HC Deb 26 January 1984 vol 52 cc1147-63 10.16 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. David Mellor)

I beg to move, That the draft European Assembly Elections Regulations 1983, which were laid before this House on 19th December, be approved.

These regulations make detailed provision for the conduct of European Parliament elections in England, Wales and Scotland. The House will shortly be invited to approve the corresponding regulations for Northern Ireland. The effect of the regulations is substantially the same as that of the European Assembly Elections regulations 1979, which are revoked by article 7. New regulations are, however, necessary to take account of the various changes in electoral law since then, including changes in nomination procedures and the exclusion of Saturdays from the parliamentary elections timetable in 1981, new provisions for the voting rights of voluntary mental patients in 1982 and changes in the subordinate legislation made in 1983. In addition, the regulations incorporate some other changes which seemed desirable in the light of consultations with the political parties, electoral registration officers' representatives and local authority associations. The new regulations are expressed in terms of the consolidation of electoral law effected by the Representation of the People Act 1983.

Before I describe the changes in more detail it may be for the convenience of the House if I say something in general about the arrangements being made for the second general European Parliament election in June this year.

As hon. Members will recall, the first direct elections took place from Thursday 7 to Sunday 10 June 1979, with the United Kingdom voting on the Thursday. Under the Community legislation of 1976, the next elections fell to be held exactly five years later, from 7 to 10 June 1984. However, the Council of Ministers decided earlier this year that it was not possible to hold the elections during that period, which coincides with the Whitsun holiday in several member states. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, informed the House on 23 February last year, the Council originally proposed that the elections should be held from 17 May to 21 May 1984. After consultation with the Parliament, it was agreed that the period should instead be from 14 to 17 June 1984. My right hon. Friend has accordingly made an order fixing Thursday, 14 June 1984 as the day of election in the United Kingdom.

The other member states voting on Thursday will be Denmark, the Netherlands and the Republic of Ireland. France, Belgium, Germany, Greece, Italy and Luxemburg will vote on the Sunday. As in 1979, the votes cannot be counted until polling has closed in every member state. It is not yet clear at what time on Sunday, 17 June, this will be, but my right hon. and learned Friend will advise the political parties and acting returning officers as soon as the information is known. The regulations require the returning officer to begin the count "as soon as practicable" after polling has ended throughout the Community. It is up to him to decide whether it is practicable to begin on the Sunday evening.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

My hon. Friend said a moment ago that Parliament was concerned. I notice that the document is entitled the European Assembly Elections. Should it not be entitled the European Parliament Elections?

Mr. Mellor

I understood that my hon. Friend was one of those who said that it should be called Assembly rather than Parliament. I do not know whether he wants me to say that it should be Parliament in order that he can correct me, and then say it should be Assembly. I am inclined to leave the matter where it is, unless other hon. Members, apart from my hon. Friend, are acutely discomfited by the way the document is entitled.

I turn now to the regulations themselves. As in 1979, they apply, with modifications where appropriate, the corresponding provisions for parliamentary elections. The most significant "modification" is that, because of the size of European Parliament constituencies, the regulations provide for the appointment of a "verifying officer" whose task it is to ensure that the number of ballot papers forwarded to the returning officer tallies with the number which has been issued. In most other respects, however, the procedures for the conduct of the election are identical with the procedures at parliamentary elections.

Of the changes introduced by these regulations, the most significant is the extension of the timetable. Saturdays were excluded from the parliamentary elections timetable by the Representation of the People Act 1981, to reflect the fact that Saturday is no longer a working day for the local government officers who are responsible for the conduct of the elections. A similar change was made in the local elections and absent voting timetables in 1983. The new regulations, in order to be properly consistent, follow this change through by excluding Saturdays from the election and absent voting timetables at European Parliament elections. Under these regulations, therefore, the last day for the publication of the notice of election would be 2 May, the last day for the delivery of nominations, 15 May, and the latest time for the receipt of absent voting applications, noon on 30 May.

Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

I well understand why these changes have been made, and they comply logically with what happens in the Westminster elections. However, it is my understanding that the exclusion of Saturdays from the computation of time for the nomination papers to be put in, and for the calling of the election, will put back those dates considerably, to the effect that nominations will be in the day before local elections. The consequence, as I am given to understand, is that political parties at that point will have to stop spending the money allocated to them for those elections by the European Assembly, and start spending their own money. This will mean a gap of something like nine days.

I understand that the Minister may not have been aware of that position. Indeed, I was not aware of it until early this evening. In the light of that, would he be prepared to take the problem away and look at it?

Mr. Mellor

I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for putting the matter in that way. Listening to what he says, I hope that it will prove to be not a material problem. I should like to have the option to look at it, and let him know the outcome after a chance to reflect upon. I am grateful to him for raising the point. We attach a great deal of importance — I think rightly — to consistency in electoral arrangements as far as possible. The reason for changing the regulations in this respect is that we should comply with the changes that have already been introduced into domestic elections as a result of changes that have come about, and been approved by the House, since the last European Assembly elections in 1979.

