friend.
I turn to the allocation of seats. This seems, again, to be yet another Scottish debate. I make no apology for that, because the argument requires us to consider how the seats were allocated among the member States. As the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire said, we know that they were allocated on a totally arbitrary basis. The Select Committee, of which I was a member, refused my advice on the matter and recommended that the seats within the United Kingdom should be allocated quite differently from the way in which they were allocated among the member States. In other words, it said that they should be allocated on a strict population basis.
I fail to see the logic in that. The arguments that one can put forward are fairly damaging, certainly if the Government fail to consider the discrepancies that would exist between Denmark and Scotland. This has been said many times, but it must be said again. With similar populations, there would be 16 seats for Denmark and eight for Scotland. There would be 15 for Ireland but only four for Wales, both countries having similar populations.
Frankly, I do not see how Scotland and Wales can be represented in the European Assembly with those numbers. I sympathise with English Members who say "You will be robbing us again", but the fact is that in the allocation among the member States the Government are a party to what I consider to have been a rotten deal.
I hope that the Government try to take into account the problem of the allocation of seats within the United Kingdom, and that they do not follow the lines of the Select Committee, with which I disagree. If they do I hope that they will reveal some ideas on the matter other than those based on the Select Committee. The needs of smaller States have been allowed for generously but the constituent parts of the major countries have not.
The reasons for my objection to eight seats for Scotland and four seats for Wales are outlined in Early-Day Motion No. 277. It is not only that constituencies would be so physically large as to be unmanageable. Scotland takes up more than one-third of the United Kingdom's land area and Wales takes up about 10 per cent., and it is difficult to imagine how a Member of Parliament would get round his constituency in Scotland within a reasonable time.
My objection is more important than the size of the constituency or of the numbers game itself. The powers and influence of the European Assembly will grow—as they must with direct elections—and people in Scotland and Wales, and perhaps Nothern Ireland, will recognise the influence moving towards Europe. They will see the disadvantages of representation by sheer numbers that they are enjoying compared with the smaller member States. That would be dangerous for the integrity and unity of the United Kingdom.
Representation in the Community requires a greater degree of specialisation from its elected members than is required at Westminster. That specialisation will not be provided if there are eight seats for Scotland and four for Wales. For example, Scotland has two main treaty industries—steel and coal—and a large manufacturing base for heavy engineering and electronics. Outside California, Scotland has the largest electronics industry in proportion to its population. Scotland also has large agricultural and fishing industries, both of which are important within the Community. Scotland also has North Sea oil.
How can those industries and specialisations be represented adequately in Europe with the number of Members recommended in the White Paper? In addition to those industrial interests and the need for representation, there is the standard Scottish argument and the necessity of having a lawyer to represent us in Europe. We have already discovered the need for at least one lawyer in the British delegation. The position would be the same for Scotland, because it has its own legal, local government and education systems.
I hope that hon. Members will not allow the devolution back-lash to colour their consideration of the matter. The same is true for Wales. Scottish representation at Westminster and in Europe is more important for the development of Scotland and the well-being of the Scottish people than an Assembly at Edinburgh. It is more important that the Scottish argument be heard at Westminster, Brussels and Strasbourg than it is for Scots in Edinburgh to argue with Scots. Scotland should have a minimum of 10 seats and preferably 12. Wales should have a minimum of five seats.
I turn to the voting system. At Westminster we have a fixation with individual constituencies and the first-past-the-post system. That inhibits our ability to appreciate the major differences in the purposes and representation of the European Assembly on the one hand and the work that we do at Westminster on the other. A higher degree of specialisation is required of MPs in Europe than at Westminster. Specialisation has a larger part to play in Europe than in the normal British system.
That is why I prefer to see PR and the regional list system. The advantage is that there would be a more formal liaison between, for example, the members of the Labour Party at Westminster and members of the Labour Party in Europe. Similarly, that applies to my own party. With the votes that are available to the European Parliament and with the organisations that directly elected European Members would be able to create in the constituencies, if they do not have a close link through the party and constituency with those places, they could easily drift apart and do the wrong thing in a way damaging to the best interests of Britain, Europe, the Government of Britain, this Parliament and this House.
My first priority, as with other hon. Members, is to see that Britain meets the target date of May or June 1978 for direct elections. Above all, I want to see the United Kingdom make a more positive contribution to the Community and its institutions. I also want to see the maintenance of the United Kingdom and its integrity. I do not want to see Britain breaking up.
We have heard from the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire how the Scottish National Party sees this as yet another opportunity to break up Britain. If we do not look at the matter of representation and play a constructive part in Europe as a whole extend parts of it and try to determine how best to be represented in Europe, we shall be contributing to the break-up of the United Kingdom.
In the interests of time, I hope that the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North (Mr. Fletcher) will excuse me if I do not follow him into all the Scottish matters he raised. I had a great deal more sympathy for the Scots about the problem of allocation of the number of seats and the sizes of constituencies until I met the single United States Congress man who represents the whole of the state of Alaska into which we could fit the United Kingdom twice, if not three times.
Some hon. Members are suggesting that the issue of direct elections is coming up for the first time. Some hon. Members are even suggesting that it was not mentioned during the referendum campaign. I therefore decided that it would be useful to check what was said during the campaign and to check my own notes. I found that I had made it quite clear that I hoped that as soon as possible we could move from the present unsatisfactory arrangement of an indirectly appointed European Assembly to a directly elected one. Following this debate I hope that we shall be able to have early progress to fulfil that commitment.
We do not know where that will lead us. It may be, as some hon. Members have suggested, a step towards a federal or confederal Europe, or merely a step towards making the Community a more efficiently run organisation than the present relative allocation of powers between the member countries and the Community as a whole. We do not know, and the decision to have direct elections does not in any way pre-empt, future decisions about the development of the Community as a whole.
It is important that we have an early decision whether to have direct elections. It is important that the political parties of this country can go head with their preparations for the direct elections. It is important that the uncertainty which exists at home and abroad about direct elections should be removed. My right hon. Friends would have much more difficulty in obtaining what they want in the interests of Britain in the Council of Ministers if we were to block the passage of legislation on direct elections and thereby block their introduction in the eight member States of the Community in May or June of next year.
