HL Deb 10 March 1975 vol 358 cc11-22

2.55 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move the Motion that stands in my name on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the Lord Bethell be designated a member of the European Parliament in the place of the Earl of Mansfield.—(Lord Shepherd.)


The Question is that this Motion be agreed to—


My Lords, before the Question is put, may I draw your Lordships' attention to one or two anomalies, if not improprieties in this Motion? I should like first to congratulate the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, on his graduation to the Front Bench and the merry company of the Whips. In what I shall have to say there is no criticism whatever of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, who is an author of repute and a historical researcher of horrifying resource, as I have had personal occasion to discover. He was a nimble-witted, alert and perceptive member of the May-bray-King Committee, a man of much experience in European affairs and one might even say that he is A Corinthian, a man of mettle, a good boy". There is no doubt that he is admirably suited to the proposed appointment, if only the appointment were altogether proper in the first place.

My first knowledge of the Motion standing in the name of the noble Lord the Leader of the House was when I saw the Order Paper on my return from Scotland during the weekend. So far as I can see, the Motion was put down on Thursday night and therefore your Lordships have been given fewer than one single Sitting day's notice of it. Though I could have moved a manuscript Amendment today and would have been, in other circumstances, anxious to do so, I realised it would involve inconvenience to the House and its Officers; so with your Lordships' indulgence I shall simply recall an Amendment which I have moved on two former occasions ; namely in December 1972 and October 1973. I shall read it out: At end insert: ‖ for the remainder of this Session; and those Lords designated Members of the European Parliament thereafter shall only be so designated after a process of election '. Questions of propriety do arise, sweetly interwoven with a theme of political irony, the flavour and humour of which it would be a pity not to savour and enjoy. The irony lies in this: the Leader of the Party opposite now backtracks on all previous attitudes of his Party and takes steps to sustain the British delegation to the European Assembly. The operation bears the marks of a deathbed conversion, for which, of course, we are grateful, a conversion not only to the European Assembly which has been much criticised by the Party opposite, but also to the principle of consensus politics so firmly eschewed in rather greater matters not so very long ago.

In seeking a substitute delegate, it appears that the noble Lord the Leader of the House was not happy about the qualifications of those behind him on the Back-Benches, despite the abundance of talent to be had over there. Of course, the name of the noble Lord, Lord Shinwell, comes readily to mind. Not only was the noble Lord apparently unhappy about the talents on his own Benches but he appears to have ignored the rich stores of originality and talent on the Cross-Benches. Among the Cross-Benchers, of course, the name of the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, comes readily to mind. Rather than searching his own Benches, the Cross-Benches, or even the Liberal Benches, he grasps like a drowning man at anything that can help, and he appeals to the Opposition Chief Whip—a Chief Whip ever courteous, ever glad, ever willing to oblige. So much, my Lords, for the ironies, upon which I will not dwell unduly because I wish to spare the feelings of the noble Lord the Leader of the House.

However, questions of principle are involved in this matter which were best summed up by my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye when he spoke in the first debate on this subject on 20th December 1972 (at col. 1105 of the Official Report) and said: We are infringing the independence of the Legislature by allowing the Executive this power of nomination. In the proposition that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, shall fill the place vacated by the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, we in this House are offered no choice of candidates; we are given no opportunity of an election. We are offered one nomination on a "take it or leave it" basis. It would hardly be fair to tax the Party opposite with the failure of their predecessors in Office to carry out my own Party Leaders' repeated pledges to think up something better than direct nomination by the Whips. But surely it ill becomes a Social Democratic Government to be the accomplice in a system of direct Whips' nomination to represent this Parliament and this Parliamentary Chamber at the European Assembly as it seeks urgently, valiantly and with zest to wrest Parliamentary power from the Commission and the Council. We have been told—indeed it has been trumpeted—throughout the controversies of recent years that the European Assembly was the democratic longstop for the officialdom that had been running the Community until of late.

Perhaps I may remind your Lordships of the practice of other countries in the Community. Belgium, Holland and Luxembourg each elect their delegates to the European Assembly from their Houses of Parliament; there is a process of democratic selection. Germany elects her representatives at Strasbourg from the Bundestag, and there is a process of election. France and Italy have an open and formal election, with candidates running against one another. The British practice of nominations, now thrice repeated, thrice condoned, sadly belies our democratic and Parliamentary pretensions and all the brave words that have been spoken by advocates of the Community—which, for information, may I say I now reluctantly support. Everything that was said in support of the Community was said in the ambit of the great Parliamentary traditions that Britain was to bring to the Community. And here we are, for the third time, proposing that a delegate to the European Assembly shall be nominated in effect by the Whips.