The period during which the statutory restrictions on election broadcasts applies pending a European Parliament election would be increased from five to six weeks so as to take account of the timetable.

The limits on a candidate's permitted election expenses would be increased from £5,000 plus 2p for each entry in the register of electors, which is the present sum, to £8,000 plus 3½p per entry, taking account of estimated changes in the value of money between June 1979 and June 1984. Other smaller limits that are raised by the regulations are the maximum payment that an agent may make without obtaining a bill or receipt, which is increased from £12 to £20, and the maximum that an individual may pay without the agent's authorisation, from £3 to £5. The maximum personal expenses that a candidate may himself pay without going to his agent would be unchanged at £600. The level fixed in 1979 seemed generous and we saw no reason to increase it.

Mr. John Watson (Skipton and Ripon)

Perhaps my hon. Friend can help me, for I am confused by paragraph 3(8), which reads: Any reference in the Regulations of 1983 or the Regulations (Scotland) of 1983, as applied by these Regulations, to any form identified by means of a letter other than the forms referred to in paragrph (7) above, shall be construed as a reference to the form so identified in Scheduele 3 to each of those sets of Regulations, as amended by Regulation 4 of, and Schedule 3 to, these Regulations. I do not understand what that means and perhaps in the fullness of the debate my hon. Friend will illuminate the House.

Mr. Mellor

It seems to me a masterpiece of the draftsman's art, but I shall reflect on it so that in replying to the debate I may give my hon. Friend an even clearer account than the crystal clear account contained in the regulations.

Mr. Marlow


Mr. Mellor

My hon. Friend has had one bite at the cherry already.

Mr. Marlow

This may be the wrong context in which to raise the issue, but I understand that a certain amount of money is being made available by the European Community for spending on these elections. May we know how much is being made available, how it is being allocated and to what extent it may be spent during the election campaign?

Mr. Mellor

Not without notice. If my hon. Friend tables a question I shall write to him. His question does not relate to these regulations, which are concerned only with arrangements by which we shall conduct those elections. That matter relates to the European Parliament and its own expenditure. If he wishes a reply to his question, he can have one in due course.

Mr. Marlow


Mr. Mellor

I will give way to my hon. Friend again, but I hope that his intervention is relevant to these regulations, rather than teasing me on issues which are not my responsibility.

Mr. Marlow

I have no desire, and never have had, to tease my hon. Friend. As this money will be available, can it be spent during the election campaign or must it be expended before that time?

Mr. Mellor

I answered my hon. Friend to the contrary, but he must pursue the question of the propriety or otherwise of these sums with others than me because while we in the Home Office have a broad back, so far as I am aware we are not accountable for the matter that he raised.

I hope that the House will agree that the changes that I have described are minor and uncontroversial and simply bring the arrangements for these elections into line with what we accept for United Kingdom domestic elections. We have sought the approval of the House as quickly as possible so that all concerned with these elections on 14 June will know well in advance the provisions under which they will be conducted.

Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West)

Has my hon. Friend considered the regulations applied in other European countries, whereby foreign nationals can vote in Britain for elections in their countries? Could we allow British nationals living in Europe to vote in our elections?

Mr. Mellor

That matter has been discussed, but, as far as I am aware, we have not yet reached a satisfactory conclusion. However, as I was able to make clear in October in Blackpool, we accept that there is a case for some British residents overseas to be able to cast their votes at home in both British and European parliamentary elections. We shall bring forward proposals based on our views, and on consultations with other parties, in a White Paper to be published soon. Although those changes will not come into effect in time for this year's European elections, we shall try to take account of the position of British residents overseas.

Mr. Ashby

Italy, for example, sets up polling stations in Britain. There is a station at Battersea town hall for Italian nationals. They need not cast their votes by post.

Mr. Mellor

Each country has its way of doing things. The method that would command more support in the House would be to permit some British nationals resident abroad to cast votes in what were their home constituencies, both for European and British elections. The House will have ample opportunity to consider that matter when the White Paper is published, prefacing legislation which we hope and expect to introduce in the next session of Parliament to deal with that and other important matters.

I commend the regulations to the House as a sensible way of bringing the regulations for European elections into line with those for British elections, and I hope that the House will approve them.

10.32 pm
Mr. Robert Kilroy-Silk (Knowsley, North)

As the Minister said, the regulations replace those of 1979 and consolidate the legislation on elections and the changes in electoral law and regulations since then. In the main, as he said, they are non-controversial and non-contentious and make few substantial changes. However, one substantial change, on which I intervened in his speech, is that of excepting Saturdays from the computation of time when determining the notice of elections and the submitting of nomination papers. I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he responded to my intervention, and for his assurance that he will consider the problem that I put to him, and report back to the House on his conclusions.

