HL Deb 26 May 1977 vol 383 cc1506-49

Lord CHELWOOD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether their promise to the European Community to use their best endeavours to hold direct elections to the European Parliament in 1978 and their promise in the loyal Address to introduce the necessary legislation still hold good; whether they regard this as a collective Cabinet responsibility; why legislation has not yet been published; when it will be published; and precisely what agreement has been made with the Liberal Party as regards the timing and the method of voting. The noble Lord said: My Lords, my object in asking this Question today is simple. It is to express outspokenly and objectively my doubts and anxieties about the Government's promise to hold direct elections in a year's time to the European Parliament. I know that these doubts and anxieties are very widely shared by people of all Parties and of none, in your Lordships' House, in another place, and outside Parliament throughout the country, and for that matter throughout the European Community. This Question, and a Written Question that I have put down, make clear what those doubts and anxieties are, and I want to emphasise, if I may, their fundamental nature.

This short debate is not about whether we are enthusiasts for Britain's membership of the European Community; nor is it about whether or not we favour direct elections; nor is it about the best system for the holding of these elections, though no doubt some useful suggestions may be made on this subject, and I have a thought to put to your Lordships myself. The debate is about whether the promise made in the Queen's Speech, that legislation would be introduced to enable direct elections to the European Parliament to be held, will, or will not, be honoured. It is as simple and as crucial as that.

I hope we shall not be told that the promise to use our best endeavours amply protects Britain's honour. I do not think that that is nearly good enough. That was a promise that was made to the Heads of States and the Heads of Government. The target date for direct elections to the European Parliament was agreed in principle as long as 2½ years ago at the Paris Summit Meeting, so there has been all that time to prepare legislation. The Select Committee in another place reported last August that time was rapidly running out—that was stated in its second report. In November, when the Committee produced its third report, it said that time had practically run out.

If ordinary, let alone best, endeavours had been used, with undivided good faith on the Government's part, there is no doubt at all that legislation would have been very close indeed to the Statute Book by now. I do not think that that can be denied. So I say without hesitation that there is no justification whatever for the way in which the Government have behaved. Everyone knows this, not least the other Member States, all of whom have tackled their own quite difficult problems (some of them very difficult) energetically, and all of whom, we know now, are likely to be ready for the deadline in May or June next year.

I want to turn next to something which is not easy to discuss, but which I feel I must discuss; namely, the split in the Cabinet in so far as it affects this issue. Everyone knows why there is no Bill. There was no need for a Cabinet leak two weeks ago. It has been an open secret and a scandal that at least six Cabinet Ministers have seriously breached the principle of collective Cabinet responsibility—and have breached it in public, and in private. It would be wrong and unfair to underestimate the Prime Minister's difficulties in the light of the highly organised attempt by the Left Wing of the Labour Party to fight the next Election as the anti-EEC Party—there is something about this in today's newspapers—in favour of wrecking tactics in the EEC, leading to eventual withdrawal from the Community.

What a tragedy it would be if the Labour Party, with its deep social-democratic roots, should founder on the rocks of international understanding with—most curious of all—the democracies in Europe. That is a profoundly sad prospect, not only for their supporters at home and their friends abroad, but for all of us who recognise the many great achievements of the Labour Party.

I therefore ask: Is the Prime Minister going to assert himself against this rebellion by a minority in the Cabinet? In thinking about this, he should be able to draw solid comfort and confidence from the fact that he is supported, not only by a large majority in the Cabinet but by a sizeable majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party and by, without doubt, the great majority of his supporters in the country. All these people undoubtedly regard direct elections as the natural consequence of the wish, so decisively expressed by a majority of more than two to one in the Referendum, that we should remain in the European Cornmunity. The amount of noise made, may I say, by the Prime Minister's Left-Wing critics, and their influence, seems to me to be out of all proportion to their numbers, while at the same time the social democrats, the bulk of the Party, are crying out for a lead.

So surely, my Lords, the Prime Minister's duty is clear: he must assert his authority unless his Cabinet colleagues in revolt behave honourably and resign. The Prime Minister said only yesterday that his Party could easily wreck itself on this subject. It would be wholly out of character for Mr. Callaghan to refuse to face the music, and thus to default on his promises, which have been given so often.

Perhaps I may now turn from that difficult subject to say a few words about the method by which direct elections might, in my opinion, be held. I do not want to duplicate our earlier debate, when it was of interest that, with only one exception, I think, in your Lordships' House. everyone who spoke favoured some so [...]t of proportional representation. I think that was very significant. The Prime Minister has known all along that there would be no real difficulty in carrying with him a majority, and a substantial one, in another place in introducing the necessary legislation and getting it through the House. The same applies, of course, to your Lordships' House, as we know very well from casting our minds back to earlier debates. But this is dependent, I think, on one thing, which is that the method of election chosen should be that method which commands the maximum possible all-Party support.

