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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 Sydney Irving Mr Sydney Irving , Dartford 12:00 am, 7th July 1977

As a former occupant of the Chair, to say nothing of being a Privy Councillor, that is the last argument in which I wish to become involved. However I might redeem myself if I say that I have not applied to go to Europe, along with the entire membership of my party.

The Bill has at last got on to the Floor of the House. It seems a long time since the Select Committee, over which I presided, was set up to consider urgently proposals for direct elections.

I have not been quite as impatient as some hon. Members, because I have been conscious of the difficulties under which the Government have been labouring. I congratulate the Prime Minister and his colleagues on getting the Bill on to the Floor of the House with the Lib-Lab agreement and the Cabinet intact, although I regret the unwillingness of some Cabinet Ministers to accept the doctrine of collective responsibility.

It is important that the elections should be held—first, because they are indicated by the treaty and, secondly, because of the obligation entered into by the Government. Failure in this respect would confirm to many on the Continent our unwillingness properly to commit ourselves to membership of the Community. It would not enhance the Government's reputation for their capacity and good faith to carry out their obligation if the Bill failed tonight.

I do not believe that the proposals are a major step towards federalism in the sense that they involve any real shift of power. They are of a much more limited significance. However, they will provide an opportunity for the British people to involve themselves in European affairs. They could in time strengthen the European Parliament and make the Commission more accountable. These are sound democratic principles, which all hon. Members on the Government Benches should support.

I turn to the first-past-the-post system. The Select Committee recommended an inquiry, and I regret that this is not to take place. However, it is clear that if it did take place there would be inadequate time to enable the elections to be held next year. I urge the Government to instruct the Boundary Commissions to proceed with the work immediately after the Second Reading of the Bill. Yesterday the Home Secretary said that that was impossible. The Minister confirmed that view today. There are no precedents for the Boundary Commissions being instructed before Royal Assent, because there has never been any need for haste.

Some of the oral and written evidence given last year by the Boundary Commissions on this point is illuminating. On 15th July Sir Raymond Walton, the deputy chairman of the English Commission, in answer to questions 382 and 392, made it clear that he thought that they could begin work—although they would need to know the number of seats to be allocated and the principles on which the boundaries were to be determined.

Presumably the Boundary Commissions would act on the assumption that what was in the Bill that was given a Second Reading would go through. No doubt they could adjust accordingly if amendments were made at a later stage. The same points are made briefly in paragraph 15 of the joint memorandum submitted on 13th July 1976 by all four Boundary Commissions.