I should like to comment on the issues raised by the Government in the White Paper. Along with every other hon. Member who has spoken, with the one exception of the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes), I believe that the continuation or introduction of a compulsory dual mandate would be a great mistake. Just as we have recently seen, most tragically, it would create an enormous burden on Members. It also puts restrictions on the choice of Members. I do not believe that it will be possible, or has been possible, for Members with marginal seats—perhaps there are more of these at the moment—to be appointed from this House to serve also in Strasbourg.
It is also worth thinking about what happens when one increases the size of the British representation to 81 Members in the European Parliament. Presumably we shall continue to appoint 36 Members to the Council of Europe—a total of 117 Members of Parliament, perhaps 10 or 11 of them from the other place. Thus, 25 per cent. of the non-ministerial Members of this House would, for a significant part of the parliamentary year, be away in a Continental Assembly. That is an impossibility for the House of Commons.
It is particularly important to realise that if the other members of the Community directly elect their Members and operate the optional dual mandate, it will become a more hardworking Assembly. At the moment, its work takes 200 days—perhaps two to two-and-a-half weeks in every parliamentary month. After direct elections, I guess that it will take three to three-and-a-half weeks a month and that it will become increasingly difficult for Members here also to serve in the Parliament in Strasbourg or Luxembourg. Some have suggested a system of proxies, but I think that that would create more constitutional harm for this House than the alternatives.
My initial bias in the argument about the electoral system was that the traditional system of first-past-the-post should be followed. However, the arguments about the different nature of the Assembly and the fact that it is not responsible for creating or supporting an Executive, as we are here, suggests that it might be proper to differentiate between this Parliament and that Assembly in the forms of election. There is a practical problem also, in that, because we are now only about 12 months away from the date of elections, it will be almost certainly impossible in time to set up the arrangements for 81 constituencies.
We must therefore consider carefully some kind of proportional system. The interests of direct elections are such that I would rather have an unsatisfactory system, if it can be arranged in time, than no direct elections at all. It appears that the Government, fortunately, have ruled out a national list. Presumably we could not have a United Kingdom list. We should have to have four lists, for England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is therefore appropriate to consider what system of regional lists we should have.
The White Paper raises the question whether we should operate on the existing standard English regions or have sub-regions.
Would my hon. Friend explain who would draw up the lists, how Members would get on them, who would vet them and who would decide, once the people had voted, who was elected? I think that we understand why my hon. Friend is against a national list—because people like me would be drawing it up. Equally, I should be against a regional list which some other people would draw up.
There is a great deal of misunderstanding of the systems and their effect upon those who draw up the lists, so I shall return to that point. I was however dealing with the question whether a regional system should be based on standard English regions. The White Paper suggests as a possible standard region the South-East excluding London—which would look rather like a doughnut, with Greater London being the missing centre. The regions would have 14 Members and might be too big. The Government should consider having sub-regions, so that no region had more than perhaps eight or nine Members.
I turn now to the system of election and the important question of the list, which was referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer). It is extremely important to point out that neither the single transferable vote nor the system laid down in Annex B of the White Paper gives any particular power to the party machines. Although all candidates are selected, the relevant order in which they are chosen is the decision of the electorate, both under the single transferable vote and under the list system suggested in Annex B.
Although there would be some choice over those who go on the list, the ranking on the list would be choice of the electorate rather than of the party machine. Both of these systems have considerable advantages over a system in which the names of those who go on the list and the ranking among those names is decided by a party machine, irrespective of what its views might be.
The arguments between the two systems in the White Paper, which I shall call the Annex B system and the single transferable vote system, seem to be finely balanced. The single transferable vote is logically fairer and is an innovation with which we could live. It was understood fairly quickly in Northern Ireland. However, as was pointed out earlier, there is an extremely serious counting problem.
I ask my hon. Friend the Minister what calculations have been done on this problem. Let us take the South-East area, excluding the Greater London region, where we might have perhaps 4 million or 5 million votes cast and 14 seats. There would be as many as 50 candidates if there were, for example, three candidates in each of the 14 seats as well as candidates from other parties. Has the Home Office estimated how long it would take, if there had to be 10 rounds of counting for 50 candidates with 5 million votes cast, in order to make sure that each of the 14 seats was filled?
I am sure that the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. White-law), with his experience of the length of some of the elections in Northern Ireland, where there were far smaller areas and far smaller numbers of votes, will realise that this is an extremely complex problem. We are talking of something that would last for several days, if not weeks, before the result was known. This is a serious disadvantage, on which we need more factual information before the House gives its support.
On the other hand, I suspect that the Annex B scheme comes very close to the Finnish option described by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, West (Dr. Phipps), with one exception. I think that my hon. Friend referred to voters having the option not of selecting between the candidates of the party of their choice but of voting just for the party and allowing the selection between candidates to be left to voters who wish to make the choice. That is a sophistication which is not in the Government's scheme, and which may or may not be desirable. If there is a star candidate on the list, the choice of other candidates may be determined by a small minority of voters. Has my hon. Friend the Minister considered combining some of the advantages of the single transferable vote system and of the list system by enabling voters to place in order the candidates of the party of their choice, so they will decide which party they wish to vote for and then list in order the candidates of that party? That would reduce considerably the amount of time necessary for counting. But it was not in the White Paper. On balance, I think that the system in Annex B, the regional list, is probably preferable to the single transferable vote, particularly because of the problem of counting.
Finally, I wish to refer to two other matters mentioned in the White Paper. The first is the question of finance for the elections. This is a serious matter for all political parties. The prospect of having to fight three or four rounds of elections in a particular year is a serious problem. The Government say that they have an open mind on this matter and are still examining proposals in the light of the considerations of the Houghton Committee Report. It would be an advantage to the House if the Government could relatively soon come forward with some news about that.
The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir J. Rodgers) raised the question of the extension of the franchise. In the White Paper the Government suggest that this should be referred to a Speaker's Conference. Does that mean there can be no extension of the franchise to those living overseas and working in international organisations before the first round of direct elections? It would be useful to have some clarification of that.
