I have been asked to open the second day of this debate on behalf of the Government, but before I speak of the Government's position, I should like to say something about my own.
There is, frankly, a certain irony of history in my position. It is no secret that I was a committed anti-Marketeer. During the referendum campaign I made many speeches advocating Britain's withdrawal from the Community, and in particular one at the outset of the open debate at a rally in Cardiff itself, right in the lions' den. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who represents Cardiff, South-East, is clearly a tolerant and forgiving man.
I do not recant a single word of what I said. I am as convinced as ever that we were then right. But those of us who campaigned for the referendum cannot have it both ways. We said that membership was an issue of such fundamental constitutional significance that the people themselves must decide. We argued that the constitution belonged to the people, that our whole system of government and legislation was a mechanism within the constitution. Many of us signed a motion which firmly stipulated that:
Only by the consent of the British people can the supreme issue of membership of the Common Market be settled.
The verdict of the people in that refrendum was decisive. It was not the verdict many of us wanted, but I believe that, unless we are to be accused of cynical politicking, it was one by which, knowing all the inevitable conclusions which flow from it, all of us who advocated the referendum must be bound.
Will not my hon. Friend accept that, despite the vote in the referendum, some of us are now, precisely because the people understand what has happened in the last two years, probably prepared to vote against the Common Market, when we would not have done so at that time?
I hope that my hon. Friend will bear with me. Having listened to his argument last week, I want to deal with it in some detail.
Some of my right hon. and hon. Friends have put an interesting point to me. They have pointed out that the renegotiation White Paper said in paragraph 135:
our membership of the Community in the future depends on the continuing assent of Parliament".
Clearly, they are right. Parliament can always do what it will. But, equally clearly—this is where I come to the point made by my hon. Friend—we would be in a highly unstable, if not potentially dangerous, political condition, which in the steady evolution of our constitution we have avoided more successfully than most, if we were to seek too easily constitutional changes and counter-changes as the solutions to our problems, as distinct from rugged argument and counter-argument about policies within the framework of the constitution.
Since taking up my present appointment I have repeatedly argued—and, no doubt, will do so again—that within the Community we must never attempt to sweep under the carpet the fundamental issues of principle and national interest as we see them. That would be to indulge in a totally unviable charade. It is out of honest debate—and only out of honest debate.—and out of a rugged advocacy of the various national interests at stake that we shall build a meaningful Community. For what is then decided will represent genuine as distinct from artificial consensus. Artificial consensus could lead to a dreadful backlash and a total alienation of our increasingly articulate electorate.
The right honourable Lady the Leader of the Opposition is now apparently taking us to task for failing tonight to seek a vote on the method of election to be employed. I deeply respect the sincerity of many Opposition Members in their commitment to the EEC and its institutions. Nobody could accuse them of inconsistency. But I am frankly rather astounded by the position of the right honourable Lady, as I understand it. Over and over again in other spheres of policy she bitterly complains about parliamentary railroading, rushed debate, high-handed government and authoritarian, insensitive administration and legislation, as she sees it. I sometimes hardly dare to look at myself in the mirror in the morning lest I have become the kind of ogre she describes.
But when, here, on this very important issue, relevant as it is to the whole concept of democracy, the Government decide that, before they take a firm conclusion, they want genuinely to take into account a representative cross-section of views and analysis put forward by Members in all parts of the House, she does—unless I do her an injustice—a violent about-turn and complains that we should immediately confront Members with a stark and simplified choice.
At this stage the Government are determined to listen so that they can, in a measured and considered way, take into account what has been said in deciding what will, in their view, be the best way forward.
In that case, will not my hon. Friend accept that there are many of us who are not necessarily seeking to take Britain out of the Common Market at present but who nevertheless have grave reservations about the constitutional implications of the suggestions he puts forward? Will he therefore do us the elementary courtesy of accepting that we are doing so because we are concerned about the issues that we are debating today, not the referendum?
I am sure that my hon. Friend will realise that I want to deal in some depth with the points she raises, as deployed by herself and other lion Members in the debate last week. That is the purpose of my contribution this afternoon.
Our approach seems to me a qualitative enhancement of democracy to be commended rather than criticised by the right hon. Lady, if she is to be consistent with what she argues on other occasions. It was suggested on Wednesday night that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary had not made sufficiently clear in his opening remarks that the Government regarded themselves as committed to direct elections. I hope that on reading Hansard those who made that accusation will have realised that this criticism was not justified.
The hon. Member who wound up for the Opposition, the hon. Member for Barkeston Ash (Mr. Alison), asked for an unequivocal confirmation of the commitment. For the sake of clarity I shall repeat the point which has been made on countless occasions—and here I take what lies behind the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody). The Government—and it was to the Government that hon. Members referred—regard themselves as committed to working for the introduction of direct elections, both by the Treaty of Rome and by the political commitments undertaken at successive meetings of EEC Heads of Government which led up to the signature of the Community agreement of September last year.
A number of speakers on Wednesday made the point that the commitment to direct elections was not brought out clearly by the Government in their campaign in favour of continued membership of the Community, and in particular in their White Paper on renegotiation. I must say that I personally think there is some truth in the suggestion that the issue was soft-pedalled. On the other hand, it is not true to say that the issue did not clearly arise in the campaign. There was no secret about the fact that direct elections, which had effectively been a dead issue while de Gaulle and Pompidou were Presidents of France, had by the end of 1974 become very much a live one.
The aim of holding elections by universal suffrage as soon as possible could not have been more clearly stated than it was in the communiqué issued by the Heads of Government after their meeting in Paris in December 1974. The possibility of elections in 1978 was specifically mentioned. This communiqué was brought to the attention of the House in a White Paper, Cmnd 5830, which also, of course, included the Prime Minister's explanation that the Government could not take up a position until the results of renegotiation had been submitted to the British people.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Although he says that it was an issue at the time of the referendum, will he concede that 75 per cent. of the literature put through people's doors was positively for keeping in the Community. My hon. Friend referred to the then Prime Minister's caveat at the Heads of Government meeting. Does he not agree that every time the Prime Minister was questioned in this House as to what it would mean in the long term he hedged the issue and did not make clear at that time his view that this House was committed to direct elections? Does not my hon. Friend agree that the right hon. Gentleman never said that at any time?
I am glad that my hon. Friend, with his characteristic commitment on this subject, has re-emphasised some of the points which must be dealt with in my speech. I hope to deal with that.
The Minister is dealing with the past. For a moment would he look to the future and say clearly that what the Government are committed to is the holding of direct elections, if they are in office, and that they intend to do this, as the communiqué implied, not "some time" but in 1978? Will the Minister say that quite specifically now?
I am grateful that the right hon. Gentleman has made this point and I shall deal with it in some depth.
As the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Sir A. Royle) pointed out on Wednesday, the prospect of direct elections was clearly pointed out in the pamphlet putting the case against membership which was delivered to every household. The issue was clearly brought out in many speeches during the campaign. I certainly drew attention to it myself and I note that my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper) said that he did from a very different point of view. But Parliament will and ought to have the final say since direct elections cannot take place in this country without Parliament's agreement.
A number of speakers have questioned the legal basis of the Government's commitment. It has been discussed in this House many times before. The legal advice given to the Government, with which the Government agree, is that Article 138(3) constitutes a commitment to the ultimate objective of direct elections for the Governments who make up the EEC Council. I am glad my hon. Friends underlined that, because that is the key point.
The Council cannot, of course, bind the Parliaments of the member States to enact the necessary provisions. Several speakers have discussed the question of our international obligations over direct elections. The right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) seems to have suggested that the scheme proposed by the present Community was outside the framework of Article 138 of the Treaty. I think it is right at the outset to emphasise again that in the end it will be for Parliament to reach a final decision on direct elections.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for underlining the point. There will be many opportunities for Parliament to express a view and to vote on the matter, in particular, on the Bill. As my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary said in opening the first day of this debate, the principle of a directly elected Parliament was incorporated in the Treaty of Rome as a necessary eventual part of the Community. Participation in an eventual electoral system, under Article 138(3) of the Treaty of Rome, was one of the goals which we, too, assumed when we joined the Community.
It is true that the decision of September 1976 derives from political commitments taken by Heads of Government, as the right hon. Member for Sidcup said. The decision does not propose a uniform system of direct elections, as envisaged in article 138(3). It is in the nature of an interim arrangement for operation until a uniform procedure is agreed. It is therefore a step in the process towards full implementation of Article 138(3). But, as I do not apologise for underlining the point again, it is for Parliament to decide whether to take that step.
I am sorry to interrupt my hon. Friend again. Does my hon. Friend then agree that as these proposals do not provide for a uniform procedure in all member States, the initial steps, as my hon. Friend calls them, are not in accordance with Article 138 of the Treaty of Rome?
I am sure my right hon. Friend was listening to what I said. I said that this was an interim measure towards a uniform pocedure.
Some people ask "Why should we take such a step now?". If the Community has survived 20 years with a nominated Assembly, why should it not continue to do so? It is suggested, for example, by my hon. Friends the Members for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) and Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley), that we are being hustled and that the Community should defer the introduction of direct elections until after the negotiations with Greece and other countries applying for membership have been completed and the Community has been further enlarged. I understand the feeling behind that view, but I am afraid that on balance it ignores the history of the Community and the progress made in the last two or three years towards direct elections. I am sure that on reflection my hon. Friends will agree that it also ignores the great importance attached to the aim of direct elections by other member States and the strongly held view that the time has come as of now to bolster the democratic accountability of the Assembly.
Hon. Members opposite may reproach me for devoting too much time to the underlying question of principle about direct elections—
If it will democratise the Community, will my hon. Friend explain what actual changes will take place as a result of direct elections? There will surely be no changes at all. Precisely the same situation will exist after direct elections as now unless the directly elected Members begin to insist on further powers.
There is no more jealous guardian of the rights of the House than my hon. Friend. Nothing will be achieved by Members of the Assembly in that respect without the consent of this House. My hon. Friend should not overlook that.
Hon. Members opposite might feel that I have been devoting too much time to the principle of direct elections, which has been debated a number of times before. This debate has clearly shown that this continues to worry many hon. Members on both sides of the House deeply. I therefore make no apology for having done this. It would be an insensitive abuse of genuine parliamentary concern to ignore it. But this debate marks a substantial move onwards.
The Government have published a White Paper in which they have directed the attention of the House towards the practical matters which need to be settled to enable direct elections to take place. In doing so they have drawn very heavily on the work done by the Select Committee on Direct Elections, which did a thorough and conscientious job in producing its three reports at such speed. Speaking as a Foreign Office Minister, I should like to express our appreciation of the speed with which the Select Committee produced its first report in a way that avoided the problems that might so well have arisen in co-ordinating the Committee's work with the negotiations that were then still continuing in Brussels.
Some people are inclined to ask whether, since the Committee did such a thorough job, there was any need for the Government to produce a White Paper. The major purpose is to open up, in a way that the Select Committee decided not to do, a debate on the best method of electing British Members to the Assembly. I know that in its deliberations the Committee paid proper attention to this important question and took full evidence on it. In its report, however, it did not attempt to argue in detail the pros and cons of the various systems, coming down, very understandably, as it did, in favour of a recommendation for the familiar.
In the months since this recommendation was made there has clearly been a growing public opinion in favour of adopting some different system for direct elections. Therefore, in their White Paper the Government have set out the four main options on which the Government wish to listen to the views expressed in Parliament and elsewhere.
If the hon. Gentleman had listened to his own Front Bench spokesman, he would have heard that anxiety being expressed from that very quarter.
I hope that after the interesting expression of views last week we shall hear a similar expression of views that will be of help to the Government in the debate today. I note with appreciation the remark made by the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe)—that the White Paper sets out the options with complete frankness and fairness and details the defects of all the systems, none of which, I agree with him, is perfect.
What are the considerations which we need to bear in mind in deciding which system is best for the purpose in hand? There seem to me to be several criteria of rather different orders. The first and vital one is that we should choose a system that will produce results that are acceptable as fair and democratic. It will do neither the reputation of the Community in this country nor the reputation of this country in the Community any good if it does not produce such results. A subsidiary point is that we have only a limited amount of time. We do not have, and have never had, enough time—if the commitment of the Government is to be fulfilled—to determine constituencies by the full Boundary Commission procedures which are thought proper for Westminster.
Does the Minister agree that it is not the fault of the House that there has been this delay? As he rightly says, the Select Committee reported with all expedition, but what happened was that the Government delayed, and even now the Government are presumably going to read and debate and produce a Bill without having determined or given an indication, or taken a free vote, as to whether we should have the first-past-the-post system or some form of proportional representation.
—we wanted to listen, and we are listening. The important point now is for us to proceed, listen and get on with the job.
There are, I know, many Members who attach great importance to another consideration: the risk that the adoption of a different electoral system for our elections to the European Assembly might strengthen the pressure to change the system for elections to this House. I understand these fears. It is of course true that many of the proponents of proportional representation for direct elections are the same people who want proportional representation in national elections. It would be odd if it were otherwise. But this debate has underlined the fact that there are also a number of people who believe that there is a case for some form of proportional representation for direct elections even though they would not wish to see a change domestically. This point of view deserves careful consideration.
I would, therefore, like to examine for a moment what the rôle for an Assembly is. It is certainly very different from that of this Parliament. As the White Paper points out, the Assembly has no independent legislative function apart from the right to dismiss the Commission—which my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary referred to as "the unusable sledgehammer". The Assembly's formal powers are greatest in the budgetary field. The Community's budgetary procedures are extremely complex. They give the Assembly the last word over considerable areas of Community expenditure—the so-called non-obligatory expenditure—and a not inconsiderable say over the rest. However, in practice the determination of the Community's budget is increasingly becoming a matter of negotiation among the three institutions involved—Commission, Council and Assembly.
This whole field and the complementary one of budgetary control are areas in which it is essential to ensure the development of democratic accountability in the Community. There is here a rôle for a central Assembly, since the nature of so much Community financing means that it is particularly difficult for the nine national Parliaments to control, operating as they do in a fragmented way each with its own Ministers. But I believe that this must always remain a complementary rather than a conflicting rôle. All of us must see to that. The responsibility of Ministers is to their own Parliaments and this, as on all aspects of the Community, will remain the crucially significant factor.
In the legislative field the Assembly has the right to be consulted on a wide range of proposals. Here in the lack of legislative powers of its own the value of its contribution depends on the weight its views carry with the Commission and the Council. This weight depends in turn partly on the quality of the Assembly's opinions. I would like here to draw attenhon. Member for Edinburgh, North (Mr. Fletcher) on the basis of his experience as a Member of the existing Assembly. He pointed to the Assembly's need for a wide spread of expertise. I would not necessarily follow him in suggesting that the four constituent parts of the United Kingdom need duplicate—or perhaps it would be quadruplicate—this expertise. But it is certainly a point which we should bear in mind in relation to the sort of representation that the United Kingdom as a whole should have.
As government becomes more complex at all levels there is an increasing problem of its alienation from the people. It must in my view be an important object at all levels of government to involve the people as closely as possible. This is indeed one of the main purposes of direct elections and, following from that, one could argue that it is desirable for the Assembly to represent as fully as possible all the strands of political opinion in the member States. This is, of course, to a considerable extent true of a national Parliament, too, but what the Assembly, with its essentially consultative function, does not need to do is to provide the basis for government, stable or unstable.
Do the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the representation of the constituent parts of the United Kingdom mean that the Government are reconsidering the number of Members that there will be from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?
No. The hon. Gentleman should not draw that conclusion.
However, perhaps I may touch briefly again on another consideration that has been raised in the debate. That is that the system we are now choosing is an interim one, because sooner or later the Community will move to a uniform system. I think that all the speakers who have touched on this point believe that such a uniform system is likely to be a proportional one, given the systems currently in use in the other member States as set out in Annex A to the White Paper.
Several speakers have suggested that the system we choose will apply only to the first election. Some have drawn the conclusion that we should, therefore, take a step now in the direction we are likely later to have to follow. Others argued that it is better to make one change than two, and that for the first election we should therefore stick to the system we know. Both arguments certainly have their logic.
However, the point I should now make is that there is no certainty when the Community will in fact reach agreement on a uniform system. No date for this is set in the Community agreement. It is true that the present Assembly set itself the target of a proposal—which it falls to the Assembly to make—by 1980. It remains to be seen whether the newly elected Assembly will in fact keep to this target for its recommendation. Even if it did, it will remain for the Governments of member States to reach agreement on a scheme to recommend to their respective Parliaments.
It would be a mistake to underestimate the difficulties that are likely to arise. Apart from the electoral system itself, many other questions would presumably need to be covered by the negotiations. A uniform procedure presupposes similar rules for the franchise and for candidacy. The distribution of seats among the member States would no doubt again be called into question.
I do not want to be thought to be heaping up difficulties for the future, but I think that we should start realistically from the assumption that a fully uniform electoral procedure might take time to achieve and that whatever system we now choose might be in use for more than one set of elections, unless we ourselves decide to change it. The Community's current efforts are directed to the introduction of direct elections by May-June 1978. All member States are closely watching developments here. Equally, the British Government are keeping a close eye on developments elsewhere.
Before I close it may help the House if I give a short resumé of the latest situation. The procedures to be gone through are different in each country. In most, unlike the United Kingdom, two Bills are necessary—one to ratify and one to cover the implementing legislation. In Germany, I understand, there are likely to be three Bills, the third covering the status of Members of the European Assembly. In Italy the ratification Bill has been through all its parliamentary stages. In three other countries—Luxembourg, Belgium and the Netherlands—the ratification Bill is currently going through Parliament.
No member State has yet introduced the legislation to set up the necessary electoral machinery. However, Germany and Ireland are expected to do so in the near future. In Belgium, Luxembourg and Denmark there have been or are about to be national elections, which have inevitably delayed the time-table. But in none is it expected that there will be any serious difficulty in getting the legislation through in time.
In only two member States, other than the United Kingdom, has there been any serious controversy about the principle of direct elections, although some have had difficulties about the geographical coverage of electoral lists. In Denmark the Folketing Market Committee discussed direct elections on 21st April. It was clear from the discussion that the majority of the Folketing would not wish to maintain the special Danish reservations. The Danish Government will be taking account of that situation at a meeting which they will hold tomorrow. The legislative time-table has been delayed until autumn, but it was quite clear from the Market Committee discussion that it will be adopted without difficulty.
In France the Gaullists have publicly indicated the possibility that they will be able to agree on a common position within the majority and with the Government. It is clear that hon. Members have taken note of the significant change in the position last week of the French Communist Party, which has now stated its readiness to discuss the electoral law, provided that it is satisfied that there will be no increase in the powers of the European Assembly, and that no such increase could be effected without the specific approval of the French, and presumably other Parliaments. That is a view which I am certain will be reflected throughout this House.
I might add that one of the bases of the decision of the French Constitutional Court, that the Community agreement on direct elections was compatible with the French Constitution, was the fact that no change in the powers of the Assembly was involved. As a result, no political party in France remains opposed in principle to direct elections. President Giscard himself has expressed confidence in getting the necessary legislation through the Assembly.
I would not dream of suggesting that to the House and least of all to my hon. Friend. But it is wise if one is a member of a political community to take account of the attitudes of other members in assessing our position.
In our deliberations we should be very much aware that all other member States of the Community are likely to be in a position to hold their elections by May or June 1978.
If the Assembly has very little power and the real power lies with the Council of Ministers and those Ministers are held in check by this Parliament, is it not the way in which we get to this Parliament that is really important? Have the Government considered the effect that adopting proportional representation may have on getting Members to this Parliament?
I hope that my hon. Friend will catch Mr. Speaker's eye, and then he will be able to deploy his argument.
We are now—whether some of us would have wished it or not—firmly members of the EEC. As a representative of Britain at Council meetings, I repeatedly find myself wrestling with the consequences of traditions, decisions and policies evolved before our membership and which we were therefore unable to influence.
My hon. Friend has skated rather lightly over the constitutional implications. Will he give us guidance on the question of dual voting? A report before the European Assembly at the moment says that Irish nationals resident in Britain should have the right to vote in Ireland no matter how long they have been in Britain and irrespective of their relationship to voting in British elections.
The White Paper deals with this point and I give an assurance that we are not proposing to take that course.
I put to my colleagues whose reservations, doubts, misgivings and philosophy I have shared and still do share that they should avoid the trap, now that we are members of the Community, of appearing obstinately to want to stick to a position that, in effect, would destine us to second-class status by putting us firmly and completely in the proverbial dog house. Surely the challenge now is to make sure that the Community, of which, whether we like it or not, we are members, is the best sort of Community that we can make it.
Does my hon. Friend think that the Luxembourg compromise put France into a second-class status within the Community? That compromise was completely against the Treaty of Rome and all that was thought out in the beginning of the Community. Why do the Government feel obliged to go along with direct elections, which were included at the start, but are not in favour of the majority voting, which was rejected completely in the Luxembourg compromise?
My hon. Friend must take account of the strength of feeling in the rest of the Community.
I want to deal with the genuine anxiety of hon. Members in all parts of the House. There is no cause for parliamentary defeatism here or in any other Parliament of the EEC, as the French have now underlined. National Parliaments remain supreme, and so it should be. All we are discussing is the right electoral method for making the Assembly with its limited consultative function as democratically accountable as possible.
Looking at the political and social reality of our time, with its constant pressure to bring effective political decision-making closer to the people, how many of my hon. Friends, if given the choice, would opt for election to the European Assembly rather than to Westminster? Not many, I suggest. That is because of their basic political realism.
On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In the course of his address the Minister of State was interrupted on about five occasions and his brief, written by whatever joint consultative committee, had not anticipated any of the interventions. Therefore, the Minister was incapable of answering our questions. Will you indicate to the Minister who winds up the debate that he should consult his expert advisers in plenty of time to enable him to answer our questions?
The House has listened with great care, if not always total enthusiasm, to the Minister of State. In his particularly disarming but not always convincing apologia—[Interruption.] Perhaps the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) will contain himself. I shall come to his views in a moment.
The Minister of State gave an apologia for his own position at the beginning to which we listened with particular care, He said that he felt bound to accept the result of the referendum, yet he still holds views about the Community that he expressed at the time of the referendum. I should simply say to the Minister, in the gentlest possible way, that, while I understand that he feels compelled to accept the verdict of the people, he is not compelled to accept an office which forces him day by day in this House and in Europe to say things about the Community which are contrary to the views he expressed at the time of the referendum campaign.
