HC Deb 09 November 1977 vol 938 cc666-71
38. Mr. Dykes

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs what discussions he plans to hold in November and December with the Foreign Ministers of the other member States of the Community on the progress being made in each to introduce direct elections to the European Parliament in 1978.

The Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. John Tomlinson)

It has been agreed to review the progress of legislation in the member States at each meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council. The Council will meet on 22nd November and on 19th and 20th December.

Mr. Dykes

What would be the grounds and reasons that would cause the Government to feel justified in asking other member States to postpone these elections until 1979?

Mr. Tomlinson

The Government have no intention at present of asking them to do so. As the House is well aware, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister told the House on 3rd November that the Bill for direct elections will be presented tomorrow, and judgment will have to be made in the light of the progress made on the Bill.

Mr. Jim Marshall

Will my hon. Friend impress upon his colleagues in Europe that in the unlikely event of the direct elections Bill passing through the House and, as a consequence, direct elections, unfortunately, taking place, Her Majesty's Government will vigorously oppose any attempt on the part of that directly-elected Assembly to take powers away from the Council of Ministers?

Mr. Tomlinson

I cannot agree with the hypothesis upon which my hon. Friend poses his question. I am sure that when legislation passes through the House and when we have direct elections the Council of Ministers will be fully aware of its responsibilities in relation to national Parliaments.

Mr. Kilfedder

Is it not an insult to the long-suffering people of Northern Ireland that, until there are direct elections, Northern Ireland will be the only region of the United Kingdom that is not directly represented in the Common Market Parliament? Is this not a disgraceful situation which has existed since the Tories were last in office? What do the Government intend to do to ensure that justice is provided for Northern Ireland, which has so often been lectured by successive Governments about democracy—

Mr. Tomlinson

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman knows that this matter should be raised through the usual channels. It is not something that is directly related to the House.

Mr. MacFarquhar

Can my hon. Friend, in pursuance of his earlier remark about the Prime Minister's statement of 3rd November, confirm reports that the Government will introduce a guillotine motion on the direct elections Bill immediately after Second Reading?

Mr. Tomlinson

I am sure that my hon. Friend will recognise that that is a question that is best directed to people other than me.

Mr. Hurd

The Minister is using his best endeavours, but does he not think it lamentable that the Government should have wasted a full year on this and brought us to the present difficulty? With the benefit of hindsight, does he not regret that he did not take our advice a year ago and start the Bill then, in which case the details of the voting system and all the other difficulties would have been satisfactorily settled and we would be ready, with the other countries, to meet the target date?

Mr. Tomlinson

I am sure that the House will watch with interest which voting system the hon. Member and his friends choose to follow when the Bill is before the House. It is clearly the case that if the House adopts the Government's preferred system, which is outlined in the Bill, there is a possibility of attaining the agreed timetable, but if hon. Members opposite pursue the view that they are now expressing they will hold a degree of responsibility for our not being able to meet the timetable on time.

Mr. Thorpe

In agreeing with the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) that we regret the delay in the introduction of the Bill, and in accepting his implied thanks to the Liberal Party for getting it back on the agenda of politics—which thanks I am sure he would like to express —may I ask the Minister to try to discover whether the Tory Party will be as good Europeans as they claim and vote for the only system that will make it possible for elections to take place next year?

Mr. Tomlinson

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that those of us who wish to see this Bill pass through the House will look forward eagerly to the actions of Conservative Members. The decision that I understand a number of Conservative Members will take in relation to their preferred system, as opposed to that in the Bill, is one that will leave them with a high degree of responsibility for delay in meeting the timetable of commitments into which we have entered.

Mrs. Bain

In his negotiations, will the Minister make it clear to other EEC members that the people of Scotland regard it as a gross insult that they have been allocated only eight seats in the European Parliament? If he believes that there is any integrity in the so-called unity of the kingdom, will be guarantee that Scotland is at least given parity with Denmark, particularly when it is deprived of the right of veto?

Mr. Tomlinson

The situation is quite clear. The number of seats that have been allocated to the United Kingdom is 81, and we propose that these 81 seats should be allocated proportionately to the various parts of the United Kingdom. Thus, if the hon. Lady's desire were followed, it is clear that any increase in representation for Scotland could be done only at the expense of other parts of the United Kingdom, which would give it a disproportional e representation in relation to the rest of the kingdom.

Mr. John Mendelson

When my hon. Friend refers to the Government's preferred electoral system, will he bear in mind and confirm that many right hon. and hon. Members on the Government Benches are grimly determined that the system should not be changed, and that the Government have no mandate from the Labour Party or any other political party—apart from a small number of Liberal Members—to play about with or change our electoral system?

Mr. Tomlinson

Obviously, I take note of what my hon. Friend says, but he has no more basis than I have for any assertion about what the views are at the moment, because the opinion of the House has not yet been tested. I look forward to supporting the Government's preferred system, as I believe it is the right system and one which will give us the opportunity of meeting our target obligations by 1978.

Mr. John Davies

Is the Minister aware how pleasant it is to be able to agree so wholeheartedly with his hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson)? Is it not a fact that the Government, in the person of the Prime Minister, have given a solemn assurance that there will be a free vote on the subject, as have the Opposition? Is the Minister now seeking to imply that that will not be the case in the course of this operation?

Mr. Tomlinson

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will recall that the Prime Minister said there would be a free vote on the method. That is when we shall have the opportunity of testing the view of the House. I have stated quite clearly my view in relation to the Government's preferred system, and I equally stated quite clearly that the Opposition would have a large degree of responsibility if, by their vote in a free vote, they delayed the implementation of something to which, allegedly, they were committed.

Mr. Kilfedder

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I seek your guidance and help? A short time ago, in a supplementary question, I sought from the Government a statement of what action they intended to take to ensure that democracy was provided to Northern Ireland, in the sense that it would now have a representative in the Common Market Parliament. I was told by the Minister responsible that I should seek the information through the usual channels.

I was elected as a.Member of this House by my constituents to raise matters on the Floor of the House in public. I think it is a disgraceful situation that I am told to go behind the Chair to find out what the Government intend to do. In fact, I think the answer is an attempt to hide from the people of Northern Ireland that the Government intend to do nothing. The fault also lies with the Tory Party—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I am seeking not to stop the hon. Gentleman apportioning blame but to ask him what is the point of order.

Mr. Kilfedder

The point of order, Mr. Speaker, is quite simply that I have no usual parliamentary channels. Therefore, will you tell me how I can force the Government to do what they are always telling the Ulster people to do, namely, to provide democracy—in this case to Northern Ireland—and elect a Member to the Common Market Parliament?

Mr. Speaker

I fear that all that I can do for the hon. Gentleman is to give him my sympathy. I am unable to decide the content of Ministers' answers.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. On a fundamental matter of democracy concerning 1.5 million approximate people—[Interruption.] The approximation was intended not as an insult to the people of Ireland but only to my lack of statistical knowledge. May I ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker? Is it in order for matters of fundamental democracy to be brushed aside with the suggestion that this House is run by people called Whips? I know that they are mysterious people, but is this not a very serious infringement of the rights of the House?

Mr. Speaker

Order. For as long as I have been in the House there have been complaints about answers from Ministers, and apparently a general dislike—I do not want to make any enemies—of the Whip system, but it is part of our being.