My right hon. Friends will be considering the results of this debate in the very near future. I hope that after that consideration they will be able to bring a Bill before the House which we can carry. I believe that they should seriously consider bringing forward at the same time a timetable motion to cover the progress of the Bill through the House. That is a factor of considerable importance if we are to get the legislation through and if we are to have direct elections in May or June 1978.
My hon. Friend knows very well that I am not unaware of that fact. I have elsewhere suggested that it would be useful if the Labour Party was able to hold a further special conference in order to consider its position on direct elections. I believe, however, that if we are to get direct elections in May or June 1978 it is important that my right hon. Friends seriously consider introducing, at the same time as they bring the Bill forward, a timetable motion to cover its progress through the House.
It is always a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) in speaking in a debate on European affairs. This is the second time that I have done so. I substantially agree with the earliest portion of his remarks, but I think that his recitation of the difficulties and complexities of the various PR systems add up to a pretty sound argument for not adopting them.
I do not propose to treat this debate as one on the principle of direct elections to the European Parliament. For me that issue was settled long ago. We are debating a White Paper with green edges which was substantially devoted to the question of the electoral system we are to follow, and it is to that matter that I should like to address my remarks.
I speak as one who has always been a strong supporter of Britain's membership of the EEC and of the principle of direct elections to a European Parliament. As such, I greatly regret the turmoil which has been injected into our discussion of this matter by the sudden proposal to introduce into our electoral system mechanisms which have never been employed before in the United Kingdom, except in one constituent part of it, and there with dubious success.
Last summer we all knew what needed to be done to meet this objective. We had before us a Select Committee report. I believe that at that stage there was a substantial consensus across the House in favour of the proposals put forward by the Select Committee. I warn the Secretary of State and the Home Secretary that by confusing the issue of direct elections with arguments on the merits or otherwise of PR they are doing grave harm to that consensus, which I believe still basically exists in this House.
The Prime Minister has promised a free vote on this matter: fair enough. But it must be a genuine free vote on the issue of the electoral system, separate from and in advance of the Bill. Whichever way such a vote went, I would accept it when it came to the Bill itself. But if, without that prior endorsement of proportional representation by the House, the Government present the issue in the context of the Bill, already drafted and approved by Ministers, they are asking for trouble. That would not be a genuinely open and free vote on this issue.
I am opposed to rushing into proportional representation, whether it be a single transferable vote, or national or regional lists, for a number of reasons, and I do not have time to go through all of them. First, I am concerned about the implications for the rest of our electoral system.
I know that it has been said that there is no necessary connection between PR for European elections and the electoral system for Westminster. Certainly I accept that we are looking at very different bodies and that the European Assembly does not have the responsibility of producing from within itself an Executive. However, I would find the arguments far more credible if their strongest advocates were not the very same people who want PR for Westminster elections as well.
There is a highly-organised pressure campaign producing glossy literature and financed by big business men with more money than political sense who are deluded into thinking that PR will produce a more stable Government and will dish the left wing of the Labour Party. These campaigners see PR for the European elections as the first step towards gaining PR at Westminster—and I do not blame them. Otherwise, why would they spend so much money promoting their campaign? As for the Liberals—and they have deserted the Chamber altogether—we all know that their motives in advocating PR are blatantly obvious.
There are some arguments in favour of the different PR systems. Every electoral system has certain advantages and certain drawbacks. If the object of the system is to secure a perfectly fair reflection of the views and votes cast in an election, the PR system is the one to go for. But the right way to approach this is the way that was proposed for Westminster elections. The issue should be examined and considered most exhaustively by a Speaker's Conference. The advantage and merit of this would be that we should hear a number of arguments in favour of single Member representation. These arguments are not being pressed with the same vigour as those for PR by this pressure campaign.
The British parliamentary system is substantially based on single-Member representation. Any PR system worthy of its name involves some form of multi-Member seats, and vastly larger electoral areas than those to which we are accustomed in this country. The advocates of PR frequently disguise this fact.
We are told that opinion polls have been conducted which it is claimed, suggest that a majority of the British people want PR in this country. The sort of question that is put in such an opinion poll is "Do you think that the strength of the parties should be fairly represented at Westminster?" Given such a question, most people would agree that given an ideal world, they should be. What such polls never ask is whether the elector desires to see the end of his constituency and of a Member of Parliament who represents that constituency and whether he wants to be part of a vastly larger electoral area of perhaps several millions represented by a whole series of Members of Parliament—in whichever Parliament we are talking about.
I claim that there is far more virtue in single-Member representation of defined constituencies than all the leaders in The Times would suggest. First, this system provides the most direct possible contact between the voters and a Parliament, of whatever kind of Parliament we are speaking.
Secondly, it is the system which has supported the two oldest surviving democracies in the world, namely, Great Britain and the United States. I believe that the argument in favour of single-Member representation of understandable, manageable and defined areas is as powerful in regard to representation at Strasbourg as it is in Westminster.
Those of us who have campaigned in favour of direct elections to the European Parliament, as I have, have always put the matter in these terms—namely, that we promised the electors their own representative in the European Parliament. If we go for one of the proportional representation systems discussed in this debate and outlined in the White Paper, we shall snatch away from the voters in this country that which we have consistently promised them. As a committed supporter of British membership of the EEC, I believe that to import an alien system of this kind would be the worst possible way to introduce into Britain the concept of direct elections to the European Parliament. Such a move would do grave damage to the European cause.
In opening the debate this afternoon the Foreign Secretary said that it was the Government's desire that there should not be a low poll at these elections. I am sure that we would all agree, but equally I am sure that the way to guarantee a low poll would be to hold those elections on a PR system, which would mean that the electors would end up far more remote from those representing them than anything they have been used to in this country.
I said before, and I say again, that I have always been a strong supporter of British membership of the EEC. But there are many pro-Europeans such as myself, who, if presented with a Bill embodying a voting system that would itself damage popular support for Europe and that would be introducing a major change to the constitutional practice of this country without the fullest discussion and investigation first, could conclude that the price we were being asked to pay to meet the May-June 1978 deadline was too high.
