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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 William Whitelaw Mr William Whitelaw , Penrith and The Border 12:00 am, 7th July 1977

I shall not start my speech by seeking to come between the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer), or by indulging in pacts of any sort. As my speech proceeds I do not think it will be found that there are many pacts about me. I shall develop what I have to say in my own way.

Nothing that we have had in the debate and nothing much that has been said has changed my view that the history leading up to the introduction of the Bill portrays a pretty squalid saga of the Government's lack of decision, their prevarication, internal dissension and delay.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond, Surrey (Sir A. Royle) said yesterday, it is over 18 months since the Government started talking about introducing a Bill for direct elections to the European Assembly. There has been a Green Paper, a White Paper and various debates. On top of all that, a Select Committee was set up on 13th May 1976 under the chairmanship of the right hon. Member for Dartford (Mr. Irving). The Committee produced three reports full of detailed and clear recommendations. It proposed that a very early Bill should be introduced in the overspill of the 1976 Session and that the election should be held on the first-past-the-post system.

The truth is that the Government paid little or no attention to the work of the Select Committee. Of course, they will say "We published the White Paper early in 1977." That is true, but the White Paper only raised again the issues that had been considered by the Select Committee and on which it based its recommendations. Throughout the April debate on the White Paper and yesterday the Home Secretary talked as if the Select Committee had never made detailed recommendations. By April he had progressed only to the position that he thought that much thought would be needed before legislation.

As my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) said today, the House could have been asked last Session to debate and vote upon the Select Committee's recom- mendation for an election on the first-past-the-post system. If that had taken place, the Government would have known on which system to base their Bill. If the House supported the Select Committee's proposal, the Government could have drafted their Bill on the first-past-the-post system. If it had voted against it, the regional list system or some other proportional representation system would clearly have been the will of the House.

Why did the Government not take that course last year? I realise that the Home Secretary was not then in his present position. However, we are entitled to an answer from him on behalf of the part of the Government that he and the Prime Minister represent. We know that the other part of the Government would say that such a course would have impeded its determination to frustrate the Bill altogether. In view of all the muddle and confusion about methods now. why is it too late to take that course today? Is that not the answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop), who wants to see a decision taken on the system before the Bill is produced again, as presumably it will have to be, in the next Session of Parliament under this Government, if there is one?

Why cannot the Government table a motion now to accept the report of the Select Committee? If that were done and if there is to be another Session of Parliament with this Government in power, the Bill could be introduced in accordance with the decision that the House took on that occasion. Surely we are entitled to a clear and specific answer from the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on that point. I do not know what the answer is myself, but I hope that the right hon. Gentleman does. It seems such common sense that I cannot understand why the House does not proceed along those lines at once.

The failure is all the more surprising because of the Prime Minister's clear undertaking in September 1976, along with our partners in the EEC, to use the Government's best endeavours to hold direct elections to the European assembly in May-June 1978. No doubt he meant it. No doubt he believed that at least he would have the support of his Cabinet colleagues. Certainly they would appear to encourage him in that belief for they agreed to the Queen's Speech. Or perhaps the Queen's Speech, too, was one of those occasions on which the Prime Minister decided that collective responsibility need not apply.

But if so, he did not fulfil even his extraordinary new doctrine because he did not tell us. And so, perhaps, if there is another Queen's Speech, and if they are still locked in the embrace with the Government, the right hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) and his hon. Friends had better look around to see what the position on collective responsibility is in the Cabinet for the next Queen's Speech, if there is one.

However, we are still entitled to presume that even in this Government the Cabinet do collectively support the Queen's Speech. Thus it would appear that the opponents of direct elections in the Cabinet hit upon a subtle trick to neutralise the Prime Minister's best endeavours which, I am quite certain, were absolutely genuine. "Ah", they said, "we cannot introduce a Bill on direct elections until the measure on devolution is through the Commons". What a remarkable assertion! After being concerned one way or another with the business of this House for about eight years, I have never heard of a more unjustifiable assertion. Indeed, it is a well-known principle of business management in this House—alas, all too seldom achieved by any Leader of the House— that the important Bills in the Government's programme for any Session should start before Christmas. So what on earth was this new idea?

Much play is now being made of the phrase "best endeavours". But the account of the Government's legislative efforts surely cannot be construed by any reasonable person as living up to a modest standard of endeavour.

Yesterday the Prime Minister decided to change ground. The delay he said, has been part of the process of getting people to understand the necessity for the legislation. Persuading is, of course, part of democracy. How right the Prime Minister is. But as my right hon. Friend for the Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) said last night, the Prime Minister spoke yesterday of persuasion as though he had spent his time stumping the country advocating direct elections. If he has, he must have been doing it by stealth or with strict instructions to his public relations machine to ensure that in no circumstances should one single word of his advocacy be produced to anyone at any time.

I have a great regard for the Prime Minister's public relations expertise and, therefore, I believe that if he had wished his persuasion and his advocacy to reach a wider section of people in this country he would have achieved it. But, alas, we have heard nothing of it.

Of course, I suppose his persuasion has been of a very much narrower order. It has, in fact, been in what I suppose can reasonably be described at any time as the "semi-secrecy" of his own Cabinet. He has been seeking to use his persuasion there but, alas, it does not seem that his persuasion, even in that narrow and comparatively small circle, has had a very outstanding successful or beneficial result. Rather, I fear that this has led him to a disastrously weak decision which I trust and believe will prove to be entirely uncharacteristic of him. Nevertheless, if his Government survive for long enough, I believe that he will live to regret the day when he introduced a very dangerous precedent.

