HC Deb 03 July 1979 vol 969 cc1333-44

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Lord James Douglas-Hamilton.]

3.26 a.m.

Mr. Edward du Cann (Taunton)

I am grateful for the opportunity to raise tonight the important subject—which to me seems to have constitutional implications—of the provision of facilities in the Palace of Westminster for newly elected Members of the European Parliament. It must be a matter of concern that neither the British Government—either this one or their predecesors—nor the British Parliament have made proper and known preparations for them to do their work.

Governments and Members of Parliament may hold differing views about the value of the EEC, or, as I would prefer to call it, the "European Political Community," for obviously its final purpose is political. People may question the wisdom of the United Kingdom's accession. I have been an opponent of this proposal continuously. I have always believed, and still do, that there are alternative economic and political strategies for the United Kingdom. None the less, the EEC is a fact. This House voted in its favour, and so did the nation. It seems to me that our duty now, as practitioners of democracy, is to make it work and succeed and to do our best in that endeavour—as, indeed, every other national Parliament is doing.

On 7 June last we elected 81 Members to join their colleagues in the European Parliament, so it is a fact of life. I believe it to be essential that there should be carefully structured institutional contacts between national Parliaments and the European Parliament if sterile conflict between them is to be avoided; for example, if we are to prevent the European Parliament from trying to assert itself at the expense of our domestic Parliament, or vice versa.

The reality is, or should be, that they are, or must become, complementary. Indeed, I would argue that a co-operative attitude towards each other might well enhance the degree of parliamentary control which I believe to be necessary over Community business. There can be no sphere in which this is more necessary, in order to examine this question of parliamentary control and to see that proper arrangements are structured.

In practice, an effective liaison will be indispensable, as will mutual support, whether we speak of the smooth passage of Community law through national Parliaments or of the agreement by national Parliaments to constitutional amendments to the treaties; for example, to increase the European Parliament's powers, which I am sure will be a subject that will be much discussed in the years immediately ahead.

The proponents of the United Kingdom's entry into the EEC argued with passion that our 700 years experience of parliamentary and constitutional government were invaluable. Our methods and constitution have stood the test over the years and enabled us to evolve our system of government and democracy sans revolution and serious discord. That is undoubtedly a priceless possession and an example to the youngest Parliament in Europe. Those proponents argued that we should demonstrate leadership, but we are not doing so. At present, perhaps inadvertently, we are barring Members of the European Parliament from our advice and experience.

Our British Members of the European Parliament feel confused and let down. There are three areas that we might discuss together. First, there are matters that are for hon. Members and not for the House as a whole or for parties. We can do much to establish local liaisons with Members of the European Parliament across party boundaries, as with local authorities in our constituencies. We also have a duty to become better informed about the EEC structure. Here is an instrument that we must learn to play, and play well.

Secondly, we need to integrate European Members of Parliament into our party work, give them the opportunity to play a part in our parliamentary Committees and allow them to attend as a normal practice.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)


Mr. du Cann

I believe that the 1922 Committee is already agreeable to that. It should also be a normal thing for hon. Members to attend parliamentary committees in the European Parliament. If the venture is to succeed we must be in the habit of thinking together, debating together, discussing together and formulating policy together. The key word is "together".

Thirdly, there are the parliamentary matters—the matters that are for us all to decide in this House and in this Parliament. The principle under which we should operate is clear. Members of the European Parliament must be integrated into our work. Exchange of information should be routine. To that end I have a series of practical suggestions. I put them in no particular order. Some are important, and others minor.

The most formal derives from the work of the House of Lords Select Committee, which has considered the links between Westminster and the European Parliament. It has recommended that a Grand Committee be set up consisting of members of the Scrutiny Committee of both Houses and Members of the European Parliament. It is suggested that it should meet two or three times a year to discuss European affairs in general, with a small steering group meeting more often to take up minor issues. These ideas are manageable and effective. We do not know the view of the Government or of the House, and it is time that that matter was decided. There is the proposal that Members of the European Parliament, or some of them, should be members of the legislative Scrutiny Committees of both Houses. I warmly support that because it would be conductive to their effective working.

It is perhaps the more informal matters, the many smaller essays that we can make, that will be effective in the aggregate in making a reality of co-operation. We have The House Magazine, of which I have been a supporter from the beginning, under the command and invention of the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne, East (Mr. Thomas). I hope that that will be distributed to Members of the European Parliament and contain accounts of their work.

I believe that official papers should be made available to Members of the European Parliament as they are to us, and I am astonished that that has not already been done. This Parliament must be the focus, and I hope that arrangements for expenses for Members of the European Parliament will soon be settled so that they will have the ability to travel here without difficulty.