I want to confine my remarks to the main question we are debating today, namely how members of the European Parliament should be elected, whether by the first-past-the-post system or by some form of proportional representation. That is the essence of this debate, it is the burden of the White Paper, and I wish to keep strictly to that argument.
We are offered four options in the White Paper, and I wish to comment briefly on each. First, there is the simple majority, or first-past-the-post system, which is intimately familiar. It has the great advantage of being well known, everybody understands how it works, and everybody accepts the result of elections conducted under that system. It is related closely and intimately to the concept of the constituency, and each Member elected has a special allegiance to his own constituents and to his own local political power base.
As the White Paper points out, the advantage of the single-Member constituency is that the elector votes for a particular candidate, with the clear knowledge that the candidate who obtains the most votes will be elected as his Member. I agree with the White Paper that this well-known system should not be changed or curtailed except after the most careful consideration of the present and future implications of such a step.
The problem that the House faces in considering this matter is one of time. We face that problem because the Government have taken so long to produce the White Paper and the Bill to enable direct elections to the European Assembly. As a result, we are now short of time and, consequently, short of the ability to give the most careful consideration to the future implications of change from the first-past-the-post system. That in a nutshell is the problem that the House faces.
We are being urged by some to consider adopting the system of proportional representation for a variety of reasons, of which one is that such a system could be adopted in time for the European direct elections when they take place in the spring of 1978. If we are to change our system of election for the European Assembly, it would be much better to make any change only after due consideration has been given to the matter and after a wide body of public opinion has been consulted. However, I shall give my views on the list system that is used by the majority of our European partners.
The problem that we face is that there are several different types of list system. If we were now to adopt the regional list system, which has been widely referred to today, there is no guarantee that we should not have to change it again in accordance with the Treaty of Rome when elections on a common basis are adopted for the whole Community. My objections to the list system are that it breaks down the constituency link and places too much power in the hands of the political parties, to the detriment of the electorate, especially small minority groups within the electorate. It also makes it difficult and expensive for an independent group to field the list of candidates that would be involved in large regions.
If we are considering the list systems, my preference is for the German system. That is because it has the great advantage of being a mixed system and retains the constituency link. The German system works by having one constituency Member for each constituency plus an equal number of Members who are elected on a list. If we are obliged to have a list system for our first elections, it is possible that something on the German model might be more acceptable. It would cut down the work of the Boundary Commission, which would consider the delineation of only 40-odd constituencies. It would enable them to be topped up by a balance of 40 or so to make up the total list.
These are all complicated considerations. We need sufficient time to consider them and to consider each list system if we are to have the one that is best for our country.
We all know about the advantages and disadvantages of the single transferable vote. I shall say not much about it tonight, except that I believe that in the Republic of Ireland one or two occasions there has been an attempt to change from that system to a first-past-the-post system.
As the right hon. Gentleman reminds me, such attempts have been defeated on referendums. Nevertheless, that shows the dissatisfaction of the Governments who have put forward those proposals.
I am not in favour of the dual mandate being compulsory, although I should have no objection to its being optional. I accept that we shall probably have to go for some form of proportional representation for all of Europe, and probably on the second election.
On balance, I should prefer to retain the first-past-the-post system for the first election, as we did with the Greater London Council in the 1960s before we broke the various parts of the GLC into individual constituencies. Before that time we elected GLC councillors on a borough basis.
I think that it would be wise for Britain to press for a uniform system of election to be adopted by the whole Community for the second elections. That would avoid constant change. I shall listen to the debate and keep an open mind before casting any vote on this matter.
I believe that European Members should have the opportunity to sit and speak in this House, but not to vote. There is plenty of room for them here, as the empty Benches demonstrate tonight, and those Galleries up there could be occupied by European Members who wish to take part in our proceedings. There would be considerable advantage to Members of the European Assembly being able to participate in important debates on matters such as agriculture and industry, to quote but two examples. I believe that they should sit in the House of Commons for their full term, irrespective of whether a General Election takes place in the United Kingdom during their term.
I believe that the franchise should be extended to all United Kingdom citizens wherever they may be living in Europe. It is important that they should not be disfranchised.
I also believe that Northern Ireland should have the same system as the rest of the United Kingdom for the first elections. At the second elections it would have the same system as the rest of Europe. We must not neglect the vital problem of Northern Ireland at these elections.
Finally, I want to say a word about candidates. I hope that the Home Secretary will consider making more widely known the duties and responsibilities of directly elected Members to the European Assembly. If we are to have directly elected Members, I believe that we should try to attract men and women of the highest calibre from many and varied backgrounds to represent this country in Europe. I believe that is vital to all the people of the United Kingdom.
This has in some ways been a surprising debate. I continue to be astonished particularly by Labour Members who assert that the holding of direct elections for Europe is somehow undesirable or, as the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Hoyle) put it, "a step away from democracy." After all, what could be more undemocratic than our present system under which we nominate 36 Members of our Westminster Parliament to go to the Assembly without a direct mandate of any kind from the British people?
How can it be "a step away from democracy" to increase the total membership of the European Parliament from 198 to 410 and the United Kingdom representation from 36 to 81? I should have thought that the recent fiasco over the sale of cheap butter to the Soviet Union demonstrated the importance of having a strong and more effective parliamentary presence in Europe to attack and expose the excesses and occasional idiocies of the bureaucrats in the Commission.
I sometimes suspect that the anti-Marketeers are so vehemently opposed to this major step towards greater involvement and participation because the directly elected Members will be better able to influence and control Community policies and better able to expound and explain them to their electorates. I suggest that their great fear is that direct elections will improve the image and impact of the European Parliament and lead to a greater public understanding and support for its work and objectives.
As has been said, the impression both at home and abroad is that the Government's approach to the whole issue has been leisurely, not to say lethargic. In common with other speakers in the debate, I welcome the White Paper which has been produced. It is a fairly thin document, and I find it difficult to understand why it could not have been published several months earlier. If that had been done, we should not now be up against the pressure of time in this way. For example, we could avoid some of the problems that could arise if the House eventually decides to adopt the first of the four possible voting methods outlined in the White Paper—the simple majority or the first-past-the-post system.