The problem is that excepting Saturdays will mean that the notice of election will be given on the day before the local elections on 2 May. That will have the inevitable result of preventing political parties from spending on elections money given to them by the European Assembly. It could also lead to confusion as to whether expenses incurred in elections are attributable properly to the European candidate or to the candidate standing in the local elections.

The real problem in relation to the regulations is not their substance, but whether they will apply to elections fought on the present European Assembly boundaries or on the new boundaries. It is this issue around which there is a great deal of doubt and confusion. The Minister should have been able to dissipate some of that confusion. To give an indication of the confusion that surrounds the issue I shall quote what the previous Home Secretary, Viscount Whitelaw, said in a written answer on 25 April: The commission sees no prospect of completing its review in time for its recommendations to be implemented at the 1984 elections."— [Official Report, 25 April 1983; Vol. 41, c. 212.] Yet a few months later the Home Office in a press release announcing the regulations said: If the commissioners report by the end of March there should be sufficient time to ensure that the elections are fought on the new boundaries. Even if the commissioners for England, Wales and Scotland submitted their final reports to the Home Secretary by the end of March, there would be very little time left for political parties to select or reselect their candidates and for new parties to be formed in the new European constituencies. There will be a great deal of haste and confusion even if the timetable is met.

There has been no excuse for the delay that has occurred. We have known all the time when the elections would take place. It is not as if it was a general election about which there might be doubt as to the precise timing. We have known for years that these elections would take place at this time. Given that, it should have been incumbent on the Government to have made every effort to put at the disposal of the Boundary Commissioners the resources and the manpower necessary for them to carry out their job of ensuring that the elections were fought on the new boundaries.

Leaving that aside, let us assume that there are no substantial problems in the way of the commissioners. The revised recommendations of the English Boundary Commission for the English constituencies have been published only today. Even those are subject to substantial challenge and potential amendment. There are revised recommendations for only 16 constituencies, but some of those are substantial.

For example, the revised recommendations for Midlands West propose that Birmingham West is changed completely. It would lose Edgbaston, Northfield and Selly Oak to Birmingham East; Halesowen and Stourbridge, Warley, East and Warley, West to Midlands West. Again, only West Bromwich, East and West Bromwich, West are left in the original constituency, to which are added Aldridge-Brownhills, Walsall, North and Walsall, South from Midlands West, and Ladywood, Perry Barr arid Sutton Coldfield from Birmingham East.

The mention of those constituencies demonstrates the substantial changes that the revisions are making in the boundaries and which therefore could give rise to objections.

Assuming that there are not substantial objections, in any event we have to wait the statutory period of a month for objections. If there are objections, inquiries may have to be held. In 11 of those constituencies no inquiry was previously held; therefore, the Commissioners would be obliged to hold an inquiry. They would have to go through the whole process of having to give notification, hold the inquiry, redraw maps, put out further revisions and recommendations, and wait a further month for new objections. Theoretically it could go past the 14 June deadline. Of course, this is before the final list would have been submitted to the Home Secretary so that he could lay the Order in Council that would require the approval of both Houses.

These regulations may not apply to the new constituency boundaries, the proposals for which could be prolonged by objectors from political parties. That is bad enough. It is absurd and unnecessary that so near the date of the elections we have got ourselves into that position. It is worse when the candidates, the parties and the electoral registration officers have to suffer that confusion and doubt.

If the position in England is complicated, difficult and potentially protracted, the problem in Wales is even more anomalous and absurd. I understand from the Welsh Commissioners—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Earnest Armstrong)

Order. The hon. Member must relate his speech to the regulations and not argue in detail about boundaries.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

These regulations are nothing if they are not applied to the constituency boundaries to which they are related. It is important to find out from the Minister whether the regulations will apply to the new or to the old boundaries. There is considerable doubt about that in the House and outside. We are looking for an assurance from the Government that we are giving our consent to regulations that will apply to the new boundaries. All that I am doing is describing some of the difficulties that could arise if the boundaries are not fixed in time.

The Welsh Commissioners tell me that they are informing interested parties by letter that they have at present no plans to re-write their provisional recommendations for Wales, but that if they later—"later" is their word— decide to do so the usual procedures will be followed. There is doubt about on which constituency boundaries the elections will be fought in Wales.

I should like the Minister to give us some assurance that the elections on 14 June will be fought under the regulations using the new boundaries. I am not sure what the Government can do. I am not sure that the Minister is responsible, but I am sure that the Government's job is to ensure that the confusion and doubt are dissipated and that any chaos that may result from having to fight the election on present boundaries is prevented. That can be done tonight by the Minister giving us a categorical assurance.

10.43 pm
Mr. Robert Jackson (Wantage)

At the risk of inflaming debate, which would perhaps be difficult at this time, I should like to say a few words about the vexed question of nomenclature. The regulations refer to the European Assembly, but there is recurrent discussion in the House as to whether is should rather be called the European "Parliament".