I turn to the question of access. Too many persons who are not Members wander around these corridors of power. Access for Members of the European Parliament should be limited. They are not Members of this House or of the House of Lords. They should not have the privilege to speak in this Parliament, but there should be a room for them here, and working facilities with a telephone and a Telex. They should be given passes analogous to those issued to members of the Lobby to promote access to certain parts of the building. It is degrading that Members of the European Parliament should be obliged to go to the Strangers Lobby and send in a green card if they want to see a Member of this House. I would give them access to the Galleries to listen to the debates, afford them other facilities, such as parking—there is plenty of room—and give them some part in the entertainment facilities. One could add to or subtract from these categories, but at present nothing is being done, and that is wrong.

The reason why I raise this matter tonight—and I am grateful to the Leader of the House for being here to answer this Adjournment debate—is that there is a feeling among Members of the European Parliament that we are stonewalling on this business. It is our duty to be helpful if we can. I suggest that this matter could be considered by a small committee of Members of this House—perhaps the Leader of the House and his opposite number, two representatives from the European parliamentarians, perhaps the chairman of the parliamentary affairs committee of the Labour Party and an equivalent representative from this side, a representative from the PLP and one from the 1922 Committee.

We must deal with this matter somehow. The sooner we begin this constructive process, the sooner public opinion will be reassured, and the sooner Members of this new Parliament, to whom we wish success in their heavy labours, will be assured of the guidance and experience of this House, which is so much in their interests.

3.38 a.m.

Mr. Jim Spicer (Dorset, West)

I intervene briefly to thank my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann), on behalf of those elected as Members to the new European Parliament, for offering a helping hand to them by providing the services which they desperately need in this House. In doing so he has performed a great service to this House and to the newly elected European Members.

We begin with a great fund of good will from those 81 Members. We could very easily fall into sterile conflict between this House and the new Members if we are not careful. My right hon. Friend has outlined so many ways in which we can help, but the most pressing and urgent need is for access to the House on the same terms as Lobby correspondents have already. If we grant that sort of access, it follows that we must grant access to our parking facilities. Hon Members know that it is unusual for the lower floors of our car park to be full and if we wish to encourage Members of the European Parliament to come to the House and play their part alongside hon. Members there is no reason why our parking facilities should not be made available to them.

The new Members of the European Parliament wish to work with, and learn from, the House. Many have not been involved in politics in the sense that hon. Members are involved, and the sooner that we take them on board as friends, the sooner they will carry the message of democracy to the European Parliament. Many in Europe have looked to us for that message in recent years, but we have not had the right message to give. I hope that, as a result of the co-operation that will be built up between hon. Members and the Members of the European Parliament, that message will go out from the House.

3.41 a.m.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Norman St. John-Stevas)

I am pleased to be able to reply to this short and important debate on the relationship between Members of this Parliament and Members of the European Parliament.

The issues that my right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) has raised about facilities and access clearly form part of a wider framework, which is bound to become of growing importance and concern to the House, namely, the whole future relationship between Westminster and the directly elected European Parliament and its Members. I congratulate my right hon. Friend on raising the issue and so adding to the considerable services that he has rendered to the House. I am also delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Spicer) was able to join in and speak from the point of view of Members of the European Parliament.

I find myself in broad agreement with the approach of my right hon. Friend and my hon. Friend. Future relationships, whether formal or informal, administrative or procedural, will have major implications for the future workings of both Parliaments. It is the Government's aim that the relationship should be both cordial and constructive. If we do not grow together we shall grow apart, and that would be to the loss of both Parliaments.

Important preliminary work on the way in which the relationship may develop has already been done. In particular, there has been a valuable report from another place's European Communities Select Committee. Some matters were also touched on in the third report of this House's Select Committee on Direct Elections to the European Assembly.

The Government are fully alive to the major importance of the proposals made in those reports, including, for example, the suggestion mentioned by my right hon. Friend of a Grand Committee of both Houses to promote discussion between Members of the two Parliaments in matters of mutual interest.

Other matters were also considered by the Lords Select Committee. The right of directly elected Members to attend meetings of the Westminster Scrutiny Committees on Community legislation was a suggestion supported by the Committee. It examined the need for a European Parliament London office near to the Palace of Westminster, the question of the servicing of directly elected Members, the question of access of such Members to the Palace of Westminster, and the question of the availability of parliamentary papers.

In the Government's view, which I hope the House will share, it is essential, before coming to final conclusions on these issues and related ones, to seek to establish as wide a basis of common ground as possible—not only among Members here at Westminster but among the newly elected United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament—about what these links and facilities should be.

It is, in our view, also necessary for enough time to elapse to enable some practical experience to be gained in the actual working of the directly elected Parliament. As the Select Committee on Direct Elections to the European Assembly put it in its third report: it would be damaging to the whole concept of good relations between Government and the European Assembly if some machinery were to be established immediately after direct elections which subsequently turned out to be ineffective. Experientia docet—and we want to have some experience of the working of this great new enterprise of the European Parliament before coming to conclusions.

We have already undertaken in our election manifesto to discuss these questions with other parties. What we are now considering is within what framework these consultations could most appropriately take place; and in what way the wishes of the directly elected Members themselves can be established and taken into account.