There seems to be a certain basic fallacy in what the hon. Gentleman is putting forward. The people having decided in the referendum what our constitutional future should be, I think that it would have been absolutely absurd for all those who did not share the view of the majority on that occasion to surrender political power to their colleagues who did.
The Minister has misunderstood my point. If he is to carry out his duties effectively, he must constantly in this House and in Europe say things about the Community which are contrary to the views he expressed at the time of the referendum. The hon. Gentleman could have avoided that position. That is the only point I want to make in commenting on how he started his speech.
Perhaps we may reserve that matter to a different occasion. I am dealing with a clear but unconvincing statement made by the Minister of State about his position. The hon. Gentleman completely misunderstood the attitude of my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and, indeed, of my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies), who opened for the Opposition last week.
It is right that the Government should listen particularly on the question of system. They are very good at listening if they cannot make up their own mind on what they want to do. The point made by my right hon. Friend was quite different. Having listened, the Government must provide the House with a measuring rod and a means of recording its view. The point constantly made by the Opposition is that the Government are pushing themselves into a position where they listen but do not give the House the opportunity of expressing a clear view on different systems. If they push ahead and introduce legislation without having given the House an opportunity of expressing its opinions, the Government will lead themselves and the House into considerable difficulty. That is the point that we have made. Ministers have not said anything that has persuaded us that that point is not valid. In fact, the more we listen to the debate, the clearer the difficulty becomes.
I think that we can only consider the question of systems against the background of the delay that the project has suffered. The most amazing remarks made in the debate last week were those which accused the Government of proceeding with undue haste in this matter.
I do not know where the hon. Member for Walton has been, but in February last year we had a Green Paper followed a few weeks later by a two-day debate. What do we have one year later? We have what is, in effect, another Green Paper followed by another two-day debate. A year has passed and nothing has happened. Is that the hon. Gentleman's idea of haste? I suggest that it is hibernation, not haste. That is what has happened over the last year.
My point is that for one year the Government have been listening, to use their euphemism, and have done nothing. I do not think that the charge of undue haste can possibly lie against the Government. Indeed, our criticism has been of undue delay.
The speeches by the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of State would have been appropriate and helpful if they had been made in the debate a year ago, but those speeches have not been particularly helpful in assisting the House to form the view that the Government want at the end of this debate tonight.
The one move which has occurred during the last year has been the setting up of the Select Committee. As my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, South (Mr. Clark) pointed out, the Committee made its Second Report in August last year. That report contained two main recommendations. The first was that the Government should proceed with speed to hold a debate and to introduce a short Bill at the outset of the new Session enabling the Boundary Commissions to go ahead. That first recommendation was connected to a second—namely, that the first round of direct elections in this country should be on the basis of first past the post.
I am sure that the Government would have avoided a great deal of difficulty if they had accepted those two main recommendations and proceeded as the Select Committee recommended at that time. In that way they could have kept separate two difficult issues, which I believe should be separate: the general question of electoral reform and the principle of holding direct elections to the European Parliament. Those two issues are now confused. They are run together. The result is that the Government have put at risk the substantial majority in this House for the principle of direct elections to the European Parliament. My hon. Friends the Members for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) and Reigate (Mr. Gardiner) last week made clear how this risk has arisen and how serious it is. I believe that this is a mistaken way of handling the matter.
We are short of information from the Government on the crucial question of timing. Obviously, if the House expresses a preference for the first-past-the-post system, the timing will be very tight because of the Government's delay.
I should like to ask the Home Secretary, who is to reply to the debate, to answer two specific questions on this matter. The only conclusion that one can reach from the passage in the White Paper dealing with first past the post, option B, is that the Bill, which we have not yet seen, would need to be on the statute book by the Summer Recess if first past the post were to be operated in a tolerable time scale. Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that that is so?
Secondly, what information do we have or what proposals are we making on the question of when the Council of Ministers should take a decision about the date for the first round of direct elections? We need answers to both these questions if we are to make a sensible judgment, which the Government have asked us to do, on the different systems open to us.
Whatever view we take about direct elections, given that there is common ground across the Floor of the House about the importance of and how well our electoral system has served the people of this country for many generations, would it not be irresponsible to risk that system merely because we have some date by which to arrange elections?
I think that one can overestimate the closeness of connection between the first round of direct elections for a European Parliament which does not elect a Government and an electoral system for a Westminster Parliament which does elect a Government.
We shall have, as the Government will have, a free vote on the question of systems. Therefore, what I put forward now will be my personal view. I should be opposed to the compulsory dual mandate, which is one of the options in the White Paper. I shall also be hostile to the single transferable vote. I should accept either the regional list or first past the post with a preference for the latter. It seems to me that first past the post, with all its difficulties, preserves the single Member constituency. I believe that, whatever scheme of electoral reform we may contemplate, the survival of the single Member constituency should be an important factor in it and that it is possible to combine the two.
Much has been said about the dangers of unfair and extreme results if we hold the first round of direct elections on the first-past-the-post system. I am a bit sceptical about some of the forecasts by nimble-minded dons who have been free with their advice on this subject. They all seem to be members of the Liberal Party, but I suppose that that is a coincidence. They say that people will vote in the same kind of pattern as they do in local elections and by-elections and that that is bound to produce a distorted result. That may be right.
These professors are very good at analysing votes after they have been cast, but I am a little sceptical about their present exercises in analysing votes before they have been cast. People have a way of confounding the prophets in these matters, particularly in a new kind of election and especially when pesonalities may turn out to be rather more important than they are in present elections. One should not assume that people will necessarily vote in their accustomed patterns.
Let us suppose that the hon. Gentleman's scepticism is not borne out and that the view of the theoretical academics proves to be right. If he knew that now, would it make any difference to his view?
I do not know it now. The hon. Gentleman should not try to revise my attitude on the basis of an assumption that I have questioned. If one system turns out to create a distorted and undesirable result, our successors would have to look at it again. I should have thought that that was a platitude.
The priority in the minds of my right hon. and hon. Friends is to achieve direct elections in 1978 in good order, with a high turn-out. The essential distinction is not between elections by a system of first past the post or a regional list. The essential distinction—the hon. Member for Walton should accept this—is between a nominated Member and a directly elected Member. That is the important step that we have to take.
The idea that the eyes of the world are upon us to see what system of election we choose in the first round is absurd. What matters is to move towards direct elections. My views are rather different from those that the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) expounded last week. He began by chiding the Government and, rather more, my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford for not being clear about the implications of the system of election and said that he would be clear and down to earth.
But within minutes he had been tripped up by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, who asked what was more important to the Liberals, direct elections or the system. Did the Liberals accept that direct elections were more important than the electoral system? The right hon. Member for Devon, North said "No" very firmly, implying that if the Liberals were deprived of the system that they wanted, they would in pique vote against direct elections as a whole. He then retreated slightly and we had a long passage about how troubled his conscience would be in those circumstances. We are left in a situation where it is wholly unclear what the attitude of the Liberal Party would be—
If the hon. Member for Walton had spent less time muttering to his neighbour he would know that I have already given my view. I would be willing to accept the regional list, although I have a preference for first past the post. I made those remarks about the right hon. Member for Devon, North in the hope that we should be spared further rebukes from the Liberals for our lack of clarity in these matters.
To spare rebukes on one further point, will the hon. Gentleman say what is his view about paragraph 24 of the White Paper? Does he agree with the Government that we should have a proportional representation system at any event in Northern Ireland and, if so, why the first-past-the-post system, which is a splendid system, is inadequate for the Province?
I share the view of my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford that in elections that cover the whole United Kingdom it would be very undesirable to have a different electoral system in Northern Ireland from what we have in the rest of the United Kingdom. It would lead to all kinds of problems that we should be wise to avoid.
It is understandable why in this debate we should get a number of hon. Members' personal views, but the Government have given their view about the Northern Ireland elections. The Government have said that in their view Northern Ireland should have a different system. Before the hon. Gentleman finishes, could we have the official Opposition view about this rather than a personal view?
Why is the hon. Gentleman chiding the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe)? It has been clear to the country for a long time that all that the right hon. Member for Devon, North is interested in is changing the electoral system in this country purely for party reasons and therefore he is not interested in what happens in the Common Market.
We must be fair about this. Since I have been a Member of Parliament we have heard a lot from the Liberals about their being the party of Europe and that they thought about it before anybody else, but that has not been tested yet in this matter. We shall watch carefully to see what happens.
There are two points of detail that I wish to mention. The first is the question of the franchise. The Select Committee, on which I served, recommended in its third report that Britons working overseas should be able to vote in the elections, but the Government have rejected this recommendation, or have proposed to shunt it to a Speaker's Conference, so it would be rejected for the purposes of the first round of direct elections. I hope that the Home Secretary will think again about this.
It may be that the Government feel that the Select Committee's recommendation was too wide, but as a compromise surely it would be possible to extend the franchise to Britons working inside the Community for direct elections.
I cannot believe that the hon. Lady has turned her mind to this point. British public servants, whether they are members of the public services or the Armed Forces, have this right to vote. I must warn the Home Secretary that if he denies this right to Britons working alongside these people because they work in private organisations or in international organisations he will arouse considerable resentment.
Will the hon. Gentleman agree that he has not taken on board a very considerable problem? He is suggesting that we should have one system of voting for Britons resident in the EEC and another system for Britons resident in other countries outside the EEC. On that basis there would be considerable difficulties. Will the hon. Gentleman spell out exactly what nonsense he has in mind?
It is possible to work out schemes that would allow this. Several of my hon. Friends and no doubt the Government have received a good deal of evidence on this matter in recent months. People living and working in the Community will feel very great resentment if they are denied the right simply because they happen to be in a Community country different from the Community country of their origin. The Home Secretary should consider this point.
In a way I think that it is a pity that more attention has not been paid to the link between Members of the Westminster Parliament and Members of the European Parliament. This is far more important than the question of which electoral system we choose for the first round of direct elections. Many observations have been made about this. The right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) had a proposal and my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) had a proposal. The Select Committee wrestled with this vital subject without finding a solution that seemed satisfactory.
The House has to spend a lot of time on this matter, because the problem will not go away. It seems that it is probably a problem that can be settled only when we have a directly elected European Parliament and when we have directly elected Members with whom we can discuss it.
It is not much use creating machinery for meetings or having meetings which are not attended because people are elsewhere on other business. We have to find something that suits us and that also suits them. I suspect that at first it is the party links between Members that will be the most effective in keeping the two kinds together. It is important that the political parties should be giving a good deal of intense thought to this. Otherwise we shall have difficulties and start diverging.
I say to the hon. Member for Walton that holding direct elections does not pave the way to federalism. I do not know whether federalism will happen, but if it does it will happen only because national Parliaments and Governments have decided that that is what they want. There is no other way in which we can move to a central government in Europe or a central Parliament with all the powers with which we associate Parliaments. It cannot happen through direct elections. We are not creating a new layer of government. The European layer of decision-taking was decided by the Treaty of Accession and ratified in the referendum.
We are discussing whether that layer of decision-taking should be brought under better democratic control.
The hon. Gentleman says that we shall not have a new layer of government, but does he not agree that there is a new layer of politics? Will he follow the example of the late Sir Peter Kirk and tell us whether he is a federalist person?
I am not. There is no reason for the hon. Gentleman to have followed my views closely, but if he had done so he would know that I am not.
Direct elections are not a blow or a conspiracy against the House of Commons. Our job is to challenge and stimulate the Ministers who go on our behalf to Brussels. We are not very good at it. Our procedures are not perfect, and we should concentrate on building them up.
Surely we should welcome the existence of a democratically-elected Parliament which could probe those parts of the Community that we cannot reach. That layer of decision-taking is beyond our reach and has been put there by the Treaty of Accession. There is a European Parliament which will be able to probe those corners much more effectively once it is directly elected.
We are being told that, even if there are hon. Members who do not want direct elections, we ought to go along with the idea because we are only one country out of nine and other countries want the elections. The same case will be made if there is movement towards federalism and stronger powers for the new Parliament. The hon. Gentleman will be making the same sort of speech at the next stage and at all succeeding stages of this process.
The hon. Gentleman is a politician and has to weigh the arguments and make up his mind. A move towards federalism or the granting of greater powers to the European Parliament would require the assent of a majority in this House. The hon. Gentleman will be subjected to a great many arguments on this subject and he will have to make his choice.
It is natural that we should be concerned with systems and mechanics. They are particularly interesting for us because they are the tools of our trade, but we should step back at the end of our discussions and look at this proposition in a more general light.
A historian comparing the history of the first half of this century in Europe with the second half would note with approval the move to direct elections. If I were a citizen in Warsaw, Prague or Budapest comparing my political rights and progress with those of Western Europe, it would be a matter of more than passing interest to me that, for the first time in history, it was proposed that people in the nine most important countries of Western Europe should go to the polls in the same week to elect a democratic assembly.
Whatever the difficulties, it is, in the perspective of history, quite a step forward. It will be a difficult job, but, by heavens, if we can bring it off it will be quite an achievement.
It is gratifying for the Committee of which I was Chairman and the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) was so distinguished a member that so many of its recommendations have been accepted by the Government.
I am grateful to all members of the Committee for their co-operation in a most intense effort and particularly grateful to the Clerks, Mr. Limon and Mr. Clark, and to Sir Charles Davis, Mr. Speaker's Second Counsel, who was present on practically every occasion, for their extraordinary command of the subject and their high degree of professional competence, which enabled us to complete our report in a very short time.
I agree with what the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon said about the omission in the White Paper of the right of people working and living in the Community to be able to vote in the elections. They will have to enjoy or suffer the consequences, and it is wrong that they should be excluded. However, I would not go beyond those working in the Community, and to that extent I disagree with the Committee's decision.
It is clear that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends, despite their protestations, are concerned not so much with direct elections as with fighting the referendum again. There has been a great argument throughout the debate about whether we are committed to direct elections. We still need a vote in this House and an Act of this Parliament to enable us to carry our direct elections, but I cannot believe that the Treaty of Accession or the referendum can properly be construed as allowing us to stand aside from a major move envisaged by the treaty.
It is true that the veto exists, but the treaty could not endure long if countries acted to frustrate the wishes of others over major issues foreseen by the treaty. In any case, our Government and other member Governments feel obliged to proceed to direct elections, and this Government have undertaken to use their best endeavours. I say to my right hon. and hon. Friends that whether they think the Government are right or wrong—and I think that they are right—if they appear to fail to use their best endeavours, the consequences could be very serious at a critical time in the history of the Government.
First, it would prevent other Governments from proceeding with direct elections and it would result in a loss or confidence which would make discussion of many other issues, such as economic activity, unemployment and control of imports, very difficult, if not impossible. One of our major objectives when we went into the Community was to secure a modification of the common agricultural policy. The purpose of the Community in maintaining the CAP is to sustian farm incomes, but there has been an increasing interest in recent months in the traditional British method of subsidies rather than in a policy of intervention. A loss of confidence caused by our failure to proceed to direct elections would make progress in this direction much more difficult and would harden opinion against our wish to prevent a considerable depreciation of the green pound.
I have the greatest respect for my right hon. Friend's common sense, but what he has said is untrue, as he will see if he studies the speeches at last week's meeting of the European Parliament, not only by Members from other Community countries, but specifically the speeches by hon. Members opposite.
In view of the number of hon. Members who wish to speak in the debate, I shall have to say to my hon. Friend that we must disagree on this matter.
Some hon. Members have been concerned that direct elections will accelerate progress towards some sort of federal system. I believe that in this context the elections will have very little effect. They would at the most mean a limited if useful strengthening of the European Assembly and would not automatically of themselves bring change. They could probably eventually bring a shift of power from the Commission to the European Parliament.
Any real move to federalism would require agreement on the part of all members of the Community and there are at least three Governments, including this one, who have expressed themselves as being fundamentally against any move to federalism. It would also require the total restructuring of the Community. I do not believe that this is likely to take place in any future that we need to consider at the moment.
This fact may disappoint some of my hon. Friends who want to see federalism, but I believe that such a move will come about by natural evolution, when it will not be opposed in the way that a dramatic move to federalism would be opposed. As for the White Paper, the Select Committee recommended the first-past-the-post system. It has been clear to me for some time now that if we accept the evidence which the Boundary Commission gave to the Committee it is no longer possible to implement this system in the time that is available to us. The Boundary Commission gave a number of different time scales—18 weeks if there were no inquiries, 30 weeks if there were one inquiry and 90 weeks if there were two inquiries. We have had two inquiries when boundaries have been changed in the past.
In recommending the system of first past the post we had assumed that the Bill needed to be out of the House before the end of February. We are now almost at the end of April and not only is the Bill not in the House, but it will be a long time before it leaves the House—once it arrives. We cannot carry through the timetable and have a system of first past the post with any reasonable assurance that we could give time for the selection of candidates and the creation of the organisation necessary to bring about direct elections. For me this has created a new situation in which I have been forced to look at other systems.
Proportional representation represents the only means of keeping to the timetable. Most hon. Members feel that to adopt PR for Europe would increase the pressure for it at Westminster. Having reflected on this over the past few weeks and months, I take a different view. The justification for PR at Westminster is that at Westminster the elector is electing a Government. This is not so in Europe. If we treat them as the same, it will be seen that this is only a crude expedient and if, as is likely, the smaller parties—particularly the Liberal Party—get no representatives at all, there could be a reaction, a feeling of moral affront, which could accelerate pressure for a change at Westminster.
Much as many people may be attached to their own parties, there is a wish to be seen to be fair, and this would certainly not be seen to be fair. Objection has been taken to PR in that it breaks the link between the Member and his constituency. It is a fantasy to believe that with half a million people this relationship could ever be realistic. Better, therefore, not to ape the Westminster relationship, because ultimately that can only lead to disappointment and possibly to conflict and confrontation with the Westminster Member of Parliament. For myself, I find that 60,000 people are quite enough, let alone half a million.
I turn now to the dual mandate. The only thing the Select Committee left unresolved was the problem of the proper links between Europe and Westminster, between European Members of Parliament and Westminster Members. The Committee did this partly because of the difficulty of finding a satisfactory solution and also because it was felt that it was perhaps better to leave things until the event and consider them then. I am concerned about the danger of alienation between Westminster and European Members of Parliament.
European Members of Parliament will look at matters from a different standpoint. They will have little or no experience of the problems here. Both the pay and the differences of approach could lead to alienation and possibly to conflict.
Everyone dismisses the compulsory dual mandate as being too burdensome. At present it is. But we have given little thought to how we could make it less burdensome. There will be at least twice as many Members as there are at the moment to be spread over a similar number of committees. The system of proxy voting would relieve Members of the obligation of having to rush back and forth between Westminster and Strasbourg.
I do. That is my view. I am bound to say that in other connections, in respect of sickness or other matters, I do not believe that it will be many years before proxy voting becomes accepted as a norm in this House and not just for Strasbourg.
I am concerned about the dangers of alienation. I am concerned about the growth of an increasing number of independent and unrelated representatives. The dual mandate may not be acceptable to the House, but I urge the House to give proper attention to the risk of alienation, which could prejudice our relationship with Europe at a time when it ought to be strengthened.
The case for direct elections rests on the general need for people to participate in all the spheres where their own and the national interest is involved. I support direct elections but I do not want the voice of legitimate authority, or its representatives, to be so fragmented or muted that all we achieve is a bewildered electorate.
This debate so far has not invariably resulted in clarification. There is, however, one respect in which I believe it can be said to have done so, namely in defining the relationship between the proposition before the House, which may later come before us in the form of a Bill, and the Treaty of Rome. The speech of the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) and that of the Minister of State this afternoon have made it clear that the present proposals are not directly and necessarily derived from Article 138 of the Treaty, which envisages, by a certain procedure, the eventual direct election of the Assembly.
What the Government have put before us, what we are debating and may be debating further in legislative form, is a proposition which derives from agreement among the Heads of State in the European Council and to which our commitment is limited to the commitment of the Government, a commitment itself stated in terms which carefully preserve the authority of this House and the possibility of the Government bowing to that authority. That clarification has been important, not only because it is desirable that we should understand the status of what we are debating but because it renders superfluous the constant backtracking to the referendum and its relevance; for surely, if these direct elections are not implicit in the Treaty of Rome, there can be no question of our being committed to them by the result of the referendum. If we are not committed to them by the Treaty of Rome, we are not committed to them by the result of the referendum.
As to the relationship between these propositions and what the Treaty of Rome envisages, it was enlightening that the Minister of State was so disarmingly candid in pushing forward almost to the Greek Kalends the probable time when direct elections might be arrived at in accordance with Article 138 of the Treaty of Rome and conforming with its requirements.
So we have here a domestic matter, a matter which, as we have been repeatedly assured, is in our own hands, a matter which we are entitled to consider without being hag-ridden by the suspicion or the conscience that our judgment is somehow overridden by prior commitments either on the part of the nation or Her Majesty's Government.
In form, this debate upon the White Paper is a debate upon method. It has been claimed already in the debate that a majority of Members would say that in general terms they are in agreement with the principle of direct elections but that they cannot as yet be resolved as to the method. In one of the speeches on Wednesday a Member went so far as to say that the debate was about means and not ends.
It is not so long since I remember exactly the same thing over devolution within the United Kingdom. There was a majority in favour of devolution in principle—those in favour of devolution in principle were as common as blackberries in autumn—but when after about 15 days and some nights in Committee the House had examined the methods, it came to certain important conclusions on the principle of devolution. It is of the nature of this place and of our deliberations that we make up our minds on matters of principle only when we have considered method; for the consideration of method brings to light the real underlying principles and strips away the cover, by which they are overlaid, of conventional assent to popular but relatively unexamined notions. So in this case, as we have examined in the course of the debate the methods for direct elections that are proposed, it has turned out that none of them is satisfactory.
Before I come to the way in which our dissatisfaction with the proposed methods is an indication of our underlying dissatisfaction with the principle, perhaps I may be allowed a minute or two to refer to the special case, or so it is alleged to be and so I deny it to be, of Northern Ireland. In the proposals of the Select Committee it was ironic that Northern Ireland, having for many years protested about being under-represented in this place and against having an electoral quota that is huge in comparison with the average quota in any other part of the United Kingdom, should find lavished upon itself a proposed representation in the directly elected Assembly that would give it by much the smallest electoral quota in the whole of the United Kingdom.
