HC Deb 24 November 1977 vol 939 cc1764-75

Order for Second Reading read.

4.1 p.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Brynmor John)

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

This is the second time in four months that the Bill has been before the House in substantially the same form. At the end of the two-day debate last July the Bill was given a Second Reading by a large majority. The Bill now before the House is in the same form, save for a few textual and comparatively minor amendments.

The problem for all of us who take part in this debate, and certainly for anyone moving the Second Reading of such a Bill, particularly one which was the subject of such intense pre-legislative discussion, is to say anything that has not been dealt with at weary length before. Although some repetition is unavoidable, I hope that I shall minimise that repetition, and when I do repeat what has been said earlier, I hope that the House will try to understand and forgive me.

Before I come to the main substance of my remarks today, I should mention that my hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs has asked me to express his regrets to the House that he is unavoidably absent abroad. My right hon. Friend had very much hoped to be present for the debate and to vote. But, before the date for it was set, he had already agreed to meet the Spanish Foreign Minister today in Strasbourg for talks on Gibraltar, talks at which the Gibraltar Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition will also be present, in the margins of the Council of Europe ministerial meeting at which Spain will be admitted to that body. My right hon. Friend felt that he could not break that commitment in view of the importance of the search for a solution for Gibraltar and the fact that this will be the first direct contact between Spanish Ministers and representatives of Gibraltar.

Mr. Eric S. Heifer (Liverpool, Walton)

Will the Foreign Secretary be abstaining?

Mr. John

Knowing my hon. Friend's views as I do, I should think that he would be grateful for my right hon. Friend's absence. It is neither a single abstention nor an each-way bet that is practised by some of my other hon. Friends.

I am sure the House will realise the importance of the Gibraltar question and the discussions now being formulated between the Gibraltar representatives and the Spanish Government and will excuse his absence on this occasion.

Mr. John Lee (Birmingham, Hands-worth)

It is much more sensible than this nonsense.

Mr. John

I am much obliged for even that limited support from my hon. Friend.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. John

I will not give way at the moment. You, Mr. Speaker, have already indicated how many hon. Members wish to speak on this occasion and I am only on the preamble by way of excusing the absence of another rather than developing the case on the substance of the Bill.

What my right hon. Friend has asked me to convey to the House is something that it already knows. I am to underline his view of the importance of the decision that is about to be taken. It is of constitutional significance, and that is why we have placed such great emphasis on having it discussed. This is the first extra-territorial assembly to which the United Kingdom will have directly elected representatives. That is why, in my view and the view of the Government, no snap decisions could be taken or ought to have been taken.

Mr. William Whitelaw (Penrith and The Border)

They certainly have not.

Mr. John

The right hon. Gentleman said that they certainly have not, and that is right, but I make no apologies for that. I should prefer a thorough debate on this important issue rather than for it to be rushed through and for people to regret it later. Even now this Second Reading debate will merely be the prelude to a more detailed scrutiny of the Bill, but it is upon this occasion that the House of Commons will affirm —or, to put it more correctly, reaffirm —its commitment to the principle.

Even though I pay due regard to the importance of that decision, there is a danger on the part of some people, particularly those who oppose the measure, of exaggerating the effect of the Bill. I concede that its wider context will add to the importance of what is said in the Bill and in the debate, but I believe that it would be quite wrong for the House to over-emphasise or exaggerate the importance of the step that we are taking.

That is why I think it is necessary to reaffirm that the decision to have direct elections was taken because it was thought that directly elected representatives would make a more significant contribution to an Assembly that retained the same powers as it has today. The Bill does not transfer powers to Strasbourg or to Luxembourg. It merely determines how representatives shall be chosen.

The powers of the Assembly are laid down by the Treaty, and in order to alter the Treaty the unanimous consent of all nine countries is required. Before the powers of the European Assembly could be added to, the British Government would have to give their consent and, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear in his letter to the NEC of the Labour Party, it is intended that any extension of the powers of the European Assembly would be effected here by means of an Act of Parliament.

There are, therefore, ample safeguards against any transfer that does not have the consent of Parliament. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman who leads for the Opposition on this occasion will affirm his party's commitment to a similar procedure.

Mr. Enoch Powell (Down, South)

Who, me?

Mr. John

No. I mean the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Whitelaw). I think that the right hon. Member for Douth, South (Mr. Powell) is mixing up de facto and de jure opposition, in this as in other matters.