My right hon. Friend suggested a form of working party, and we shall consider that proposal. But at this stage I wish to assure the House that there is no question of any of the proposals that we have heard in this debate—relating to such domestic matters as access to the Library or to the Refreshment Rooms or, more fundamentally, to the possible establishment of procedural links between the two Parliaments—being brought forward by the Government without prior consultation.

Mr. Spearing

Will the right hon. Gentleman acknowledge that the Parliament of which he speaks does not exist, and that it is an Assembly? Secondly, does he agree that there are many hon. Members in this House for whom what has been said in this debate is highly contentious? They felt so strongly on the matter that they disapproved by voting not only against the Assembly and adherence to this organisation but against direct elections and the election of representatives. Will he undertake to go even more slowly in view of the doubts felt on this subject and the manner in which it is being dealt with in this debate?

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I listened with interest to the hon. Gentleman's intervention. Of course, there are diverse views in this House on a matter of this importance. Indeed, they have been adequately represented here this evening. My right hon. Friend the Member for Taunton has represented one view and the hon. Gentleman in his intervention has represented another. We have heard the views of the members of the European Parliament. Everyone has had his say.

Mr. Spearing

The right hon. Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) has had his say.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

I agree that my right hon. Friend had more time in which to speak. Perhaps he does not possess the ability of the hon. Gentleman to condense his remarks into one sentence. It is no surprise to me that the hon. Gentleman has issued a manifesto. He is assiduous as he has every right to be, in propagating his views. However, I do not wish to enter into too metaphysical a discussion about the European Parliament.

Mr. Spearing

European Assembly.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

We must use our own words. The European Parliament—or Assembly as the hon. Gentleman oddly calls it—is a directly elected body that is unique in the history of parliamentary institutions, and it would be churlish to deny this important body the name of Parliament. We in this House have made a great contribution to parliamentary government, but we are not the Mother of Parliaments. England is the Mother of Parliaments, and I shudder every time I hear the misquotation. I hope to correct it when it occurs, and I hope, too, that tonight's select audience will observe that John Bright's phrase was about England and not about this House. No doubt we shall hear Westminster called the Mother of Parliaments again before too long.

The matters that we have debated are of importance to individual Members as well as to the House. The Government fully recognise the need to establish the views of the House—possibly through the establishment of an appropriate Committee or, perhaps, a joint inquiry with another place—before decisions are taken. I believe that the matter is progressing at a reasonable pace.

As regards access for directly elected Members of the European Parliament to facilities here—to which my right hon. Friend particularly referred—these could involve, of course, such matters as access to amenities such as bars, restaurants and libraries. The Select Committee on Direct Elections to the European Assembly favoured making available to directly elected Members some of the amenities that are available in Parliament to Members of both Houses. The House may recall that that Committee considered that informal links like this might be the best way—initially, at least—for relations between the two Parliaments to develop. I suppose that another alternative might be to consider joint facilities—common meeting places, and so on—outside the Palace of Westminster. These are no doubt matters which the House and the Services Committee may wish to consider further.

Apart, however, from questions affecting the relationships between the two Parliaments, there are a number of other aspects of assistance to United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament in which the House is less directly concerned, but to which it may be helpful if I refer briefly. There is, for example, the need for accommodation—temporary and permanent—for the London office of the European Parliament. There is the matter of secretarial support services for individual United Kingdom Members. Directly elected Members may wish to have available departmental briefing, if required, and to have ready accessibility to parliamentary papers.

The Government have all these matters under consideration. My right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal will shortly be getting in touch with the leaders of the parties represented in the European Parliament on briefing arrangements.

We believe that as a matter of general principle the European Parliament will itself provide any necessary accommodation and services from its own resources, but, as I have said, our aim is to be as helpful and constructive as possible. We shall do all that we can to assist United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament to carry out their important duties. We recognise that in the case of accommodation it may be necessary to bridge the gap until the European Parliament authorities can complete their arrangements. We should be prepared, if appropriate, to put forward proposals to the Services Committee.

I hope that I have indicated enough to show that the Government are fully aware of the need to establish effective and mutually beneficial co-operation between Parliament and the United Kingdom Members of the European Parliament. No doubt it may be some little time before the new, directly elected Members can reach a view on what they need at Westminster. When the position has crystallised a little more we shall be able, I hope, to find the appropriate forum in which these views can be expressed and considered in a way that is generally acceptable, so that the mutual interests of both Parliaments can be furthered.

To achieve that it will be necessary for all questions of relationships between the two Parliaments, whether in terms of facilities, procedural relationships or administrative support, to be examined in a constructive way. I am extremely grateful to my right hon. Friend for the excellent example that he has set tonight. His views will certainly be taken into account in the Government's consideration of the proposals, which, as appropriate, we shall in due course bring before the House. We shall also consider the views—the minority views—of other hon. Members, such as those of the hon. Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), who has intervened in this debate. All must be taken into account to reach a happy conclusion.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at four minutes to Four o'clock a.m.