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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 John Mendelson Mr John Mendelson , Penistone 12:00 am, 7th July 1977

I am particularly glad that some hon. Members who contributed to the latter stages of the debate, such as the hon. Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), and who spoke strongly in favour of the Bill, addressed themselves to the basic problem of principle involved. I welcome that particularly because I believe that the country has been given a completely false and misleading impression by the first three and a half hours of debate yesterday afternoon and today.

All the speakers during that time were in support of the Bill and concentrated almost entirely upon the details of the mode of election. The provincial editions of newspapers go to bed, as they say in Fleet Street, just before six o'clock and carry only the speeches from right hon. and hon. Members who are firm supporters of the Bill. That is a travesty of real parliamentary opinion as every right hon. and hon. Member knows it to exist both in this House and in the country at large.

The officers of the Common Market in Brussels recently commissioned a new survey of British opinion on our membership of the Common Market. It reported two days ago. As broadcast on the most reliable of our BBC services, the World Service, the survey shows that there is now just a majority against our membership—40 per cent., and a percentage just below that in favour. That is the change of opinion that has occurred amongst the British people since the referendum.

In that situation it is a travesty of parliamentary debate for hon. Members who are for the Bill not to concentrate the majority of their time, particularly on Second Reading, on the principle, on trying to persuade the electorate that they, too, should support it. Similarly, if hon. Members are against the Bill they should try to persuade the electorate why they also should be against it. This is not a matter of shadow boxing or of academic constitutional interest. It was responsible for my intervening on several occasions—which I do not normally do —on a point of procedure concerning the conduct of the debate. It is of real political importance at present that the House of Commons should properly mirror opinion in the country on this vital matter.

There are, for instance, several hon. Members on the Liberal Bench who have made their speeches and have then left the Chamber. They lecture us on both sides of the Chamber not only on what we ought to do but on how we ought to present our arguments, yet having been called and spoken they then disappear and take no further part in the proceedings of this House.

It is often said on the Liberal Bench and in the Liberal Party throughout the country that Parliament is becoming more and more an assembly that is no longer regarded as a central political forum in this country. I do not go along with that. I believe that they are exaggerating, for reasons that I shall come to in a moment. But surely those who do believe that the decline is serious ought, first, to be present during our debates and, secondly, to be in favour of properly representing the opinion of people in the country when a debate takes place.

I do not go along with them, because I believe that they are deliberately exaggerating the decline of our parliamentary institutions and deliberately misrepresenting the effect of our electoral system purely for shoddy party purposes.

I wanted to challenge the former Leader of the Liberal Party, the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) —I regret that he is not present—on the speech that he made during the two-day debate a few weeks ago, when we first discussed this matter. The right hon. Gentleman said in clear terms that he was much more interested in getting a system of PR than in getting a Bill passed for direct elections to the European Assembly. That is why I use the words "shoddy party political purposes". The right hon. Gentleman tried to wriggle out of it, but Hansard will show that he said it.

The serious discussion of the mode of election will come later. Today is only a curtain-raiser for that. But at the outset of my remarks I want to concentrate on the substance of the Bill.

It is clear that the Government, in introducing this Bill, have not got public opinion behind them. I do not make very much of the decision of the Labour Party conference. The Prime Minister could say that there are other hon. Members in this House who sometimes believe that it is the duty of Parliament to give a lead and not always just be the obedient servant of any motion that has been passed somewhere. But if the Government wish to do something that is urgently needed— say, on employment or on investment— and there is no Labour Party conference authority for it, surely the Government have the right to go ahead. However, when we are dealing with a major constitutional change, there can be no such justification.

When my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary was opening the debate I asked him, as he claimed the authority of the Labour Party's election manifesto for the principle of the Bill, where he got the authority for a Cabinet recommendation to this House to introduce a system of proportional representation. He got it from nowhere. It is quite clear that it was cooked up recently for reasons that we have to examine very carefully.

Having said that, I hasten to say that I do not single out my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. He speaks for the Government on this matter, and it is one which goes far wider than just a departmental document.