The delight and satisfaction that we might otherwise feel in that—enhancing our sense of the good intentions of the Government, which were declared two or three weeks ago, when we learned that our unjust treatment in this place was to be remedied—is tempered when we realise the reason for the special bonus that we are receiving of a relatively small electoral quota. It is in order that it should be possible by reason of having three seats in Northern Ireland, either to have proportional representation there when no other part of the Kingdom has it, or to ensure, as far as boundaries can be so drawn, that representation may be obtained in Northern Ireland by those who would otherwise not obtain it if Northern Ireland were treated on a parity with the rest of the Kingdom.
However, it is the proposition of the Government, which I was glad to hear officially rejected by Her Majesty's Opposition, that in any case there should be proportional representation in Northern Ireland, which is much more offensive and illogical. To demonstrate why, I need not enter into the pros and cons of the proportional representation that was imposed upon Northern Ireland in 1973 for the purposes of local government and of a local Northern Ireland Assembly. It was possible, as it so remains, to argue that for the purposes of governing Northern Ireland, or parts of it, a special treatment may be recommended and applied. What it is not possible to argue is that, when the electorate of Northern Ireland elects representatives to sit with 630 other Members in this House they should be elected on a different principle—still less that when they are electing three representatives to be submerged not only in the 81 representatives of the United Kingdom but in the 400-odd representatives of the EEC, considerations that might apply if those representatives were to control the local affairs of Northern Ireland should be imposed in direct elections to a European Assembly.
I hope that the Government will recognise that their consideration out forward in the relevant paragraph of the White Paper is not logical, is not necessary, and represents a gratuitous differentiation between the electorate of Northern Ireland and the electorate of the rest of the United Kingdom in a context where such differentiation is totally uncalled for.
I leave the special case of the Province of which I have honour to represent a part and come to the general methods proposed for direct election from the United Kingdom as a whole.
As the House has examined each of the methods it has found them all to be unsatisfactory. It has realised that even the first-past-the-post system, a system that has long satisfied most of us when applied to constituencies of 60,000 electors, 70,000 electors or 80,000 electors, becomes quite different in its consequences when applied to constituencies of half a million or more. It has realised that its virtues then turn into vices and that the drawing of boundaries, which can be rationally and impartially carried out when they comprise 60,000 to 80,000 electors, becomes a nightmare when the constituencies are so huge as to comprise 500,000 to 700,000 electors. We find that when we apply our traditional system to direct elections to Europe it yields—dare I say?—an undemocratic result.
So we turn to examining the various forms of proportional representation as as alternative. Again, we are met with a direct conflict with our basic assumptions about the nature of representative election itself. We find that, however proportional representation is framed, there cannot be an identification of one representative with one set of electors whom he represents—not even, as in the Senate of the United States, between a pair of representatives and the state that they represent. We find instead that we have, on the one hand, a list or group of ladies and gentlemen and on the other hand, the electorate of some huge area—I dare hardly call it a constituency—comprising 2½ million or 3 million electors.
Thus, one of the essentials of parliamentary democratic representation as we know it—the personal responsibility and accountability of the individual elected to the individuals who voted for or against him in a specific place and constituency—is non-existent and has had to be sacrificed. But there is something even more fundamental to democracy that has had to be sacrificed.
The Minister of State said that the purpose of direct elections would be "to bolster the democratic accountability of the Assembly" and "to involve the people as closely as possible" in the doings of the Assembly. But what is it that gives democratic accountability in this country through the electoral system? What is it that involves the electorate in what the Government are doing? It is party. It is the fact that the electors do not elect Mr. Smith or Mr. Jones as such. It is that they know for what policies they are voting, they know for what trends and tendencies they are voting.
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman reminds me, there are certain circumstances in which they can waste their votes. But that does not detract from the democratic principle which we well understand and of which the essence is party.
When we turn from these methodological considerations of first-past-the-post systems and proportional representation and compare the result of a directly elected European Assembly with democratic election as we know it, we recognise that the two fundamentals of parliamentary democracy have disappeared—personal responsibility and the link of party which is the link of principle between the electors and the seat of power to which they are sending their representatives.
My answer is "Yes". I am not talking about "democracy" as an academic classification; but I say that this assembly is unique in its relationship both with those who create it and recreate it, and also with the Government who draw their life and sustenance from it. I say that that is unique. We have endeavoured to communicate it to other parts of the world, but it remains our own unique and most precious possession.
Is not the right hon. Gentleman being a little unhistorical? Surely it is only in his lifetime that party discipline has gained its grip over the House of Commons to the extent that it now has. Does not he think it possible that other assemblies, including the European Parliament, might develop in a looser way, more on the lines of the House of Commons in the nineteenth century?
I thought that I was plagiarising—certainly quoting—Edmund Burke, for it is from Edmund Burke 200 years ago at any rate that we have learned in the noblest terms the indispensability of party to the electoral principle, however debased and imperfect from our own point of view the electoral machine might have been 200 years ago. But the men who then contended for control over the Administration believed that it was only if they were united in pursuit of, or opposition to, certain principles that they could claim to be more than a caucus or cabal.
The answer that we are offered when our study of method thus leads us to conclude that direct elections will not make a democratic Assembly and will not make a democratic European Economic Community, is that this is not the sort of place the Assembly is intended to be. We are told that we should read the Treaty of Rome and observe that the European Assembly is largely a consultative body. The word "consultative" has been used a number of times and used officially from both Front Benches in this debate.
If it were to be entirely consultative, no doubt many of the anxieties which are passionately felt on both sides of the House would be greatly allayed. I was much amused to be reminded by the Minister of State of what appears to have happened in France, though, when we are told what happens in other countries, we should ask ourselves how clear a view they have of what is happening in our country. However, we were told that the constitutional council in France had been satisfied that direct elections presented no breach in the constitution provided that the powers of the European Assembly remain as at present.
I am not sure that I speak for others; but I would be prepared to enter into a compact with Her Majesty's Government if they intend to pursue their proposals. If they would undertake that any legislation providing for direct elections should cease to have effect if and when the powers of the Assembly were enlarged, that would be a proposition worth considering.
It is not the slightest use, however, for the Government to say: "Arrange for direct elections now and accept them on the understanding that the powers are extremely limited; but no doubt, by and by, there will be some sort of agreed evolution and piecemeal, perhaps, the powers may subsequently be enlarged." So I say that we in this House have no right, because we are tampering with the essentials of our constitution, to allow any difficulties to be set aside upon the plea that the existing powers of the Assembly are limited and that it is only an Assembly having those powers to which direct elections are contemplated.
Even so, what are those powers? They include the power to dismiss the Commission.
True, but they also include the power to throw out the whole budget. Why, those are the very powers upon which the whole authority of this House of Commons is founded. We do not use them very often. We rarely proceed to the point of taking the King off the chessboard—though it might happen one day—but that does not make the possession of these powers any less effective. If, overnight, it were to become impossible for this House to refuse Supply it would not be very long before the occupants of the Treasury Bench ceased to be responsive to anything that was said and done in this House.
So here is a European Assembly which has in its hand by the Treaty of Rome the two great levers which have created parliamentary democracy in this country over the last 500 years. It has them already. What, then will be the difference? The difference will be that a directly-elected Assembly not only could use them but would be under a kind of inherent obligation to use them. Two things are necessary. The first is the levers. It has them. The second is authority. Authority it would be given by direct election—authority co-equal with that enjoyed by any of the elected assemblies in the Community. It is that, combined with even the present powers, which through direct elections would transform the nature of the European Assembly. One need hardly argue whether the powers would be extended. I venture to say that determined use of the powers which it has already would in effect and in practice be sufficient to give it everything that it wanted.
I do not dissent from some of the right hon. Gentleman's viewpoints, although my attitude to them is somewhat different. But is not it illegitimate to equate the Commission with the Government of a national State?
It is not only the Commission that is affected; This point arose in a brief passage between myself and the right hon. Member for Sidcup on Wednesday, when he was fain to admit that the accretion of power to the Assembly by way of direct elections would be not only at the expense of the Commission but also at the expense of the Council of Ministers—that, of course, means at the expense of this House, because it is only through the Council of Ministers that the Community is responsible to this House.
A lot has been said in the debate about the implications and the tendency of direct elections, but I think that some of the best things that have ever been said on this subject were said by the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister. He made two magnificent speeches on the subject, which fortunately, as they say, "have been written in a book" and are available to be read and studied. Fortunate, too, we should count ourselves that the right hon. Gentleman, who showed this deep insight into the consequences and nature of direct election in the EEC, should himself at this crucial time be exercising the supreme political office in the State.
This is what the Prime Minister said in a speech in Portsmouth in 1971. I shall only quote as briefly as possible. I start with a remarkable sentence:
When Europe goes federalist, there will be an elected parliament for the whole EEC.
The House, I hope, flavours the implications of that inversion of what has been treated as hypothetical or controversial. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South-East (Mr. Callaghan), as recently as 1971, could not imagine proceeding to direct elections for the whole of the EEC except in circumstances in which the EEC was well launched, to put it at its lowest, upon the path on which the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd), who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench, wishes to see it. It is the path not, I think, in technical and accurate terms, to a federation but, I would say, to a unitary political State; for the Treaty of Rome is not the constitution of a federation; it is the constitution of a unitary State in embryo.
However, what the right hon. Gentleman the Prime Minister said was:
When Europe goes federalist, there will be an elected parliament for the whole EEC.
That is just what we are debating this afternoon.
we … had better look at our situation if a federal parliament with real power comes into existence.
The Prime Minister went on to say:
It will be no use British electors coming to the candidates for a Westminster Parliament and complaining about prices or unemployment.
Those matters were both mentioned in the speech of the right hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving), who preceded me, as subjects on which the elected Members in the European Assembly will be specially influential.
continued the Prime Minister,
will reply that it has nothing to do with them. They would have no more control over these matters than does the present Hampshire County Council. 'Take it up with the European parliament', they will say, 'and the best of British luck, because our representatives are in a permanent minority there.'
The Prime Minister continued:
Is there any evidence that this is what the British people want?
His conclusion was:
I believe that if the political possibilities inherent in our joining the EEC were universally known, only a small minority would favour entry.
The Prime Minister referred there to, "possibilities inherent", and it is indeed our duty to consider those implications of what is being put before us.
We are debating this afternoon the same subject in reverse as we have spent many days and parts of nights debating since Christmas. I believe that we are arriving at the same conclusion. The conclusion at which we arrived, when we looked at the method—not the principle—of devolving legislative power to a directly elected assembly in part of the United Kingdom, was that this House of Commons and another directly elected assembly, drawn from the same electorate, cannot co-exist, that one must yield to the other. It is true that, characteristically, we registered that conclusion by a decision on a timetable motion; but that was the discovery which we had made and elaborated over those days and nights.
Now it is the same proposition, only looking the other way, which we are called upon to acknowledge—that there cannot be two concurrent directly elected representations of the same electorate in external affairs, that one must yield to the other.
If we ever took the decision to authorise the election of direct representatives of the British electorate to a European Assembly—to the Assembly as described already in the Treaty of Rome—we should be renouncing that control, supremacy and responsibility of this House to I believe which almost every section in this House—I was going to say every section—is still dedicated.
It is good that we should be here. It is good, indeed, that we should talk and that the Government should listen, because it is only by examining the implications, as the Prime Minister said, that we arrive at the insight that only we, for purposes which affect the life and well-being of the people of this country, must hold that authority that derives from direct election.
I follow the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) fully aware that the constitutional considerations which he has put before the House will be with hon. Members as they listen to the subsequent speech which it falls upon me to make. I regard that as a very useful position in which to speak, because some of the implications of what the right hon. Gentleman has said will, I hope, be the guidelines with which Her Majesty's Government will reconsider before they commit themselves to the legislation that is being demanded from some quarters in this House. But I want to add to what the right hon. Gentleman has said some political considerations which I feel bound to make because of the actual political situation which the Government face in the country in their relations with the electorate at the present time.
I believe that it falls perhaps upon Government supporters in particular in a debate of this constitutional importance also to consider the views of those who are particularly responsible for having sent us to this Parliament, as the right hon. Gentleman rightly said, in the belief that we should be the representatives par excellence who would have a certain influence upon and control over our own Government and Executive and on whether we are entitled to remove this control and power from ourselves without being absolutely certain that the people who have sent us here are in common accord with our taking such a decision.
The Minister of State took the problem of the commitment one important step further, but the first important step in clarifying that aspect of our debate came in the very interesting speech made by the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) last Thursday. I am not wanting to be polemical with the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd), who spoke from the Conservative Front Bench this afternoon, because the subject of our debate is too serious. I therefore deny myself the privilege of referring to the particular closeness between the right hon. Gentleman the former Leader of the Conservative Party and the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon. But it was significant that the right hon. Member for Sidcup, who has never been afraid of stating his views on this matter, said clearly that there was no commitment arising out of a decision or recommendation of the Council of Ministers, and therefore no commitment under Article 138.
Unless the Government are prepared to admit that there is no commitment, our debates are useless. How can one maintain both that there is a complete commitment and that the Government are prepared to listen to the House of Commons? The argument that there is a commitment is profoundly antidemocratic. It clearly closes debate; so let us hear no more of it. Let the Home Secretary argue this issue from the facts and the intentions of the Government and Parliament and not from the implication of prior commitments. When we are arguing from the facts and from what is in our best interests, of course we must not confuse the Commission with the Council of Ministers, and it is upon the Council of Ministers that I want to fasten.
The proposition I wish to advance is that the only real protection of the interests of the British electorate is in the Council of Ministers and nowhere else. It is clear that, whatever one might feel about the original decision, there is a growing conviction among our people that the Common Market, with the common agricultural policy as its base, very little else having been built into the organisation, is not particularly suitable for the British people.
I do not want to argue the ground again of the particular interests of a major industrial nation which has only 4 per cent. of its people in agriculture. But there is a growing conviction among our people that we need protecting, that our interests are in danger. No one can travel throughout our constituencies—not even a member of the Liberal Party, convinced that we should have been in the Common Market a long time ago—and deny that there is such a growing conviction among the people, and the people who are able to protect our interests to some extent are our representatives in the Council of Ministers.
What is meant to happen to the position of the Council of Ministers after direct elections? I must express astonishment that Ministers of the Crown should treat Parliament so slightingly by suggesting that there is no intention amongst those on the Continent who are pushing the proposal for direct elections greatly to increase the powers of the European Assembly. No one can have been a member of any European institution recently, be it the European Assembly, the Assembly of the Council of Europe, or the Assembly of Western European Union, and have mixed with parliamentarians from other countries without having become profoundly convinced, and having it as his duty to report to the House, that the overwhelming majority of those who are in favour of this proposal want it precisely because they want to wrest power from the Council of Ministers and take it into the European Assembly. There is no denying that, and, in the light of that fact, getting bogged down in discussion of what is federalism and what is not does not matter.
The right hon. Member for Sidcup admitted that taking power from the Council of Ministers to the Assembly would be a step in the direction of a unitary or federal Parliament. If the Government were to follow the proposal just advanced by the right hon. Member for Down, South, take him at his word, and say "You support direct elections and we give you a guarantee that the Government will never agree to increased powers for the European Parliament", the people on the Continent who are most in favour of direct elections would im- mediately drop their support for the proposal.
But all that is only an argument. The reality is different. The reality is that the fathers of the Common Market—men like De Gasperi and Schuman—argued for a number of years that one should not start building political institutions into the Common Market until well after one had built up its economic organisation, its social organisation, and many other things. Why now this reversal? Why this turning away from that original concept by people, like my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, who have at least had a chequered career in their adherence to the Common Market, to put it mildly? Why this turning away from the sequence of events foreseen and advised by those originally responsible for founding the organisation?
I will tell my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary why. It is because nothing else has been achieved that the people who want to push the idea either of a unitary power or of a federal power have said "Let us have direct elections and advance to something more political." It was not in the original intentions of those who wanted the idea of a European economic community.
But perhaps the most important point of all for our electors is that they are so worried about prices. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is locked in serious disagreement over the current proposals. The Conservative Government negotiated the transition payments, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson)—it would be unfair to suppress this point at the moment—declared himself, in the renegotiations, satisfied with the results. But what did they approve, with the Liberal Party cheering them on? They approved transition payments which compel us to accept an increase of 12 per cent. in agricultural prices in the current year, and there is a demand for a further increase on top of that in the current negotiations.
What stands between the full imposition of what would be an increase of more than 20 per cent. on top of our current rate of inflation of food prices but the Council of Ministers? Nothing else does. But there is an Assembly in which there is a combination of French and Bavarian agricultural interests, various other interests, and coalition Governments whose electorates do not know what they are voting for because of the proportional representation systems. Where is the defence of the British consumer there?
This debate is not academic. It touches the real interests of our people. As this seems to be confession day, following the speech of my hon. Friend the Minister of State, I point out that I have never pretended that I am against the Common Market because it is an international institution. I have often joined forces with hon. Members across the Floor of the House in opposition to the Common Market. Many of them have had different ideas about it, but it has always been my view that if we were to go into an international organisation which worked for ideals and purposes which were generally acceptable, and at the same time was built up in a way that protected the interests of the ordinary people of Britain, I would support it, and perhaps be a better internationalist than some of the present supports of the Common Market and direct elections.
But now there is a grave danger that we would be going ahead and creating an institution which we could not later control, with the Council of Ministers having to give more and more power to the Assembly. It was no answer for my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to make a speech last Thursday in which he completely belittled and threw aside any possibility of further developments in the Common Market—a speech which even led to some opposition from supporters of the idea of direct elections.
I wish to pursue a brief point about electoral systems. It is perfectly justifiable for the Liberal Party to advance as its main aim in the current political situation its intention to change our electoral system. I do not complain at what was said by the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), who explained that he regarded it as more important to get a system of PR in Assembly direct elections than to secure the proposal itself.
That is an honest approach, but it is a bad guide for making a decision of such constitutional importance to Britain. It is a bad guide also to other parties, since the Liberal Party wishes to be the permanent arbiter for the next 10 or 20 years in British politics. It is asking a great deal to ask the House of Commons to agree to such a fundamental change simply to enable the hon. Member for Cornwall, North (Mr. Pardoe) to parade the country claiming, for example, that the Chancellor is his poodle.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) did not say, as the hon. Member alleges, that he would accept direct elections only if the system of voting was on the basis of proportional representation. He said that if such a system was not adopted that would cause considerable anxiety.
The right hon. Gentleman did say that, and Hansard will prove it. However, other Liberal Party spokesmen—perhaps even the leader of the party—will seek to intervene at some time, and they can clarify the point. I say that the right hon. Gentleman made it clear that he was interested in direct elections only if a system of PR was accepted. That may be the opinion of Liberal Members, but it can be of no assistance to the Labour Members or to anyone else whose primary task is to represent the interests of those who have sent them here.
Let it therefore be clearly stated that the Government would be quite misguided if they thought they could rely merely upon an appeal to loyalty in seeking to change our electoral system. The Government have conceded that there is to be a free vote on that limited subject, although I doubt whether that was their intention six months or even three months ago. Every hon. and right hon. Member must be entitled to a free vote therefore, and that applies to Ministers as well, on whether there should be direct elections. If that happened we should then see whether the conversion undergone by my hon. Friend the Minister of State applied to everyone.
If there is a constant demand for free votes, the Government should set an example. I am confident that in this Parliament there is now a majority of Labour Members who are opposed to this proposal, and, that being the case, the Government have no mandate to go ahead with it.
There has been general agreement in the debate that the question of whether we participate in direct elections is a matter for Parliament to decide. That being done, it is for Parliament to decide on the method of election to be chosen.
It is generally accepted that the hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) has expressed an accurate view about Article 138 of the treaty. It merely stated a long-term objective. It was for the national Parliaments to give effect to it on the advice of the Council of Ministers or their own Governments.
The commitment is the commitment of the Government. It was the Government who freely entered into a commitment with our partners in the Community to provide for direct elections in 1978, subject, of course, to Parliament approving the necessary legislation. In the Queen's Speech the Government said that they would introduce the legislation. That legislation should now be introduced without further delay.
Over a year has now passed since our first full two-day debate on direct elections in March 1976. Since then we have had three excellent, well-argued and well-documented reports from the Select Committee which we set up to study the matter.
The Minister of State said today that the Government wanted to listen and then to proceed. In my judgment—and I hope that most hon. Members will agree—the Government have had plenty of time to listen. The way in which the debate has proceeded has indicated that many hon. Members will never change their minds. Therefore, let us proceed to determine the first issue. Is this House in favour of direct elections being held next year?
The Government are committed to the principle of a directly-elected Assembly. With all his doubts, hesitations, reservations and confessions, the Minister of State did not dissent on that point this afternoon. He and the Government are collectively committed to what they have agreed internationally. What their supporters do is a matter for their consciences in due course.
We know that the Liberal Party is committed to the principle of direct elections.
We also know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition and the entire Opposition Front Bench are committed to the principle of direct elections—and that goes from the Shadow Secretary of State for Scotland upwards, even though the doctrine of collective responsibility may not be quite as sharp with Oppositions as it is with Governments.
I do not remember the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) saying what my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) attributed to him. He did not clarify the Liberal position but muddied it even further. Surely the Liberals have not yet said that they will vote for direct elections if the first-past-the-post system is adopted.
The position has been clear until recently. I accept what my hon. Friend has said. I apprehend that the Liberal Party will clarify the matter before long.
"The Right Approach", which is a favourite document of the Prime Minister, expresses the view that direct elections should be held in 1978 and states:
A directly-elected European Parliament will provide the front line of democratic control over the Commission and the Council of Ministers.
It does not provide the ultimate line. I agree with the hon. Member for Penis-tone that that will be provided by the Council of Ministers and by national Governments and Parliaments.
The majority of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House want to proceed with direct elections in 1978. I believe. I may be wrong, but that matter may be easily determined by a straightforward vote, and the sooner the better. Having determined the wishes of the House on the principle of direct elections, the Government should give the House an early opportunity, before publication of the Bill, to have the promised free vote on the method of election. The simplest way of doing that would be a motion that would give the House the opportunity of indicating whether it wanted the elections to proceed on the basis of our present electoral system.
That motion could no doubt be framed in such a way as to allow a decision to be made at the same time on whether it should apply to the United Kingdom as a whole or whether a different system should apply to Northern Ireland. I welcome what my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) said on that subject. I think that there should be one system for the United Kingdom as a whole for this purpose.
Has the right hon. and learned Gentleman considered the difficulties of a proposition before the House by way of a motion which, however much it was amended, would hardly enable the House duly to consider various alternatives and possibilities and the implications of the decision which it was taking? The right hon. and learned Gentleman has mentioned one point on which I am glad to find him agreeing with many other hon. Members, but how would it be possible in a debate on a motion with amendments properly to discuss all these matters?
