HC Deb 22 December 1976 vol 923 cc665-8
39. Mr. Dykes

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he is satisfied with the European Community's progress with plans to introduce direct elections to the European Parliament by 1978.

37. Mr. George Gardiner

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he will next have discussions with other EEC Ministers on arrangements for direct elections to the European Parliament.

40. Mr. Madel

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he next expects to discuss direct elections to the European Parliament with his EEC ministerial colleagues; and if he will make a statement.

41. Mr. Shepherd

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when he next expects to meet his EEC colleagues to discuss direct elections to the European Parliament.

Dr. Owen

My right hon. Friend has no immediate plans to discuss arrangements for direct elections with his EEC colleagues. The Council will in due course need to determine the date of the first elections, but it is for member States first to take the necessary steps in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements. As far as the United Kingdom is concerned, the Government have committed themselves to introduce the legislation this Session.

Mr. Dykes

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for that reply. Will he confirm none the less that the European Parliament, for example, would be seriously disappointed if the Foreign Secretary did not refer at length to the prospects for direct elections during his scheduled visit on 12th January to Luxembourg? Will the Minister of State also confirm that, since the European Governments have definitely decided that these direct elections should take place at the same time, the biggest impediment to that would be the British Government if the appropriate Bill were not introduced immediately in the new year?

Dr. Owen

The timing of the legislation is still under consideration. It will be influenced by the progress being made on other major constitutional issues before the House. I am sure that my right hon. Friend will bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's plea to make an extensive reference to this in his speech to the European Parliament, and 1 shall at least make sure that he notes the suggestion.

Miss Boothroyd

When does my right hon. Friend intend to have preliminary talks with the Boundaries Commission with a view to establishing electoral divisions within the United Kingdom?

Dr. Owen

That is primarily a matter for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and I will draw his attention to my hon. Friend's question. It is one of the matters which must be considered in the question of the timing of the introduction of the legislation and is, perhaps, the biggest problem we have in meeting the date of May-June 1978.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

Have any of the member States indicated that they insist on a list system for the direct elections? Do the Government favour a regional responsibility? If so, what progress does the right hon. Gentleman hope to make to stop us from being saddled with a list system?

Dr. Owen

The hon. Lady will know that many of these issues were discussed by the Select Committee which looked into the matter. It is recognised that it will not be possible to have a uniform electoral system operating for all nine member countries on the first elections to the European Parliament, but it is envisaged and hoped that it should be possible for the next round of elections.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Why is the Minister of State being so coy? Is he trying to stall and to say that we shall not have the elections? Can he not say when the Bill will be published and when we shall have its Second Reading? Cannot he answer his hon. Friend the Member for West Bromwich, West (Miss Boothroyd) about the Boundaries Commission? Granted that it is the Home Secretary's responsibility, can he not say what will happen about it? Are not the Government committed to the Bill, or are they now back-pedalling, as they are on most other things?

Dr. Owen

The hon. Gentleman will have to get used to the fact that responsibility for direct elections does not lie with my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. The main responsibility lies with the Home Secretary, as is the case with all electoral changes that are introduced. I should obviously like to be able to tell the House a date for Second Reading of the Bill, but I am in no position to do so at present.

Mr. Jay

Do the Government intend to comply with the provision in the Treaty of Rome that any direct elections must take place in accordance with a uniform procedure in all member States?

Dr. Owen

I thought that I had already covered that point in answer to an earlier question. I think it is widely recognised that it will not be possible to do this in the first round of elections. It is a hope, and my right hon. Friend is right to draw the attention of the House to the Treaty of Rome in this regard. It will not be the first case, or the last, I suspect, when the literal interpretation of the Treaty of Rome is not followed.

Mr. Thorpe

Is it not better that we should be entirely frank with our European partners and tell them that as we shall probably have to have 81 individual inquiries before the Boundary Commissioners, which is essential if we have a single-Member system, which is archaic, unequal and capable of every sort of change, permutation and combination, there is not a hope in hell under that system that we shall be ready by 1978? Some of us think that it would be better to have nominations that do not pretend to be democratic rather than a bogus system that is not democratic.

Dr. Owen

This will have to be discussed. The Select Committee drew attention to many of these matters. The right hon. Gentleman made a dissenting note on a number of its recommendations relating to the electoral system. His views on this subject are not entirely unknown to hon. Members on both sides of the House.

Mr. Hurd

The Minister of State has told us in the presence of the Leader of the House that the Foreign Office is not responsible for the delay in publishing the Bill. Who is responsible? It is, after all, five months since the Prime Minister agreed with his colleagues on the number and distribution of seats within the Community, and four months since the Select Committee gave its views of what it thought were urgent matters. If the delay continues into the new year, will it not undermine our bargaining strength inside the Community, given that it has been agreed inside the Community—as the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe) does not seem to realize—that if any one member fails to achieve the target date the whole enterprise founders?

Dr. Owen

I have not made any such allegation that someone else is responsible for the delay. As the hon. Gentleman should know, the publication of a Bill precedes its Second Reading usually by only a few weeks. That is quite common practice. Anyone who has been concerned in the House over the last few weeks during this Session will have realised that some of the legislation that has been passing through the House had to be put through the House for specific and special reasons, in some cases to be able to operate, such as in the case of the Fishery Limits Bill, by 1st January. That is why that legislation has had to take priority over other legislation. However, I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will take note of the hon. Gentleman's comments.