My Lords, so far from this being a worthy elective procedure, even the moderate interim suggestion put forward more than a year ago on the Floor of this House—that the selection of delegates to the Assembly in Strasbourg should be made by the Committee of Selection—has not fructified, and we are once again presented with this strange, bizarre procedure of nomination. Perhaps in the Government's laudable desire at any rate to sustain the Assembly in Strasbourg, one might say it is the solecism of power to command the ends and yet not to endure the means; one might even add of power and of the power of the Executive that prize chickens have bonny feathers but boney bodies.

My Lords, there are other points of irregularity in this curious affair which disfigures the Procedure of the House. For how long, it is fair to ask, is the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, to be nominated? What is the duration of his mandate? For how long are his colleagues authorised to speak for us? These questions have been posed before but answered in a fashion that I must presently recall. The rest of the British delegation to the European Parliament was not appointed by this Parliament; the delegation was not appointed by the last Parliament. The present delegation, save for the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, was appointed by the last Parliament but one: that is three Parliaments and four Sessions ago. My inquiries have led me to understand that no Motion has been placed before your Lordships' House either in this Parliament or in the last one to renew the mandate that was conferred on our delegation three Parliaments ago. The last time we debated this matter on 24th October 1973, the then Leader of the House used these words—and I paraphrase from col. 658 of the Official Report—The advice from the Clerk of the Parliaments was that the mandate ran for the duration of Parliament.

My Lords, I repeat that because this has not been gainsaid, and nor has it been pursued as I believe it should be: The advice from the Clerk of the Parliaments was that the mandate ran for the duration of Parliament—that is to say, until the Dissolution of February 1974. Of course, the issue has been debated whether indeed the mandate ever ran that long; whether the appointment was not indeed a Sessional appointment rather than for the duration of Parliament. But taking the matter on its most generous interpretation; taking it that the declared doctrine is correct, that these delegates were named for the duration of a Parliament, that can mean only that our delegates' mandate ran out at least a year ago, in the Parliament before last.

So it is, I submit, constitutionally questionable whether our delegates to the European Assembly splendid as they are—and there is no criticism of the delegation as such—have any rightful standing whatever. Have they any right, lacking a Parliamentary mandate from this place, to draw their inadequate expenses for their endless service, for their costly attention and for their devoted overwork? Since I am not moving an Amendment, but only calling attention to an astonishing, indeed incredible, irregularity, I shall not seek to divide the House when the Lord Chancellor puts the Question on the Motion before us.

But at this critical moment of the Dublin Summit and in the shadow of the Referendum—may I remark in parenthesis, another constitutional anomaly of dubious merit—my concern is once again to give due warning. Last time I sought leave to withdraw my Amendment, and was given leave to do so. I warned that I might press it next time. Only because of the circumstances of today do I content myself by inviting the House, as it were, to take note of the situation. But if, as I hope, we remain in the Community, I wish to give warning to whichever Front Bench is in Office at the time that I shall have no compunction whatever in raising the matter again, and next time pressing it with vigour. A good cause makes a stout heart and a strong arm.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I inform him that the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, does not sit on the Cross-Benches?


My Lords, while all will welcome the appointment of the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, and while I agree in principle with every- thing that the noble Earl who has just spoken has said, may I put this to the noble Lord the Leader of the House? By common consent, we are passing through a great and critical crisis so far as the European Economic Community is concerned. It has started this morning in Dublin and it will go on for the next few days. Before we go into the greater details—with most of which I agree—that the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, has put forward, may I appeal to the Government to consider appointing to the European Parliament, even at this last moment, the Labour Members who rightly should be sitting there and without whom nobody can claim that our delegation is representative of the Parliament of this country?

3.11 p.m.


My Lords, to your Lordships' relief, I assure you that I shall be very brief. Having taken some part in the similar debates which we had some years ago, I wish to comment upon the Motion before the House today. The Motion is as objectionable to me as the previous Motion was in 1972. Although I say that, there is nothing personal in the remarks which I make, because I have the greatest admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, in his performances in your Lordships' House. Also, I have the greatest personal admiration for the noble Lord, Lord Bethell. But, again, the selection is being made by the Government, who are the Executive. They are putting forward a Motion to the Legislature, and hitherto the Legislature has not been consulted. May I remind both Front Benches that the Executive are the servants, not the masters, of the Legislature? Lip service has been paid by successive Governments to the need for an electoral system, yet nothing, so far as we know, has happened.