For elections to the Westminster Parliament I have always defended and supported the simple majority system on the basis that in most elections in the past—until recently—it has ensured the return of a strong Government with a clear, workable majority. It also provides the elector with a direct personal representative in Parliament.
In the case of elections to the European Assembly, the first argument—that has already been set out clearly—does not apply in the sense that we are not electing a Government only. I suggest, however, that the second advantage of the simple majority system, namely representation by an individual and identifiable Member, applies with equal force. Perhaps it applies with even greater force to the European Assembly. Therefore, I regard these direct elections as of crucial importance in reviving a sense of involvement and participation in European affairs. If we wish to do that we must devise a system by which the electors in a particular area will be able to identify with their man in Europe, the person who has been sent to the Assembly by their votes to represent their views and interests. Clearly, the simple majority system is the most obvious way of doing that.
However, there are three separate factors that cause me to hesitate before nailing my colours to that particular mast. The first has already been brought out. In a European context such a system would almost certainly produce a grossly unrepresentative result in terms of votes cast and Members elected. Whilst there is, understandably, not a great deal of sympathy for the Liberal Party on these Benches, the public would regard it as an electoral outrage if the Liberal Party obtained 3 million or 4 million votes and yet did not return a single Member to the Assembly. In a recent booklet "Fair Elections or Fiasco" Mr. Michael Steed, who is a Liberal but also an acknowledged expert on electoral systems, presented an analysis that proves that in the present political climate the possible result of elections on the first-past-the-post system would be: Conservative Party 15,500,000 votes and 65 seats, the Scottish National Party 1 million votes and eight seats, the Labour Party 7,500,000 votes and five seats, the Ulster Unionists 500,000 votes and three seats and the Liberal Party 3,500,000 votes and no seats at all.
Like my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and a number of other speakers today, I should find it impossible to defend or support such a result and such a grossly unfair distribution of seats. My fear is that such a grossly disproportionate result would sour and poison the atmosphere at the start of the life of the new Assembly. That would be highly damaging to the Assembly's work and impact.
My second reservation about the first-past-the-post system is that time is now running desperately short and that even if we adopted option B as outlined in paragraph 30, that would take, according to the Government's figures, a minimum of almost five months—although, as the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) suggested, it would probably be substantially longer than that. I fear that, even with just one round of representations, the Boundary Commission could be swamped with objections and could find it physically impossible to adhere even to the optimistic timetable in the Government's White Paper.
The third factor that influences me is the knowledge that in subsequent elections to the European Assembly there will be a universal system for all member States. It is quite clear that the one system that will not be adopted by our European partners is that of the simple majority. For all these reasons I, in common with speakers on both sides, am inclined to favour the regional list system which, as the White Paper points out, would allow some of the virtues of the simple majority system to be maintained.
I should expect our existing constituency parties to be given a voice in the selection of candidates on the regional lists. That would reduce the power of national patronage that has concerned many speakers.
It is anticipated that in my area of Greater London, 10 Members would be elected to the Assembly and it would be helpful if they reached an informal arrangement to look after the interests of eight or nine parliamentary constituencies in London. Residents of those constituencies would then feel that they had an individual voice at Strasbourg.
Unless such an agreement were reached, I fear that the regional lists would prove too impersonal and would negate the whole purpose of direct elections, which is to bring the European Assembly closer to the people.
The record of the Government on these elections has been one of drift, dither and delay. My plea is that as soon as the debate has been concluded, the Government should speed the introduction and implementation of the necessary legislation so that we can keep to the agreed timetable and keep faith with our electors at home and our friends overseas who want to see Britain once again playing a prominent and effective part within the Community.
My hon. Friend the Member for Ravens-bourne (Mr. Hunt) said that he was surprised that a number of people were still opposed to direct elections, but I do not think that he will be surprised to find that I am one of them. I should not feel a sense of outrage if the Liberal Party gained several million votes and failed to secure any representation in the Assembly. I should be surprised if the Liberals secured that many votes in any future election, but if they did, I should see their lack of representation as further evidence of their consistent failure to make the breakthrough at successive elections.
The point of our electoral system is not that minority parties cannot secure representations, but that they have to overcome a fairly high hurdle before securing it. We saw with the SNP that even with the first-past-the-post system it managed to secure a substantial representation.
It is not surprising that so many Liberals are experts on electoral systems—they stand to gain the most from changes. I share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) that one's suspicions about the advocacy of proportional representations for European elections is heightened by the fact that the advocates are those who favour a change for the Westminster system.
I remember that during the General Election campaign, when the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) was doing well in his campaign and the swingometer looked like going past 20 per cent., thereby giving the Liberals a substantial number of seats, we heard very little about proportional representation.
I should feel a sense of outrage if we had the regional list system advocated by my hon. Friend the Member for Ravens-bourne. According to the White Paper, we should have 14 Members representing the South-East at the European Parliament. About 7 million people would have to choose 14 representatives from a list of 40, 50, or 60 candidates.
Then we are told "If that is thought to produce an impersonal relationship between elector and Member, the Members, after the election, among themselves, would allocate certain parts of these vast constituencies to each other". That seems more like Russian roulette for the electors than a system of democracy.
I am appalled by those who claim that they are seeking to make the Common Market democratic by their readiness to abandon all vestiges of democracy, as we understand the word, in the systems that they are prepared to adopt. I disagree fundamentally with the right hon. Member for Devon, North on this matter, but at least I respect his principles, because he is prepared to say that his concept of democracy involves a particular electoral system and he places that concept of democracy before this particular artificial deadline for direct elections that has been established.
However, I have less respect for those who say "I do not care what system we have or how democratic it is as long as we can get direct elections." Personally, I think that that is saying that the end justifies the means. Frankly, that is not a philosophy that I would be prepared to support.