The technical position is that the Treaty of Rome refers to an Assembly. It also provides that the Assembly shall be master of its rules of procedure. In 1960, when the European Assembly came into existence, rules of procedure were adopted by the Assembly which described itself as the "European Parliament". It has been so known ever since. That is why it is reasonable, I believe, for Ministers to refer to the European Parliament in their correspondence and communications, as they have since 1979.

It is often argued that the difference between a parliament and an assembly is that the one has powers and the other does not and that an assembly is not a representative body. That was true of the European Assembly, or the European Parliament, in the early 1960s. It had few powers and it was not directly elected. But that has now changed.

In 1975 this House, under a Labour Government, ratified amendments to article 203 of the Treaty of Rome to provide for the introduction of own resources for the budget, and to give the European Parliament powers to amend the budget, to increase expenditure within certain limits, and to reject the budget. In 1978 that was followed — again under a Labour Government — by a Bill providing for direct elections to the European Parliament.

The European Parliament has thus, in a measure, fulfilled the ambition of those who named it such in 1960. It has acquired real powers and it is now a directly elected representative body. Of course, the role of the European Parliament in the Community's constitutional system is radically different from that of this House in the United Kingdom constitution. One is based on a fusion of Executive and legislative powers and the other on a separation of powers, rather like in the United States. But I do not think that this constitutional difference is an adequate basis for differentiating between the concept of a parliament and that of an assembly.

The fact is that the European Parliament is now establishing itself as the "House of Representatives" of the European Community. And in my view those who oppose that tendency—I am not one of them—would do better to resist it, not by seeking to insult the institution in question, but rather by respecting it. I am sure that that is a much more sensible basis on which to confront a tendency or an institution that one in seeking to criticise.

10.46 pm
Mr. A. J. Beith (Berwick-upon-Tweed)

The hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), who, I believe, represents the Thames Valley in the European Assembly or Parliament—alternative titles, both of which he has just referred to—made a sound point with which we on this Bench agree. Indeed, the argument about nomenclature, as between Parliament and Assembly, increasingly resembles those arguments about whether people should be called chairpersons or spokespersons or chairmen or chairwomen. It is an obsession with nomenclature which escapes the real discussion and argument about substance.

I agree with the hon. Member for Leicestershire, North-West (Mr. Ashby), who raised the vexed question of people living in Europe being unable to vote in this election, even although citizens of other European member states are able to do so. We have taken an excessively long time in this country to resolve that problem. It should not have been left so long. It would have been settled in time for these elections, if it had been dealt with earlier.

Before the hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) gets too excited, I want to endorse what he said about the relationship of these regulations to the boundaries that are being applied. It is a matter of genuine concern, and the Government should make the situation much more clear.

However, my main comments do not relate to those matters. I have a simple and straightforward reason for wishing to oppose the regulations. Schedule 1 ofthe regulations applies to paragraph 18 of schedule 1 tothe Representations of the People Act 1983 to the European Assembly elections. The provision in the 1983 Act says that elections shall take place by the simple majority system. Without these regulations in this form, that would not be possible.

When this country entered the European Community, it committed itself to the treaty endorsed by the House that elections should be by direct universal suffrage in accordance with the uniform procedure in all member states". That has not yet been achieved. In my opinion, the British Government have not contributed a great deal towards its achievement. It would have been perfectly possible for this British Government — and, indeed, a previous British Government — to ensure that elections in the United Kingdom took place on a system which was comparable to that taking place in other member countries, and which was at least as fair. The Government should bring before the House regulations which achieve that. Instead, they propose to follow the example of the previous European elections, which took place on the system which these regulations apply.

What was the effect of applying that system? In the 1979 election, the Conservative party obtained 50.6 per cent. of the votes. It did rather well—rather better than it did at the previous general election. What was the result? It won 60 out of the 78 seats which Great Britain has in the Parliament. It is a ludicrously high proportion. In the same election, the Labour party also did very much better than it is doing nowadays. It obtained one third of the votes. It will be a long time before it does that again. As a result, it got only 17 of the 78 seats. The Liberal party stood in that election. We were not doing anything like as well as we are doing nowadays. We got 13 per cent. of the votes. For that, we were given no seats.

Mr. Marlow


Mr. Beith

I want to develop my argument a little further and then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.

That is a quite ludicrous result, and bears no relation to the expression of opinion by the British people in that election.

In debating these regulations, we must consider how we can conduct elections based on them which fairly represent what the British voters do in the course of those elections.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon. Gentleman that there is nothing in these regulations that deals with the system of voting. We are not debating that issue tonight.

Mr. Beith

I cannot challenge the Chair, but I wish to draw attention to schedule 1 to the regulations which applies to paragraph 18 of schedule 1 to the Representation of the People Act 1983. Schedule 1 modifies parts of that Act, sometimes substantially, and does not modify other parts. Paragraph 18 of schedule 1 is one part of the Act which schedule 1 to the regulations does not affect.Paragraph 18 of schedule 1 tothe Act says: The votes at the poll shall be given by ballot, the result shall be ascertained by counting the votes given to each candidate and the candidate to whom the majority of votes have been given shall be declared to have been elected. Doing that will ensure that any opinion which is spread evenly throughout the country to the extent of 49 per cent. can be unrepresented as a result of the election.