Many people, additionally, seem to think that the fact of direct elections itself would lead inevitably and inexorably to a federal Europe. Most of those who say so are opponents of the Bill, but there are some supporters of the Bill who do not hide that that is their aim. Much of the propaganda that I have read recently seems to have directed itself to this point and to saying that, because some people desire federalism, it must, therefore, be the aim of all who support direct elections. I believe that to be fallacious.

Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)


Mr. John

I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman when I have developed the point, but before I leave it.

It is perfectly possible to support Manchester United without condoning all the violence of some so-called supporters of that team. I just do not believe that direct elections are inevitably a step towards federalism, any more than I believe that devolution is an inevitable step towards separatism. Of course, some hon. Members will vote for this measure today because they are federalists, just as some hon. Members voted for the Bills last week because they were separatist in their intent.

But the vast majority of hon. Members, including some of my hon. Friends who may put forward such an argument today, rejected the view that there can be no reform short of separatism. So, too, do I reject the view that there can be no election short of federation.

Mr. Marten

I think that the country recognises that the referendum was largely won by the European Movement. [HON. MEMBERS: "Rubbish."] Its publication of November said This is why we will work, up to the European elections and beyond, to transform the Community into a federal democracy … But the Community must move beyond this phase into that of a European Government under parliamentary control …". It is this Parliament about which we are now talking—the Parliament that will control, with a European Government under it. This is the fear that many of us have about so many supporters of the European Movement—and I include many hon. Members on this side of the House. Can the hon. Gentleman say that he disagrees with that? I hope that other hon. Members on this side of the House will say that they disagree with that concept.

Mr. John

As I was about to explain on behalf of the Government—and I make clear the commitment of the Government rather than of the European Movement, which seems to have built hypothesis upon hypothesis in that regard —they have made it clear that they do not support federalism. In his letter to the National Executive Committee of the Labour Party my right hon. Friend said: The Government has never accepted that the community should develop into a federation. It is our policy to continue to uphold the rights of national Governments and Parliaments. Equally, I am advancing the argument that this Bill stands or falls on its merits as a measure to elect people directly to the Assembly, with the powers of that Assembly as they are today. It is no part of my thesis that we are considering it as a step towards federalism. There is no doubt at all about where the Government stand on this issue. They are against federalism and in favour of direct elections on the basis of exercising the existing Assembly powers.

There will continue to be people strongly committed to the federalist idea at all stages. They will continue to advocate their cause. We can never satisfactorily approach the matter on the basis that every time one of them pronounces on it we immediately believe that that is the next step to take. We do not believe that it is either the next step to take or, indeed, a step that it is necessary to take at all.

Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)

In that case, are the Government prepared to build a self-destruct into this Bill if the powers of the Assembly are in fact changed?

Mr. John

This is something to be considered and will fall to be considered in Committee. The French have done so because they have a written constitution which necessitates it.

What I have said on behalf of the Government is that any extension of powers needing unanimous consent would come before this Parliament and would be passed through it here not by affirmative resolution but by Act of Parliament. I say that on behalf of the Government. Although I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes I do not believe that it is necessary for us to do that.

Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)

Does the Minister therefore now say on behalf of the Government—we could not clear this up during discussions last Session—that they will not follow the Government of France by writing into the text of the Bill a binding provision that if there is an extension of power of any kind the legal commitment of this House and of the country to send Members to a European Parliament will become null and void? Are they refusing to follow the Republic of France in that course?

Mr. John

I am explaining the Bill as it is. There is no such provision in the the Bill, and I have been at pains to explain—obviously, with scant chance of success with my hon. Friend—that we do not believe it to be necessary, because there would be safeguard by the consent of Parliament being necessary to an Act of Parliament to transfer any additional powers to the Assembly over and above those which it already possesses.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. John

I think, Mr. Speaker, that I should be——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I warn right hon. and hon. Members—I know that those on their feet are anxious to speak—that too many interruptions will exclude one who might otherwise be able to speak.

Mr. John

I had intended to try to be fairly brief. I am trying to be, and I am not trying to dodge questions. We shall embark on a Committee stage which, I believe, will not be much truncated and there will be an opportunity to return to these points at a later stage. I hope that some of my hon. Friends who believe their points to be so important at the moment will make them during their speeches. If he catches the eye of the Chair later, my right hon. Friend will be able to take up those points.

Let me return to the main points of the Bill as it exists. As befits a Bill which is really a vehicle for the arrangements for these Assembly elections, many of the provisions are those which one would expect of a Bill to secure that end. Clause 5, for example, sets out who may vote in the election. Basically, they are those who would be entitled to vote in a parliamentary election, together with peers.