Where this is concerned, the White Paper suggested only three possible options. I am leaving out the compulsory dual mandate, because that was not really an option at all, and in any case seems to find very little favour indeed. They suggested as three options: our traditional, simple majority system and two forms of proportional representation, the regional list system and the single transferable vote. The Liberal preference for STV and the preference of quite a number of Conservatives in both Houses for our traditional system, even if on a regional basis, are easily understood, but I am confident in saying that both Parties, and the majority of the Labour Party, regard the holding of elections itself as being far more important than the system; and in my view they would be prepared to settle for a system which is not their first choice.

This surely points to a compromise. An option that might well command a lot more support than any other would, I think, be an adaptation of the German system, which was very clearly described in paragraph 14 of Annex A of the White Paper. It could be on a regional basis, but, perhaps better still, it might be put on a county basis. This would certainly enormously simplify the work of the Boundary Commission and the results of those first-past-the-post type of elections would be topped up nationally on the basis of proportional representation. That would be an adaptation or a modification of the system that we bequeathed to the British Zone in Germany and which was later adopted by the whole of the German Federal Republic. My researches indicate that such a system would be likely to give a result that could be clearly seen to be reasonably fair—I put it no higher—to all Parties; and it would be easy to understand, which is important as well.

May I mention in passing that in November 1974 an all-Party study group which had been commissioned by the European Movement made their report on Direct Elections to the European Parliament. I was a member of that group and so was Mr. Michael Stewart, M.P., Mr. Alan Beith, M.P. and Mr. Desmond Banks, (now Lord Banks and my noble friend) and we had a lot of help and advice from the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, and my noble friend Lord O'Hagan.

I want to quote just two sentences. In Chapter 15, we said unanimously: The principal virtue of the German system is that it combines a large measure of choice between candidates with a fully proportional result. In our conclusion on page 58 we said: Until the size of the Parliament is considerably enlarged, therefore, when the introduction of STV might prove preferable, this report is inclined to favour the modified German system outlined in Chapter 14.

All that I am doing really is repeating that all-Party view which I feel merits the most careful consideration; and I should be grateful to the noble Lord who is to reply if he will give me an assurance that such consideration can be given to this option which, strangely, was left out of the White Paper. Lastly, my Lords, may I turn to say something about the Labour Party pact with the Liberal Party. What promises have been made to the Liberal Party both as regards the method of election and, much more important, the timing of legislation? It seems to me, and I think your Lordships are bound to agree, that this touches the national interest so closely that we are surely entitled to know the answer to this question which has been kept secret and has been the subject of rumour for far too long. Where the timing is concerned what matters, naturally, is when the legislation will be on the Statute Book and when the Boundary Commission recommendations will be approved by Parliament and not merely when the Second Reading of the Bill takes place. I think that, given sufficient priority, legislation could be well advanced before we rise for the Summer Recess. If it is not, we shall be in dire trouble. I do not think that that can be disputed.

Mr. David Steel, the Liberal Leader, is reported on Monday as saying that one of the main factors in the success of his Party's pact with Labour must be (and I quote) the "goodwill" of the Government on European direct elections. By that he could only mean that nothing must prevent these elections being held and that continued prevarication will not do.

I do not know what else Mr. Steel could have meant by insisting that the Government's good will was necessary in this respect. Will the noble Lord who is to reply be kind enough to confirm that that is the case; and, as I see that the noble Lord, Lord Banks, is to speak in this debate and I believe the noble Lord, Lord Gladwvn, may wish to intervene, I hope that either one or the other of my noble friends (if I may so call them) will be kind enough to confirm what is the nature of their understanding with the Government.

Rather than hide behind the dishonest subterfuge that more time to think is still needed, it would be better, if it should be the case, to admit frankly that we are going to break our pledge; that our best endeavours are no longer being used; and to explain why. I hate to have to say, that, but frankness is long overdue. Undoubtedly, such frankness would spell the end of the pact with the Liberals, and would mean a General Election; but so, too will continuing efforts to fudge this issue.

My Lords, I conclude. The noble Lord who will reply to this debate has a chance to tell us that the intolerable drift and indecision that have characterised the Government's behaviour in this matter have at last been ended and therefore our national honour is no longer at risk, which it certainly is at present. So I beg the noble Lord to give us this assurance, something that many millions of people in this country and throughout the Community have been waiting for for a long time.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, would he be kind enough to indicate whether any Member of his own Front Bench proposes to give the attitudes of his own Party to the various queries which have been raised? Will he also give us some indication as to whether there is any particular reason why Members of his own Front Bench are not participating in today's debate?


My Lords, I should say that at a rather late stage I have my name down on the list of speakers. I am sorry that it was not on a list which was published in time for the noble Lord to have it in his possession.


My Lords, I can certainly answer the first question. The second question has already been answered. There was a misunderstanding, a representative of the Front Bench is speaking; unfortunately my noble friend Lady Elles is unable to be present. So far as the first question is concerned, I can only suppose that the heavy duties which have come to the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, have prevented him from following the debates in another place or in your Lordships' House. because in both debates on the White Paper it has been made absolutely clear from the Opposition Front Bench exactly where we stood so far as direct elections are concerned. We are 100 per cent. in favour of honouring our obligation, and the attitude of the Conservative Party, while naturally not a unanimous one—because some members favour, first-past-the-post, and others proportional representation—is that they will settle for the system which commands most support. They would not for one moment wish to delay legislation because their choice of system was not the one which was presented.