In the very few minutes avaiiable I must say that this is not a debate about membership of the Common Market. It may be, of course, that there will be familiar faces on both sides of this argument, but I think that we can accept that the Common Market can survive without direct elections. It has so survived for 19 years. It is a changing organism. We can see the prospect of a wider Europe being created by the accession of Greece and of Turkey, perhaps of Spain and of Portugal. It is quite conceivable that the Community, as a community of nation States, could survive—indeed, flourish—without any sort of Assembly whatsoever. If one seeks to make it more democratic, in those circumstances one would need to strengthen the democratic control of the national Assemblies over the Commission and the Council of Ministers, and by so doing we could truly render it democratic.
However, I think that the debate so far today has disposed of a couple of arguments that have been propounded by those passionately in favour of direct elections. The first myth is that we are bound by treaty. My right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) disposed of that argument. We are indebted to him for that, at least. He made it quite clear that in his mind we are not bound by treaty and we are not legally committed.
The second argument is that the matter was settled by the referendum. It was not so settled. The matter was not even mentioned in the Government's White Paper. In answer to that, we are told that the opponents, those advocating "No", pointed out that omission, and the fact that that omission was pointed out apparently therefore gained the supporters of membership a mandate—a sort of mandate by omission. That is a very strange doctrine indeed. Therefore, let it not be believed that somehow the British people have already cast their verdict on this point.
I now turn to the fundamental point—the question of democracy. People say "Surely even if you were not in favour of British membership you want to see the institution subject to democratic control." That point was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ravensbourne. I think that that is abusing the word "democracy". I believe that it is a step away from democracy, and I reject the opinion of those who believe that one creates democracy by making paper constitutions, by creating artificial entities and saying "We shall set up an electoral system and therefore the whole thing is democratic." By adding the word "democracy", apparently, the whole thing is made all right.
I do not believe for a moment that the suggestions made in the White Paper would improve democratic control by the people in my constituency or the South-East Region over the decisions taken by the politicians in control of their destiny. Indeed, it removes power from the voter. Democracy is about power being exercised by the voter over his elected representative and over his Government. What we are doing is increasing the influence of a European Assembly that is far removed from the voter.
In the South-East Region the elector would have some 14 Members and he would be one of 7 million voters. What influence would he possibly have over his Member? When would he see his Member? Would he even know who he was? It is utter rubbish when hon. Members talk about the Member being lobbied by his constituents. It is a preposterous suggestion in those circumstances. It is just as preposterous whether one has half a million people or a regional list system involving 7 million people.
Finally, I suggest that the systems of proportional representations are designed to remove power from the voter. Certainly they reduce exaggerated swings and make it harder to dislodge professional politicians. Once a politician is elected under a PR system, it is difficult to achieve a major shift in political power. That is why so many people are in favour of it. They dislike insecurity. But democracy is about insecurity. Nearly every system that we have discussed so far is designed to remove power from the people.
We should continue to debate the principle, and that will not be resolved until the Bill receives its Third Reading and Royal Assent—if it ever does. Until that happens, the principle of direct elections will not have been established by the House or the country.
The purpose of the debate is to give the Government an opportunity to listen to the views on their White Paper on Direct Elections to the European Assembly, and in particular to hear Parliament's views on four options specified in Paragraph 23. From the Foreign Secretary's speech, one would not have gleaned that that was the purpose of the debate. He spent most of his time discussing the possibility of a federal Europe, although that is not one of the options on which Parliament has been asked to express a view. The right hon. Gentleman concluded that a federal Europe would not be created by the proposed system which made it odd that he should spend so much of his time discussing it.
The Foreign Secretary's contribution was thus singularly irrelevant to what we have to discuss today, in the light of the speech by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies). We may rejoice that most hon. Members did not follow his lead into federalism. Most hon. Members made some attempt to express views which the Government said they wanted to hear.
It is reasonable to make a tally of the views that have been expressed. I counted 18 speeches, most of which I heard. Of those, four were against direct elections in principle no matter what method was used; 12 were in favour of direct elections in principle no matter what method was used, and although there was a good deal of variety of views on methods, those in this group were firm in their support of the principle of direct elections. One, the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), speaking for the Liberal Party, was in favour of direct elections only if a proportional representation system was used. One hon. Member was ambiguous in his attitude and wanted a delay so that we could all think more about it. A total of 12 hon. Members were thus in favour of the principle, four were firmly against, one was guardedly in favour but more in favour of the principle of PR, and one was uncertain. On that tally there can be no doubt about the views of the House.
I hope that the Minister of State will assure the House that the Government will not allow themselves to be influenced—I use the word "influenced" deliberately—by those who expressed a view against holding direct elections in principle. All those today who were opposed to the principle of direct elections were also against Britain having become a member of the EEC and of remaining in it. But the principle of whether direct elections should be held, by whatever method, is not one of the options on which the Government are seeking a view.
Paragraph 5 of the White Paper speaks unequivocally about the
Government's commitment to proceed to such elections".
Paragraph 9 of the Green Paper of February 1976 said:
The Prime Minister made it clear that the British Government accept the Treaty commitment to the introduction of direct elections.
I hope that the Minister of State will unequivocally confirm this commitment tonight. I lay some stress on this commitment to the principle of direct elections because many of us are haunted by the spectre which was graphically raised this evening by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood), namely, that the arguments and disagreements about the means or methodology could finally frustrate the end which most hon. Members have in common—they want direct elections by one means or another.
If the means were allowed to defeat or frustrate the end, that would foist upon Europe the fiasco that the Government foisted on Britain in connection with the devolution Bill. There was broad agreement in principle about that Bill but disagreement about method.
How can the hon. Gentleman maintain that there is a treaty commitment? Did he not hear his right hon. Friend the former Prime Minister and Leader of the Conservative Party saying quite clearly that there is no such commitment, because under Article 138 it would have required a decision and recommendation by the Council of Ministers and such a recommendation and decision have never been made?