Clause 7 sets out the times of elections and how vacancies between such elections would be filled. My hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr. Atkinson), as reported in The Sunday Times of 20th November, stated three conditions upon which he said that Labour Party candidates were to take part in such elections. The first, the powers, I have already dealt with, but the third is—and I quote his words— Each country can choose its own European election day within agreed dates. I should have thought that that was already covered by Clause 7. The European provision laid down that elections should take place in the same week, on a day between Thursday and Sunday to be chosen by the individual country. My hon. Friend's point is therefore already catered for, and I think it is certain that the election will take place on the day on which such elections are normally held in the United Kingdom, namely, on a Thursday.

Clause 8 provides for the appointment of the returning officers and election staff and Clause 9 lists those disqualified from being candidates.

Clause 6 then enables the procedures for Assembly elections to be as closely assimilated as possible to those that obtain for parliamentary and loyal government elections by enabling the Secretary of State to make regulations applying the provisions of the Representation of the People Acts.

More importantly and controversially, the number of seats and the method of election are provided for by the Bill. The number of seats set out in Clause 2 is that allocated to the United Kingdom, namely, 81. It was set after discussions in the Council of Ministers. As a result of these negotiations we were given equal representation with our major Community partners.

It must be accepted, I believe, that this is an unchangeable overall figure. Various Members and various organisations have called for a redivision of the seats. The Select Committee recommended, and the Government have accepted, that upon the basis of 81 seats for the United Kingdom 66 seats should be allocated to England, eight to Scotland, four to Wales and three to Northern Ireland. This is so whatever the system of election chosen.

Those who call for a redivision must be aware that they can increase the representation of one part of the United Kingdom only at the expense of some other part. It is important to note, therefore, that England is already allocated about one and a half seats fewer than those to which a strictly proportional allocation of seats would entitle it. These go to round up the representation of Scotland and Northern Ireland. Wales has almost exactly a proportionate representation. It would not be right, therefore, in the Government's view to alter this division so as further to increase the electoral disparity between England and the other countries of the United Kingdom.

A matter that will be central to the whole of the discussions on the Bill will be the electoral system to be chosen, at any rate for the first elections. Clause 3 sets out the Government's recommendation as to the preferred system, and what we arc recommending is the regional list system. The choice between this and the other major contender, namely, the simple majority system, will be upon a basis of a free vote of the House of Commons. In a constitutional matter of this importance we believe that to be right and proper. I think that this answers the third of the points which my hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham raised in the Sunday Times article.

We shall have opportunities of debating the minutiae of the respective systems and I do not propose to go into too great detail at this stage. The advantage that we see for the regional list system derives from the fact that the Assembly is a consultative and advisory body which has neither legislative nor executive powers. In our view, such a body would be better served by an electoral system reflecting the division of view within our country rather than one with a greater chance of a clear result, which is far more important for a legislative or executive body.

The division of the country into electoral regions for the regional list system is secured by the Bill, and as a result of our previous discussions—certainly our debate for two days in July—the system is now well understood by hon. Members on all sides of the House. Whether it is any better liked we shall see in due course.

The first-past-the-post system is already familiar and I need to point out only three things in connection with that system. First, it will need a Boundary Commission procedure, which we believe should be option B in the White Paper, namely, a truncated one that will take about 18 weeks after the Royal Assent. That will allow for one round of representations but no local inquiries. As a result, the draft constituencies should be known within a few weeks of the Boundary Commission examining them—probably within a fortnight.

In reply to a previous intervention by the right hon. Lady on the Business Question may I say that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary is not in the business of fixing these divisions for himself. I know how easy it is for the cry of "Gerrymander" to go up. My right hon. Friend is determined that that shall not be the cry made of him.

Mrs. Margaret Thatcher (Finchley)

If it were in a schedule it would be Parliament that was fixing it, not the Home Secretary.

Mr. John

But the right hon. Lady cannot have forgotten so easily the events of 1969, when it was precisely what happened and precisely the reaction of Opposition Members on that matter. My right hon. Friend bears the scars of that debate to this day and it is part of his experience of that time that he will not repeat the experience of setting down himself in the schedule the boundaries to be followed.

Mr. Ian Gow (Eastbourne)

A moment ago the Minister of State was at pains to stress to the House that the European Assembly had no legislative powers. Perhaps I may quote an extract from a document published by the London office of the European Parliament Secretariat in January last year: Parliament's powers are likely to be steadily extended in the future. The Summit Conference in December 1974 decided, in particular, to increase Parliament's competence in the Community's legislative process. Those are not my words. They are the words of the document produced by the London office of the European Parliament.