It would be possible in a general debate. I suggest that the first vote should be on whether we want to have our present system in the first round of elections. Only if we decided that we wanted to make some change in our electoral system would it be necessary to go into all the arguments about the merits of various forms of proportional representation, whether we wanted national or regional lists, the single transferable vote or whatever other system.
I cannot accept the view expressed by the right hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving) that he changed his mind because of the exigencies of the timetable. It is intolerable for the Government or anyone else to say "Let us have a free vote" and then say Unfortunately there is no time for it to be taken on what is a major issue that the House ought to be determining.
From the beginning it was clear that for the first round of direct elections—it may turn out to be so for subsequent rounds too—it was impossible to draft a uniform electoral procedure which could be applied to all the member States. The traditions and practices of all the Community countries vary widely, so that everyone agreed that almost all questions of procedure would have to be decided by the national electoral laws.
The arguments for maintaining our present system were set out clearly in paragraph 16 of House of Commons Paper No. 515 of 1975–76. The main arguments put before the Select Committee in favour of the existing first-past-the-post system were as follows:
(i) If the United Kingdom were to change the electoral system for the first round of elections for the European Assembly, the electoral system would have to be changed twice within a comparatively short period.
It is wrong to say that it would have to be, but it might well be so changed.
(ii) It would not in practical terms be easy on this issue to reach agreement on a particular new system in the time-scale envisaged.
That is right, because it is much more difficult to get agreement on some form of proportional representation in the time-scale than to go ahead with the existing system.
(iii) The first past the post system is familiar to the electors and to the returning officers' staffs. It could be implemented in the time available with little difficulty and there would be no risk that the electorate would become confused by having not only a new tier of elections, but also a new electoral system different from that used for national elections.
(iv) It would be easier for the existing constituency organisations of the political parties to operate.
(v) Voters would identify more easily with their existing Parliamentary constituency.
That is probably the most important of the arguments. The direct responsibility of a Member of Parliament to his constituents is something that we could depart from only after very careful consideration.
Whatever the merits or otherwise of the various forms of proportional representation, I do not think that people have considered the implications of adopting something like the French, German or Belgian systems. It is not possible for this House in the time available to look into these matters with all the care that is required.
It will be recalled that immediately after the General Election in February 1974 my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) suggested, in his discussions with the then Leader of the Liberal Party, that there should be set up a Speaker's Conference on electoral reform. My right hon. Friend made it perfectly clear that it was quite impossible for any Government to commit themselves to any electoral change of a particular kind and that it would be a matter for the House of Commons after careful deliberation.
In my judgment, the only possible way in which we would be jusified in changing our electoral system would be to have a Speaker's Conference or some similar conference. I do not believe that in the course of the next few weeks we could go into such matters as whether we wanted the alternative vote, the cumulative vote, the limited vote or the single transferable vote, much less whether we should introduce it with the largest remainder, the D'Hondt rule, the largest average, the Droop or the Hare quotas.
It may be that the British system of first past the post is shared only with the United States and the old Common-wealth countries, but it is not necessarily the worse for that. I do not accept the argument about the size of the constituency affecting the principle of having a Member directly responsible to his constituents. After all, the Senator for Texas has 12 million constituents. No doubt private enterprise—as we know happens in this country from time to time—has to lend him a helicopter so that he can fulfil his obligations. It may be done, and in my submission it has much to commend it. Parliamentary democracy has flourished far longer in those countries which have single-Member constituencies and first-past-the-post systems than in others which have adopted novel systems which have not stood the test of time.
The French system of run-off and the German system of first past the post with a limited operation of the list have more in common with our system than has the single transferable vote.
Would not the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that Scandinavia has had more stable, democratic and Socialist Governments over many years with the proportional representation system?
Within the Community, Germany has had a fairly stable Government under what is broadly a first-past-the-post system, first under the Christian Democrats and then under the Social Democrats. The French system has not been all that stable for very long.
It is curious to note that for one reason and another the Spaniards and Portuguese recently adopted the Belgian system, which many people find almost incomprehensible. By that I mean the Belgian system, not necessarily the Spanish and Portuguese versions.
These are all matters which merit the attention of a Speaker's Conference or similar consideration. Whatever form our electoral system may eventually take, either on our own account or in common with our European partners, the best thing this House could do—and it could simply—would be to accept the recommendations of the Select Committee, which were carefully considered, after a great deal of evidence had been heard.
The Committee concluded in paragraph 18 of the report to which I have already referred
that it would not be appropriate to bring in what is for most of the United Kingdom an entirely new method of voting at this stage. Elections for the European Assembly are themselves novel enough and the Committee are much impressed by the argument that a later change will in any event be necessary.
In those circumstances—the House has the powers in its own hands—I urge that the House should have an early opportunity, which the Government should provide, of voting on the Select Committee's recommendation that
the first past the post system at present in use for Parliamentary elections should be used in the United Kingdom for the first round of elections for the European Assembly.
That seems a perfectly straightforward proposition upon which the House could quickly vote. Only if the House rejects the proposition shall we have to go into a great deal of detail about the kind of sproportional representation which we might use, either in these elections or subsequently.
I have only a few things to say and a few questions to put to the Government, so I shall be brief.
My first question is on commitment. Anyone interested in this matter will long ago have read the Treaty of Rome and Article 138. It is clear that the Community envisaged moving towards a directly-elected Assembly, and what I am saying is that any Government who entered the Community and then set themselves permanently to frustrate direct elections would be guilty of sharp practice.
It is clear from this debate that those who object to direct elections object not to having them in 1978 or in this way or in that way but to having them at all. If the Government have a commitment of good faith to their partners in the Community, that is not an attitude that they can accept. That is the nature of the Government's commitment.
I hope that my hon. Friend will forgive me for not giving way, but I do not propose to take up much time in making my speech.
The Government's commitment to which I have referred would not be in doubt were it not for their appalling dilatoriness in handling the matter. I earnestly hope that the Government are not imagining that they can allow themselves to be led into a sort of morass of conflicting arguments about the method of election and then, in the middle of the legislation, turn hopelessly to Europe and say "We are awfully sorry. We have done our best, but this tiresome Parliament of ours will not let us do it". The Government are bound to incur the hostility of those who do not want direct elections at all, but if they behave like that they will incur the hostility of everyone else.
As I say, there would not have been any doubt had it not been for the Government's hesitations. Even today, when my hon. Friend the Minister of State who opened the debate was asked about the Government's commitment to the principle of direct elections, he replied "That is for Parliament to decide".
Quite so, but that is a mere truism. It is true of every piece of legislation that any Government introduce. We cannot have direct elections in this country without passing an Act of Parliament, and an Act of Parliament cannot be passed without the consent of this House. What we want to know is whether it is the firm intention and desire of the Government to persuade this House to assent to legislation that will make elections possible in 1978. I trust that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will answer that when he replies to the debate.
Let me add a bit to the question. Will the Government pursue that goal as resolutely as they pursued the putting on to the statute book of the Rent Act, the Education Act, the Act affecting the rights and powers of trade unions or any other piece of legislation?
Not the devolution Bill. That is the very example that I tried to avoid. Will the Government pursue the legislation to enable these elections to take place with the zeal with which they pursue legislation which they really want to get through? That is what we want to know from the Government, and not another platitude about its being a matter for the House of Commons. That is important and true, because platitudes are true, but it does not tell us any more than we know already.
The advocates of various forms of proportional representation, whether for Europe or for Westminster, have been extremely vocal of late. Whatever the difficulties of the Labour Party at the moment, it has been in the habit of being more likely to win elections in recent times than it was earlier this century, and it is curious how the advocacy of devices that will make it much more difficult for the Labour Party to win elections has been more popular amongst academics ever since.
I hope that the Government will not be misled by the prevailing fashion into failing to notice that a large number of hon. Members, on both sides of the House, want the first-past-the-post system. I hope that they will bear that in mind. I should much prefer that the legislation should incorporate the first-past-the-post system, but I should be prepared to vote for direct elections if, on a free vote of the House, some other method of election were chosen. I think that that is the proper arrangement of priorities, and I hope that that is the view of the Liberal Party. While the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) has been away we have been discussing exactly what he did say.
How will the Government let the House express itself on the question of method? It is understood that we can have a free vote on that, but how will it be done? I was interested in and attracted by the suggestion of the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon), but I suppose that in the end, when the Government introduce a Bill, there will have to be some method proposed in it, and it will be open to hon. Members to propose amendments.
If that is the way in which the matter comes to the House, with a method proposed in the Bill and hon. Members suggest amendments to it, will those who want to make amendments be given the help of the parliamentary draftsmen in drafting their amendments, as is sometimes done with Private Members' Bills? That would be fair, because it will be a complex matter and we do not want to say "It is a free vote of the House but the Government have all the expertise in preparing their choice of method and they are not very interested in a fair expression of other methods".
The vital thing is not to get bogged down in the argument about method but to get ahead with direct elections to the European Parliament in the spring or summer of 1978 to which the Government, by their own words and by their membership of the Community, are indisputably committed.
The former Foreign Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon), referred to Article 138 of the treaty. Whereas I agree that in the long term there is a commitment that has been entered into, I question whether that is a commitment that binds the Government to 1978 elections.
Subsection (3) of Article 138 refers to the Assembly drawing up
proposals for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure
and says that the Council shall then unanimously decide on the provisions that it shall recommend to member States. I
think that the commitment is a longer-term one and that if the Government wanted to wait until the second-round elections and go in for a uniform system they would have an entitlement to do so.
None the less, I concede that, based on the referendum that took place, the Government have a strong argument in favour of going ahead with direct elections, because even though the Government may not have included recommendations on this in great detail in their propaganda the "Vote 'No'" lobby did so when it recommended in the following words:
Unless you want to be ruled more and more by a Continental Parliament in which Britain would be in a small minority, you should vote NO.
Whatever attitude one may have taken then, the people's answer was "Yes" and it is difficult to say that there is not the right to go ahead with this on a free vote in Parliament.
I, unlike some earlier speakers, do not go along with the deified sovereignty of this place. I look to a transfer of power from it. The hon. Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) referred to the danger of the interests of the farmers and consumers of Britain being lost to the interests of the farmers of Bavaria and others. The hon. Gentleman may acknowledge that that is an argument that we in Wales and Scotland have used in relation to the whole of the United Kingdom—namely, that our interests are often lost in the overall interests of a centralised unitary State. I acknowledge the dangers that he fears in a European context, but those are the dangers that we are fighting against in the context of the devolution Bill.
If the hon. Gentleman has studied, as he must have done, the kind of policies that the farmers of France and Bavaria wish to pursue, which are hostile to the interests of the consumer here, lie will not compare their situation with the position of Wales and Scotland within the United Kingdom.
I should in some circumstances, but not in any detail. I accept that, in detail, there are unacceptable aspects, but there are other aspects of policy that we in Wales do not accept, on the same general principle.
I move on to the White Paper. I find it disappointing, and I find even more disappointing the lack of leadership from the Government on this question. It was right for an earlier speaker to point out the need for structured discussions on this matter. That should be clear before we get to the details, because the whole question breaks down into three heads. The first is the principle of direct elections to the European Parliament, the second the distribution of seats and the third the system of election. The second and third intertwine to a certain extent.
With regard to the principle, which is overwhelmingly the most important matter to be discussed, my party believes in the emergence of a confederal rather than a federal Europe. As I outlined it the debate on 29th March 1976, we see dangers that direct elections might lead towards a federal rather than a confederal unit. These are matters of which we have real fears. Although there is not yet evidence that it is going in that direction, we believe that it may be beginning to do so.
In its submission to Mr. Tindemans. Plaid Cymru said:
Plaid Cymru feels strongly that there exists a positive alternative to the development of another centralised state in Western Europe. That alternative is to create a partnership of self-governing European nations, in no way subordinate to one another. This partnership could take the form of a European Confederation whose purpose would be to maintain free trade and encourage economic and cultural development throughout the Community, and the co-ordination of effective regional policies to counterbalance adverse effects of free trade"—
in other words, a co-ordination rôle rather than a cenral domination rôle. That is very important indeed. We should accept that some decisions will inevitably be taken at a European level. The question is, what structure of Government is necessary to have democratic control over such decisions? We in Plaid Cymru feel that the existing methods are inadequate. We believe that the existing institutions are there, but the way in which representation takes place is certainly not acceptable. We would very much prefer direct elections by the people of Wales to nomination of our representatives by the Government in London.
A question which springs to my mind is, what is the alternative to moving ahead to direct elections? Is it to retain the present system of dual mandate from this House? I would have thought hat the recent sad death of Sir Peter Kirk would have underlined the impossibility of our continuing with that present structure. If we are not to go back on the whole question of our being part of the EEC, we must therefore go forward to some new system. To use the phrase which has already been used in the devolution context, "The status quo is no option".
The distribution of seats is one of the sorest points in Wales. To be given four seats in the European Parliament is not acceptable when Ireland, with an identical population, will have 15 seats. The argument is that other Members from the United Kingdom will speak for Wales as well as for other parts of the United Kingdom. But the whole point of direct elections is that representatives will go from their area to the European Parliament and will not be speaking on behalf of the United Kingdom or any other country.
The reality will be that on the Floor of the European Parliament Wales will have four voices and Ireland will have 15, although we have identical populations. That is something we cannot tolerate. It will be a stumbling block if that is not to change in the progress of any Bill that comes before the House. Wales needs a substantially increased representation if we are to get fair play. We need that representation because, as has been discussed in the context of the Government's devolution proposals, we have characteristics of nationhood, with own institutions and differences that warrant such representation.
This could be achieved in either of those two ways. Wales, with the same population as Ireland, should have the same representation as Ireland. The argument might be extended and might mean lesser representations for a larger country. That is the whole principle which has been accepted in the representation of the various countries by the EEC. It is not just Ireland. Luxembourg, with the population of Gwent, will have a larger representation than Wales. The thing is just not on.
We believe that the electoral system should not be decided in a stampede. It is important to get it right. If the 1978 deadline means that we shall not get the electoral system right, I believe that it would be better to miss that deadline and make sure that the system will be right in the long term. To get the wrong system now would be a very bad start. My party supports the principle of proportional representation. Ideally we would prefer to have a system of alternative vote with a list topping up, but that will not be practical in a situation in which Wales has only four seats.
Given the present alternative, we would prefer the STV model to the other model put forward on a list basis. Equally, however, that might be only of limited meaning in a situation where Wales has only four seats. There may be practical difficulties, most of all for the Liberal Party but for other parties as well.
The hon. Gentleman said that he favoured PR in principle, but did he not say earlier that in the case of Wales he would want a higher proportion than, for example, other parts of the United Kingdom?
I am talking about the proportion of the party representation within the European Parliament. If the hon. Gentleman believes what he implies in his comment, he should have made sure that his party put this case strongly in the distribution of seats within member States because that point has not been accepted there, although those countries have PR themselves within their own national Parliaments and for the elections to the European Parliament. The two things are not contradictory in any way.
We would not like to see STV for Westminster or for the European Assembly because we feel that it is important to have a direct link between the representative and his area. But in the context of the EEC the probability is that the institutional link will be more important than the direct link with the individual citizen.
Certain references have been made to the dual mandate and the need not to debar the dual mandate. I would say that there is a specific need to preclude the dual mandate from these elections, because with the dual mandate it would be more practical for Members of Parliament representing South-East England seats than for Members of Parliament representing other areas. [An HON. MEMBER: "It is not."] It is, because of the travelling difficulties. Certain Members do not have the benefits of a fast railway line or air service to their areas. As a result, hon. Members who had dual mandate would have an unfair authenticity over others. I believe that there should be a specific clause to preclude the dual mandate in any legislation.
We cannot support the present White Paper because it is too open-ended, because of the safeguards against centralisation which are unclear and because the distribution of seats is totally unacceptable. We shall in due course measure any Bill that comes forward on the same criteria.
I shall not endeavour to follow the hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) into the labyrinth of his various arguments, not least because I was brought up by a Welshman who said that it was not necessary for Wales to try to deal with the options because they were so busy running the rest of Great Britain that they did not need to concern themselves with what happened elsewhere. I totally disagree with the hon. Gentleman on practically all the points of policy that he has put forward.
I would begin by saying in simple terms one or two things that seem self-evident to me but which apparently do not seem self-evident in this Chamber. Many of us who opposed Britain's entry into the Common Market do not need to be told that we must not continue to fight the referendum. I do not need to be told that Britain is in Europe. As a Member of the European Assembly, not only do I see that every day but I do my level best to deal with the effects of our entry.
When I object to many implications of direct elections, it is not done on a simple negative basis. It is because I really fear that in this House we are in very grave danger of drifting into a constitutional decision without having taken on board the implications. This is not the first time that this has happened in this Session of Parliament. However, I say very firmly, as someone who has seen the working of both Parliaments, that I am deeply concerned that Westminster should not rush into a new system of direct elections without considering exactly what we are doing.
There is a distinct schizoid air about the debate and on the whole question of direct elections, because one-half of the honest Europeans tell one frankly that they regard them as a straightforward step towards a federal Europe and the other half, who realise the political implications, say that they do not, of course, regard direct elections as anything of the kind but think that they are simply an extension of the democratic process. We should examine exactly what that means before we go any further.
If we are to create constituencies that on balance will be 10 times the size of our existing Member constituencies, and if we are to continue with a first-past-the post system—which I think is probably the only system that this House should support, no matter what effect that has on the representation in the European Parliament—I believe that what we are doing is not extending the democratic system but making it more difficult for the electorate of Great Britain to know exactly what is being done in their names.
I am astonished that the Council of Ministers should support moves of that kind, because at present one of the few rather inadequate safeguards that we have as a Parliament is the fact that our national Ministers must return to the Floor of this House not only to justify the decisions they have taken but to discuss them with the elected Members of Parliament.
I may be alone in believing that if one has an elected representative Assembly in Europe which does not have the dual mandate, which is not locked into its own political system, one will very soon produce a totally unrealistic and very divorced Assembly of people. They will not have the direct involvement with the day-to-day affairs of their own constituencies that every Member of Parliament has, whether or not he wishes to have it. They will not be open to the same pressures, from industries, the work forces or the political parties, in the way that the ordinary elected Member of Parliament is at present. Indeed, what will happen is that we shall produce a talking shop par excellence that will bear very little relation to day-to-day political affairs.
Those who dismiss the dual mandate, as they do now, by saying that it is impossible for people to maintain the dual system do not tell us what the alternatives will be. The right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) said in the debate last week that he believed that European Members of Parliament should have the right to speak in this House although not the right to vote. That idea was thrown out instantly by the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Conservative Opposition. I do not believe that that is the answer, but it is very indicative of the serious problems that we shall face.
If we dispose of the dual mandate, how are people ever to know what their so-called representatives in the European Assembly are putting forward on their behalf? How are these representatives to be informed of the day-to-day political implications of the decisions that they are being asked to face? Or shall we be producing a two-tier system of government, one bearing very little relation to the other?
During the 18 months in which I have been a Member of the European Assembly, I have found two things very interesting. The first is that I draw the greatest strength in my position there from my involvement with my own constituency and the North-West. It is, indeed, the information, the lobbying and the direct back-up services that I receive from that that give me the most authority inside the European Assembly. The hon. Member for Caernarvon used a very interesting and revealing phrase when he said that one could not have the dual mandate because some would have greater authenticity than others. That is, indeed, what would happen, because dual-mandate Members would be, in effect, well aware of what was really going on in the political system.
Does not the hon. Lady accept that what we need to develop is a system that ensures information and keeping in touch with everyone, and not one of first-class and second-class citizens?
That comes under the heading of pious hopes—such as that of saying that we are all against sin as long as we do not say which sin we are against. Certainly, all our elected representatives should know what is going on at both the constituency and the political end. However, if one removes the people far from the concern or the information, it is astonishing how rapidly they manage to do without it and to make the most marvellous speeches bearing astonishingly little resemblance to either day-to-day politics or the things that are going on around them.
Does not my hon. Friend feel that it would be better to have at the European Parliament representatives who are able to devote themselves exclusively to the interests of the one Parliament and to represent their constituency, whether it be the industry or the electorate as a whole in the constituency, in Europe rather than for them to have the almost impossible task of seeking to represent a vast constituency in Europe while trying, almost inevitably quite inadequately, to represent another constituency at Westminster?
No, certainly not, because I believe that the efficient, particularly with the wage rates they will get from the European Assembly, will be able to provide very efficient back-up services both for the work they want to do in Europe and for their constituencies. There would be nothing more dangerous to the democratic process than to produce a group of highly-privileged, highly-paid and very insulated politicians who did not have day-to-day contact with the real political affairs in their countries of origin. Far from contributing to debate, they would in effect totally destroy the real meaning of a European Assembly.
The reason why the Assembly has something to offer at present is that all the politicians there owe their origin to an elective system in their own member States, where they must return. It is not a question of their simply departing for Europe and remaining there for a nice little trip of three weeks. They must return to the point at which they are involved. That is tremendously important.
To this end, when we move on to consideration of the method of voting we find ourselves in considerable difficulty. There is before the European Assembly at present, as I have said, a very clear report which states that all members of the EEC, no matter where they are resident, should have the right to vote in their countries of origin. Her Majesty's Government have said that they will not go along with that, but this is a very specific and very strong plank of the arguments that are being put forward. I leave aside the panic that this will cause in countries such as Ireland when it is realised that all the Irish who have been resident in Great Britain for over 40 years will have the right to vote in Eire. However, it is indicative of the lack of reality that we see day by day in the discussion of these constitutional matters.
We are facing very considerable problems in Britain, but I do not believe that we should move lightly towards any system of proportional representation because I do not think for one moment that this Parliament has discussed or examined the implications, either for itself, in terms of General Elections in Britain, or in terms of what would happen in the future. As a Parliament, we still have not worked out how best to oversee the machinery of the EEC. Those who say that the national Parliament would have basic votes on important questions rather lightly skate over the situation that exists at present.
From the Commission directives—which when passed by the Council of Ministers will have the force of law—are coming forth at a rate of knots. This Parliament is one of the few which endeavours—I put it no higher than that—to examine the contents of those directives. Those of us who sit here in the small hours of the morning know that this is not an effective means of considering the contents of directives, many of which have far-reaching consequences. Indeed, with the "take note" procedures, even if the directives are debated, their implications are still lost on the majority of the electorate because they are still not made public, and in many instances they are passed without being voted upon.