This is a bizarre situation. The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) quotes the ex-Conservative Prime Minister against me when I have just quoted the present Prime Minister against him. If the hon. Gentleman would like to come over and sit on this side of the House and talk to my right hon. Friend, he would find that my right hon. Friend was not nearly as explicit—
I shall indeed do that. If my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) had been reminded of what the Prime Minister said in the Green Paper, he would be only too willing to support that view. In this context I am happy to pray in aid of the Labour Prime Minister against any suggestion that it is not a treaty commitment. I believe it clearly is.
The Labour Foreign Secretary made very little attempt to argue about anything at all in the White Paper with regard to proposals for direct elections. He talked about federalism, which was not talked about by my right hon. Friend; nor is it a feature of the White Paper as such.
Perhaps I can briefly declare my own position in this context. We have been criticised, my right hon. Friend in particular, for not specifying what our position is. We have a free vote on this issue. Personally, my commitment and enthusiasm above all are to the principle and the event of direct elections to the European Parliament. I am content to proceed to these direct elections on a first-past-the-post system if, as the Select Committee recommends, it is the most viable and practical.
I know that this arrangement will be transitory and that it will not take place in all likelihood in any other than the first election. In this context my preference would ultimately be for some form of PR for the European Assembly, which I am sure is bound to occur, but I am content to have first past the post for the first election if necessary.
I want to hear the arguments for and against the different kinds of proportional representation when we are given the opportunity of discussing them. The over-riding need is to commit ourselves to direct elections as such and then to adduce whatever means are most likely to secure the desired result.
That would undoubtedly lead me to feel that it was the wrong method to try to bring forward for the first election.
The over-riding need is to have direct elections within either the May-June 1978 time-scale prescribed in the White Paper or within an extended and flexible scale to which the Government have also made some reference in the White Paper. It therefore will depend on the form of the Bill which the Government bring forward. But one thing is clear—the Government cannot claim on the strength of 18 speeches today and perhaps another 18 on Monday—a total of 36 Back Bench speeches, or perhaps 5 per cent. of the voice of the elected Members—that they really know the view of the House as to the methodology.
The structure of the Bill which is finally brought forward must therefore be such that either at the outset it features two or three options or, if it features only one option, that it is structured in such a way that an alternative method can be grafted in without destroying the whole structure. I hope that the Minister will be able to assist the House on this. He will be well aware of the fiasco of the devolution Bill because of the effect on it of major amendments to its internal structure by which its viability was evacuated.
We must have a Bill which either features alternative methods which can be selected, or, if it prescribes or selects ab initio one particular feature, for example, PR or first past the post, is drafted in such a way that the refusal of the House to accept the preferred governmental option does not have the effect of destroying the whole Bill.
It is possible to draft and construct a Bill in which most aspects are interchangeable and which can be used whatever final method of election is adopted by a vote of the House. For example, some of the major items which are bound to feature in the mechanics of the Bill, such as the issue of writs, the register of electors, disqualification, election expenses, validity of nominations, and a whole range of other similar technical features, saving alone the specific details of the European constituencies, are all technical features that are quite interchangeable whatever method of election we proceed to.
The Bill could thus be drafted in such a way as to maximise the interchangeability of its technical features so that it could be adapted to first past the post, regional lists, STV, or whatever else the House decides. It would be a disaster if the Government produced a Bill with a structure such that the refusal by a majority on Second Reading to accept a particular method would have the effect of torpedoing the whole Bill. It would do exactly what most of us do not want, namely, throw the baby out with the bath water and lose the end as a result of arguing about the means. We should have the worst of all worlds.
If the Government not only included in a schedule to the proposed Bill a list of the regional electoral areas, which is provided quite effectively and helpfully on page 22 of the White Paper, but further proceeded to break down that list to individual European single-Member constituencies, such as the first-past-the-post system would require, and called upon the Boundary Commission at an early stage to produce such a European constituencies list as part of that schedule, without any commitment in principle in advance to the selection of this kind of method, there would be much less hesitation on the part of the Liberal Party, for example, to allow the Boundary Commission to make this kind of examination. Indeed, when hon. Members saw what the Boundary Commission was producing for inclusion in the schedule of a Bill, without prejudicing what form of election we finally had, many people, on seeing the resulting designation of constituencies, might decide that they did not want to vote for a first-past-the-past system. But the exercise should at least be engaged in so that we could have the maximum flexibility to choose the method of election without having to throw out the whole Bill for want of agreement on methodology.
I believe that it is the mind of the House, as reflected in the speeches today, that the principle of direct elections, to which the Government are themselves committed, is supported by the majority. We do not want questions of method, however vital, to prevent the actual holding of direct elections in May or June 1978.
There is nothing quite so interim as an interim wind-up, but I thought that it would be an advantage if I tried to answer some of the points raised tonight so as to leave the Home Secretary with a less than impossible task when he winds up on Monday.
Like the hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison), I have spent the debate primarily listening to views. We have both curtailed our speeches so that we could hear as much expression of Back-Bench opinion as possible on what is, after all, a major constitutional issue.
The right hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) was probably right when he hinted at the tyranny of freedom of choice in this place. We are admittedly always rebelling against the Whips, yet when we have freedom to give advice, we are either absent or uncertain what advice to give. That is why some of the advice that the Government have received has been contradictory.
For example, the hon. Member for Aberdeenshire, West (Mr. Fairgrieve) complained bitterly about our failure to give a positive lead to the debate, yet the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) suggested that we were tackling the matter in exactly the right way and that the House was not ready to vote upon definite propositions, while the hon. Member for Chingford (Mr. Tebbit), in his usual Tod Slaughter way, warned us severely that we had better listen carefully to what the House of Commons had to say. That we have done. I have heard all the points which have been raised and I hope that I can comment on them without inflection, because it is the Government's intention as soon as the debate is over to consider the points made, with a view to bringing forward our legislation.
The hon. Member for Barkston Ash asked about the Government's intentions. They are set out in paragraph 6 of the White Paper, where he will see what we are committed to doing. The right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) mentioned the point raised with the Prime Minister yesterday by the hon. Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon). As the Prime Minister then said, we are studying that proposal, but the fact that it were to be decided upon a motion as to principle would not prevent its being raise and debated all over again on Second Reading.