Mr. Marlow

Everyone is aware that it is open to the alliance to win 50.6 per cent. of the votes at the forthcoming election. If it does that, it may win 66 seats, as did the Conservatives at the previous election. Can we take it that the hon. Gentleman's only reason for moaning and whingeing is that he realises that the alliance will do appallingly badly at that election?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. Before the hon. Gentleman pursues that line of argument, I remind him that the House should address itself to changes in existing legislation which the regulations affect.

Mr. Beith

We are entitled to debate the ways in which the regulations make no change as that is specified in the schedule. The schedule contains a list distinguishing between provisions which are being modified and others which are not. It would make for a strange debate if I listed only those paragraphs which apply in modified form. If we apply—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I remind the hon.Gentleman that whatever the House decides will not affect what he is putting before us.

Mr. Beith

If the House voted against these regulations the Government would have to present others so that some form of election could take place.

Mr. Mellor

I know that the hon. Gentleman is proud of his ability as a constructionist in these documents. Perhaps I can put him, and perhaps the rest of us, out of his misery. The proceedings about which he complains —the first-past-the-post system—do not derive from these regulations. Even if the minuscule numbers on the alliance Benches were enough to throw the regulations out, that would cause us little discomfort as the right derives from section 3 of the European Assembly Elections Act 1978. I respectfully suggest that the hon. Gentleman listens to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, a little more carefully.

Mr. Beith

I am not prepared to vote for regulations which implement paragraph 18 of schedule 1 to the 1983 Act. I and my colleagues are entitled to say why. If we are not given that opportunity a substantial section of the population will be denied a voice. I venture to suggest that I might have been able to deploy my case and given the House the opportunity of an early night had I not been interrupted.

If we apply the regulations as they are presented, we shall go through the machinery of an election which is conducted carefully. They contain the exact procedure by which the returning officer should count the votes and by which the marked register of electors at polling stations will be provided. I hope that I have your attention, Mr. Deputy Speaker, as I am referring specifically to the regulations. They also contain copious references to how postal vote applications and proxy votes shall be dealt with. If we go through the regulations, satisfy ourselves and the electors that no one who casts a vote in conditions which are set down by the regulations has been subject to intimidation or corruption, take the ballot boxes which have been sealed in accordance with the set procedures, convey them to the appointed place and open them in accordance with the provisions set out in the regulations, we may as well throw them up in the air and pick out the first two or three and decide the representation of the parties on that basis. That would be as accurate a means of relating the number of votes cast to the number of seats won as would following the procedures set out in the regulations.

Mr. John Maples (Lewisham, West)

Does the hon. Gentleman agree that, even with proportional representation, attendance on the alliance Benches would not be significantly different?

Mr. Beith

Only two Labour Members are present and only a tiny fraction of the Conservative party is here.

Mr. Roger Moate (Faversham)

The alliance is obsessed with the issue which is designed to benefit it, yet for most of the debate its representatives have been absent. When we debate the voting system, about which they feel hard done by, suddenly the alliance Members appear.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I hope that we will return to debating the regulations.

Mr. Beith

I am, Mr. Deputy Speaker, in some difficulty. I am seeking to remain within the rules of order. I must answer allegations that are thrown at me from Conservative Members. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Maples) obviously was not present in the Chamber or he would have heard my hon. Friend the Member for Truro (Mr. Penhaligon) speak at some length in the preceding debate. The hon. Member for Lewisham, West would have seen that I was present in the Chamber. He is making an absurd point.

I am trying to explain to the Government why the exercise of the detailed procedures set out in the regulations will be repugnant to anybody who has any respect for the good name of British democracy if, at the same time as applying them on a basis which is supposed to be a guarantee of fairness to the electorate, it is known that they will ensure that the votes are counted and arranged in such a way that the number of seats given to the parties bears no relation to them.

What effect does that have on our position in the European Parliament? It means that at present the Conservative party is ludicrously over-represented and the Labour party is grotesquely under-represented.

I look forward to my party winning 51 per cent. of the votes at the European elections—

Mr. Marlow

It will not.

Mr. Beith

The hon. Member for Northamption, North (Mr. Marlow) has challenged me on this issue, and I must attempt to answer him. We could win all the seats. How can the hon. Gentleman claim from his rather curious and tortured view of the world that for one party to have 51 per cent. of the votes and all the seats in the European Parliament is a fair, reasonable or sensible arrangement?

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

Does the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) agree that the important issue is not the number of votes gained but from where one gets them? The important issue in our system is who obtains the maximum number of votes in a constituency. Is the hon. Gentleman challenging the historical system by which we have voted in this country for many years?

