HC Deb 18 February 1976 vol 905 cc1280-2
34. Mr. Dykes

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs whether the Government have now fixed a date for the publication of their planned White Paper on European direct elections.

Mr. James Callaghan

A Green Paper entitled "Direct Elections to the European Assembly" was published yesterday.

Mr. Dykes

Does the Secretary of State agree that that paper could only be described as disappointing, negative and defeatist? It is not a White Paper, as expected originally, with green edges. It is not even a Green Paper. It is simply a yellow paper. The Government are setting the clock back with their proposals and are proceeding right from the beginning again. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that more progress should have been made and that the paper does not deal with any of the more important questions? Does he agree that at least the Government should now reaffirm that 1978 is the target for direct elections to the European Parliament?

Mr. Callaghan

That was a series of generalised observations to which I think the answer basically is "No, Sir." The purpose of the paper is to bring before the House of Commons and the public generally the questions which must be resolved in this very important matter. Those questions are there outlined. I hope that a debate will be arranged. I have already said that I am willing to meet any of the parties wishing to discuss the matter, and we can proceed from there to the European Council on 1st April.

Mr. Spearing

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, because the future powers of the European Assembly are unknown, the constitutional implications of direct elections are very considerable? As these implications are not discussed in the Green Paper, would it not be a good idea to present another document outlining the possible constitutional effects of direct elections?

Mr. Callaghan

I am not an astrologer and cannot foretell the future. The powers of the Assembly, such as they are at present, are set out in the Green Paper as published. It is on this that the issue will be decided. If this Parliament decides to transfer any further powers at a later time, it will be for it to do so in due course as it thinks wise. There is no point in trying to anticipate what is going to happen in these matters when no one's opinion on the subject can be valid.

Mr. Russell Johnston

Will the right hon. Gentleman explain why it is that in a Green Paper remarkably free of assertion the Government choose to emphasise that they see an advantage in coinciding European Parliament elections with local government elections in May? One would have thought that to confuse two very different levels of government would be a mistake.

Mr. Callaghan

That is probably a matter for debate, but basically it is the case that most if not all of the countries would prefer the elections to be held in May or June. I cannot envisage canvassers exhausted by local government elections then coming out for another three weeks "on the knocker" for European Parliament elections. Subject to discussions in the House, my view is that if we run them both together we shall probably stand a better chance of getting a decent vote.

Mrs. Dunwoody

As a practical politician, my right hon. Friend must know that we shall have great difficulty in getting anyone to take an interest in direct elections, particularly when they cover about 10 constituencies. As far as I am aware, there is no indication of what extra powers this Assembly will have after direct elections. Will the Government at least take greater pains to explain to people what they have in mind after direct elections?

Mr. Callaghan

This is a hobgoblin. The powers of the Assembly are laid down. They are there fixed by statute. Only this and the other Parliaments can transfer further powers to it. I do not see that we can go into that position at present when no one knows what further powers are to be transferred, or, indeed, if I read my colleagues aright, whether anyone will want to transfer further powers.

I have certainly never been given to underrating the difficulties of this operation, but to underline the difficulties sometimes means that one is accused of trying to sabotage. On the contrary, we have a treaty obligation. We intend to carry it out, and in carrying it out it is my responsibility to point out the difficulties.

Mr. Hurd

Does the right hon. Gentleman accept that although there will certainly be dissenting voices, and although we are disappointed with some of the content, or lack of content, of the Green Paper, the Opposition have for some time accepted the principle of direct elections to the European Parliament—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I was glad that I referred to "dissenting voices". We have for some time accepted the principle of direct elections to the European Parliament as a welcome and necessary strengthening of democratic control in the Community.

Mr. Callaghan

This looks like being a diverting controversy. Hon. Members opposite should be kind to their Front Bench, which is in enough distress as it is.

In the first instance it seemed that, as there was obviously a little controversy, it was as well to set out in the paper the issues and the questions to which hon. Gentlemen would have to address their minds before coming out with a clear picture of the Government's policy on them. Otherwise, I should have been roundly accused of trying to dictate.

Mr. Speaker

We cannot debate that matter now.

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