The suggestion is made that once we have elected our representatives to Europe all that will change. That is totally and utterly untrue. At present the Commission consists of a civil service that is completely frozen into existing postures, and these cannot be altered because of the nationality bargaining in the control of certain posts. The Commission brings to the Assembly various directives which, whatever the views of the elected representatives, are still decided upon, in the final analysis, by the Commission and the Council of Ministers.
In many instances fundamental decisions are taken which are against the interests of the British people and they are never fully explored in this House. I do not believe that we should move lightly to a system of government that is very fundamentally different from our own without explaining to the British people exactly what we are proposing to do and without considering the implications for the House of Commons.
To me, Westminster must be and always will remain paramount. I shall fight fiercely to keep the powers of examination that we have here at present. They may be inadequate in many instances, but we must have them.
Those who say rather lightly that we are now in Europe and we must accept the implications of being Europeans do not honestly tell the electorate exactly what they mean by this. It is this House which must decide the interests of the British people. We have actually produced a unique species in Europe. The Germans, when putting forward political arguments, are deeply concerned with the interests of the German people, and very rightly so. The French, when putting forward political arguments, are even more deeply concerned with the interests of the French people.
We have a unique species which I, for one, hope will soon die out. It is the European who believes that whatever is proposed in Brussels or Luxembourg must be right, irrespective of what it does. This European is prepared to accept every proposal without debate or consideration, and will actually go to the extent of accusing those of us who put forward a British point of view of being narrow-minded and incapable of facing up to the European implications.
The British Press is unique. The French Press represents the French point of view, the German Press the German point of view, the Italian Press the Italian point of view and so on. But the British Press represents the Commission's point of view, and in that respect it is utterly and totally unique.
If we allow direct elections to go ahead without thinking about the method, about how the elected representatives will fit into our system and about how we will oversee what will grow out of that elected body in the way of legislation, we shall be failing in our duty to ourselves and to the people of this country. In a few years' time we shall not be debating whether to change our electoral system but we shall be debating instead the political implications of whether we have done the best thing for our people.
Most of the comments made by the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) have been covered in debates that we have had in this House in the past 18 months and in the Select Committee. As a member of the Select Committee, I thank the Minister of State for his kind words about our work last year. We are disappointed that the Minister of State and his colleagues did not take up the advice of the Select Committee at a much earlier stage.
Take the situation of the system to be adopted. There were some pertinent questions put on this matter by the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart), and I hope that the Home Secretary will answer them when he replies. The Select Committee, in its Second Report, devoted nearly three pages to the arguments and discussions about the question of the system that could be used for direct elections, yet the Minister of State said that there was not enough information. That was why he wanted to take advice from the House. But it is all there—on pages 7, 8 and 9, The Select Committee even came up with a view on the best system, which it put into its report.
My views were made plain in the debate that we had in March. Personally, I consider that the Bill is more important than the system itself. While I would be prepared to accept either a regional list system or first past the post. I would prefer first past the post for the reasons given in the Select Committee's report. I hope that this is the system which goes through the House.
It seems essential that we should all concentrate on how to proceed from here. It is clear from what has been said both today and last week that Ministers do not appear to be clear themselves about what will happen. Ministers say that they want to listen to the views of the House. That is very refreshing for the House. I have been a Member here for nearly 20 years, and it is very rare for Ministers to admit that they want to hear what the House has to say. It is even rarer for them to act on the House's advice.
I urge the Government to look back at what has been said in debates during the last 18 months. We had a Green Paper a year ago and a two-day debate in March last year. On 12th July last we had a debate on the Adjournment. On 7th February this year we had a debate on a motion, and on 25th March we had a debate on a motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills). Last week we had the first day of this debate, and today wrt are completing it. We had a Select Committee set up on 12th May last year, and it has produced three reports. The House knows the dates of those three special reports, and the Government have had endless opportunities to listen to the views of hon. Members.
However, it is not good enough just to listen to views. If one added together all the debates, one would get the views of only about 50 or 60 hon. Members. If the Government really want to know how the House feels, they must have a Division. It would be perfectly possible to have a one-day debate on the Select Committee's report, as has been suggested by my right hon and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon). It is all here in the report—all the evidence is in front of us. Views were put forward to the Committee and these are incorporated in the report. We could have a straight vote on that report On whether the House agreed that the Select Committee's advice should be carried out. That would solve the problem. As the House knows, the Select Committee's advice was that we should adopt the first-past-the-post system.
The Government could then go away and draft the Bill, and in the clause covering the system they could insert the first-past-the-post system, if the House agreed. On the other hand, if the vote went against the report, the Government could then insert the other proposal which has been broadly supported by those in favour of PR—the regional list system. From the Government's point of view, that solution is the most honourable and the most fair.
I have sat here through both days of this debate and it is becoming very clear from the speeches from both sides of the House that an overwhelming majority of hon. Members want the first-past-the-post system, and this underlines the point put forward by the Select Committee. It would be the simplest way of avoiding a damaging situation from emerging when the Bill comes before the House. If the Bill were brought before the House with no view on the system, we could quickly find ourselves in a difficult position. I am sure that the Government do not want that.
I do not know what the Government's views or plans are regarding a guillotine. Is it their intention to bring in a timetable motion at the same time as they table the Bill? I should be interested to know the Home Secretary's reply to that question. But I doubt whether he will reply to it. The right hon. Gentleman will probably foist it off on to his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. This matter is extremely important. It will affect whether the Bill gets through in time to become law for us to have direct elections in 1978 with the rest of the Community.
The Government knew last September everything that they know today. Last September, following the Select Committee's Third Report, they had all the details that they needed. Indeed, they had all the discussion in this House that they needed in order to draft a Bill and to present it to the House. But they have not done so. Why not? We were not given an answer by the Foreign Secretary last week and, with due deference to the Minister of State, we have not received an answer from him today.
The Government are now in real danger of tripping up when this legislation comes before the House, unless they are prepared to think again and to decide firmly to have a vote on the system before the Bill comes before the House.
I should like to mention one other point on the two main issues which have been discussed during this two-day debate. I refer now to the dual mandate. The hon. Member for Crewe made some pertinent points. Of course, being a Member of the European Parliament, the hon. Lady knows the difficulties involved in representing and working in two Parliaments at the same time. However, I think she will agree that the Select Committee went into this problem in some detail.
I believe that it would be wrong to insist on anybody being a Member of both Parliaments and that it would be equally wrong to insist that any Member could not be a Member of both Parliaments. The answer suggested by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) is probably the right one on the other hand is the possibility of a European Grand Committee with party links. That is a possibility. However, I think that the answer is to wait until the elections have taken place and then to work out in a detailed fashion the method or methods by which Members of the European Parliament can be kept closely in touch not only with what goes on in the constituencies—that is very important—but with links in this House.
Does the hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the ambit of responsibility of both the European Assembly Member, if elected, and the Member of Parliament here is obviously the same—for instance, with regard to matters such as the dental document with which we were dealing earlier today? Therefore, does not that mean that they will be competitive, not co-operative?
—on EEC matters as well as on other subjects—are different from the detailed problems facing European Members. As I see it, the ideal of the European Member is that he should bring the European Parliament closer to the people of this country. At the moment they are represented at one stage removed by nominated Members from this House. If we have direct elections, we shall have the link between the Member in the European Parliament and the electorate in the constituencies.
Frankly, if there is any point in the committee work inside the European Assembly, it is because it is dealing with practical political problems—for example, unemployment and education—all of which not only have a European dimension but are basically questions which affect ordinary people. How will such matters be better explained to the electorate if they have no idea what their own national Parliaments are doing?
That is the very point I am attempting to make. There must be a link between Members of the European Parliament and the Westminster Parliament. The question is, what kind of link should it be? The Select Committee put forward certain ideas. One was for a European Grand Committee in which Members from this House would sit at the same time as Members from the European Parliament.
The hon. Lady shakes her head. Many people do not agree with that idea. I accept that it is a controversial and difficult problem. However, we must find some way to link the two. I do not think that the answer is to compel Members standing for the European Parliament also to be Members of this Parliament. Such a system could not work. Logistically it would be impossible to function with over 80 Members of the European Parliament also being Members of the Westminster Parliament. Apart from that, the strain on the individual Member would be overwhelming. We must find some other way round it. I am not sure what the right answer is, but it must and will be found.
I should like now to refer to the franchise. The Select Committee in its Third Report makes plain that it thought that British nationals working in EEC countries should have the chance to vote in the European elections. That suggestion was turned down in the White Paper. I do not understand the reason for that decision. I can understand the Government perhaps choking on the idea that British nationals world-wide should have the chance to vote, which the Select Committee also recommended, but I do not understand why they find it impossible to accept that British nationals working for private firms in the Community should not have the same ability to vote in the European elections as members of the Armed Forces or of the Diplomatic Service.
I make that point particularly because, if the Minister of State will turn to the evidence given to the Select Committee, on page 12 of the minutes of evidence given on 14th October 1976, he will see that one of his officials sets out extremely skilfully how it would be done:
It occurred to us that there could be a form of declaration covering nationality and patriality; the form in those respects would list a number of relevant facts which the declarant would indicate to be applicable in his case and which would be relevant to a claim to patriality. He would not be asked to say in what is potentially a very involved matter whether or not he was a patrial, because in many cases he could not tell. We had in mind also that this form could be of the nature of a statutory declaration which could be a deterrent to lighthearted statements. It would in that case be capable of attestation all over the world, and not merely in those parts where there was a consular or diplomatic officer, by a notary public".
That seems to be an answer to the problem of the franchise. I should be grateful if the Minister of State would ask his right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to look at that point again.
I am sorry for keeping the House so long as I know that many of my hon. Friends wish to speak in the debate. However, I should again like to underline the fact that it is essential that the Government get the Bill on the statute book quickly. They could have brought the Bill before the House in January and got it through all stages so that it could now be in the other place, but they decided for their own party political reasons not to do that. I hope that the Government will now have second thoughts, will bring the Bill in very quickly and will make certain that it becomes law in time for us to carry out our comitment to our friends throughout the Community.
Order. As so many hon. Members still wish to take part in the debate, I feel that I should make an appeal for brevity in speeches. I made a careful study of the reporting of Members' speeches in "Tonight in Parliament". I found that the highest proportion comprised those which took five to six minutes rather than those which took longer. If hon. Members doubt that, they may make their own study.
The hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Sir A. Royle) made a most interesting speech. I agree with him that the Government have dithered over this issue for a long time and that they are continuing to dither. Indeed, that is the view of this country on this matter. It does Parliament no good at all. I believe that the electorate would echo at least one sentiment expressed by the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon)—namely, that the sooner the House proceeds to a vote, the better. I also agree with the hope expressed by the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey that the Government will embody their final conclusions in the Bill and bring it before the House at the earliest possible moment.
I make no pretensions for what I have to say this evening. The Government have sought the advice of the House collectively and individually, and I feel it incumbent on me to say in a few words where I stand on the general principle and the proper method of direct elections. I shall do so in accordance with your injunction to be brief, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
I want to stress that in my view, the principle is far more important than the method. I have little patience with the minority of hon. Members on both sides of the House who do not wish direct elections to be held at all and who would like nothing better than to thwart the Government's intentions. They are opposed to direct elections in principle and in my view they should make their posture plain when they address the House on this issue. They are not only flying in the face of the massively declared verdict of the electorate in the referendum—with all its resultant implications, including the holding of direct elections—but they seek to hold back in Canute fashion the tide of history.
Even though geographically Britain is an island, the nation is not. If we are to survive, let alone prosper, it will be in partnership with our European friends and allies. I speak as a British Socialist who feels strongly that British Socialists have a positive part to play in the life and the affairs of the Community. If we and our Socialist friends in the Community seek, as many of us do, to change the Community's policies and improve its institutional machinery, we cannot sit back sulking on the side lines.
I also believe that during the past two years Labour Members, including—and almost pre-eminently—my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) have been a beneficial influence in the European Parliament, bringing much greater realism into its debates and more bite into its relationships with the Council and the Commission. They have made only a beginning, and I want to see a much stronger contingent of British Socialists making their presence felt in a critical and constructive way after next year's elections.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe was not right when she suggested that those of us who are strongly pro-European and have always been so are lacking in constructive criticism of the Community's institutions. We have always been conscious of the distortions produced by the common agricultural policy, which is absurd, with its enormous surpluses. It is absurd that so much of the surpluses should be sold off at subsidised prices to Iron Curtain countries, and of course we want to remedy these defects.
If we are to hold direct elections next May or June, to which we are committed in honour, we must provide legislation at the earliest possible moment unless by default we are to incur considerable national ignominy, with the most serious spin-off effects on our economic and external relationships in other directions. I appreciate the difficulties with which my right hon. Friends have had to contend, but further dilatoriness would jeopardise the elections themselves, creating new and horrendous problems for this country.
I now come briefly to the method. It must be a matter for each hon. Member to consider and analyse the White Paper and decide which he feels to be in the interests not only of the country but of his own party, combining national and party interests, to produce what each hon. Member in conscience believes to be the right method. I believe that the best method—not least because it would present the least problems in the short time that we have—which above all produces the fairest result would be the regional list system built around the recognised economic planning regions and proportional representation.
Some of us believe that electoral systems should evolve continuously, and that sooner or later some form of proportional representation could produce a more democratic and flexible national Parliament, with considerable benefit to this country. That has been the consequence of proportional representation systems in other countries, not least Socialist countries which have had Governments over long periods and can claim to have produced Governments as least as stable as the Government that the people of this country have elected since the end of the war. But that is another subject, perhaps a more remote subject, but one which the House may in due course have to consider.
The objections to that system being used for the election of an executive Government certainly do not apply to a European Parliament that is still a mainly deliberative Assembly with little executive power. That is one of the reasons why I see no objection whatever to its being used for the European Parliament, bearing in mind all the differences between that Parliament and our national Parliament. I do not know why these objections and protests should be raised at the mere suggestion of introducing proportional representation into the elections next year.
Of course, political parties naturally favour systems that they think will operate to their own advantage. There have been occasions in the past when my own party has looked with a slightly less jaundiced eye on systems other than first past the post. One recalls the Speaker's Conference of 1917 and the stand taken by the Labour Party in 1918 with the Liberals and the Irish. At that time there were not the ideological or the supposed ideological objections to that system that have since been directed towards proportional representation.
If it suits us to have proportional representation, we shall naturally uphold that system. The time is rapidly coming when not only in the national interest but also possibly in the Labour Party's interest we should take a further considered look at alternative systems.
There are some urgent problems that we must consider, not least in the Labour Party's own interests. We must bear in mind what might happen to the Labour Party at a time of undoubted mid-term unpopularity—a passing unpopularity, but one that is there nevertheless—if we were to have a first-past-the-post system of direct elections that might produce farcical results in terms of our representation in the European Parliament.
It would seem to be in the Labour Party's interest and in the interests of Socialists throughout Europe, and the interests that we as Socialists represent, that we should have a strong Socialist representation in the European Parliament. That is most unlikely to be achieved unless we have a system that will provide fair representation not only for Labour Members but for minority interests of other parties, so that they, too, may voice their views.
My conscience is being buffeted. My hon. Friend says that I must not look to the political benefits of the first-pass-the-post system in this country, that I must rise above that on principle and have proportional representation, but I must look to the political effects on the Labour Party of first past the post in Europe, and for that reason I ought to go over to proportional representation. Why does not my hon. Friend come clean and say that he is in favour of proportional representation here because he thinks that it would lead to minority coalition Government, which he favours?
My hon. Friend has drawn the wrong inference from what I was saying. I should not be coming clean in saying any such thing. I would not believe that to be the conclusion to be drawn, nor is it one that I would wish. What I have said in regard to proportional representation and Europe is based on firm arguments.
In conclusion, I do not believe that the dual mandate, whether compulsory or optional, would be to the advantage of our Parliament or the European Parliament, and I hope that the Government will reject any such proposal.
The Government have adopted the commendable posture of listening to the House.
I am not in favour of a federal Europe, but I am in favour of extending democracy in Europe. The Government seem to lack enthusiasm for this measure, and this can be seen when we compare it with their attitude to devolution. One of the reasons why the Government lost the devolution debate and finally devolution itself was that they did not campaign for it in the country and did not carry it there so that the people at the grass roots in the constituencies believed it to be worthwhile.
The same applies to direct elections. The people in this House who are enthusiastic for direct elections can claim the advantage of the first-past-the-post system or some other method, but unless the people of this country feel involved and feel that it is something important the whole exercise will be in vain. I have taken the trouble to consult some people in South-East Wales to find out what they think. I found no great enthusiasm. This is not a burning topic of conversation in the coffee houses of Cardiff or the other institutions of that area. People find it difficult to understand why the proponents of an Assembly to look after such important matters as the Welsh Tourist Board cannot be found campaigning for a democratic influence in a European Parliament.
There are some people—I believe them to be in the minority—who are opposed to any involvement in the Common Market. They want no involvement and no further extension of our position in Europe. There seems to be a majority, even among those who favour direct elections, against any form of federation.
Their fears could only have been heightened by the words of the Foreign Secretary in his opening speech when he referred to Europe's two disastrous civil wars. Europe has not been one nation, and the people of Britain can only be suspicious of a Foreign Secretary who announces that the Second World War was a civil war. That is to rewrite history. We cannot ignore hundreds of years of separate development.
The Foreign Secretary went a stage further and said that it was a measure of the Community's success that no one today was likely to fear a third civil war in Europe. That was to argue what the people of this country have demonstrably rejected, namely, that Europe consists only of the Nine. There are other countries in Europe, and one must ask what NATO and the Warsaw Pact are all about if we do not fear some form of war in Europe.
This talk of treating the Nine as though we have been one nation for a long time, and the idea that we are moving rapidly to a form of European Government, is dangerous because it will arouse suspicions and anger among the people of this country.
It is proposed that Wales should have four members of the European Assembly. The hon. Member for Caernarvon (Mr. Wigley) drew attention to the fact that Ireland, whose population is the same as that of Wales, would have 15 Members as a separate nation. Certainly if Wales wish to be a separate nation it could easily become so, through the ballot box, whenever it wished. We could have our own representative at the United Nations and our own Foreign Secretary and Prime Minister, but we choose overwhelmingly not to do so because we believe that we gain great strength from being part of the United Kingdom. We believe that our four places in the Assembly will be of greater strength because they will be part of the 81 places for the United Kingdom as a whole. Our strength is being part of the United Kingdom, and we reject the argument that being separate would give us great strength.
There has been considerable discussion about the sort of system we should use for the elections. I find the list system attractive because it would be politically advantageous. I have belonged all my life to a party that represents a significant minority, but a minority nevertheless, in Wales. With a list system, the Conservative Party, which regularly polls between 20 per cent. and 30 per cent. of votes in Wales, would get at least one member, and I find that an attractive proposition. However, I am prepared to wait for the day when we can argue and develop our case in Wales and establish a position in which we can win seats, even on a first-past-the-post basis, in the four Welsh constituencies.
The first-past-the-post system will unquestionably present difficulties in the European Assembly. It would be difficult for a European Member to represent 500,000 people as effectively as an hon. Member of this House can represent the interests and needs of 50,000 people. However, I believe that one could effectively represent the interests of, for example, North Wales, and bring a democratic influence to bear on parts of the south-east corner of Wales. I find it attractive in an election for an Assembly which does not form a government and which will not pass legislation.
Occasionally an eminent Welshman may stand as an independent. He would have no chance of being elected under a list system. Representing a constituency in the South-East of Wales, such a person would have a chance of being elected and thus making the Welsh voice heard in Europe.
There are dangers in a shortened process, and it is possible that boundaries will not be drawn as fairly as they might be. It is possible that the civil servants of the Welsh Office would be able to give more care and attention to the details submitted than could other organisations which lack such expertise. Nevertheless, because I believe that the first-past-the-post system is nearest to our traditional interests, will effectively represent definite areas of opinion in Wales, not in the interests of giving away the powers of this House to a European Assembly but in the interests of making that Assembly a little more democratic, I support the proposition.
I pay deference to the time limit. I look at the White Paper in terms of history. There are other nations, such as Spain, Portugal, Greece and Turkey which will be looking at what happens in the elections and watching how they are conducted in this country. To that extent the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) was quite correct to say that a representative would be impotent if he were not a member of a political movement as referred to by Burke.
I am a first-past-the-post man. I am against Members of the House of Commons having the dual mandate. We must have direct elections as a result of the referendum—that new element involved in consulting the people when all of the archangels in Parliament could not make up their mind what the people wanted. Direct elections must come, whether in 1978 or 1998. The principle is established. We have to decide the constituencies. How are we to deal with a Member sending out an election address over such a wide area? My constituents would be voting for me and no one else as a sphere of influence in the European Assembly. The items discussed there are unlikely to be related to those discussed in this House. I am, therefore, against a dual mandate. I support the holding of direct elections at the earliest moment.
I am against those resident in Europe having the right to take part in elections. Assuming that I were to stand, it would cost me a fortune to send my election address to potential electors within Europe. It would be a nonsense to introduce this provision. Such people have lost face by going there. Let them stay there. The people of this country would have the right to vote.
May I offer my sincere thanks to the hon. Member for Glasgow, Garscadden (Mr. Small), on behalf of all hon. Members, for making such a short speech? He has taken only two minutes.
I declare my approach to the subject at once: I voted to remain in Europe. I have been a European although I was initially a reluctant convert. What concerns me is the effect upon the British electorate if European representatives are elected by an alternative system to the first-past-the-post system. Not only would this have an effect in Europe, it would have an effect in this country ultimately.
Great pressure is being exerted outside this House by a lobby that has gained support over the past two or three years—and which seems to have much money behind it—for a change to be made in our electoral system. That lobby sees any change in Europe as a means of bringing about that change here. I am suspicious and I do not like it.
If there were to be a change in our electoral system now, it would seem to the people that yet another effect of our going into Europe was that we had to change our electoral system. That would have serious repercussions on the attitude of the general public towards the Common Market. I do not believe that the Common Market is highly popular at present, because of food price rises, fishing policy, and other matters. Perhaps it will settle in time. However, if the public saw that there had to be an alteration in the electoral system, it would blame that on the Common Market, which in turn would do harm to the cause of Europe.