Mr. Beith

Yes, I am. I do so because the result bears no relation to the votes that are cast. That issue extends far beyond the European elections into Westminster and local elections. Anyone who pretends that the constituency arrangements to which the regulations apply have any connection with the relationship that an individual Member of this place seeks to maintain with his constituency does not understand the nature of that relationship. A constituency relationship in Westminster terms cannot be maintained in a constituency in which there are 500,000 people. It is absurd to claim that that can be so. The individual Member's constituency relationship must be of a quite different character.

There are Ministers who know that there was a better system and who voted for it. The underling of the Secretary of State for Scotland who is occupying the Front Bench, the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, knows very well that his right hon. Friend voted for a much better system. I note that the Government are not introducing regulations that embrace England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. They cannot do that because they have decided to have a completely different system in Northern Ireland, knowing it to be an infinitely better one which gives fair representation. They know that other countries in Europe are aware of just how evil it would be to try to distort the representation in Northern Ireland by the use of the system that is proposed, but the Government hope that they can get away with it in England, Wales and Scotland. But they will not get away with it, any more than they have got away with it so far in attempting to pretend to the countries of Europe that Britain's good name for democracy is being maintained by regulations of this sort, which appear on the surface of democratic procedures and fairness but which at root are as unfair as it is conceivable or possible to be.

Come election day, it will be the Labour party which will make the loudest complaints. It will suddenly find that it is at the wrong end of the British electoral system. I ask the Minister to consider the arguments now before the issue is influenced by any particular election results. If he seeks to apply these regulations, he will produce a system which will bring the British democratic tradition into disrepute in the European parliament and which will bear no reflection of the balance of opinion within the United Kingdom. We shall be, as we are now, the only member country which sends on the aeroplane to Strasbourg a delegation which bears no relation in its political composition to the country from which it comes.

This is something for which no reasonable man should be asked to vote, but that is the effect of the regulations. I ask hon. Members how they can pretend to developing countries and other countries that such procedures are a perfect expression of democracy when they produce the results that I have described.

There are many occasions when Members and the Clerks who serve us, and others, have occasion to deal with the representatives of other legislatures. They talk about and commend our procedures and explain our election rules. I have no doubt that copies of these election rules will be passed around the legislatures of other countries. They set out how matters can be arranged so that the ballot boxes can be sealed in the proper way, so that the returning officer's mark is put down in the proper manner, so it is known how properly to challenge a voter and so it is known how a blind person can vote. But none of these procedures guarantees that a fair result will be achieved at the end of the day.

Mr. Richard Tracey (Surbiton)

Will the hon. Gentleman inform the House whether the majority of systems in the world are conducted by the first-past-the post system or by the rather curious system that he suggests?

Mr. Beith

There are many countries within the majority of countries that are not democracies. We are talking about elections for the European Assembly or Parliament, and let us keep within the subject. The elections will be conducted in every other member state in Europe by a system which relates seats won to votes cast. The fact that that will not happen in Britain is a scandal. It is a deliberate attempt to distort the opinions of the British people, and one day it will rebound against the very people who are perpetrating the distortion tonight.

11.4 pm

Mr. Gerald Bermingham (St. Helens, South)

I thought that we were to debate the regulations. If we are to have elections, we should have elections to govern them. We have the regulations and they seem to be legitimate and in order. I begin to wonder why there is a need for the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) to protest so much. Could it be that he anticipates 14 June already and, like the good excusists some members of his party are, is making excuses for losses before the race is won?

Whether we like European elections is irrelevant. We must run them by some rules, and it seems that these rules are the correct ones. If the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith) had shown that somewhere in those rules there was some flaw or fault, we would perhaps have listened to him with greater attention. But the cause that he pleads is one that he should plead in another forum at another time.

I hope that the remainder of the debate will be confined to the regulations and the rules thereunder so that we can all reach a rational decision as speedily as possible.

11.6 pm

Mr. Mellor

I had some doubts about whether, on a Thursday evening at past 10 o'clock, I would really enjoy the experience of proposing the regulations, but, owing to the virtuoso performance of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Mr. Beith), it has been rather fun. The great tragedy is that, just as the hon. Gentleman is reaching the zenith of his career, the BBC has chosen to abolish its old-time music hall programme, in which he might have found his true metier. As I listened to his extraordinary outburst, I thought once again of what Dr. Johnson said about the walking dog—the wonder is not that it is done well but that it is done at all.

The pleasure for those of us who decorate these Benches late at night is simply to see the Benches filled. It would be too much to expect that anyone speaking from the Liberal Benches could also talk sense at this late hour. If the hon. Gentleman were here more often at this hour, he might rise better to the occasion.

It is an effort to take seriously at least one of the hon. Gentleman's points. I refer especially to his point about the electoral system. We know that self-interest has brought the hon. Gentleman and his colleague here tonight—it is certainly not in the interests of anyone else. He is only too quick to condemn the system under which we have been content to run our elections for generations and which has survived successive Governments, and to embrace another system.