The Prime Minister's decision to abandon collective responsibility in his Cabinet will weaken his own authority, which, as he will realise, does not worry me unduly. But it will also weaken Britain's standing amongst our allies, especially amongst our partners in the EEC. I think that that should be a matter of great concern to us all.

By no stretch of imagination can Cabinet Ministers voting against their own Government's Bill be interpreted as a Prime Minister using his best endeavours —[HON. MEMBERS: "Where are they?"] Therefore, much as I respect the right hon. Member for Dartford. I cannot agree with him when he congratulates the Prime Minister on having kept his Cabinet intact. It will not look exactly intact at 10 o'clock tonight.

Before the Prime Minister moves from his avuncular mood into a threatening one, which I thought that he showed signs of doing yesterday, I trust that he will realise that his record and that of his Government leave him with no right to accuse anyone in any part of this House of preventing the Government from meeting the target date or preventing direct elections. He has forfeited that argument. I thought that he was coming to it yesterday. Before he does, let me assure him that there will be a blockbuster in the way, because I shall not let him get away with that one. The Government's own tactics and manoeuvring have already brought about the delay. To them must go the blame.

But the way in which the Government have handled the introduction of the Bill and the obvious imperfections of the Bill itself must not be allowed to obscure the fact that a major and important issue is at stake. Britain is by treaty a member of the EEC and, quite exceptionally, our membership was endorsed overwhelmingly by a referendum of the British people. The Prime Minister, as he is constitutionally entitled, in Britain's name gave a commitment to our European partners on direct elections. Of course, that commitment was given subject to Parliament's approval. I accept that immediately. Of course, Parliament has the undoubted right to withhold that approval. But if Parliament were lightly or frequently to exercise that right, Britain's international standing and reliability would be gravely threatened and probably seriously undermined.

That argument will not convince those who continue to be opposed to membership of the EEC and who refuse to accept the result of the referendum. They are perfectly entitled to do that. I am equally entitled to say that in my view they are going the best way about ensuring that Britain gets the worst of both worlds. However, that is their undoubted right if that is their determination.

But it is surely a compelling argument to those who believe in our European position but who have doubts about the importance and value of direct elections. There are those of us who believe in our membership of the EEC and in direct elections but who are unhappy about the way in which the Government are proceeding on this Bill. For us, there can be no doubt that, if we want to see direct elections to a European Assembly, we must vote for a Bill the principle of which it is to provide them.

I do not want to see direct elections as a means to furthering a federal Europe. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, Pentlands (Mr. Rifkind), I am against a federal Europe. My right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Fraser) tells me and others that if we are against a federal Europe but in favour of direct elections we are in a stupid position. I do not accept that. I cannot understand that argument. I have always been of the view that there is no reason why we should proceed to a federal Europe if the countries concerned do not wish to do so.

I see no evidence at all that the leaders of any other EEC countries passionately wish to do so. Both President Giscard d'Estang and Chancellor Schmidt have made it quite clear that they do not wish to proceed on this course. If that is so, I cannot see why on earth we should be forced in that direction.

I want direct elections because I believe that they will give greater democratic control of the Community. I do not believe that that can be provided under the present system of membership. Nomination as a system has broken down. I do not believe it can work, bearing in mind the strain on hon. Members who are trying to do a job here and a job in Europe. They cannot do both jobs and I do not think it right that they should be expected to do so. That is why I want to move towards direct elections.

A directly-elected Assembly could be an aid to national Parliaments in dealing with Community bureaucracy. I am not impressed by any analogy between duties of Members of that Assembly and our duties. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith), with his considerable experience, convinced me of the total difference between the powers of this Parliament and the powers of the Community Assembly.

I do not intend to repeat the arguments in favour of the first-past-the-post system which I made in the debate on the White Paper on 28th April. Neither system is perfect, and, in answer to the right hon. Member for Devon, North, I recognise all too well and too clearly the problems that will arise with Northern Ireland if we proceed with the first-past-the-post system. But as I said before my conclusion on Northern Ireland is that if, as essentially part of the United Kingdom, it is taking part in a United Kingdom election, it must do so on the same basis as the rest of the country. To do otherwise, despite all the difficulties involved—of which I am only too well aware—could easily raise unjustifiable fears about our determination in Northern Ireland. That would be totally unjustified and absolutely unfair, but it is a danger. I stand wholly by these words. To paraphrase the right hon. Member for Devon, North, they come from the full-throated belly of a large man and not from any other source at all.

I think that the position in a strictly Northern Ireland election is different, but essentially these are matters that can be discussed—if the House gives the Bill a Second Reading—at Committee stage. Tonight we are dealing with the Second Reading and with the principle of a Bill to provide direct elections to the European Assembly. This is the fulfilment of an undertaking given by the Prime Minister on behalf of the people of this country.

On that basis, and for those reasons, I ask my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote for the Second Reading tonight. By doing so in great strength we shall earn from our European partners a respect for consistency and reliability—a respect that this Government and that Labour Party have forfeited beyond recall, to the great detriment of true British interests.