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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 Dr David Owen Dr David Owen , Plymouth, Devonport 12:00 am, 7th July 1977

Not for the first time, and I suspect that it will not be the last time when this issue of Europe comes before the House, Members of Parliament will exercise their individual judgment. I do not apologise for that. I argued for a free vote on this issue in 1971 and I am content that this issue will be decided by the House as a whole.

I shall tell our friends in Europe who are watching this debate that there ismore chance—[Interruption.] The opposition of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) is well known, but the Government's commitment to use their best endeavours to put this legislation on the statute book in time to reach the May-June target is clear. It is known that the commitment to elections in May-June 1978 is political, arising from successive meetings of Heads of Government in Paris and Rome in December 1974 and December 1975. That timetable was reinforced in the agreement that was signed by my predecessor last September. Nevertheless, we have made clear to our partners in Europe the difficulties that could arise in the United Kingdom about meeting the deadline.

As the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday, the Government have never underestimated the difficulties that face any constitutional Bill in the House. We have always recognised that adequate time is needed for full consultation and consideration of the important issues involved in this legislation. We do not apologise for the fact that there has been a Select Committee report and time to debate a White Paper, that considerable consideration has been given to the method of election, and that two alternative methods have been put before the House.

We have made it clear that we shall recommend—and we have recommended —the regional list system. During the negotiations with our European partners last year we sought a derogation allowing for continued nomination should we not be ready to hold elections in May-June 1978. However, our partners preferred an agreement under which the first elections would be held simultaneously throughout the Community. They also agreed that the target date should be a matter of best endeavours rather than a legally binding commitment and that the election itself should be fixed when all the member States were ready.

The Prime Minister intervened in the debate yesterday to say that it would not be the end of the world if it proved impossible to be ready by 1978. The right hon. and learned Member for Hexhan (Mr. Rippon) wished to have this explained. The Prime Minister made it clear and I made it clear that we shall use our best endeavours. Those who believe that the Government will not use their best endeavours make a great mistake. However, there are important issues that the right hon. and learned Gentleman should consider. He drove through the House legislation concerning the European Community at a time when many people felt that the House had inadequately debated all the important constitutional issues. It is difficult to drive through constitutional legislation when there are hon. Members of differing views on both sides of the House. We all know that this legislation will be examined with care, as it should be, and that it will be difficult to get it through and on to the statute book in order to meet the suggested May-June target date, but we shall try our best.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman must recognise that this matter will be decided by the whole House. I hope it will be seen tonight that there is a clear and decisive majority in the House for the principle of direct elections. At a later date we shall have an opportunity to determine—and again hon. Members will exercise their individual judgment—the method of election. The right hon. and learned Gentleman, claimed that he has a long record of support for the cause of European unity. That is a cause to which I also subscribe but the right hon. and learned Gentleman will not serve that cause by ensuring a form of election to the European Parliament that will give a completely distorted result in the political system of this country. That is one of the serious issues that will be decided in Committee on the Bill. We shall decide whether we can get a fairer system. [HON. MEMBERS: "When?"] Some hon. Members on the Opposition Benches have constantly pressed us to allow the decision on the method to be taken in advance of the legislation. It has been significantly obvious on many occasions that the Government are quite right to insist that the Bill should be judged as a whole. One portion of the Bill cannot be abstracted; the Bill must be seen as a whole. For instance, Clause 2 determines the number of seats and the distribution of the 81 seats. There have been interventions in the debate from a number of hon. Members from Scotland and Wales and from the right hon. Member for Down, South about the distribution of the seats.

This is an important issue, which will have to be decided in Committee. The House has never had a serious opportunity to discuss the concept of a regional list system and I make no apology for bringing this issue to the House, first in the White Paper and now in the Bill. I believe that there are positive merits in such a system that have not been fully examined. I believe that it will produce a fairer result in the Assembly elections when they take place, and that is important.

The fact that it is a different system from the first-past-the-post system that we have for General Elections is a merit, because it will emphasise that the European Assembly is not this Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said that a lot of the descriptions of the Bill and the language used in the debate were based on a false premise that the European Assembly is a Parliament. It is not. When we elect a European Assemblyman, he will not be a Member forming a majority for a Government. The Assembly will be a consultative and advisory institution, with limited powers, particularly on financial measures.

We shall be adding to the democratic control of the Commission and much of the bureaucracy in Brussels.

The right hon. Member for Down, South and a number of my hon. Friends have claimed that by directly electing the European Assembly we should be weakening democratic control. That analysis would be correct if we were dismantling the controls in this House, but we are retaining and strengthening those controls.