The Government are playing a full part in the discussions in Europe about a common election system. But the hon. Gentleman should be careful before he too warmly endorses the proposals. Is he really saying that if there ever were a Liberal Government—I know that that is a highly speculative subject to turn our minds to tonight—they would have bought the proposition from the European Assembly in 1982 that elections should be fought on the basis of multi-Member constituencies of between three and 15 Members on a list system?

I wonder how many people in this country would be content with elections run on that basis. It is wholly different from the link to which we are accustomed between a single Member and his constituents. I know that self-interest sometimes blinds us all to the deeper matters that are at stake, but there is something to be said for a system that links a Member with his constituency. It is a shame that the hon. Gentleman cannot reflect that.

Mr. Beith

Why, then, are the Government enforcing precisely the system that he criticises in Northern Ireland?

Mr. Mellor

That is not a good point. If that is the full extent of the hon. Gentleman's reflections on Northern Ireland, it is as well that he is not the Liberal spokesman on Northern Ireland as well as on so many other matters.

The hon. Member for Knowsley, North (Mr. Kilroy-Silk) made a more serious contribution to the debate. I shall deal with two of his points before letting my hon. Friends go to their beds. He mentioned an important point about whether the timetable for the European elections and its coincidence with the local elections would cause any difficulties. I have taken some advice on that question, and I can confirm that notice of the European election will be published at least one day before polling day for the ordinary local elections. I am assured that that will have no effect on party political spending on either the local or the European elections. I will check again, and if I am wrong about that I will let the hon. Gentleman know. He raised the point in good faith and I want to deal with it.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to the Boundary Commission. As he knows, the Government are not in control of the Boundary Commission, which has an independent statutory remit. Quite rightly, that remit is not subject to the direction of the Home Secretary, although he has overall responsibility for such matters. The final report of the Commission will be addressed to him, and it will be for him to lay before the House the relevant orders that will allow the elections to take place on new boundaries, if the timetable permits and the representations received advise it.

The Boundary Commission itself decides the way in which it should operate, and the timetable will be controlled by its own judgment of what is possible. My right hon. and learned Friend is placed in a difficult position. He has a responsibility to give the House the best advice that he can, but he has no powers of direction. That is probably a good thing.

We have tried to inform the House, at different stages, of how we see the situation. For some months it has been our view that the Boundary Commission will be able to present to the Home Secretary, in time for him—given normal circumstances—to be able to lay the relevant orders before the House, proposals that would enable the June elections to be held on new boundaries. I understand that the commissioners have held all the public inquiries that the representations received required them to hold, and, as a consequence, have published revised recommendations.

The Boundary Commission for England has published revised proposals for 16 of the 66 constituencies in England this week and has invited representations upon them by 26 February. The Scottish Commission has adhered to its provisional recommendations for five of the eight constituencies and published revised recommendations for the other three on 15 December. The Welsh Commission has not so far issued any revised recommendations for its four constituencies. The commissioners should, therefore, be able to deliver their report to my right hon. and learned Friend by the end of March. It is not for my right hon. and learned Friend to anticipate what representations he may receive, but I am sure that he will want to deal as expeditiously he possibly can with the report because he believes it is his duty to Parliament to do so, not gratuitously to delay or expedite the recommendations but to deal with them as justice and their merit require.

The legal framework within which the European Boundary Commission operates is much more restrictive than that which applies to the Westminster Boundary Commission. Considerations such as community links, which caused so much difficulty and indeed distress to many hon. Members in relation to the Westminster elections, do not apply in the criteria for Europe. Accordingly, my right hon. and learned Friend would not expect any difficulties in laying the orders in time for the new boundaries to be in effect by the time of the election, assuming that the Boundary Commission keeps to its timetable of delivering the final recommendations to him by the end of March.

Mr. Kilroy-Silk

The House will welcome that important assurance and admission. I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman cannot give a concrete assurance—that is not wthin his control—but can he say something more about the Welsh Commission? He has told us that on the assumption that the Scottish, English and Welsh Boundary Commissions make their final recommendations to the Home Secretary before the end of March, we will be able to fight the elections on the new boundaries. I accept that that may be a fair assumption. The Minister will know better than me, because presumably he is privy to more information than me. I should like to press him about that sort of information. To me, the Welsh Boundary Commission still suggested that it might wish to issue revised recommendations later. That is what is causing the worry and concern. Perhaps the Minister could shed a little more light on the matter. I am grateful to him for the way in which he has dealt with this sensitive and difficult issue. However, any information that he can give to allay the doubt and confusion would be welcome.

Mr. Mellor

I shall help the hon. Gentleman as much as I can. The Welsh Boundary Commission has not issued any revised recommendations. I understand that it is likely to adhere to the original proposals that it put forward. Obviously, if there is any more up-to-date information that I can give the hon. Gentleman, I shall write to him as soon as possible.

Mr. Bermingham

I should like to pursue further that timetable point. Under the system, I understand that once the 28 days start to run to 26 February, the Commission has the right to call for further inquiries depending on the volume of representation. Is the Minister prepared to concede on behalf of the Government that in the event of further inquiries or, as happened some 18 months ago with parliamentary boundaries, the commencement of a court action—I understand that there is some talk of that, although not from the Opposition—a clear indication should be given to the House that the existing boundaries will be fought on in order to end the uncertainty for candidates and parties?

