HC Deb 28 July 1976 vol 916 cc644-6
44. Mr. Dykes

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what further steps he is planning to implement the decision reached by the Heads of Government summit on 12th July on direct elections to the European Parliament.

Mr. Hattersley

The European Council took a decision on the question of the number and distribution of seats and asked Foreign Ministers to settle the outstanding issues. The Foreign Affairs Council has done a good deal of work on these issues at its meetings this month and will return to the question at its next meeting in September.

Mr. Dykes

While appreciating that the Foreign Secretary has left the Chamber because this Question is too difficult for him to handle, may I ask the Minister of State to explain why he delayed the signing of the convention on direct elections at the Council of Ministers? Can he say when the convention will be signed?

Mr. Hattersley

I only wish that the first part of the hon. Gentleman's question was true. As regards the serious part of it, the position is that the European Council took a decision which the British Government were prepared to endorse at the subsequent Foreign Affairs Council. Although that decision was apparently endorsed by all the Heads of Government and the President of France, it was not acceptable to all Foreign Ministers. A new instrument had to be prepared which it was hoped would be a compromise acceptable to all the Nine. The British Government are examining the new proposals, and until we have done so it is not possible to say whether it meets with our approval or the date when we will be ready to sign.

Mr. Powell

Can the right hon. Gentleman state the nature of the instrument which he has under consideration? Is it a draft convention or some other form of EEC instrument?

Mr. Hattersley

It is some other form of EEC instrument, but on British suggestions it has been amended in a number of ways and the right hon. Gentleman will find that it looks remarkably like a convention.

Mr. Thorpe

Is it not somewhat pathetic that the Prime Minister had to announce that, alone of all the Nine, Britain and Denmark were incapable of doing anything so practical and democratic as moving to direct elections by 1978 and that we would still have to nominate? Is he aware that the reason that was given was lack of parliamentary time, and that that was on the day before we were asked to approve a guillotine on four Bills to be passed within a fortnight? [HON. MEMBERS: "Five Bills."] Five Bills and three guillotines. Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that one of the reasons for the delay is that, according to the Prime Minister, we are hell bent on using the most archaic system, under which it will take longer to draw up boundaries and to hear objections than under any other electoral system known to mankind?

Mr. Hattersley

The right hon. Gentleman has asked three questions the implication of which is wrong. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister did not say that what has held us up is the absence of parliamentary time; he said that it was the absence of parliamentary approval. I am sure the House will welcome the Prime Minister's explanation that he could not announce a parliamentary decision on the matter before Parliament had studied the proposal.

The right hon. Gentleman is also quite wrong in suggesting that it was only the United Kingdom and Denmark who were in this position. The reason why a new instrument had to be invented rather suddenly 10 days ago—an instrument which the British Government are now considering—is that the other countries in the EEC decided that they must, like us, pay a proper respect to the realities of their parliamentary life. On the third point, I know that the right hon. Gentleman is interested in the reform of the electoral processes, and he made the point at some length in Committee upstairs.

The right hon. Gentleman is giving, however, an example of the sort of delays we might face. Because of the proper prudence in the face of that sort of argument, we have told our partners that we will be ready on time, if we can, but there is a possibility that some people— perhaps the right hon. Gentleman—will prevent that from happening.

Mr. Heffer

Will my right hon. Friend accept that many of us think that the Government are absolutely right not to rush into this decision on direct elections? In view of the fact that only this morning the National Executive of the Labour Party decided overwhelmingly, with only a few votes the other way, to oppose the concept of direct elections, will my right hon. Friend take that into consideration when considering the whole question?

Mr. Hattersley

Yes, of course I will. The Government asked for and received evidence from all the political parties, including the party which my hon. Friend and I serve, and clearly the views of the parties in a matter of such constitutional importance have to be taken into account. I am grateful to my hon. Friend for endorsing the Government's view that we must not rush into this.

Mr. Hurd

The Minister is, of course, right that the decision rests with Parliament and not the Government. Was not this point safeguarded in the statement made by the Prime Minister only yesterday? Does it not look as though, because of the three Divisions we have just heard about, he allowed himself to be out-manoeuvred inBrussels and it looks as if once again it has been Britain which has held things up?

Mr. Hattersley

The hon. Gentleman may put that interpretation on it, but I do not think that anyone in Brussels did. I think that this morning the papers reported that some of the Commissioners felt that our decision was wholly natural and wholly reasonable. The hon. Gentleman may think that the defence of parliamentary rights in some way ought to be taken into account, and I had to make absolutely sure that the proper safeguards were included in the new instrument. I have no doubt that I was right to take that attitude.