When a similar Motion was proposed in 1972 by the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, the noble Lord the Deputy Leader of the House, Lord Beswick, expressed discontent with the Motion and said: Therefore, as a matter, shall I say, of self-protection, something of the kind suggested by the noble Earl would seem to be desirable ". I hope that today the noble Lord, Lord Beswick, has not changed his view. The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, said to your Lordships' House that he was assured that in a very short while there would undoubtedly be an electoral system. He said: I have no doubt that within one or two years—I am willing to go out on a limb and say certainly within three years—this body will by one means or another be directly elected ". The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, has only nine months left before he has to go out on a limb. I do not know what kind of physical performance that will be. I shall be most interested to see what it is when it comes about.

I expect we shall be told that this is the best that can be done until there is a system of election. However, that is not good enough. By their nomination, we are giving power and patronage to the Executive. I may be told that the usual channels have been consulted. I never quite know what these "usual channels" are; perhaps other noble Lords may know much better than I do what they are. I do not know whether these" usual channels" are just the two Front Benches. I do not expect any help or support in my remarks from either of the Front Benches. If I may say so without offence, so far as the two Front Benches are concerned I would remind your Lordships of the old saying "dog doesn't eat dog". I do not know what the mysterious " usual channels " are, but may I remind your Lordships that magic circles are rather out of fashion just now. I do not think we want to rely too much and too long upon that system.

If the Assembly has abrogated to itself, as it has, the title of " Parliament ", I maintain that it is all wrong for the Executive to continue to nominate members to something which is called a "Parliament". Besides, I have yet to see how the action of the Government can be reconciled with the Treaty of Rome, the provisions of which your Lordships were reminded by the noble Lord, Lord Alport, in 1972. They read: The Assembly shall consist of delegates who shall be nominated by the respective Parliaments from among their members in accordance with procedures laid down by each member State ". I do not know whether we have ever laid down a set procedure, so I cannot reconcile what we are doing with those provisions in the Treaty of Rome.

When I spoke last on this subject in 1972, I suggested that we should look at an interim system such as the Common-wealth Parliamentary Association, of which I know that many of your Lords-ships are members, where we obtain a list of names and are then asked which of those names we wish to serve on the executive. That is a form of election, and I cannot see why we should not have some system such as that, so as to get away from this blanket power which is being given to the Executive. I think that we are entitled to ask the Government today—who, I repeat, are infringing the rights and responsibilities of the Legislature—to tell us three things. First, if we do stay in the European Economic Community, what progress has been made in forming an electoral system? Secondly, how do these usual channels work, and how did they work in this instance? How have the two magic circles worked? Finally, what objection is there to an interim measure of election along the lines of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, which I have just suggested to your Lordships?


My Lords, before my noble friend the Leader of the House replies, may I say in regard to the speech of the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, that it is about time he was seen to do his own work. He has talked about how representatives are appointed to the Council of Europe. The noble Earl ought to know that there is one individual from the other place who is sitting, as it were, in perpetuity on the Council of Europe, and also on this new Commission which has been set up in the EEC. He has been there ever since the Council of Europe was formed and, so far as the EEC is concerned, he is now a sitting member after giving up a junior post in Her Majesty's Government when the other Party were in power. I do not believe that points of view on matters of this importance should be expressed to the leaders of the present Government, who are not responsible for such appointments, by the noble Earl, Lord Lauder-dale, or by any other Member on the other side of the House.


My Lords, may I ask the Government how many women represent Britain in the EEC? If, as I suspect, the number is disproportionately small, may I ask why a woman should not be nominated today?


My Lords, if I may say a word about this matter, I am sure that the noble Lord the Leader of the House will take careful note of everything that both of my noble friends have said, also of what has been said by the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, and of the two shorter speeches from the Benches opposite. I am sure that the noble Lord will wish to give them some kind of reassurance. On the other hand, I am not sure that the case against the Government has not been overstated. The Government have not nominated a representative, except in the sense that they have put a Motion before this House which this House can accept, reject, amend or adjourn, and this House therefore remains sovereign of its own procedure.

My own advice to my noble friends, for what it is worth, is to accept the Motion today for the following reasons. It is quite obvious that the present situation in the European Parliament, as regards the representation of this Parliament, is unsatisfactory if only for the reason given by the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, from the Cross-Benches. The whole situation will have to be thought out again at some time after June, which is not very far ahead. In the meantime, we have to get on for the next few months in one way or another. There seems to be general agreement in the House that as a person—apart from the noble Baroness, Lady Summerskill, who wishes to discriminate against him on the grounds of his sex—my noble friend Lord Bethell is in all respects except one a wholly suitable candidate. I would therefore suggest to my noble friends that we should on this occasion support the Government. I am aware of the warning given by my noble friend Lord Balfour of Inchrye about dog not eating dog, but I seem to spend most of my time biting the noble Lords opposite in the leg and I am very glad to find one occasion when I can support them.