For the past 30 years there has been a crisis of confidence among the leaders of this country. This has been manifest in various trends and fashions. We have seen it in the building of tower blocks, huge comprehensive schools, local government reorganisations, decimalisation and metrication These have not been popular with the majority of our people, who prefer to move slowly. If they see another change being implanted from outside, there could well be repercussions that could harm Europe and affect the status of this House.
I do not propose just to defend the first-past-the-post system which operates in this Chamber. In the long run, it produces pretty good government. When it has not produced strong government, it has been because the electorate was not certain which party to elect. The electorate had not made up its mind to give anyone a long-term mandate. The system has not prevented the rise of third parties when they have not arisen for frivolous reasons. We had a three-party system in this House after the repeal of the Corn Laws. There was a similar situation which led to the rise of the Labour Party. If other parties do not rise and win elections, it shows that there is no deep feeling for them.
One of the arguments for proportional representation is that those elected to this House and to Europe should represent an overall proportion of the opinions of the people. If it is right that 20 per cent. of opinions should be represented proportionately, why not 10 per cent. or 5 per cent.? Why not have for Europe a Member for one eighty-first, which amounts to 1·2 per cent. of the population? Why not have a figure of 0·16 per cent., or one six-hundred-and-thirty-fifth for Westminster? If we are to have proportional representation, the only case in fairness is to have every minority group represented.
Such a system would mean the breakup of our party system, which has successfully contained extremes of Left and Right over 200 years. There is no doubt that the rise of the Nazis in Germany was initially due to proportional representation, as was the rise of Communism in Italy and France. Once a few Members were elected, the party gained a platform and a legitimacy. I strongly disagree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), who said that it was contemptible to argue against proportional representation. Many of us here do not want extreme parties, such as the National Front or the extreme Trotskyists, to be represented. My right hon. Friend said that such people must be out-manoeuvred and out-argued. Germany had to impose a minimum of 5 per cent. of votes to be represented and even then it nearly got extremist parties. It had to outlaw the extreme Right and Left of two parties.
I do not believe that the argument is contemptible. First past the post is the basis of a true party system, which in this country has ensured political stability. If we reduce things to a proportional representation system so that the Liberals are represented with their 20 per cent., why not have everyone who can poll 5 per cent.? We should soon have extremists in the House who would be given the legitimacy and the platform of which I have spoken.
Occasionally, surveys are made in which people are asked: "Do you want a fairer system of electing people, so that minorities are represented?" Everyone replies "Yes". All of these surveys depend for their success upon how they are worded. That is why many of us are doubtful about surveys. Without a doubt, in that context the man who pays the price gets the answer that he wants.
If the question were asked "Do you want your own member to represent you?" in the course of a survey, 80 per cent. or 90 per cent. of those asked the question would answer "Yes". If they were asked "Do you want extremist parties represented in Parliament?" 80 per cent. or 90 per cent. would say "No". If they were asked "Do you want personal immortality?" they would all answer "Yes". It would then be said that the whole country believes in personal immortality. I do not have the greatest confidence in such surveys.
Another argument advanced by one of my hon. Friends is that we must walk in step. The instance was made of the old story of the mother who, seeing the troops march past, said "Everyone is out of step but my Johnnie". That example was delivered in a Scottish accent, and I cannot quote it in the accent that was used last week.
I do not think that the argument applies. It is a good thing for all people in one army to march in step, but various armies can walk in different steps as long as they arrive at the same place. In Europe practically every army has a different way of marching. If some people march in one way, I do not see why we in Britain—I speak as an English patriot—have to march in the same way. If the rest of the world stands on its head and suffers brain seizure as a result, why should we do the same?
Our system of first past the post has been in operation for a long time. It has provided more stability than has been enjoyed elsewhere. The contact between the ordinary Member of Parliament and his constituents is vital. It is vital to the continuance of our system. It keeps us in touch with what the public are thinking. It ensures that we are not mere pawns of a party. I want to see the present system continue.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup referred to the 81 Members being allowed to speak in this Chamber but not to vote. Surely the public would think that this place is a mere talking shop if 81 Members were to come here to speak but not to vote. Apart from that consideration, as was said in an intervention last week, how and when are some Members to get in after Privy Councillors, ex-Ministers and the 81 Members who may talk but not vote? Such a system would put a different complexion on the whole of our meetings in this Chamber. That is a prospect that I do not like.
We are told that it will take much longer to produce 81 individual constituencies in the United Kingdom than a regional list. I have found throughout my life—probably other hon. Members have found the same—that when someone does not want to do something, it is said that it is too expensive or that it will take too long. That is the effect of what is now being said. I believe that if we put six people in a room and locked them in, telling them to group together collections of seven or eight constituencies throughout the country, they would come out with the answer at the end of the day. It would be demonstrated that such boundary changes could be made in a comparatively short time. Surely the grouping of constituencies can be done quite simply and should be done.
As hon. Members may have gathered, I do not like any form of proportional representation. I much prefer the first-past-the-post system, which has served the country for a long time. We have thrown so many things away only to regret having done so. I do not want anything thrown away that relates to our electoral system.
As a reluctant European who still is in favour of Europe, I shall become much more reluctant if we have to change our electoral system as a result of what is happening in Europe. On behalf of the many who support Europe without the enthusiasm of missionaries, I say let us keep the first-past-the-post system both in Europe and in this country for the security of our people and for the views of most of us in this place.
Most of those who have taken part in the debate have been concerned with the mechanics of the electoral system that is to be used for direct elections, but most hon. Members have not tried to conceal that they are primarily concerned with the issue of principle. Some have said that they will accept any electoral system provided that we have direct elections. Others have made it clear that the major factor in choosing which system to adopt is whether it will enable us to meet the timetable. Others have pointed out that the issue is of limited importance as, presumably, we shall eventually have to adopt a uniform system that is unlikely to be our existing system or any system that we adopt in the interim.
I make no apology for approaching the debate on the issue of principle. I say clearly that I am opposed to the principle of direct elections. Some have argued that the issue of principle is no longer open to us and that it has mysteriously been decided already by the commitment of the Government. That view has been well and truly refuted throughout the debate.
It is true that there are still some who seem to have difficulty in distinguishing between Parliament and Government. It may be that their difficulty in grasping one of the basic features of our constitution goes some way towards explaining their enthusiasm for adopting another system. It is then said that, quite apart from anything else, we must accept direct elections because they were covered by the referendum, although throughout the campaign no mention was made on behalf of the Government that they have not proceeded under the treaty but have undertaken a new agreement.
If it is said, as it sometimes is, that the consequence of the result of the referendum was that direct elections may take place, the answer is that many other matters were mentioned by our side—for example, rising food prices and a swollen trade deficit. The "Yes" vote demonstrated not that those warnings were not approved by the electorate, or that it wanted the things against which we warned, but that it preferred not to believe us. How much it must regret that now.
The argument that we must accept the referendum does not advance the matter very much. Of course we accept the referendum. The referendum confirmed our membership of the EEC, no more, no less. It is for that reason that we are still members. The referendum did not mean that the United Kingdom is a member in every circumstance. It did not mean that we must suspend all critical judgment and that we must cease to press for changes that would help us or resist developments that would be harmful to us.
The EEC is a dynamic organisation. We cannot be bound to accept every proposal served up to us on the basis that it bears the label "Made in Brussels" If membership is dependent, as we are constantly assured, on the continued assent of the British Parliament, it cannot be that on an issue that still requires the decision of the House we do not have the right and duty to exercise judgment in reaching a decision. Let us have no more nonsense about accepting the referendum. We are told by omniscient journalists and opinion formers that there is no respectable argument against direct elections.
We are used to the notion that all those who failed to perceive the revealed truth from Brussels must be knaves or scoundrels, but our willingness to acknowledge our sins is slightly tempered by one small issue—namely, is it not precisely those self-same people who with the same assurance, moral virtue and self-righteousness assured us that food prices would be stable and our trade would benefit from a wider home market? They have been proved fundamentally wrong, yet we look in vain for any sort of humility or uncertainly as they now repeat the whole exercise of direct elections.
I shall try to adduce one or two arguments which, while perhaps they are not respectable, may explain why heresy persists. They concern two concepts that have featured largely in the debate, namely, federalism and democracy. We have been assured that direct elections will not lead to federalism. Strange though it may seem, some of us have read the Tindemans Report. Some of us have read the Commission's report on political union. Some of us talk to colleagues in Germany, the Netherlands and elsewhere who say openly that their objective is federalism. They would laugh to scorn any suggestion that direct elections are not to do with federalism.
Our record of ensuring that our view in such matters prevails over the weight of Continental opinion is very poor. It is not merely a question of assessing which of rival sets of objectives is likely to prevail. There is also the question of political realities. It is in the nature of things that politicians who are able to claim democratic legitimacy will do so. They will seek to extend their powers. They will seek to exercise the powers that they already have. Therefore, it is pointless to underestimate the way in which the situation in Strasbourg or wherever else it might be will be transformed by the simple fact of direct elections.
Other institutions within the Community will help in the development. The Commission will support direct elections because it sees the European Assembly as a cloak of democratic respectability that will help to mask a transfer of power to it from the Council of Ministers. Even the Council will see and take advantage of the new situation. Ministers will say that these are matters which have been or are to be dealt with by the European Assembly, which is what it was elected for. When we say "But we are the elected representatives of the British people", we shall be told that there is another set of British Members of Parliament and that it is their responsibility and their competence to take these decisions.
How shall we resist when finally we are shown the last hoop through which we must jump, when the final details of the blueprint are revealed to us? All the familiar arguments will be used. We shall be told that we must have known, when we voted for direct elections, that federalism was on the agenda, and that we must be taken to have agreed to it. It is implicit in the argument for direct elections that there is an area of governmental activity which is not, which cannot, or which should not be within the competence of this House to look at, and that that deficiency should be made good.
That area exists at the moment. If the Commission issues a directive, the power of this House over it is non-existent. We are arguing about whether this Parliament should have its rôle in checking Ministers and whether the European Parliament should have any rôle at all in checking the issue of Community legislation.
My hon. Friend is wrong on the detail. A directive is a matter which must come to this House. But he is right and he makes my case for me when he says that there is already a level of government which at the moment is beyond the control of this House. We have to decide whether to bring back that control here or to proceed to a federal Europe. If that is not the objective of the business of direct elections, why are we bothering?
A directly elected European Assembly will be either superfluous or federalist, and no soothing platitudes can conceal that simple logic. But we are told that it will at least be democratic, and here the real nature of the trap is revealed. We are told that, if we want democracy, it must be federalist democracy. The tragedy is that I believe that we shall get the federalism without the democracy. The federalism will arise not because of any positive democratic virtues of the system, but because, by default, the possibility of this Parliament having a say in such matters will have disappeared. That is because any apparent gain in democratic control will be offset by the exclusion of this House from the process of legislating for this country in many important areas.
The substitution of Strasbourg for Westminster will be an unequal exchange. It is impossible to conceive that there will be the same direct link between constituents and Members. It is impossible to conceive that Strasbourg will model itself on the Westminster concept of parliamentary democracy, that it will undertake the same challenge and control of the Executive and that it will undertake the same detailed scrutiny of legislation.
Most importantly, the mere fact that elections will take place will not guarantee democracy. Democracy exists only where the people who elect their representatives are willing to allow them to be overruled if they are in a minority on matters of vital importance. That can exist only where there is such a community of interest and a common identity as to allow such matters to be subordinate to the general will.
In my view, since there is no sign that the British people have yet reached that state of willingness to have these matters decided elsewhere, direct elections in themselves cannot bring about democracy. If the decision-making power is transferred in the way envisaged, that will mean a net and substantial reduction in democracy. In other words, democracy grows and develops from the people. It cannot be foisted upon the people as part of a blueprint of which they are scarcely aware.
We do not share the vision which a substantial minority of people have of a federal Europe. But we have our vision. It is a vision of a form of Government which is truly democratic because it represents the interests of the people and is something which they themselves demanded and created. We have a vision of a system of government and of political institutions which try to achieve control for ordinary people over their own affairs. It is not designed to secure and to facilitate the operations of major vested interests on a Europe-wide scale.
We have a vision of internationalism which does not rest on the creation of a huge political, military and economic complex, but which rests instead on the widest possible co-operation among mature and friendly nation States which recognise their common interests. Is there anyone arrogant enough to say that, because that vision differs from his, for that reason it is inferior or must be abandoned or is not respectable?
We shall defend that vision and seek support for it. We shall put it to the test in debate and argument in every form in which the principle may be presented. In the end we shall seek to resolve the matter by a vote and decision of the House of Commons, whose own future is so closely affected and where all such momentous issues must be decided.
The hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) has always been against Europe, so it is not surprising that he is against the principle of direct elections. However, he went a little too far when he called in aid the country's current problems as an argument against direct elections. He might just as well look at his own Front Bench if he does that.
My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Surrey (Sir A. Royle) regretted that the Government did not take up the Select Committee's report very much sooner, and I agree with him. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) said that there was no time for a discussion of proportional representation. The trouble with this House all too often is that there is never time to talk about matters which are important, either because they are too expensive or because they are not politically possible in the view of someone—usually the Government of the day.
The consequence of the Government's not taking up the Select Committee's report sooner—I suppose that this is part of what is called "the British political genius"—is that although, apparently, we are not to have a vote tonight, in reaching their conclusions the Government will have to rely upon the opinion poll taken by "Weekend World".
In my view, there is no such thing as a stable political scene. In politics, stability can be no more than relative because of natural change and the insistent demands of the electorate. Therefore, it is no use pretending that the EEC can be frozen in its present state of development. It will be in a constant state of flux, and its institutions likewise. Either it will move towards what the preamble to the Treaty of Rome described as
the ever closer union among the European peoples
or it will revert to the fragmentation of earlier times.
Setting aside day-to-day grumbles and problems, it seems to me that people generally prefer union and friendship to fragmentation and the likelihood of enmity. Therefore, I believe in being pushed along by the current of democracy. I do not believe in fighting rearguard actions against what I judge to be the force of destiny.
If the closer union is to be advanced, it seems to me that, regardless of other EEC institutions, a Parliament directly representative and, therefore, directly elected by the EEC peoples provides the best forum in which to establish common ground between people and to reconcile differences.
Whether, ultimately, this will lead to a federal Europe I do not know, and to my mind it is not relevant to this debate. But, if it should happen, it would do so only at the behest of the people of Europe speaking through their national Parliaments. To my mind, the union is just as likely to be as the relationship between brothers and sisters as that between husbands and wives—in other words, force of circumstance rather than institutional.
I am in favour, therefore, of direct elections, but I should prefer to be concessionary in my attitude towards the electoral system. I shall support any sensible system if it advances the certainty of direct elections. I do not regard the compulsory dual mandate as sensible. That apart, although I have a preference to which I shall refer, I shall be prepared to vote for a Bill containing any of the other three electoral systems suggested.
I prefer the single transferable vote. The overriding criterion of a European-type Assembly is that it should reflect the views of the electorate as a whole. It is not concerned with the need to form a Government, and therefore one of the main grounds for the first-past-the-post system does not apply.
I am concerned about the distortion of first past the post. I want to see Liberals and the Labour Party adequately represented now, and I believe that of they are not, or if electoral support should turn full circle and my party is not adequately represented, an unrepresentative party will be to one's advantage, possibly to the detriment of this country's relations with its other partners and certainly casting doubt on the credibility of the United Kingdom representation.
There is, then, the point which is made in favour of the first past the post system on the basis that anything else will require two changes—one for the first election and another for whatever final system is adopted. But why should we have such an inferiority complex in this respect? If we introduce a sensible system there is a chance that it might be adopted for the EEC as a whole. As the Minister of State pointed out in his opening speech, the uniform European procedure might in any case take time to introduce.
I get very fed up with the view which is sometimes expressed that apparently the electorate of this country is so stupid that it cannot understand any electoral system other than first past the post. I believe that if it is offered an alternative the electorate will understand it very quickly indeed.
Further in support of STV, I refer to paragraph 24 of the White Paper dealing with Northern Ireland. I agree with it, but its justification for proportional representation is the existence of a large minority. The nature of the minority may be unique, but the fact remains that there is a series of varying minorities throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. It seems a little odd and inconsistent to recognise the special circumstances of one minority but not of others. Others may not be so unique but they may be of equal importance, and that would certainly quickly be seen if a first-past-the-post election produced a result with no, or virtually no, Labour or Liberal Members.
As to the relationship of European Members with this House, I do not go all the way with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath). On balance, I would make the European Members ex officio Members of the House of Lords, but I would allow them all facilities of this House as though they were Members of the other place who had originally been Members of this House. In other words, I would allow them entry into the Library, the Smoking Room, the Tea Room and so forth. Hon. Members may laugh, but surely the whole objective of having those Members here is to provide an opportunity for discussion. There may be a certain amount of discussion which goes on along the Benches in this House, but much more goes on outside in the rest of the Palace of Westminster. I suspect that if my idea were adopted European Members would be influenced by hon. Members here and would influence them, just as much as would be the case if the European Members were ex officio speaking but non-voting Members of this House.
Finally, I hope that the fact that the Government have taken such a long time to get this far will not mean that they intend to move so slowly in future, and I encourage them to get a move on.
Order. The right hon. Gentleman who is to wind up for the Opposition has very kindly agreed to give us 10 minutes of his time in order to help to accommodate the large number of Members who are still anxious to take part. I hope that his gesture will not be needless.
I am very interested in the last point that the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) made about Members of the European Assembly being ex officio Members of this House. He will realise that that would require another Bill, another constitutional measure, to be passed. If he is concerned about a timetable, I hope that he takes into account the complications of his suggestion.
Both as a Back Bencher and as a member of the Cabinet, I was opposed to Britain's becoming a member of the EEC. Nothing has happened since we became a member—and my view was confirmed following the referendum—to make me change my mind. Indeed, I am perfectly sure that if we held a referendum again today the result would be very different indeed. Therefore, let those who are suggesting that there is a great surge of political feeling in the country that we should have direct elections and further enmesh ourselves in the EEC realise that they are quite wrong in this respect.
I know from my contacts that the people of Scotland are not the slightest bit interested in direct elections or in any kind of elections to the EEC at the present time. This is the year of the constitution, in which we have had debate after debate on the subject of the sovereignty of this House, and I have heard Members say from these Benches that they could not allow any devolution of power to Scotland. They said that it was a slippery slope and that in no time we would be completely separate. That is not a point of view that I share. Indeed, I take the very opposite view. But here we are taking a step which further enmeshes us in Europe and brings us back to the constitutional arguments and discussions that we had in 1971 and 1972 when we dealt with the Bill relating to the Community.
We should face the fact that we are now at the stage which many of us predicted at that time. I hope that everyone here has read the manifesto of the European Movement, in which it is stated that
The Movement demands that the first elections be held in May or June 1978".
The manifesto also says that
Direct elections are essential for European democracy. But they will fail in their objective if the European Parliament has little influence over Community affairs.
The European Movement is a harmless but pretty expensive organisation at the present time, but we never know what it is doing. I do not know whether the local papers publish all the speeches of the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing). We never discuss in this House what it does, and no one reports back to us. At the moment it is fairly meaningless, and this should be realised.
The manifesto goes on to say:
It will be essential to strengthen the Parliament's legislative and budgetary powers and its rôle in the appointment of the Commmunity's executive. The Parliament should share with the Council of Ministers the responsibility for the appointment of the Commission".
It adds that it will have to
secure control over Community affairs which national parliaments cannot influence effectively.
In other words, this is to be the first step to the further building up of a competitive organisation—and as it goes up, we shall go down. Let us face the logic of it. The pamphlet says so:
Unless the member governments accept this greater rôle for the European Parliament, their decision to hold direct elections will prove in the long run meaningless and detrimental.…
This is a case not of drifting but of walking blindly into the destruction of Parliament as we know it.
Some people may say that the decision has already been taken because of our entry into the EEC. I remember its being said at the time of the referendum that people did not know what they were voting for. It meant that we failed to tell them. One thing which stuck in my throat at the time was the suggested rôle of a European Assembly based on universal suffrage. That concept has been further expanded beyond the force of the treaty itself, in that the proposition is to have the elections under the same electoral law and on the same day. But when that proposition was first put, it was discovered that the Western Isles, for example, would not be likely to consent to voting on Sunday. Now the electoral law is to be our own for the first time but thereafter it has to be theirs.
That is in the first instance. They have not been able to decide it themselves in 20 years of the Common Market, but suddenly it all becomes very urgent for us. We have to go along with it because some of them have made up their minds, after 20 years, that they must have direct elections. We reaffirmed our decision to join the EEC only two years ago, and already we are asked to make changes that will affect this House and its powers, to change our electoral law and to do it all so that the first elections can be held in May next year.
As a Minister, I often found that civil servants sat for three months on something and eventually sent it to a Minister asking for an answer by next Wednesday. I always sent it back saying "I do not work against a date-line". Nor should this House do so. The Chairman of one of our Committees came forward, after due deliberation, with the view that the system should be the first past the post. Now he has changed his mind because first past the post cannot properly be done. How can we get the Bill, all the inquiries, the work of the Boundary Commissions and the rest in time for May or June or next year? It is all wrong that we should be dictated to by time on something of such vital importance to the future of the country.
Does anyone suggest that a change in electoral law for a European Assembly will have no carry-over into our own national and local elections? In May next year we shall have the regional elections in Scotland, based upon first past the post, and if some people get their way we shall, perhaps in the same week or even on the same day, have elections for Europe based on another system of electoral law. It is nonsense to be dictated to in this way. Let us get the time factor out of the situation for a start. Let us look more closely into the problem before making such changes.
The hon. Member for Brent, North (Dr. Boyson) suggested that six people could sit down and in a few hours divide the country into 81 constituencies. I should like to see him try to divide Scotland into eight, and do it in one day, without inquiry and protest and accusations of jerrymandering.
The more one examines this situation, the more one sees how nonsensical it is to suggest and work towards a timetable for May next year. We should forget the timetable. I know that we are corn-mined and that we have to face direct elections, but let them be later rather than sooner. We should certainly not distort our whole system for the sake of these direct elections. We should realise exactly what we are getting into. We should not be railroaded by the European Movement into doing something that we will deeply regret later.
For too long Governments have adopted the approach of doing something inter rather than sooner.
I shall be brief because time is short, and I do not want to repeat comments that others have made. I begin by paying my tribute to Sir Peter Kirk, whom I got to know well in four years at the European Parliament. I greatly admired the energy and devotion that he brought to the resolution of Community problems.