My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that we have had so many statements which have made it absolutely clear—I use the words "absolutely clear" again—on behalf of the Conservative Party as to what their attitude is, and these attitudes have varied from time to time. We now require a definitive attitude from the Opposition.


My Lords, would it not be a good thing if both the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donnington, and I made our speeches at the appropriate places on the Order Paper?


My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, at the end of an interesting and moving speech, whether he does not realise that the original conception of a United Europe was smashed to pieces by two men: Eden and de Gaulle? What I should like to know is whether he sincerely believes it can ever be revived in Brussels or Strasbourg?

3.38 p.m.


My Lords, I do not intend to detain the House long this afternoon because we have discussed the subject of direct elections very thoroughly in recent months. We discussed it on 7th March when we had the Second Reading of the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill, which I had the privilege to introduce into the House, and we discussed it again as recently as 3rd May, when we had a debate on the Government's White Paper. As the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, has pointed out, this afternoon we are concerned primarily with commitment and timing. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, for pressing the Government again on these issues, and for pressing them so vigorously. I must confess to a certain sympathy for the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. who has had to do so much stonewalling on this subject. It would be very pleasant indeed if he were in a position today, for a change, to score a few boundaries.

The question of commitment is important. The government's commitment has been repeated many times. But it will be useful to hear it repeated again today in view of the rumours and Press reports of Cabinet dissension, of which we are all aware and to which the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, referred. We may feel that we can answer the question, as he suggested of why the Bill has not been published; but we certainly want to know when the Bill will be published. The House and the noble Lord who is to reply are aware of the importance which we on these Benches attach, first to the holding of direct elections with British participation next year; secondly, to the use of the proportional system in these elections.

The noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, asked about the agreement between the Government and the Liberals. That agreement was expressed in a joint statement issued publicly by the right honourable gentleman the Prime Minister and my right honourable friend Mr. David Steel. According to that agreement, a Bill was to be introduced this Session, consultation was to continue on the method of election, the Government would take into account the Liberal Party's well-known commitment on that subject in coming to their conclusion and in the House of Commons there would be a free vote on the electoral system. So far as we are concerned, that agreement stands.

I would add that we consider it to be crucial—this is a point I made during the debate on the White Paper—that the Government should recommend a proportional system and that the Bill, when it appears, should contain such a system. I made it clear on a previous occasion that we prefer proportional representation by the single transferable vote, and the Representation of the People (Amendment) Bill provided for that. But I also made it clear that we should not be unhappy with the regional list system and I should be very happy, too, if the German system, or some modification of it, were included as an option. But, my Lords, the time for options is passing away. The time is now for decisions between the options, and we cannot really spend too much time adding to the options. We must make a choice between the options which are before us.


My Lords, may I put one point as regards timing which I think it is most important for us to understand? Are we to understand that the mere presentation of a Bill during this Session could mean that we do not see it until October? Do I take it from the noble Lord that that would satisfy the Liberal Party, or do the Liberal Party insist, as part of their understanding with the Government, that the Bill should be on the Statute Book by a certain time? I think it is very important that we should know the answer to those questions.


My Lords, our agreement is that the Bill should be presented to Parliament before the end of this Session. That is one of the terms of the agreement. Naturally, we would hope that it would be on the Statute Book by the end of this Session, but that was not actually in the published agreement. It is, however, certainly something for which we would press.

I do not feel that this is an opportune time to debate again the merits of the electoral systems that we have already discussed or to repeat the powerful case for a proportional system, but I do think it is an opportune time to impress again on the Government the need for speed and also to express our growing impatience with the never-ending delays. We should also like to stress once again that we consider the inclusion of a proportional system in the Bill to be essential, for the reasons of speed, of fair representation and the absence of distortion—reasons which we have repeatedly explained.

3.44 p.m.


My Lords, the House will be very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, for having raised this matter in debate. I am particularly grateful that in the course of his remarks, especially in the latter stages, the noble Lord raised the question of the national honour. He will find that I shall refer to that topic also at the conclusion of my remarks. I am, too, very grateful for the belated but very welcome appearance of the noble Lord, Lord Elton, to speak officially on behalf of the Opposition. I shall have several comments to make to the official Opposition in the course of what I have to say, and I shall be very grateful indeed if we can have a definitive statement on the Conservative attitude.

Direct elections to the European Parliament have been the subject of eight debates in the House of Commons and of eight debates in your Lordships' House. The basic assumption made in all of these debates was that the election of a European Parliament would somehow democratically ensure, first, that the European Parliament extended its powers; and, secondly, that it used them in accordance with its democratic mandate. It will be no secret to the House that I have regarded as largely irrelevant the question of elections to the European Parliament, believing as I do that there are many more problems in Europe to be dealt with on a basis of realism requiring immediate attention, rather than pursuing what I shall show, and what I have shown in the past, to be a myth.