Before the Minister leaves the question of the method and the House being consulted, would he say whether he intends that the House should divide on the question of the method of election before the Bill is published? In other words, shall we have another debate to discuss the method, the system, before the Bill is brought forward?
If the hon. Gentleman had been listening just now, he would have heard me say that although I had some preliminary remarks to make on the suggestion, we would consider it, as the Prime Minister undertook only yesterday.
Leaving aside the temporary skirmish between the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North (Mr. Fletcher) and the hon. Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) about Scottish independence—a subject which seems to come into almost every debate that has anything to do with the matter—we have had two debates tonight. That is why I cannot accede to the request of the hon. Member for Barkston Ash, who first criticised the Foreign Secretary for dealing with federalism and then chided everyone who had dealt with the principle of direct elections. We are holding this debate to listen to the views of hon. Members. If anything has become apparent—if it were not know already—it is that some hon. Members feel strongly about the principle of direct elections as well as about the mechanics. Therefore, it would have been quite wrong of the Government to ignore that. It would have been wrong for my right hon. Friends to ignore the fact that one of the fears that hon. Gentlemen have—whether they are right or wrong is another matter—is about this being the road to a federal Europe.
There are two strands within this argument. My hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Hoyle), who is not here at the moment, came very close to saying—if he did not say so directly—that we should leave the Common Market. As hon. Members will know, I took a certain view at the time of the refer- endum about entry to the Common Market, but I also said that I would accept the verdict. Whatever I may have thought of the decision privately, that is a pledge that I keep to. Whatever other hon. Members have said, I would say that the decision on the referendum was the conclusive decision in this matter.
The fear on which my hon. Friends have concentrated is what they see as the inevitable step on the road to a federal Europe. While it is very clear that the powers of the European Assembly at the moment are far from constituting any sort of power or any arrogation of power from this House, as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, North has said, my hon. Friends have stated that direct elections will themselves set up an inevitable chain which will lead us inexorably towards a federal Europe. But if the powers are insufficient at the moment, I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends, particularly my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), to consider that the powers could be transferred only if there were to be a diminution of the power of this House. Those powers could be transferred from this House only with the consent of the Government and the consent of Parliament.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made very clear this afternoon the Government's position on the question of federalism, and I would have thought that this was of some reassurance. I certainly do not share the concept of a federal Europe held by my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, West (Dr. Phipps). My point is that at the moment the way in which the Assembly is constituted does not put it on the road to a federal Europe or give it the necessary power for that. The powers of this House would be transferred only by the will of Parliament and Government.
In that case, can my hon. Friend assure us that if any proposal came forward later to grant greater powers to the Strasbourg Assembly, we should not be told by the Government that we were already committed and that there was no freedom to vote?
I wish that my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North would stop ascribing to me statements and suggestions that I have never made. My point is that I do not believe that the fact of direct elections would lead inexorably to the sort of federal Europe that my hon. Friends fear, and I ask them to approach the subject of direct elections in that light.
The second debate is about the details of the Bill. To call them details is not, I hope, to undervalue the importance of each of these steps. One important detail concerns the dual mandate. Hon. Members on both sides, apart from the hon. Member for Halesowen and Stourbridge (Mr. Stokes), were opposed to the compulsory dual mandate, although several suggested an optional dual mandate. I think that this might be inevitable in the light of the realisation of our work load at the European Assembly, and our views must be coloured to some extent by the tragic events of last weekend. I ask, however, right hon. and hon. Gentlemen to consider that the dual mandate was a suggestion designed to conquer one of the thorny problems which needed resolution, namely the connection between Assembly Members and Members of this House.
I must tell the right hon Member for Sidcup that, frankly, I am not attracted at all to the idea that they should be able to sit and speak here but not to vote. I do not believe that he has thought it out with his usual care. If there is the pressure on the European Parliament that we all assume, its Members would not easily be able to give their attendance at Westminster. Even if they could, the term of the election and the nature of the job would be quite different from what they are here.
The hon. Member for Sevenoaks (Sir J. Rodgers) raised the problem of Britons in Europe being able to vote. That is dealt with in paragraph 32 of the White Paper where the Government express their view that they do not believe that this matter should be resolved without prior consideration by the Speaker's Conference. I shall study the hon. Gentleman's comments, but I must reiterate that this is the Government's view.
That is what is stated in the White Paper.
I turn to the most important question of the day—the method of voting. This discussion has divided itself into three fairly widely held and mathematically computed points of view. First there is the simple majority system, the advantages of which are said to be intelligibility, a constituency interest and certainty. These aspects were put forward very well by my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and the hon. Member for Reigate (Mr. Gardiner). The only point I would make—and I think that the hon. Member for Reigate half anticipated this—is whether the Assembly, which is not a Parliament and which is not forming a Government, needs quite the same degree of certainty as does a Westminster election.
The second system is that of the STV, which was put forward by the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) on behalf of the Liberal Party and which was supported by the hon. Member for Surbiton (Sir N. Fisher) in an interjection. It is advanced by its advocates as a fair system, although the right hon. Member for Devon, North was kind enough to say that it was not absolutely fair since no system is.
I have before me a letter in which a professor of mathematics says that an even fairer system would be to take the square root of the votes cast for each party and to allocate the seats in proportion to that. I invite hon. Members if they have a free weekend to work out what that means. But the point about STV is that it exists in Northern Ireland for special reasons, and we have experienced it only in comparatively small electorates.
My hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) asked about the STV system and about the sort of delays it would create. Constituencies of up to 5 million are spoken of under that system. The largest Australian State—New South Wales—has an electorate of about 2·5 million. The system is used in the Australian senatorial elections. The results are sometimes delayed for some three to four weeks before they can finally be announced. There is no question that if recounts take place the procedure is very complex indeed.
The third method is the regional list system, and this is dealt with in paragraphs 43–46 of the White Paper. The general objection raised to that, apart from the question of lack of connection with the locality, was that of the advantage that it gives to party machines. I ask my hon. Friends at least to consider this as a possibility—if the choice were by regional party delegates, it could not be much different in essence from being chosen at constituency level—