I did not attend the debate in this House on direct elections last Wednesday, because I was in the European Parliament. That is a comment on the organisation of Government business. The Government were subject to the same criticism the last time we debated the affairs of the European Parliament. This time not only did they choose the same week in which hon. Members were away in Strasbourg, but the same day the Foreign Minister was due to speak there and so had to be in two places at once. That shows that the organisation of Government business is neither particularly sensitive nor efficient.
I turn now to the question of the dual mandate. I and other hon. Members who go to the European Parliament have experienced the dual mandate. It is possible to operate such an arrangement over a limited time, but it puts a strain on the Members concerned. I do not know whether that was responsible for Sir Peter's death. No one will know. I do not think that it is possible to operate such a system for an extended period.
The idea of a compulsory dual mandate, as put forward in the White Paper, is plain nonsense. It would severely limit the number of candidates who were able to stand, and that would make it an impossible proposition.
There was then the idea proposed by the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), by which 81 Members would come to this House and speak but not vote. I am not very keen on that either. There were other ideas about co-ordination. For example, there is the idea advanced earlier by the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) of those Members going to the Lords and the co-ordination being done there. In practice, much of the basic co-ordination will be done through the political parties in the normal way, but if it is necessary to have direct co-ordination between the institutions, the most practical and simple approach would be some form of joint committee.
It would be almost unsatisfactory if the first European election prohibited British electors living and working within the Community institutions in Brussels and Luxembourg from voting. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility to find a way to enable them to vote.
The main question is increasingly not a matter of deliberative argument but of assertion and belief. There are people who suggest that those of us who favour the European Community, who are federalists and who believe in the EEC, have concealed that fact and have gone slinking around pretending that we do not believe in it. That is not true of myself or my political colleagues.
I find it difficult to come to terms with the attitudes expressed, for example, by the hon. Members for Faversham (Mr. Moate) and Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould), who regard a directly elected Assembly as less democratic than an Assembly nominated from this place.
The European Parliament is now an advisory body. I hope that it will change to something else, but that will not happen without the approval of each individual Parliament. If it changed, however, it would surely be more democratic to elect an Assembly than to appoint it.
There is no question about the commitment or the fact that it has long been discussed, and that is a fact that the right hon. Members for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) and Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross) must accept. People may have limited understanding of, or sometimes limited interest in, how these matters may ultimately end up, but it cannot be said that they have not been discussed. As a convinced federalist, I hope that we end up with a federal system. I say that quite openly, as I did throughout the referendum campaign. But what we decide in the next month or so may not necessarily have that consequence.
I shall touch on the question of the method of election quickly, because the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) enunciated clearly and fairly what I feel. The most incredible speech that I heard or read throughout the whole debate was that made by the hon. Member for Faversham who said:
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."—[Official Report, 20th April 1977; Vol. 930, c. 319.]
What do I do faced with that statement? I find it incomprehensible that someone takes that view.
The right hon. Member for Sidcup said—to his credit, because it is not a view he has always held—that he found it unacceptable that a person could be theoretically elected by one vote out of an electorate of between 500,000 and 600,000. I would repeat that view.
Northern Ireland has been discussed considerably. Why is the minority in Northern Ireland separate or distinct from, or more important than, any other minority?
There is also the question of the composition of the European Parliament. What we do here affects the political composition and the political balance of the European Parliament. If we distort representation here, we distort the composition of the Parliament itself.
We support the single transferable vote, and have consistently regarded it as preferable. It allows the public a direct opportunity of expressing their preferences and how they regard different tendencies within the political parties and their preferences for individuals.
On Wednesday the Minister of State, Home Office said that the STV business was complicated and that it took about three weeks to count in the Australian senatorial elections. With all respect to the Minister, that is a good example of superficial criticism of a system, first, because he failed to mention that the Australian Senate system operates on postal votes, and the votes cannot be sent out until polling day, and, secondly, because counting is not centralised. There could be much delay there with spoiled ballot papers because if there are 70 candidates and one is not marked up, that means a spoiled paper.
Perhaps the Minister did not know that there is compulsory voting in Australia. His criticisms were superficial. Such conditions do not operate here. In the 1945 General Election it took about three weeks before the count was completed, because of the votes of military personnel abroad. The Minister cannot advance that sort of argument as a criticism of STV.
In his peripatetic existence the hon. Gentleman is no doubt unaware that I advanced my argument not as a criticism but as a response to my hon. Friend the Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper), who asked me what experience we had of the length of time it took to count such votes.
If that was the Minister's reply, it gave me a false impression, as I am sure it gave his hon. Friend a false impression.
As a Liberal, I regard direct elections to the European Parliament as a potentially great step forward in the domocratisation of the institutions of the Community. But if we do not use the proportional system, it could be a false step that could bring great discredit upon a system of government in this country, which has a great reputation throughout Europe.
I hoped not to dwell at all on the principle of direct elections, because I had the ability to do so in a previous debate, but I must refer briefly to it because it has occupied much of the speeches of some hon. Members today.
Let me make my response to those who are against direct elections because they believe that they will lead ineluctably to a federal Europe. It must be stated by someone like myself that I believe and hope that that will be the case. I have no hesitation in saying that, but there is a great difference between stating that and hon. Members who are against direct elections saying that a federal Europe is inevitable, because it is not.
My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary would have done better not to try to suggest that a federal Europe is in the far and distant future; there is a suspicion among hon. Members opposed to direct elections about remarks about federation being a distant possibility only. He would have been better advised to draw the distinction between direct elections and the creation of a federal Europe.
Whatever argumentation there may be in this House and in this debate about it, direct elections were mentioned in the Treaty of Rome and were an obligation there for those Governments who signed that treaty or, as in our case, the Treaty of Accession. It is not an obligation on a Government who signed that treaty to create a federal Europe, and it is inconceivable, it seems to me—I think that the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) mentioned this—that we should proceed even from a directly-elected Parliament to a federal Europe without further consultation of the people both here and in the other countries of the Community.
Whether that consultation is by a General Election or a further referendum I know not, but there is a further watershed to be crossed before we get to a federal Europe. I hope that that watershed will be crossed, but it is important for the opponents of direct elections to recognise honestly that it exists.
Much play has been made by the opponents of direct elections of the crucial nature of the link between Members of this House and their constituencies. I do not dissent from those views, but I ask what links the present nominated or selected delegates to the European Assembly have with anyone at all.
I happen to know that the Labour Member selected to represent the East Midlands in the Community Parliament is my right hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Sir G. de Freitas). I know, too, that an Opposition Member for one of the Derbyshire constituencies is in the European Assembly. I do not hear regular reports from them. I do not believe that they are representing me or any of my constituents in Derbyshire or those in the East Midlands. I do not believe that that link between the citizens and European representatives will take place until we have a democratically-elected European Assembly.
I now turn briefly to what should have been the real topic of this debate: the modalities of direct elections, and first the dual mandate. I consider this to be total nonsense. It is inconceivable that the work load that will have to be carried by the directly elected Members of the European Assembly can possibly be combined, with any competence, with the work load that most Westminster Members of Parliament willingly undertake for their constituents. To try to persuade the citizens of this country that it would be possible to do both jobs would be a cruel deception of those citizens who may want to seek help in their normal constituency worries from someone who is also to be a Member of the European Parliament.
The compulsory dual mandate would be nonsense, and an optional dual mandate would be rejected by the people. Citizens would vote for those who said "If I am elected to the European Parliament, I shall at the next General Election undertake to resign my Westminster seat and work only for you in Europe." That would be the person who would get my vote rather than someone who said blithely "I shall carry on in both places. Do not worry. I shall look after you." I am strongly against a dual mandate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody) depicted a European Member of Parliament as likely to become part of a gilded insulated elite. That suggests to me that her 18 months in the European Parliament has divorced her from what real politics are about. Whoever they are, politicians make sure that they do not get divorced from their electorates for one simple basic reason—it may not be a noble reason—and that is that they may want to get re-elected. If the high salary, which is supposedly the great attraction for European MPs-to-be, is anything to go by, they certainly will not want to lose that high salary. My concern is rather that the European MPs, far from being insulated in a gilded cage in Brussels, will be rushing around their constituencies perhaps to the detriment of the elected Members at Westminster.
That brings me to the question of the system of election. There is a danger that the European Members of Parliament may come to be regarded as the Senators of the British system compared with the Congressmen who will be the Westminster MPs. We all know that in the United States the Senator today has far greater prestige, power and influence than any Congressman, even though the Congressman is theoretically far closer to the people because of his smaller electorate. I believe that the essential thing is to have direct elections, and I shall support any sensible system which will enable that to come about in May or June of next year. But I am inclined towards the regional list system because it would mean that there would be far less direct constituency overlap between the European MP and the Westminster MP.
I finally turn to the issue of party which was raised by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). I am not surprised that the right hon. Gentleman raised this issue, since he started life as a Conservative and well knows that it will indeed be difficult for Conservatives to combine across national barriers. British Conservatives, within the European context, will want to preserve what they believe is important for Britain and they may find it difficult to cling together, move together and work together with the Catholic Christian Democrats of Germany or Italy.
It seems to me that the Labour Party, which over the years has been a member of the Socialist International, will find it far easier to work with its colleagues across national barriers. Although the experience of the Socialist International and the Socialist group within the European Parliament has not been one which suggests that there are no differences along national lines between Socialists, nevertheless I believe that we have the basis for hammering out what I would like to see, and that is a European Socialist programme and a European Socialist Party.
The right hon. Member for Down, South may have a nostalgic concern, that the Conservative Party will crumble within the European environment, but that is not my concern. I believe that Socialism will flourish in a European context and that in today's interlocking world many of the aims of Socialism in this country and elsewhere can be achieved only at a European level.
To a great extent this debate has confused the issue by trying to re-debate whether we should be in the EEC, whether we should stay in, or whether we should have gone in. My party is opposed to the EEC in its present structure. We have campaigned against it, but as democrats we have to accept the fact that Scotland produced a narrow "Yes" vote. The question before the House is not that question.
The SNP is in a unique position compared with other parties, because, since we believe in Scottish independence, we shall put another referendum to the people of Scotland. However, the question before us is simply whether we prefer to go to Europe as nominees of what we regard as a London-based party. Do I prefer to be the nominee of the Prime Minister, or do I prefer to be directly elected in some way from Scotland? As a democrat, how can I have any doubt as to the answer?
Obviously, in a major parliamentary situation of any kind it is not satisfactory to be a nominee. That is out of the question. What on earth would people think of us here if we were nominees? We take it for granted that we should have a democratic structure in this House, yet some people seem to be complacently willing to see the continuation of the EEC Parliament without that which we take for granted here. It seems to me that that is really the only question that is before us. The other questions about dates and methods are all very important, but I think that the principle is what we are debating today.
Together with many others, I believe that there should be a free vote as to the type of election, because there is a wide diversity of strongly held views on the method of voting. However, if the principle is acceptable to the House, these are details which can, with good will, be worked out. Let us remember how quickly a system was produced for Northern Ireland. Right or wrong, it was done quickly. Therefore, I do not think that all the talk about going against the clock and deadlines is fair.
After all, how long do the electors get to make up their minds at a General Election? They get very little notice, yet we confidently expect them to act democratically and to make up their minds within about three weeks. We have had all these facts before us for a very long time. Surely it does not take us all that long to make up our minds. I have little sympathy with those who say that we have not had long enough to consider these matters and that Government are rushing them.
I listened with great attention to the speech by my friend and colleague in the European Parliament, the hon. Member for Crewe (Mrs. Dunwoody). I respect her sincerity. I believe that she means all of the arguments that she poses against the improvement of having direct elections. However, I suggest to her that in some way she argued against her own case, because she instanced, for example, that the Germans vote in their own national interest. I could give an example of a fishing debate when we lost a good compromise by one vote because the Germans, with no waters, came in and voted down the compromise.
We see voting with national interest to a great extent. We saw the British voting in a national sense on the energy representation. That seems to argue against the fear that in some way, tomorrow or fairly quickly, there will be some kind of political integration.
Like the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston), I am not in favour of political integration. I am opposed to it. However, this basic step of democracy will in no way take us nearer, or any further from, political integration. Because one says that it will bring us nearer political integration does not make that true. The people who say that do not seem to be able to understand how that comes about. If the argument is that it gives this Parliament more credibility, which is a bad thing, because we disapprove of it, all the disapproving in the world will not make it go away. It is a fact of life until we make another drastic change, and have either another referendum about coming out of Europe or something of that kind. However, it is simply there.
I see nothing different in the Common Market from the fact that we joined with England in 1707. I remember the speech of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). If I remember correctly, he said "England, beware the case of Scotland. She entered the Common Market in 1707 and look what happened to her." That is the point. We do not approve of this particular institution, but we come to it because we know that the people here are making decisions. We have a choice. We do not follow Irish purist reaction, for example, the Irish Baroness Marcowitz, who only entered the House of Commons to see that she had a name tag with her name on it. We could be like that, but we believe that one should go where the decisions are made and participate in those decisions, put our oar in the debates, and say what we do not like about the decisions and how they can be improved.
I see no difference between that proposition and the proposition that there is another forum in which the decisions are made. Would the opponents of it seriously say that they would rather the decisions were made by the bureaucrats, without any attempt by the electorate to control the bureaucrats? That is what it comes to. They seem afraid that the Parliament will develop more powers at the expense of the Commission and the Council of Ministers. If they are coming from anywhere, it may be that a directly elected Parliament would initiate the legislation instead of letting the bureaucrats and the Commission initiate it. How on earth will that weaken this House?
Hon. Members have complained repeatedly that they do not have enough control over the decisions of the bureaucrats in Brussels. One thing that would happen if the Parliament were directly elected would be that we would have full-time Members who would have more control over the Executive monster. We all want more control over our Executive here. What is so different about applying the same proposition to a forum where decisions are made affecting our vital industries and our: day-to-day lives in things such as regulations about motor vehicles?
On the number of seats allocated to Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan and East Stirlingshire (Mr. Reid) put our case in his earlier speech. Eight seats do not give us an equitable representation, but we shall accept eight rather than slow up the process. Obviously, on the basis of remarks by Mr. Tindemans, an independent Scotland would get parity with Denmark. That speaks for itself. Scotland's population is the same as that of Denmark and the fact that the Danes get more seats than we do is obviously absurd. We shall take part in these direct elections and we shall hope to do well no matter what system is applied.
Like the hon. Member for Inverness I do not think that it is possible to envisage the dual mandate continuing in the long term. It would not be physically possible. It may be done over a few years, but it is not reasonable to expect an hon. Member to be a full-time member of two Parliaments. I am in favour of the Select Committee's proposal—that the dual mandate should be neither forbidden nor compulsory.
That would take away the tension felt by those who fear too many changes at once. Generally the public do not like too many changes at one time, and they are being faced with a radical change in having direct elections at all. Therefore, I endorse what the Select Committee has said. I take note of the problem about the link. I take the view of the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) who suggested a practical way of having a link. People may ridicule it but I can see nothing against it.
I believe that there should be a geographical responsibility in whatever system of voting we adopt. I do not believe that this means necessarily adopting one system or another. A list system could be sub-divided after the event into geographical responsibility. I believe that geographical responsibility is very important, and that we should never allow a Member to be remote from the day-to-day problems of his constituents. This is what makes our system so useful and our debates so meaningful. Whatever system is adopted, we must cling to a geographical link. But it is no excuse for postponing the principle simply because we cannot agree on the method. I should like to see a free vote on this issue.
I have a feeling that the European Parliament is a bit like a pageant. Perhaps it is a meaningful pageant in that it will eliminate future strife among the nine member countries. It is a bit galling, however, to come back to this country on a charter flight on Friday night and see newspaper reports of our doings in Europe—usually in the Fleet Street "heavies". In the European Parliament we would have debated something like mayonnaise, while the really big issues have been decided elsewhere. If that is not an argument to strengthen worthwhile participation in the pageant, I do not know what is.
The Commission would be more under the control of the people who were directly elected. What is so terrifying about that? It is no more terrifying than the existence of the EEC is terrifying. Now that we have the EEC we might as well make it as democratic as possible. It was gratifying to hear the Foreign Secretary use the terms "Assembly" and "Parliament" interchangeably. I hope that there is a moral in that: it gives us a modicum of hope.
In our evidence to the Select Committee we said that on full independence the whole issue of Scotland's membership of the EEC would be resuscitated. We look forward to the options. In the meantime, we must ask that this Parliament be given a chance to see whether it can do a good job in controlling the stream of decisions pouring out from a large bureaucratic structure.
I shall return to some of the points made by the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing) later in my speech.
I have a great many points to answer and discuss after two days of debate, as, of course, has the Home Secretary, and I wish to give him the fullest possible time to do so.
The Government, in paragraph 7 of the White Paper, said:
The purpose of this White Paper is to put the issues involved before the Parliament and the people of the United Kingdom.
It seems to many on the Opposition Benches that in their arrangements for this debate the Government have been somewhat half-hearted in their consultation with the House. In a two-day debate only a limited number of right hon. and hon. Members can have the opportunity to express their views on the central issue in the White Paper—the electoral system on which the election should be fought. Yet if the Leader of the House had planned the debate differently every Member could have expressed his or her individual opinion in the free vote which both major parties have promised.
If the Home Secretary and the Government are to plead in aid that the procedural difficulties would be great, they must take account of what was proposed by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon)—namely, that it would have been possible to put before the House a simple motion to approve the report of the Select Committee. If the House did not approve that report, other systems could then have been considered. I believe that that would have been a perfectly possible procedural arrangement. I regret that the Government have not taken that course. If they had done that, thereafter they could have drafted the Bill on the basis of the expressed will of the House. However, for reasons which I suppose will continue to be wrapped in impenetrable mystery, we have not been given that collective opportunity.
Personally I regret that, but, as I have the chance to say what I think, it would be absurd to go on spending my time crying about spilt milk. Therefore, I shall stop doing that and proceed to state my position in some detail, because I believe I owe it both to the House and to the Government.
I base my support for direct elections not on the basis of the treaty commitment about which some Members have been arguing for so long but on what I believe we have been sent to this House to state—namely, what in our judgment we believe to be in the best interests of this country. It is on that basis that I put forward my view for having direct elections.
For a number of years now, particularly during the referendum campaign, I have left no one in any doubt about my view of Britain's rôle in Europe. Apart from the economic considerations, I have long been convinced that Britain's influence for good in the world and her undoubted diplomatic skill could best be exercised in future in close co-operation with our neighbours in Europe. Surely two recent world wars, which had their origins in Western Europe, should convince us of our duty to play our part in removing the old and traditional national antagonisms there.
Whatever the arguments about the issues in the referendum campaign, the people of this country overwhelmingly decided, for whatever reasons—we can argue about those reasons at length if we wish—that they wanted Britain to play ber full part in the European Economic Community. If they had not wanted that, clearly they would not have voted overwhelmingly for us to go into it. Having done so, they clearly wanted us to play our full part in it. There is no point in being a member of the Community and being half-hearted about it and not bothering to be there. I should have thought that that was clear.
I agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), who hoped to be back for the end of the debate and asked me to express his apologies if he was not, that many people in this country—and, indeed, in Europe—hoped that we would give a specific lead particularly on parliamentary and democratic issues. I fear that we are not showing any sign of doing this. However, since that time the Heads of Government, including our Prime Minister, committed themselves, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham made clear, to using their best endeavours to permit direct elections to the European Parliament in May or June 1978.
Of course it must be recognised at once that the phrase "using their best endeavours" meant that that was subject to the will and the views of this House, and so it is. If, however, all our partners in Europe meet that date and this House denies the Prime Minister and the Government the opportunity to do so on behalf of the United Kingdom, we shall have taken upon ourselves a very grave responsibility. We shall have given our friends in Europe grounds for despair and our enemies a chance to proclaim once more the dangers of working with perfidious Albion.
That, in turn, must have an adverse effect on our political influence in the Community and on our current important economic, financial and agricultural negotiations. These are powerful reasons for meeting the proposed target date for direct elections. The good faith and the reliability of the United Kingdom as a partner in the European Economic Community is at stake, as the right hon. Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) also said quite rightly.
Right hon. and hon. Members who are totally opposed to Britain's membership of the Community, such as the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock (Mr. Ross), my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer), do not accept these arguments. Although they know that following the referendum they have to accept our membership for the moment, they are determined to have as little to do with the whole business as possible. Their attitude seems to me to be likely to give our country the worst of both worlds, but that is their affair. At least, their position on direct elections is predictable and consistent.
The same cannot be said for the somewhat extraordinary attitude of the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe). I certainly would not deny his claim to be an early and outstanding convert to the European cause. His consistent attitude to Britain's place in Europe is well known. However, last Thursday, in answer to my hon. Friend—
I was not right about the date, but I think that I shall be right about the rest of what I have to say. Last Wednesday, in answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon), the right hon. Member for Devon, North seemed to indicate that his commitment to direct elections depended on the system adopted. Yet whatever electoral system we adopt now will be valid only until the European Parliament chooses another one.
Surely Britain's standing in Europe is, in the long run, more important to a convinced European than the short-term consideration of the different, particular electoral systems that are chosen. I am convinced that it is more important, as are the right hon. Member for Fulham and my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison).
First and foremost, I want to see us meet the target date and hold direct elections in May or June 1978. I am bound to say to the right hon. Member for Kilmarnock that we have heard over and over again the arguments for delay. I know that those who advocate that we should delay do not want the day of decision or of actually doing anything ever to come about. They want to go on delaying as long as they possibly can and hope that it will somehow go away, but I do not believe that it will go away.
Before coming to the alternative electoral systems set out in the White Paper, I cannot but mention paragraph 32 on the franchise and the reference to Northern Ireland in paragraph 27. The Government have made a mistake in turning down the Select Committee's recommendation that the franchise should be extended to certain United Kingdom nationals resident overseas. Many of those concerned are closely involved in Britain's membership of the Community and, as the right hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving) and the hon. Member for Inverness' (Mr. Johnston) said, it seems unreasonable not to make provision for at least their participation. I hope that the Home Secretary will agree to consider this again or will at least confirm that there is no administrative reason to prevent this limited extension of the franchise.
In paragraph 27 of the White Paper, the Government announced their one firm conclusion on electoral systems, namely, that if the rest of the United Kingdom uses the simple majority system, an STV system will be used in Northern Ireland.
I remain convinced that in any election strictly confined to Northern Ireland there is a strong case for STV—which I was responsible for introducing. However, I do not conclude from that that it is necessarily wise to take the same attitude to Northern Ireland in a United Kingdom election. I agree with the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell)—I hope that that will not embarrass him—that there are grave dangers in doing so.