The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, who intervened in the course of the debate that took place in the House on 17th February last, quite clearly believed that the election of a European Parliament would be pointless, unless it had powers. I quote from column 1806, where the noble Lord said: I am not quite certain why it is that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, does not say that we ought to abandon the whole idea of direct elections. What is the point of having them in his view? Does he really think that they ought to have direct elections, and thereby inevitably arouse all kinds of hopes, if, as he said, it is quite impossible that this directly elected Parliament should be given any powers even within the next 25 years? If he really believes that, why does he say he wants any direct elections?"—[Official Report.] As with the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, who will be intervening later, said quite clearly in a letter to The Times of 21st May last: Yet Dr. Owen has the cheek to instruct others to speak up for democracy when his government is attempting to wreck a major advance towards democratic control inside the EEC". The word "control", if I can carry the noble Lord with me on this, as defined in the Oxford Dictionary


My Lords, will the noble Lord read the rest of my letter?


My Lords, if I can take the noble Lord with me, the word "control", as defined in the Oxford Dictionary, and as it is generally understood, does not mean suggest. It does not mean urge. It does not mean cajole. It means control. It means the exercise of restraint, the exercise of power. This is quite clearly what the noble Lord thinks elections to the European Parliament will ultimately procure.


My Lords, will the noble Lord be fair? Will he read out all of what I said in that paragraph in my letter, about making the Commission more accountable?


Certainly, my Lords: Membership of the European Community is only open to democracies and all the other members want to make the Commission in Brussels more accountable by introducing direct elections to the European Parliament". So that that is the noble Lord's position. I am very gratified that it is, because I shall now explain the reason for my intervention in this debate. It is not to urge that the Government should exercise unreasonable speed in bringing forth their proposal for direct elections, but, on the contrary, that they should be very cautious before doing so.

They should take all factors into account and, in particular, should ascertain, in the light of certain events that I shall recount hereafter, whether it will be necessary to bring before the House a series of amendments to the European Communities Act 1972. I have good reason for saying this, because, since the last occasion on which we debated this matter, the French Government have decided that they will approve direct elections. I will quote from The Times, in order that the real impact of the French decision may be fully appreciated. The Times says: The Bill states that any extension of powers of the European Assembly, in whatever form, would be null and void as regards France if it had not been approved in accordance with the stipulations of the Treaties of Paris and Rome and in the conditions provided for by the Constitution"— that is the French Constitution. This means that such an extension would require both a revision of the Treaties and an amendment of the French Constitution, with all the political hazards that this implies. The Constitutional Council had, on an application by the Government, ruled last December that direct elections were constitutional, but at the same time it defined French national sovereignty in such restrictive terms as virtually to exclude any extension of the European Parliament powers or any Federal construction of Europe". The question I have to ask, and I now return to the question of national honour, is this: does the noble Lord wish to put the United Kingdom in the position that, whenever it seeks to amend or extend the powers of the European Parliament, first it has to seek the approval of the French National Assembly? Or is our own sovereign Parliament to have some responsibility? If our own Parliament is to have some responsibility, can it have responsibility if the European Communities Act 1972 remains as it is? This is a question to which the attention of Her Majesty's Government will have to be directed over the next few weeks.

We have a situation where, owing to the action of the French Government, any advance in the constitutional powers, miserable though they are, of the European Parliament over the next decade is virtually impossible. Moreover, since there is some disquiet in various countries —most of it is, in fact, in other countries—concerning the Common Agricultural Policy, which has brought no benefits to the people of the United Kingdom as distinct from its farming lobby, the Government would do well to bear in mind that an amendment to the Common Agricultural Policy would require an amendment to the Treaty and that the French, who are the principal beneficiaries under the Common Agricultural Policy, would never be able to get such a Bill through their National Assembly.

Is this the kind of direct election climate that noble Lords require? I ask the Opposition, the Liberal Party and the Government this question. If the Government are to have a campaign for direct elections and if they are to introduce a Bill and explain it to the British people, will they tell the British people at the same time that, even though there will be direct elections, it does not mean that their representatives will be exercising any more power than their predecessors? Are they going to be honest and say that? They ought to be honest and say it. They ought to have a becoming modesty about the question. It is not the myth with which the British people are concerned; it is the reality with which they are concerned, and the reality is very different from the myth. The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, of the Liberal Party and members of the Conservative Party may try to delude themselves that the mass of the British people are in full agreement with them as to the myth. May I hasten to disabuse them. The British people are well aware of the reality and of the consequences so far.

If we are to remain in the Common Market, and we are committed to that by the Treaty, the British people hope that at least means should be given to the people's representatives to make such changes to the policy and, if necessary, to the Treaty as are to the advantage not only of Europe as a whole but also the United Kingdom. They would not wish to send puppets to Europe. It would be dishonest of the Government to go to the people of this country with proposals for direct elections unless they carefully explained to them, with absolute candour, that this would not mean that the representatives of the United Kingdom would have any greater say in Europe's affairs, or any greater influence than their predecessors who were not directly elected. National honour at least requires that.