My Lords, it is when the noble and learned Lord bites my leg, or that of one on this side of the House, that I feel very secure. It is when he gives praise and support that I look behind to see whether the troops will still be with me. I am very grateful for what the noble and learned Lord has said. To the noble Lord, Lord Boothby, I would say that I do not myself regard the Dublin meeting as a great and critical crisis. I hope that this will be a conclusion of the renegotiation conducted by the British Government and the other Eight, in a sensible, sound and practical way, to overcome some of the difficulties which this Government foresaw when they took over office.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether his own Party will send a delegation to the European Parliament?


My Lords, the noble Lord must not be too spritely. That is what I was going to say. It will be for the Government to decide, as a consequence of the Referendum. I can only foresee that if the British people were to decide that the United Kingdom should remain within the European Community, it would be right and proper that members of the governing Party should participate in Strasbourg in the European Parliament.

I think the noble and learned Lord was slightly wrong when he said that this is a Government Motion; it is nothing of the sort. I am moving the Motion very much as a servant of your Lordships' House. Your Lordships decided some years ago that certain Members of your Lordships' House should go to the European Parliament, and you decided—I do not remember whether it was by a Division—the method of selection. As a consequence of the fact that the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, is no longer able to go because he is now on the Front Bench, the Party opposite decided that he should be replaced. Your Lordships' House is a House of custom and practice and, as in the past, it has fallen to the Leader of the House, so it falls to me to move that the noble Lord, Lord Bethell, should join the European Parliament as a Member of the Conservative group.

In reply to the noble Lord, Lord Balfour of Inchrye, regarding the "usual channels", he is not going to lead me very far on that subject this afternoon. He knows as well as I do what the "usual channels" are. If one were to disclose them in full to the public eye, then much of the power and mystery of the "usual channels" would disappear. Therefore, my Lords, let us leave the "usual channels" to their role—a very useful role which your Lordships' House could not do without. But they are very fair "usual channels".

My Lords, to the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, who asked about the length of time during which Members of your Lordships' House may sit in the European Parliament, I would say that I understand that before the Dissolution earlier last year a Motion of your Lordships' House was agreed under which those noble Lords designated as Members of the European Parliament should continue as such, notwithstanding any Prorogation or Dissolution, unless and until the House orders otherwise. My understanding is that if a person has been nominated and elected by your Lordships' House to the European Parliament, so he will remain until your Lordships' House decides otherwise.

If the noble Earl feels so passionately either about the group as a whole or about one individual, it is open to him to put a Motion on the Order Paper to be debated and voted upon. Therefore, if I may say so to the noble Earl in the greatest friendliness, it is up to him. If he feels so strongly, it is for him to put a Motion on the Order Paper and I suggest that he does do so, giving us due notice, so that the matter may be debated in depth and not raised upon what is an innocent and helpful—at least, it is meant to be helpful—Motion.


My Lords, would the noble Lord answer this question? He has quoted an occasion when the mandate was apparently extended. Would he give us the date? I made an inquiry of the Clerks this morning and was told there was no such Motion.


My Lords, I do not have the date. That information was given to me and I have no reason to believe that it is not correct. I will give the noble Earl the date by correspondence, or if he wishes he can put down a Question on the Order Paper. But I am sure my noble friend Lady Summerskill wishes to know the answer to the question which she put. My Lords, it is not a matter of discredit or credit to us on this side of the House; it is merely for noble Lords opposite. Of the membership of your Lordships' House there is one noble Baroness. Whether noble Lords wish to change the balance is, I think, a matter entirely for them.


My Lords, may I ask my noble friend whether this represents grave discrimination, particularly in this year which is International Women's Year?


My Lords, I should like to say to my noble friend that in your Lordships' House we are all equal. If the noble Baroness is putting the case that there ought to be three Conservatives as opposed to one in that case alone, that could be discrimination against my own sex. But this is really a matter for the Benches opposite and I do not think it is a question of discrimination. I believe that in your Lordships' House we regard ourselves as equal, one sex with another. To the noble Earl, Lord Lauderdale, I would say that the carrier pigeon has arrived and I understand that the date is 8th February 1974.

On Question, Motion agreed to.