Towards the end of March we begin to run into a timetable bottleneck and it is crucial that the parties and candidates know precisely upon which boundaries the election is being fought. Many of us are concerned about the short length of time available between now and 14 June.

Mr. Mellor

I take the hon. Gentleman's point, but it would not be helpful to comment on hypothetical circumstances. I have made my best endeavours to assist the House.

I am grateful, to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to stray a little wider than the remit of the regulations so that I could answer the remarks of the hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed which plainly—as you indicated throughout his speech—somewhat strayed from order, to put it kindly. I should have liked to commend the regulations to the House in good time, but Liberal Members are up at a quite unwarrantedly late time of night for them, and so that they can divide the House, and so prove beyond peradventure to their constituents that they are in the House at this time of night—perhaps for the first time, for some of them, in the whole of their parliamentary careers—and still be at home, tucked up in their beds with cups of Horlicks and improving literature well before midnight, I shall conclude.

Mr. Beith

On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for an hon. Member, particularly when he is speaking from the Government Front Bench, to make factually inaccurate statements criticising another hon. Member, other than on a substantive motion, and without presenting any evidence whatever? After all, the hon. Gentleman's ministerial duties must often take him away from the House. Is it in order for him to refer to an hon. Member in that way when that hon. Member is scarcely absent from this building at any point in the week?

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Every right hon. and hon. Member must be responsible for his own speech. I did not hear any unparliamentary language.

Question put:—

The House divided: Ayes 113, Noes 9.

Division No. 145] [11.18 pm
Alexander, Richard Murphy, Christopher
Amess, David Needham, Richard
Ancram, Michael Neubert, Michael
Ashby, David Newton, Tony
Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset) Norris, Steven
Baldry, Anthony Oppenheim, Philip
Bellingham, Henry Osborn, Sir John
Berry, Sir Anthony Ottaway, Richard
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Page, Richard (Herts SW)
Boscawen, Hon Robert Parris, Matthew
Bottomley, Peter Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Powell, William (Corby)
Brandon-Bravo, Martin Powley, John
Brinton, Tim Raffan, Keith
Brooke, Hon Peter Rhodes James, Robert
Bruinvels, Peter Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon
Burt, Alistair Roe, Mrs Marion
Butterfill, John Sackville, Hon Thomas
Carttiss, Michael Sainsbury, Hon Timothy
Clark, Dr Michael (Rochford) Sayeed, Jonathan
Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe) Shelton, William (Streatham)
Cope, John Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Couchman, James Sims, Roger
Dorrell, Stephen Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Dover, Denshore Soames, Hon Nicholas
Dunn, Robert Speed, Keith
Eggar, Tim Speller, Tony
Evennett, David Spencer, D.
Eyre, Sir Reginald Stanbrook, Ivor
Fallon, Michael Stern, Michael
Forth, Eric Stevens, Lewis (Nuneaton)
Gardiner, George (Reigate) Stevens, Martin (Fulham)
Goodhart, Sir Philip Stradling Thomas, J.
Ground, Patrick Sumberg, David
Hamilton, Hon A. (Epsom) Thompson, Donald (Calder V)
Hampson, Dr Keith Thompson, Patrick (N'ich N)
Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm) Townsend, Cyril D. (B'heath)
Howard, Michael Tracey, Richard
Jackson, Robert Twinn, Dr Ian
King, Roger (B'ham N'field) Wakeham, Rt Hon John
Lang, Ian Walden, George
Lilley, Peter Waller, Gary
Lloyd, Peter, (Fareham) Wardle, C. (Bexhill)
Lord, Michael Warren, Kenneth
MacKay, Andrew (Berkshire) Watson, John
Maclean, David John. Watts, John
Malins, Humfrey Wells, Bowen (Hertford)
Maples, John Wheeler, John
Mather, Carol Whitfield, John
Mayhew, Sir Patrick Wilkinson, John
Mellor, David Wolfson, Mark
Merchant, Piers Wood, Timothy
Meyer, Sir Anthony Woodcock, Michael
Miller, Hal (B'grove) Yeo, Tim
Mills, lain (Meriden)
Mitchell, David (NW Hants) Tellers for the Ayes:
Moate, Roger Mr. David Hunt and
Moore, John Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones.
Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)
Ashdown, Paddy Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)
Beith, A J Wrigglesworth, Ian
Carllie, Alexander (Montg'y)
Jenkins, Rt Hon Roy (Hillh'd) Tellers for the Noes
Kennedy, Charles Mr John Cartwnght and
Maclennan, Robert Mr Michael Meadowcroft
Owen, Rt Hon Dr David

Question accordingly agreed to.

Resolved, That the draft European Assembly Elections Regulations 1983, which were laid before this House on 19th December, be approved.