Unhappily, the position is even worse. Not only have we got a position where the French National Assembly have vetoed any further progress towards any kind of powers for the European Parliament, we also have a state where the existing powers of Parliament are in fact being diminished. I speak now of realities, not of the myth. Recently I had an opportunity of submitting to a Select Committee of your Lordships' House a report of the proceedings in the Budget Committee in December last, which was a complete breach of the very flexible rules that exist in the European Parliament at the present time. I have given verbal evidence which has not been controverted in any other country in Europe, that there was direct connivance between various French interests in the European Parliament and outside it and in the Commission, in order to circumvent the decisions at which Parliament had already arrived.

I gave further instances to your Lordships' Select Committee of some of the real powers that lay behind the illusory powers which were contained in the Treaty. I explained to them how Article 205 was easily circumvented; I explained to them how Article 203 of the Treaty was easily circumvented; and I had an example yesterday of another way in which all the time, because the British play to the rules and the others do not, the powers of the European Parliament have been circumvented.

For two years my very able colleague Mr. Michael Shaw, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Scarborough, has been devoting an enormous amount of time to a reform of the financial regulations of the Community, thereby trying to ensure, more in accordance with British practice and indeed with German practice, that there is more effective control over European finance. These negotiations and his work went on over many months, and in the main were agreed with the Commission. But they went up to the Council last week. Of course, security tends to be rather weak in Continental circles, and one learns what happened at the meeting called to discuss those regulations. Practically every significant amendment put forward by Mr. Michael Shaw, and supported by the rest of us, was rejected by the Council on a veto vote cast by France and supported by the Belgians.

These things have to be said, and they were said yesterday by me in the Budget Committee in Europe and they were not denied by the Frenchmen who were present. Had these things happened in the United Kingdom there would have been quite a different kettle of fish. There would have been big headlines, such as "Labour Government rats again"; "Labour Government obstructing Europe", and all that kind of nonsense that is put out by the mainly Tory editors of the national Press. But there was not a bleat because, as my colleague Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody said in another place only the other week, in Germany there is a pro-German Press, in France there is a pro-French Press, but so far as Britain is concerned there is a pro-EEC Press. That is exactly what happens.

I suggest that these circumstances produce a situation of which Her Majesty's Government should take account. The British may have been a little down on their luck over the past 20 years. It may be we have certain deficiencies, one being slowness, although I gather that the bulk of Europe would not have been free if we had not had a certain deficiency, slowness, in the years immediately before the war. Nothing sickens me more, as a representative of the United Kingdom, than to be present in plenary debate and to hear some, but not all, of my fellow countrymen from the Conservative Party stand up and denounce the impartiality of the present Presidency of the European Council. No other country does it.

So, my Lords, this afternoon I would suggest to your Lordships—not, I am afraid, that it will do any good in a large number of cases—to make a supreme effort to separate the reality from the myth, and let us have the legislation that we are to have grounded upon the reality. There is no particular urgency for European direct elections, none at all. It will give no perceptible result in terms of dealing with the clamant problems in Europe: unemployment, regional and social aid, aid to developing countries, aid to European industries, and matters of that kind; it will have no perceptible result on these things.

The pursuit of the campaign for direct elections by honourable Members and noble Lord opposite is nothing more than a fig leaf to cover up their own political nakedness. They have no policy for Europe; they have no constructive suggestion to make as to how Europe should develop. They affect to denounce the Common Agricultural Policy, and yet they have not produced one alternative and do not intend to do so, because they are quite content to rely upon the French veto. This, I would suggest to the House, is something of which the British will soon become aware; and when they become aware their verdict on those who seek merely to perpetuate a myth and ignore the reality will be quite disastrous to those who happen to be involved in that vulgar transaction.

4.2 p.m.


My Lords, Wordsworth said: It is not to be thought of that the flood of British freedom Which to the open sea of the world's praise has flowed since dark antiquity Should perish". It is with that feeling that I take part in your Lordships' debate today. This country is the source and the origin of Parliamentary institutions. It was to this country, and it still is to this country, that our partners in the Community look for some guidance and reassurance that the Community itself can be made to work as a representative democratic institution. The preservation of freedom can only be ensured through representative democratic institutions, and it is because I believe that, that I believe that we as members of the Community should move towards direct elections to the European Parliament.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donnington, made so many allegations, some of which appeared to contradict others, that I would take another 20 or 30 minutes if I were to attempt to answer all of them. So I shall leave aside the attitude of my Party to the Common Agricutural Policy and many of the other interesting observations and animadversions that he threw out in the course of his explosive comments. What I shall concentrate on is the essence, as I took it, of his remarks.

He was talking about the nature and the purpose of direct elections to the European Community, and he was kind enough to quote part, but only part, of a letter that I wrote to The Times. I believe that the Treaty makes it quite clear what powers the European Parliament are entitled to; they are advisory and supervisory. The noble Lord shakes his head. Those are the words of the Treaty. I did not bring it with me, but if the noble Lord has a copy, which I believe he has, he can look them up. Those are the powers which the Treaty grants to the Parliament. The Parliament can dismiss the Commission, and it can play a small part, as the noble Lord himself knows better than I do, in supervising and re-allocating the Budget.

