HC Deb 28 April 1976 vol 910 cc373-7
23. Mr. Marten

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a further statement on direct elections to the European Parliament.

24. Mr. Moate

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the present position with regard to direct elections to the European Parliament.

27. Mr. Gow

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether he will make a statement about direct elections to the European Assembly, following the meeting of EEC Heads of State in Luxembourg.

Mr. Hattersley

The European Council asked the Foreign Ministers to do further work on the subject and to report back to the Heads of Government in July. The Council of Ministers will consider the matter further at its meeting on 3rd and 4th May.

Mr. Marten

May we have an assurance from the Minister that after that meeting he will come to the House and make a statement on what went on, because this House is very much in the dark as to what goes on? Will he tell the House what the French proposed at the Council meeting?

Mr. Hattersley

It is not possible to go into many details about suggestions made by our colleagues in preparation—[HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"]—for negotiations carried on by the nine Foreign Ministers. Indeed, it has been the tradition of the House, accepted by all other than those who always make that kind of noise when I explain the conventions of the Council of Ministers, that the negotiations carried on by the nine Foreign Ministers are best not carried on in a blaze of major publicity. The idea that the French Government have put forward as perhaps the best solution is a Parliament or an Assembly of approximately the same size as that which has previously not been elected, and that idea has appeared in newspapers and is well known. If the hon. Gentleman wants a statement after next Monday or Tuesday, I shall be happy to make one. The record in the House following Councils of Foreign Ministers is clear. When a statement is not made, hon. Members complain. When a statement is made, they are bored. I shall do what I can to meet the wishes of the House.

Mr. Moate

What is the British Government's reaction to this French proposal as reported? Would the right hon. Gentleman consider that one advantage of a smaller number, roughly the same size as the present Assembly, would be that, if an individual country did not wish to proceed to direct elections, we could continue to send the same number of Members as at present without any extra burden on the House?

Mr. Hattersley

The Government have made clear that, when they come, we should like to see direct elections to an Assembly of a rather larger size than the present Assembly. We should find it very difficult to proceed to direct elections on the basis of the French proposals. That would produce a situation which was altogether unsatisfactory.

As to whether some countries have to move at different speeds, that will be determined and decided on the ability of Foreign Ministers to come to agree on a generally acceptable scheme in which we can take part on the same dates as the others. That is certainly our wish, but it may be impossible if the constitutional proprieties cannot be observed and the tehcnicalities cannot be completed.

Mr. Jay

As a Select Committee is to be appointed to inquire into this whole problem, will my right hon. Friend assure us that the Government will take no decisions until the Committee has reported and its report has been debated by the House?

Mr. Hattersley

I certainly assure my right hon. Friend that the Government's wish is to do exactly as he describes. But this must be a two-way process. The other Governments of the Community want to move quickly on these matters. Therefore, if we are to move as a Government one step behind the Select Committee, the Select Committee will have to carry out its functions with a great deal of dispatch. If there is good will on both sides, I am sure that we shall observe the principle that my right hon. Friend has laid down, but there will be pressures on both the Government and the Select Committee.

Mr. Gow

Does the Minister understand that his answers are entirely unsatisfactory even to those of us, including myself, who voted "Yes" in the referendum last year? Does he further understand that crucial to the issue of direct elections to the European Parliament are the powers of that Parliament and the future organisation of the constitution of the European Community? Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us the Government's thinking about that crucial subject?

Mr. Hattersley

I did so at the end of the two-day debate on direct elections three weeks ago—a debate, if my mind serves me correctly, in which the hon. Gentleman did not take part. It took me 10 minutes to describe the constitutional provisions governing the power of the European Assembly. Its powers are as described in the Treaty of Rome. They cannot be changed without the support of this Parliament, and I cannot imagine this Parliament giving support for excessive increases in the powers of the European Assembly.

Mr. Atkinson

Will my right hon. Friend reconsider his answer on the international discussions taking place at the Council of Ministers? Is it not an absolute outrage that he should suggest that these discussions take place in private? Is not this some indication that the declaration of the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House that we were to move towards open government is to be very short-lived

Mr. Hattersley

I think that on reflection my hon. Friend will agree that for progress to be made in international discussions, with nine Foreign Ministers trying to come to a consensus and general compromise, it is not always the wisest course either to announce what we propose to say at the beginning or to announce what we are prepared to accept at the end. Let me mention two facts. We have always been willing to make a statement after Council meetings describing the conclusions reached on those occasions. Secondly, there is the most absolute safeguard about direct elections. Nothing can happen without legislation in this House and the will of the House being demonstrated by its votes. There is no question of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, or the Prime Minister or anyone else, doing something without my hon. Friend's knowledge.

Mr. Hurd

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is not much use his urging the Select Committee to make speed when the Government have not produced proposals for the Select Committee? When will these proposals be made?

Mr. Hattersley

I hope that the announcement of the Select Committee's terms of reference, or suggestions for it and suggested membership, can be made to the House very soon. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is present. He is well aware of the need for progress. I think that the hon. Gentleman will find that there is an announcement in the very near future.

Mr. David Steel

Has the Minister of State discovered whether the new Foreign Secretary is any more open minded or far-sighted on the question of the method of electing representatives to the European Parliament than his predecessor?

Mr. Hattersley

I do not quite understand the implication of that question, and I fear that if I did I should be unwilling to answer it. The simple position is that the Government feel themselves committed by their treaty obligations to hold direct elections, and that we shall do as soon as constitutionally and practically possible.

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