First, it breaches the principle that any election involving the whole of the United Kingdom at the same time should be held on the same basis throughout the United Kingdom. Secondly, I know only too well that some people in Northern Ireland will seek to suggest that in making this decision we are being less than full-hearted in our commitment that Northern Ireland shall remain part of the United Kingdom for as long as that is the wish of the majority of its inhabitants. It would be wrong of those people to suggest that, but the overriding importance of this commitment to Northern Ireland is so ingrained in my mind that I am loth to give even the smallest indication of breaking it.
I appreciate why the Government reached their decision, and I am sure that the Home Secretary considered the point I am making before the decision was taken. Nevertheless I ask him, even now, to reflect again on the risk involved. I am sure that he appreciates it and that I have not overstated it.
In view of the right hon. Gentleman's intervention in the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd), I shall tell him that what I have said represents my view and the view of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Shadow Cabinet.
I am not surprised that the proposal for a dual mandate has had few, if any, supporters in the debate. It must have been inserted in the White Paper to please someone who was against direct elections or who wanted to make a farce of the whole affair. I can see no other reason for it and I cannot believe that it will work. What we have seen of the situation in which hon. Members go to the European Parliament on a nominated basis should demonstrate how unworkable the dual mandate would be. It would also be totally undesirable.
The right hon. Member for Dartford seemed to think that the dual mandate would be practicable and suggested that he would be prepared to have proxy voting in the House to make it work. I suppose I am getting to the stage of being one of those old dogs to whom it is difficult to teach new tricks, and I do not think that I can be taught the new trick of proxy voting. It offends almost every principle in which I have ever believed. As an ex-Chief Whip, I can think of nothing which would be more disastrous for this House and create more problems. It would remove much of the personal commitment to voting and to particular positions which we must have I could not agree to it.
No. The hon. Member seems to have introduced a new form of voting this afternoon, merely to say "No" rather than to vote. I did not quite understand his purpose but I am sure that he does. "Nodding through" is not proxy voting because it has to be checked by the Whips concerned that the Member involved is on the premises. When I was Chief Whip, I was once questioned whether my Member was here. I had to take the opposing Whip down and show him that my man was in bed and asleep—but he was on the premises. If I had wanted to have him vote, I could have woken him up. I do not accept that "nodding through" is proxy voting.
I do not agree. The hon. Gentleman and I will have to disagree.
I return to the national list. Now that my Chief Whip views are coming to the fore, I might be expected to embrace with open arms the extravagant nature of patronage implicit in a national list system. I agree that an ex-Chief Whip condemning patronage would be like Satan rebuking sin. I do not intend to go as far as that. I am convinced that a national list system would involve a totally unsatisfactory extension of patronage to the political parties and I hope that it will be rejected on that account.
I come now to the single transferable vote. I had some personal experience of this for a stricly limited election in Northern Ireland. It would be wrong, from that limited experience, to imagine that there are great difficulties for the ordinary elector in any such system. I do not believe that there are. On the other hand, the counting of the votes and the allocation of seats is a complicated procedure. Special training has to be given to the returning officers and their staffs. There is nothing particularly difficult or troublesome about that as long as it is recognised that it has to be given.
When I was considering the introduction of the system, I was advised that, while it was workable and effective in comparatively small constituencies with a limited number of candidates, the complication of counting would mean that some extra time would be involved. I take the point put forward by the hon. Member for Inverness, but I still think that the count would take a long time. In Northern Ireland, where the constituencies are comparatively small—bigger than ours certainly, but not very large—it took, in some cases, two full days to complete the count.
I also have grave reservations about STV in that it removes personal responsibility for elections, certainly to this Parliament. I suspect that the same would be true of the European Parliament. I have no such feelings—and obviously I could not have in view of what I have done in the past—about the system being used in subordinate assemblies. I have grave doubts about its value particularly if it is applied to electoral areas of the size set out in paragraph 3 of Annex C.
That leaves the two options most favoured in debate—the first-past-the-post and the regional list systems. Frankly, I find it easier to see the disadvantages of both systems rather than to make a choice between them. I suspect that that has been the position with new electoral systems over many years. The regional list system worries me because it would involve a change to a new system for the first election which would probably have to be changed on the next occasion. No doubt repeated changes in the electoral system would irritate electors and probably make it more difficult to arouse enthusiasm and interest in elections where apathy is likely, I fancy, to be quite considerable, certainly at the start.
I also find it difficult to accept the regions as set out in the White Paper as electoral areas with close affiliations. I cite my personal feelings, and perhaps I am prejudiced because I happen to represent one of the isolated parts of the country that does not feel itself attached in any way to any of the regions of which it is likely to have to be part.
Cumbria dislikes being part of the Northern Region. As the Pennines interrupt its position between that of Newcastle, Durham and Northumberland, the people feel little affiliation with that area. Equally they feel little affiliation with the North-West. They feel that the people of the North-West, in Manchester and elsewhere, have always taken away their water. I am not sure that that is a completely justifiable feeling but it clearly exists.
Maybe it would, but as a Scotsman I should not welcome that course. I must tell the hon. Lady that my constituents would not welcome it either.
There are great difficulties about regions and affiliations. Those difficulties are not confined to Cumbria. The situation is particularly difficult in respect of London and the South-East. The decision on the regional placing of London and the South-East will be difficult. I know that problems will arise with Devon and Cornwall in any decision that is to be taken about a Western Region. I fancy that there will be great difficulties in that area.
I now turn to the first-past-the-post system. If some of the distortions set out in the various analyses—illustrated by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood), who made a most impressive speech—are correct, clearly the results would be unsatisfactory. I do not believe that it would be healthy if there tended to grow up a position where regularly there was a massive majority against the Government of the day in the European Parliament. From what some people say that is a possibility, although on the whole I doubt it.
In making up my mind, I need some reassurance from the Home Secretary about timing. I repeat some of the questions of my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Oxon. Paragraphs 30 and 31 appear to imply that, given a reasonable time for parliamentary discussion on the Bill, it would be possible to meet the May-June 1978 target date on the basis of option B of paragraph 30. Will the Secretary of State confirm that that is correct?
Will the right hon. Gentleman make clear the position about the regional list system? Can that be mounted in time to meet the target date? On the assumption that there is time for the introduction of both those systems, I have decided on the first-past-the-post system as the simplest way of having direct elections now, leaving it open for us at a later date to fit in with any future European system that may be discussed.
It seems that we have not given sufficient consideration to the German additional Member system, or, indeed, some parts of the French system. Before making a change ourselves, we should give those systems consideration. A decision to go for the first-past-the-post system now would avoid confusion caused and hostility aroused among electors by repeated changes of the electoral arrangements.
I beg leave to doubt some of the more extreme assessments of electoral results that have been made before anyone knows the constituency boundaries, the level of the turn-out or the attitude that is likely to be taken by electors in European elections. I believe that those who wisely assess all these matters cannot know the particular results in all those areas.
Whatever system finally commends itself to the majority of the House, I trust that the Home Secretary will confirm that it is the Government's intention to meet the target date of May to June 1978 so far as it lies within their power. Above everything else, I am convinced that if we alone among the members of the Community fail to meet the deadline we shall do great harm to Britain's position in Europe and to the political strength of the European Economic Community itself.
The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw) raised the matter of procedures, as did a number of other right hon. and hon. Members during this two-day debate. I should tell the House that there are difficulties in this, as I am sure many people who have thought them through will have realised. I shall come back to them, because it is important for the House to discuss them.
The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border made clear his commitment and that of his party to Europe, and I accept in the general sense of the term the commitment given as a result of the referendum. However, direct elections raise many problems, as I have found since I have put my mind to the matter, and they do not disappear simply by repeating that we are now in Europe.
Real problems arise. When right hon. and hon. Members come to consider the Governments' Bill, they will find that they are real. I learned on devolution that, even though a majority of the House may be in favour of a proposition, that is easier said than getting through the necessary legislation.
At the very beginning, therefore, it must be said that the Government's commitment was made in the Queen's Speech and in other places but that, when the Bill comes before the House, we shall have learned in this Session of Parliament that the intention is one thing but that there are right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have minds, wills and strong feelings of their own on legislation. I advise the House to take that firmly into account. In paragraph 7 of the White Paper, we said that, before legistlation was introduced, there should be a debate in Parliament and in the country in which all aspects of the matter were considered.
I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border because, in many respects, as was his right as an Opposition spokesman, he covered a wider spectrum than many other hon. Members in the debate. The purpose of the White Paper is to put the issues involved before the Parliament and the people of the United Kingdom. Obviously, we are not asking for a decision or for agreement. But the time will come when that will be necessary.
During the two days of this debate the Government have been listening to what has been said. At the end of the first day, my hon. Friend the Minister of State commented on the speeches of right hon. and hon. Members, and I propose to do the same now although, in a wider perspective, I shall try to deal with the issues overall.
I must first return to the references throughout the two days to our international obligation to hold direct elections. As was said earlier, at the end of the day it is for Parliament to reach a final decision. The starting point is Article 138(3) of the Treaty of Rome, which provides for direct elections on a uniform procedure as an ultimate goal.
When we joined the Community, we undertook to participate in working towards that goal. However, the decision of September 1976, signed by the Foreign Ministers, derived from the political commitments entered into at Heads of Government level, and the decision is in the nature of an interim arrangement to operate until the uniform procedure envisaged in Article 138 is agreed. The step towards the partial implementation of Article 138(3) which is now proposed will be for Parliament to consider. In due course the Government will introduce a Bill, and it will be for Parliament to decide.
When I put my mind to this White Paper, I felt strongly that there were fundamental constitutional issues involved in direct elections. There will be a new breed of person—a European elected Member. There will be a new level of elected Member. In the last century we made slow steps towards the full franchise. It was fought for, and it did not come easily. In the valley in which I was brought up one did not have to wait to do O-levels before learning about the Chartists. The process was slow.
Now we are asked to make a break with a tradition that we have had over the centuries—the tradition that the most important elected person in each area is the Member of Parliament. No one should sneer at that tradition, but there will now be a new person, an elected Member of the European Parliament.
I am glad that the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) raised the subject of parties. He put the situation correctly. Too often there is a tendency to sneer at the party system. In our constitutional books not nearly as much is made of the party system as it is in the United States, or of the important rôle that parties play. There is no doubt that in these super-constituencies—81 for Europe compared with 635 for this House—there will be a different rôle for the parties. If there is a regional list system there will be a different rôle for the parties. Again, although it may not matter to some people, the rôle and influence of the party conferences in policy will be cast in a different mould. There will, in effect, be a double directive from the parties. The party conferences should not be taken lightly. [Interruption.] Members have to make up their own minds within the context of the party.
If we are to change our method, we must think of the consequences. The right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) took us up on paragraph 8 of the White Paper, which says:
Our distinctive system has evolved. We have to take into account the effect that there might be upon it of a different system for a super-Parliament. But that does not mean that we should not change. It may well be that the nature of the new European Assembly, its advisory character and, as some of my hon. Friends would have it, its present powers, provide us with the opportunity to mark out the difference, perhaps to keep the difference.
In the White Paper we have sought to set out the issues as clearly and fairly as possible and to list the options. The right hon. Member for Devon, North thought that the different features had been fairly put. At the end of the day, when a Bill is brought forward that frankness of ours may rebound on us because we have given the virtues and the imperfections. But this is a constitutional matter and all aspects should be put. But such is life, if that is what the White Paper does in this constitutional debate.
The White Paper's recommendation is 66 seats for England, eight for Scotland,
four for Wales and three for Northern Ireland. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border referred to paragraphs 24 and 27 of the White Paper. 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.
Paragraph 27—and it is important to read these two paragraphs together—says:
if the rest of the United Kingdom uses the simple majority system, STV would be used in Northern Ireland.
What I had in mind in paragraph 24 was that with a simple majority system for the rest of the United Kingdom it would be possible to have STV in Northern Ireland, but it would not follow if there was a different form of voting in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Will the right hon. Gentleman make the point clear? Is he saying that if the rest of the United Kingdom has the first-past-the-post system, there will continue to be some form of PR in Northern Ireland? Is he also saying that if the rest of the United Kingdom goes for some form of PR, that form of PR will be made applicable to Northern Ireland, whether or not it is the STV system?
That is what I am saying, and the right hon. Gentleman has expressed it more clearly than I did.
The right hon. Member for Penrith and the Border and I do not need to bandy words about Northern Ireland or about the responsibility that we have exercised in this House and in the country as a whole for the Province. That is not in doubt. A different system is used in Northern Ireland. The right hon. Gentleman was responsible for it and I willingly supported it. In a European context it would be the right system for Northern Ireland, with its divided community, but this raises problems.
If I thought that Northern Ireland's problems were being perpetuated by something structural, a solution to the Irish question would be rather easy. The matter goes deeper than that. It would be right for the minority community to feel that in voting for a European Parliament it had a chance of getting someone elected.
When I went to Northern Ireland in 1974 I soon realised, after the General Election of that year, with 11 out of 12 candidates coming from one community under the first-past-the-post system, that that system had played a major part in breaking up what the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border had built so well and which had been supported by everyone in this House—
I understand that the right hon. Gentleman did not support it. We cannot here go into what was wrong with Sunningdale, although perhaps one day it may be possible to do so. Nevertheless, I supported it.
I am grateful for what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I try very hard never to have any bitterness about the past. I have exactly the same feelings about direct elections on a United Kingdom basis. I stand by the view I expressed tonight.
I understand that. However, the chance for the minority community in Northern Ireland to get someone elected to Europe might have an ameliorative effect.
A number of hon. Members have said that, under the first-past-the-post system, the larger the size of the constituency, the more exaggerated will be the swings. The fact that it will be a set-term Assembly, compared with our more flexible system, might have some implications. In addition, it would be more difficult for the Member concerned to keep in touch with the electorate, certainly if his constituency covers six, seven or eight Westminster constituencies.
It will not be possible to have the relationship with one's constituency that Members of this House enjoy. That will be one of the reasons why a Member for Europe will evolve a different relationship with his constituency. That relationship may be on the pattern of the American Senator. I was interested to note that the nature of the American senatorial system, bearing in mind its historical basis, means that it is not the most apt comparison with our larger constituencies.
I turn now to timing. There is now time for the Boundary Commissions to undertake a designation of single-Member constituencies in time for May or June next year. The right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border doubted whether even a truncated procedure could be fitted in. I have always attached great importance to the procedures of Parliamentary Boundary Commissions. I was the junior Minister concerned in 1969, and I shall never forget that. [Laughter.]
What I mean is support for the Boundary Commissions to do their work. If hon. Members feel as they do, they must take the full implications of the Boundary Commissions.
There is the question of representations and the holding of a local inquiry. If there are revised provisional recommendations there may need to be further inquiries. The Select Committee said that with the best will on earth there was no time, and had not been time since the signing of the Community instrument last September, for the full Westminster procedures to apply to the European Assembly constituencies for May or June 1978. There must be some curtailment of the traditional procedures if we were to use the simple majority system. Even then, the right hon. Gentleman doubted whether there was time for option B, which would involve Boundary Commission recommendations following one round of representations but with no local inquiry.
The Boundary Commissions suggested to the Select Committee that from the time of Royal Assent to the relevant legislation up to the submission of their reports this option would take a minimum of 18 weeks. It is clear that the procedure could take much longer. If there were numerous objections to the Boundary Commission's proposals in the constituencies, and if the House had once set its mind on the Boundary Commissions' procedure, even of truncated, nothing could be done to stop that.
I hope that I have fairly put the point to the House. At the end of the day—a number of hon. Members have thought about this, and I come to it knowing that everyone has thought about it—the Boundary Commissions' recommendations are brought back to the House.
The hon. Gentleman is commenting on what I have just said. I shall say it again. When the recommendations come back to the House of Commons, this House will be required to consider them. If the hon. Gentleman has not been here long enough to know that, and what individual hon. Members can do to Boundary Commission reports, I recommend him to look at the situation in 1955. He will find that as a new boy he will have to learn quickly. [HON. MEMBERS: "Pompous."] It may be pompous, but the hon. Gentleman was rude to me. Pomposity comes more naturally to Members of Parliament than does rudeness.
Can the Secretary of State give us an assurance that there will be a genuine free vote, in the sense that the Government intend to give us a fair opportunity to decide whether we want one system or another? If the Government fail to do so, will the Secretary of State agree that that is their responsibility?
We are committed to a free vote on the methods, and I stick to that. We shall have to put our minds to the actual method of procedure, and I shall try to come to that shortly.
There are problems. It is not enough to have Bills passed through the House. There are procedures to follow.
I come to the regional list system and timing. I have had a look at the question of timing, as a result of what has been asked today. It is possible that a Bill providing for regional lists would be longer, but the procedures would be shorter.
The scheme outlined in Annex B of the White Paper is designed to retain as far as possible some of the familiar features of our traditional electoral system. In particular, electors would vote for an individual candidate rather than a party and thus have an important say in which candidates of political parties were elected—or people of no party. It is possible to have variants of the regional list system.
On the single transferable vote system, I have noted with interest the suggestions from a number of hon. Members, including, the House will not be surprised to know, a number of mathematically minded hon. Members who have spoken to me about the counting procedures. I understand that in large constituencies this could be prolonged—the right hon. Gentleman and I know this to be the case in Northern Ireland—but I assume, nevertheless, that in the context of a European election the emphasis on speed need not be very great because there is no Government to arise out of it. However, we should not want it to go to an absurd time.
The time likely to be taken to count votes under the STV system is something that we shall have to consider in detail. The number of voters is an important factor. More important, however, may be the number of candidates and the number of seats in each constituency, because this can affect the complexity of the transfer of surplus votes. Therefore, it may be necessary to avoid constituencies with more than 10 seats, and this in turn may make it necessary to use Boundary Commission procedures to determine the smaller constituencies. In each case, with the Boundary Commission one lengthens the time before the material comes back to the House of Commons. All that has to be taken into account.
With regard to the compulsory dual mandate, the material is in the White Paper, and there are real problems. There are problems of physical strain. I have never been to Europe electorally, and one must take what people say about this. It is a matter for the local electors whether they vote for someone who is a Member of this House. It need not be a compulsory dual mandate, but it is a matter for people outside.
I cannot say that I like the suggestion of the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) that all Members of the European Assembly should attend this House of Commons. The only people who can properly attend this place are those who are prepared not only to speak but to vote, otherwise what they say is of academic interest. They might as well be leader writers in all the best newspapers in the country—or they could be leader writers in some of the worst newspapers in the country. This is a controversial matter, but it does not appeal to me.
There is a problem of the date of elections with a compulsory dual mandate. Given the commitment of elections within four days, and given the fact that the difficulty is not insurmountable, because one could arrange them, the fact is that the date of our elections is decided by the Prime Minister of the day.
There are a number of other matters to be considered. There is the question—I shall run through this because it will come in a Bill—of disqualification. There are also questions such as the conduct of elections, deposits—we have made clear our view about that—nominations, returning officers, by-elections, broadcasting and other matters.
There is also the question of British subjects overseas. This matter was referred to by the hon. Members for Sevenoaks (Sir J. Rodgers) and Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd). The Select Committee recommended that certain United Kingdom nationals resident abroad should be able to vote in the direct elections. I do not think that it is a matter of mechanics and devising a suitable system. We consider this to be an important extension of the franchise which would have obvious relevance to the franchise for elections to Westminster, and it should not be made perhaps without prior consideration by a Speaker's Conference on electoral law.
Everybody knows who can vote when he is away from this country. This applies to Service voters and to certain people in the Civil Service. That was decided by a Speaker's Conference, and if we are to move from that the matter will have to be reconsidered. There are problems about people voting abroad. I do not press the matter, because there are already those who vote while abroad, but at some time the question will have to be considered.
Because of our voting arrangements, citizens of the Republic of Ireland vote here, and they may vote in Ireland. We shall have a double voting question to deal with. I am not suggesting that this matter arises directly here, but it is important.
The White Paper deals with finance, and I shall leave that there.
We have to consider what procedures to adopt. I have listened carefully to what has been said. There is to be a free vote by the Opposition. There are others—I shall not name them—who say that they do not want a Bill. They want a vote on the method before one comes to a Bill. There are those with other ideas, and I shall refer to them in a moment.
The hon. Member for Barkston Ash (Mr. Alison) said that if it was first past the post and could not be done in time he would regard it as the wrong system, and that view has been put by a number of people. Method is important in this context. Not everyone may be obliged when we come to look at the method, but all of these matters will be considered in the course of time.
The House may be interested to know what we intend to do within the Labour Party. There seems to be some humour on this point. We shall consider the matter and put views to our party before we bring forward firm proposals. We shall consult our party. The Prime Minister has said that we shall take into account what the Liberals say. I make an offer to the Conservative Opposition; we shall take into account what they say as well because this is a constitutional matter.
The right hon. Gentleman, I am sure, is a far greater expert in these matters than I am. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) has put forward realistic proposals which have not been dealt with by the right hon. Gentleman.
That is my next point. The right hon. and learned Gentleman's idea is worth considering, just as I shall consider whether we have a motion or go straight to a Bill. All of these questions have to be taken into account. They have to be worked through. I do not believe the right hon. Gentleman has thought of the nature of the Bill.
I am telling the House that there are complications with regard to the nature of the legislation that we shall put to the House.
It might be that once we get it to the House individual Members could delay the Bill by spending a great deal of time on it, unless the suggestion is that there ought to be a sharp vote on a guillotine. But the Opposition were not prepared to do that for devolution. Is there now an offer to have a guillotine on this Bill? I do not think so.
We therefore have to think carefully before introducing a Bill. We have been chided about time, but it is necessary to give time for full consideration. I would say to my right hon. friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stewart) that this is not a Rent Bill. It raises many important issues, and we are not asking for commitments tonight. We shall be coming forward with proposals. The Government will use their best endeavours, but at the end of the day it will be for the House, on a free vote, to decide the method. When the House comes to discuss it—
As there have been some weighty decisions by the House on the motion for the Adjournment, will my right hon. Friend say precisely, in line with the position that he seemed to be indicating at the PLP meeting last Thursday, that the vote tonight has nothing whatever to do with the principle of direct elections to Europe?
I repeat that what we are considering tonight is the White Paper. We are not asking for decisions from anyone. There are no decisions on principle or method. At the end of the day the House will have to decide that, and that is why I believe this two-day debate has been of great importance.