Those are its powers and those of us who believe that it should be directly elected do not need to say that it requires more powers to be directly elected. Those powers are there, and when I wrote my letter to The Times I asked that the Commission should be made more accountable—not by an increase in powers, but by making its supervision by the European Parliament the full-time work of those Members of the European Parliament who will be directly elected and, therefore, not have the burden of membership of their national Parliaments to sustain as well as membership of the European Parliament.


My Lords, as the noble Lord will appreciate, the only way in which to increase the very limited—and they are very limited—supervisory powers of the Parliament in connection with the Budget are by changes in the financial regulations. Only this week practically 90 per cent. of the changes in those regulations have been slung out.


My Lords, apart from attempting to correct the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, when he quoted only part of my letter, I did not intervene when he spoke and I hope he will allow me to develop my argument in reply to his extended speech.

The noble Lord was assuming that all those who are in favour of direct elections presume that a dramatic infusion of powers will immediately result to the European Parliament. That may be so. It may be that some of the newly elected Members will want that. Many of the directly elected Members who come from this country will represent electorates that do not want Europe to move towards a federation. Those Members will speak up for the British point of view, and that point of view is unlikely to be in favour of a massive surge towards federalism.

The noble Lord spoke about alterations to the Treaty, and I agree with him that if the European Parliament is to increase its powers, that will require an alteration to the Treaty. Alterations to the Treaty involve the consent of the national Parliaments. The noble Lord referred to this in his lengthy quotations about the attitude of the French National Assembly. If the noble Lord is anxious that the European Parliament might break its chains and suddenly fly into the air with vastly extended powers overnight, surely the safeguards that he himself quoted would come into effect, because every national Parliament will have to scrutinise the draft legislation which will go forward in order to ensure that the European Parliament could have increased powers, if that is what is desired.

No, my Lords; the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, was a negative one. I shall not quarrel with him about the honour of this country. I believe that we need a good strong British voice at the centre of the Community's institutions to speak up for this country. What is wrong with the present Government's stewardship of the presidency of the Council of Ministers is that, by too narrow an interpretation of immediate British interests, they are undercutting our negotiating ability to speak up for the Community and for Britain inside the Community. I go further. The attitude of this Government towards direct elections is having a damaging effect on all the other ministerial negotiations within the Community because it is weakening our credibility.

I have spoken only for six minutes whereas the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, spoke for three times as long. In conclusion, I point out that I do not speak for my Party; I speak only for myself as a recent Conservative and as a long-standing enthusiast for direct elections. I believe that direct elections are not the answer to Europe's problems. There is no simple solution. All the difficulties will have to be grappled with by all the Governments of all the Member States. However, the European Community is a band of democratic nations. It stands for Parliamentary and democratic government. It is run by the Ministers from a national Government, but since the Treaty of Rome was thought of, and when it was written, it has always been envisaged that one day the European Parliament would be directly elected by universal suffrage throughout the Community.

My Lords, it is that advance towards democratic control to which I referred in my letter to The Times. It is that advance towards democratic control which this Government are in danger of wrecking, and by so doing not only are they breaking one of the principles of the Treaty of Rome which we signed, and of which we confirmed our membership through the referendum; they are also doing permanent damage to the name and honour of this country in the Community.

4.11 p.m.


My Lords, bitterness is not a mood which comes easily to me, and I may be rare among politicians in having had not the faintest cause, at any time, for personal political bitterness. Yet I feel it impossible to exorcise political bitterness altogether from the tone and content of my brief contribution today on this most significant issue raised by my noble friend Lord Chelwood. I have to state my opinion that the failure, so far, of Her Majesty's Government to lay specific legislation before Parliament is a betrayal of this country, and the reason for using such emphatic language, thoughtfully employed, has to be spelled out.

When the British delegation, among whom my noble friend Lord Chelwood and myself were included, arrived as Members of the British delegation to the European Parliament in January 1973, we were greeted with a warmth and an acclaim which, in subsequent years, we have striven to deserve. In paraphrase, what our colleagues said to us—and I think my noble friend will agree—was, "We have been waiting for you impatiently in this Parliament, because you understand Parliamentary democracy and you will guide us. You have this long and famous tradition of Parliament, and we shall heed and follow to create a true Parliament."This, if you like, was heady stuff, and we took fairly literally the invitation to criticise and to innovate. As a result, the European Parliament has altered its working methods in a number of respects, and I think it is fair to say that in many ways it is a more businesslike and productive body than we found it four and a half years ago.

To pick up a phrase already used in this debate, its reality has been strengthened, and openly recognised by Mr. Roy Jenkins, the new President of the Commission and until lately a Labour Cabinet Minister. I may say, incidentally, that this reality has been considerably assisted by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, himself. This Parliament has always been limited in its scope and in its powers. Its role has always been preparatory to the real Parliament which has to take its place: the directly elected Parliament. This makes it a consciously and intentionally self-immolating body, and the manner in which it should be replaced was set out in a remarkable report prepared by the young Dutch Socialist, Schelto Patijn, and approved, after profound debate, by Parliament—later approved by the Council of Ministers, and approved in turn by each of the Member nations' national Governments, as a pattern.

