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Orders of the Day — European Assembly Elections Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 7th July 1977.

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Photo of Mr Geoffrey Rippon Mr Geoffrey Rippon , Hexham 12:00 am, 7th July 1977

I said that it would be the front line of control, not the ultimate line. I said that it would be a front line because it would be calling the Council and the Commission publicly to account in the Assembly for their actions.

Now and for the future, the primary responsibility of the European Parliament is to influence policy at its formative level. That it already does in many important ways. But it suffers from being part-time and from the fact that it is once removed from the electorate. A European Parliament which was strong and confident enough to make its weight felt would be able to fire the imagination and the interest of the electorate in a constructive way. That should be our prime purpose in securing direct elections at this time.

Whatever doubts the Government may have had from time to time about the appropriate date for direct elections, it will be recalled that as long ago as 4th December 1975 the then Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), reporting on the Summit Meeting in Rome on 1st and 2nd December, in one of those occasional flashes of clarity that he had, plainly said: I made it clear that we accept in principle the commitment to direct elections in the Treaty of Rome. This issue was decided by the referendum".—[Official Report, 4th December 1975; Vol. 901, c. 1932.] Yesterday the Home Secretary reiterated that "the Government accept" Britain's membership and that "the Government accept" that it is now right that we should move towards direct elections. But what is meant by the Government in the context of the Bill and this debate?

In September 1976 the Government freely, and in the exercise of their collective responsibility, entered into an international agreement about direct elections. It was this Government who agreed to 1978 as the date. Incidentally, that was at a time when the European Parliament was suggesting 1980.

The House will appreciate that the conclusion of international treaties and agreements is the exercise of the Royal Prerogative in the conduct of foreign affairs. The Government make up their mind whether, as a Government, they assent to the international commitment into which they propose to enter. If they do, that is an exercise of the collective responsibility by which the Government in substance always commit themselves to use their best endeavours to secure whatever parliamentary approval may be necessary.

My hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Surrey (Sir A. Royle), in his very effective speech last night, referred with great relevance to the Lord President of the Council's reply on 26th May 1977 to the question of dissension in the Cabinet. The Lord President said: It is, of course, true that occasional differences of opinion arise in Cabinet but it is no mystery that what Cabinets do is to argue about the different points of view, resolve them and communicate the result to the House."—[Official Report, 26th May 1977; Vol. 932, c. 1639.] In this instance, the moment when the Cabinet resolved those different points of view was when the Government entered into the international agreement of September 1976 and communicated it to the House. That was the time for members of the Cabinet to record their dissent. If, as the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) said, they maintained their dissent, they should have resigned. In other days, as he said, that is what would have happened. If any member of the Cabinet votes against the Bill tonight, he is open to the charge that, by hiding his dissent in September 1976, he misled not only the House but those in other countries who entered into the agreement with the Government in good faith. This is just as important a constitutional issue as the Bill itself.

For Ministers, especially Cabinet Ministers, to breach their collective responsibility by voting against a measure to which they freely committed themselves by international agreement is to call into question the good faith of this and any subsequent British Government. Those Ministers who go into the Lobby tonight against a measure that they themselves promised in the Queen's Speech, in accordance with their own accepted obligations under an international agreement, will be flouting a constitutional practice which is at the core of the way in which we order the relationship between the Executive and the legislative as well as between this country and others.

The anti-Marketeers, whom those Ministers may join in the Lobby, sought a referendum to give the people of this country the right to decide whether we should be willing members of the Community. It will be recalled that the Secretary of State for Energy said that even Parliament must tremble before their verdict. In the event, the result was decisively in favour of our remaining in the Community. The right hon. Member for Huyton was right when he said that the issue of direct elections was decided in the referendum. Since then, however, certain right hon. and hon. Members have consistently tried to undermine the verdict of the people.

I go about Europe a great deal. Therefore, I entirely agree with the view expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) last night that it is not possible to exaggerate the damage done to Britain's honour and reputation, and, indeed, to our interests, by the way in which certain Ministers come back to the House and smirk about how they have failed to carry out their objectives.