HC Deb 20 October 1976 vol 917 cc1438-41
31. Mr. Spearing

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement concerning the draft instrument for direct elections to the EEC Assembly.

38. Mr. Jay

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs by what procedure it is proposed to ask Parliament to ratify the legal instrument signed at Brussels on 20th September providing for direct elections to the Strasbourg Assembly; and when it is proposed to bring this before the House.

Dr. Owen

The provisions of the Act signed on 20th September will come into force after all the member States have notified the completion of the procedures necessary in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements. In the case of the United Kingdom, such notification would not be made until after Parliament had both enacted the necessary implementing legislation and approved by affirmative resolution an Order in Council made under Section 1(3) of the European Communities Act.

Mr. Spearing

I thank my right hon. Friend for that statement. Is he aware that, despite the provisions of Section 1(3) of the European Communities Act, it is a flimsy protection for this House? He will recall that the Prime Minister said that we might need to amend that part of the Act. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that Article 7 of Command 6623, to which he referred, requires uniform procedures at a subsequent date for these direct elections?

Dr. Owen

Article 7 provides that the Assembly shall draw up a proposal for a uniform electoral procedure but that, pending the coming into force of such a procedure, the electoral procedure shall be governed in each member State by its national provisions. This was an issue which was commented on by the Select Committee in its report.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that in the European Parliament there is a certain degree of suspicion that the United Kingdom Government do not seriously intend to introduce direct elections by 1978? Perhaps it would be helpful if the Minister of State could give a categorical assurance that there is no question of delay and that the United Kingdom Government will adhere to the 1978 target.

Dr. Owen

There is a later Question about this on the Order Paper. However, I reiterate what was said by my right hon. Friend recently. We intend to introduce this as soon as practicable.

Mr. Wigley

If the Government are still working towards 1978, by what date do they expect to have constituencies identified for these elections, by what procedure will constituencies be chosen, and what length of time is necessary for any Boundary Commission to consider those constituencies and give a fair time for debate before they are finalised?

Dr. Owen

The Government are considering all these issues. They were all covered in the Select Committee's report. I am sure that the House will wish to study that report carefully, as the Government are doing currently.

Mr. Gould

What obligation was imposed on this and other countries about the date of direct elections?

Dr. Owen

We used the term "best endeavours procedure". There were practical difficulties in view of the timing of legislation in this House. We said that we would undertake to use our best endeavours, and that is our firm intention.

Mr. Hurd

May I congratulate the Minister of State on his new appointment and on what is, I believe, his first appearance in it at the Dispatch Box? He referred to the report of the Select Committee. Is he aware that, in its Second Report, the Committee said that, if a Boundary Commission was to do a fair and proper job for direct elections within the timetable which the Secretary of State accepted, an Act of Parliament would need to reach our statute book by the end of February next year? Will he give an undertaking that the Government intend to introduce a Bill in the next Session early enough for Parliament, if it so wishes, to meet that timetable?

Dr. Owen

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his personal comments. Of course, I cannot prejudge the Queen's Speech. The House will have to consider the issues raised by the Select Committee, which also made recommendations about reducing the appeals procedure relating to the Boundary Commissions. The House will have to form a judgment. Everyone on both sides of the House is aware that to meet the February date will be extremely difficult.

37. Mr. Moate

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

35. Mr. William Hamilton

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

39. Mr. Padley

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what progress has been made towards finalising arrangements for direct elections to the European Parliament.

Dr. Owen

The Government participated to the full in the negotiations which led to the agreement on direct elections reached at the European Council in July and to the decision of the Council and the annexed Act which, with the other Community Foreign Ministers, my right hon. Friend signed at the Council meeting in Brussels on 20th September. The Government will introduce the legislation needed to implement direct elections in the United Kingdom at the earliest practicable date.

Mr. Moate

Is it still the position of the Government that a directly-elected Assembly would have no more powers than that of the present nominated Assembly?

Dr. Owen

Yes, that is the situation.

Mr. Jay

Do the Government propose to ask the House to approve the legal instrument before the end of the Session?

Dr. Owen

We have made it clear that we see this matter in two parts. The first part is to have the direct elections. My right hon. Friend is an experienced parliamentarian and he must know that he is asking me to anticipate the Queen's Speech. As far as this Session is concerned, it would be impossible to carry through the legislation in the few remaining weeks that we have available, and it is not our intention to do so.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

In his answer to a previous question, the Minister said that February was out of the question for passing this legislation. Can he give an estimate of when he thinks the legislation will go through?

Dr. Owen

The hon. Member has misheard me. I did not say that it was out of the question. I said that it would present very great difficulties. Clearly, the hon. Member must await the Queen's Speech.