Only one factor was left undecided, left to the discretion of the individual member Governments: the form of election which each country would adopt in the first instance; that is, the first direct election ever, hopefully timed for May 1978. I agree with my noble friend Lord Chelwood that keeping faith, as nearly as possible, with the target date, or at least the target year, is more important than the electoral system selected, though the importance of that choice must not be minimised. As we have been told today, only one member Government has abused the discretion, to delay the whole process, to hold in suspense this great unifying advance, and this is the British Government, of which most had been hoped, in whom the greatest trust was placed, for reasons lucidly expressed a minute ago by my noble friend Lord O'Hagan.

Unhappily, this is not the only way in which we have disappointed our partners and colleagues. Having been accepted as the representatives of a Parliament which was trusted and esteemed in its own country, both by tradition and by worth, within a year or two we had to explain away something totally perplexing to those colleagues. In effect, the British Government had said that Parliament had not known what it was doing when it approved—by a majority of 112 in the House of Commons and of 7 to I in the House of Lords—the act of entry into the Community. They said, in effect, "That did not count; it did not mean anything; we must have a referendum". It was from that point forward that they began to question whether they had not overestimated our national respect for Parliamentary democracy. In the event, the electorate backed Parliament through the referendum, and the referendum, having done the harm I have described, proved itself to have been unnecessary.

More recently we have, as a people led by the present Government, done more to lose respect. The greedy haggling over agricultural prices and the green pound have shocked our closest and warmest friends and have encouraged those who believed General de Gaulle when he declared that we would never make good Europeans. It is frustrating and humiliating for those of us who have tried to prove him wrong and for those of our friends who have always believed that we would prove him wrong. I mention this to illustrate how the decline in our prestige and influence has been continuous during the last two years; the dismay of our faithful friends has been cumulative.

The good strong voice of Britain, desired by my noble friend Lord O'Hagan and by all of us, has inevitably been weakened. The most humiliating blame which has fallen upon us is the present failure, some have said refusal, on the part of Her Majesty's Government to carry forward the introduction of direct elections. As a result of this, Britain is in disgrace. I emphasise that this phrase is used advisedly and accurately. I was present last Monday when the noble Lord the Leader of the House took it upon himself to chide my noble friend Lord Trefgarne for using "extravagant language". The phrase which had offended him was my noble friend's warning in another context that we might become "the laughing stock of Europe".

The present betrayal is beyond a laughing matter, and nobody laughs. We are disheartening our friends beyond measure. Of this I can and must bear personal witness and I am certain that my European colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, must be equally aware of it. We are in disgrace and if, in replying, the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, feels bound to indict my language as extravagant or intemperate, then my only response must be to repeat it with greater pungency because it is the truth. The truth can be salutary, and this is a plea to the Government to squander no more time but to take the action which our friends and partners expect of us. There is perhaps still time, but not a great deal of it. I beg the Government to use that time to save the reputation by which, whatever our Party, we all stand.

4.18 p.m.


My Lords, I came to the House this afternoon in the expectation of hearing a Statement about pig farming. Apparently I missed an announcement earlier to the effect that that Statement was being made in another place and not here. However, the subject is related not too remotely from the subject your Lordships are debating now.

I am moved to speak because I am old enough for my memory to go back to the political life of this country almost from the beginning of this century, and when I hear members of the Conservative Party, as we have heard this afternoon, exalting forms of political democracy and representative institutions, I get a very queasy feeling at the bottom of my stomach; I want to go out and be sick because I remember only too well the Conservative attitude to Parliamentary democracy in relation to the Liberal Party, in relation to South Africa and in relation to the imbroglio which exists now in Ireland. We are the residuary legatees of that particular piece of nonsense. We are certainly inheriting the same thing in Southern Africa.

There is hardly a problem in the world with which this country is not concerned—including the diminution of its influence overseas—that cannot be traced to one simple fact; it is the fact that the Conservative Party, whatever has happened to Parliamentary democracy, has always taken very good care through the existence of this place to hold the reins of power and to manipulate the political life of this country in the way that suits them best. They do not always descend to forgery, but the Zinovieff Letter and the Savings Bank Scare of 1931 are very good examples.

Before I get a political lecture from the noble Lord, Lord O'Hagan, who, I seem to remember, once spoke from these Benches whereas we now know that is he a lifelong Conservative, I would commend him to read the very good book by Jimmy Reston called The Artillery of the Press. At the beginning of the book the author uses the argument of Jefferson—and I have not the book with me so I have not checked the quotation—that if he had to choose between Parliamentary institutions and a free, investigating, crusading Press, he would let the Parliamentary institutions go and keep the free Press. He argued—and I believe this with all my being—that democracy cannot function unless the individuals in the society in question are given the basis on which they can take great decisions on what must, inevitably, be limited evidence.