Mr. John

Nor are they my words. I just do not accept what is said there. I accept what is said in Article 137 of the Treaty, which describes the Assembly as advisory and supervisory. I believe that it is upon that that we have to measure our response to it. But I think that the hon. Gentleman interposed with a rather slow reaction to a point I left some minutes ago.

Mr. Marten


Mr. John

No, I shall not give way again at this stage. I shall not give way on this issue. I am dealing with the second of three comments that I want to make on the first-past-the-post system.

Mr. John Mendelson

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it not revealed in these first exchanges that it will be highly unsatisfactory to the House if there is not a Minister representing the Foreign Office taking part in the debate? Will the Government not be in the position that the proper authoritative answer for statements made by agencies of the European Parliament cannot—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant God-man Irvine)

Order. It appears that there is a Minister from the Foreign Office present, and in any event it is not a matter for the Chair.

Mr. John

I assure my hon. Friend that I know that this will not be the last we shall hear about these matters. I can assure him that in the Committee stage both the Foreign Office and the Home Office will be represented and will be answering these points. He may want them answered now, but I am the best speaker he has.

I was about to deal—in case right hon. and hon. Gentlemen were following what I was saying instead of culling through the reports of the European Commission and its various agencies—with the second point about the first-past-the-post system. I was saying that in the event of that system being chosen for the mainland, Northern Ireland would have a proportional representation by single transferable vote to take account of the special needs and difficulties there.

Thirdly, we have incorporated within the Bill a formula in Clause 3(2) which would enable the Bill to proceed if, in fact, the system of first-past-the-post were introduced. I know that this caused some problems during the debate in July and a great deal of time was then devoted to its explanation and clarification. I believe that those Members who then queried it seemed to accept the explana- tion then given, namely, that it is a procedural device that enables us to consider two electoral methods and not to have to withdraw the Bill in the event of the preferred electoral method being defeated upon a vote in this House. In other words, it is something which facilitates the due progress of the Bill rather than hinders it. As I have said, there may be certain further points of detail upon that, but I believe that my right hon. Friend will answer those again at the end of the debate.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths (Bury St. Edmunds)

As a resolution of the House would be required to put into effect the first-past-the-post system, if that were the decision of the House, can the Minister say that not a long period would elapse between the completion of our consideration of the Bill and the bringing forward by the Government of a resolution which could bring the first-past-the-post system into operation? It would be quite intolerable if the House decided on the first-past-the-post system and there were then to be a delay which the Government blamed on the House because they had not brought forward the resolution.

Mr. John

Although I know that he followed the exchanges closely in July, the hon. Gentleman still has not understood that the effect of the choice, even if it were the first-past-the-post system, would be to delete Clause 3(2) completely so that the Bill could proceed duly. It would not need the mechanism under Clause 3(2) and therefore would not need the resolution of the House. It is purely a procedural device in order to get the two systems considered, the choice—which is the choice of the House—made, and the Bill proceeded with accordingly.

Sir Derek Walker-Smith (Hertfordshire, East)

If Clause 3(2) remains, there still has to be a resolution. If Clause 3(1), which is the regional list system, goes out, Clause 3(2) still requires the resolution of the House and Schedule 2, surely.

Mr. John

That will then be amended at that time. That is the point that I am seeking to make to the right hon. and learned Gentleman.

There are some minor changes in the Bill. Some of these, including those in Clauses 12 and 14, are merely drafting improvements. There are some that are more substantial although still of minor significance, which provide for what happens in the event of the death of a candidate and for arrangements for application for postal votes.

In conclusion, I do not pretend that any of the changes are significant. It is the same Bill as that to which the House gave its assent in July. Though I respect the fears which many express about the Bill, I cannot share them. I believe that, given the decision to enter Europe, an elected Assembly using its present powers will represent a considerable improvement on one of the weaknesses which I for one certainly criticised in the European Economic Community referendum, namely, the absence of democratic control over the Commission. The letter of the Prime Minister has outlined ways of tackling the other weaknesses which are certainly admitted still to be there.

In advocating that the House give the Bill a Second Reading—

Mr. Paul Channon (Southend, West)


Mr. John

No, I shall not give way at this very late stage. The result of interventions now is that other Members cannot speak. There is a winding-up speech during which other points can be taken up.

What I would ask the House to do in giving this Bill a Second Reading is to take a single but in my view a significant step towards democratic control of the bureaucratic apparatus of the Commission. In that way I believe that advantage will result for all of us.

Mr. Channon

Before the Minister sits down—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I have been given a very clear impression that the Minister has sat down.

I have been asked by Mr. Speaker to announce that the amendment has not been selected.

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