The object of the Conservative Party and its allies is to take very good care that the British people do not understand what it is all about. I have never been deluded about what the Common Market is about because I was Parliamentary Private Secretary to my right honourable friend Lord Shinwell and I was in on the early discussions which took place. It was a defence operation. This was spelt out in a dozen different ways. It has landed this country in a most disasterous position. We have spent £64,000 million on defence since the end of the War and all we are capable of doing is being a component, if not an essential part, of the defence system of Europe. In my judgment, it is not linked to a British interest. It simply makes us "target for tonight". The economic difficulties of this country were to be resolved by the Common Market and the great access that we were to have to the Common Market—yes, there is access all right for the Common Market to dump its agricultural products and its consumer goods here so that we could never get investment going in this country under any system where it is needed to modernise our heavy industry.

So far as I am concerned, I want to say that I have very limited political ambitions. I still remain marginally a member of the Labour Party, but on one condition only. It is that there should be a body inside the Labour Party that shares my view that, while there is breath in our body, we are going to come out of the Common Market. You can do what you like about your elections; so far as I am concerned, I shall go on campaigning.

That is one ambition and the other one, which is an essential part of it, is to abolish this House. We would never have gone into the Common Market had it not been for the honour of the Tory Party which had proclaimed from the North of Scotland to the South of England, "Oh, yes, we must have a revising and a reforming Chamber". They did this until the time came when their Party interests were concerned. The Bill went through this House and became an Act without a single Amendment and without any discussion when, if there was ever a case for delay and a great national debate so the people of the country could have understood the price they were being asked to pay, it was on this Bill.

The bill came in several instalments. The major causes of inflation I shall leave to the economists and to Mr. Peter Jay's successor to hammer out, but for me it is quite simple. The first was decimalisation, which turned the pound into 84p and made 2½ the equivalent of a penny. Go and ask the housewife. Metrication is another instalment. The subject of the Statement this afternoon about pig prices is another instalment. The people of this country are being fleeced alive.

My own personal ties with Mr. Wilson weakened from the moment when in 1966 he took the decision to go into the Common Market—on political grounds, not on economic grounds, or on defence grounds. The fact was that he was boxed in politically. He took that decision, and so far as I am concerned I have never shifted. I believe in a United Kingdom in toto, and I would use the whole authority of the State to maintain that. I would say, "Yes" to some degree of devolution and to some degree of the growth of institutions which can consider matters about which people feel, but the United Kingdom would remain. I would do everything I could to maintain not the power of this country —that is gone—but the influence of this country, because I believe, again on balance, despite some black spots, that it is a benign influence, and mankind is the better for it. I am English, and therefore I believe in that; and I believe that my fellow countrymen—they only—can solve the problems. The problems cannot be solved in Brussels. They must be solved here in the United Kingdom. But before they can be solved, they have to be understood; and there is a conspiracy, based upon class interests, in order to prevent them from being understood.

I have known the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, a long time. I respect him as a person; politically I think he is a nincompoop—


My Lords, is such language in order?


I said that personally I respect him. What is in order is the truth that I care to say. I am simply telling the truth. I respect him as a person, but I am dividing this from the political aspect. That is what I think—

Several noble Lords: Apologise!


Apologise for what?

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Peart)

My Lords, I wish that my noble friend, who I think is, from his point, making an effective speech, would not use that word in relation to the noble Lord.


If it lowers the temperature I will withdraw, and I will withdraw completely, not half-heartedly. I beg the noble Lord's pardon if he takes exception to it. I still respect him as a person. When he uses the word "honour", apparently to impugn the honour of his opponents, that is perfectly in order, but in my values I should sooner be called a nincompoop than impugn someone else's honour. But it is a question of values; one is all right, the other one is not. But I do not want to make a song and dance about that.

I want to point out that I—and there are many like me—hold the view that the politics of this country are being transformed by the impact of the Common Market. The point I wanted to make was that the noble Lord introduced the Party political analysis, and surely I am entitled to do the same. I just happen to believe that if the Labour Party had the "guts" to face up to the realities and it had not a fifth column inside, which is determined to go into the Common Market at any price, it would have won each of the recent by-elections, which, from its point of view, were catastrophic. I am for backing my opinion—I have not done badly in the previous elections—and I shall do it on this. I will speak, I will work, and I will use the few bobs I have to oppose every prominent supporter of the Common Market, irrespective of policy, and noble Lords can see what happens.

There is only one answer to Grimsby, and to Ashfield, and to the arch Common Market man, Mr. Roy Jenkins, in Stechford: that the people of this country are wakening up—not to the shibboleths; they are looking at their standard of life. They are looking at their jobs and their prospects of employment. The young people of this country are wakening up, too, to the reality regarding our going into the Common Market on the terms that we did: an object of unconditional surrender that would be imposed only by a victorious Power on a defeated Power, and we were not defeated; while those who did the trick across us to a man had all been occupied countries.

So we turn our backs on the sacrifice of our fellow countrymen in the First and the Second World Wars for a piece of political nonsense, in the hope that there is an easy answer. The answer here is that it cannot be faced up to in London, but if you shuffle it up and you have a complaint Press you will he able to solve it behind the curtains in Brussels. I just do not happen to believe it; and I have spelt out as honestly as I can my own personal views. I have always opposed the Common Market, and I shall go on opposing the Common Market. I am content to remain inside the Labour Party as long as I can oppose the Common Market; and I was heartened this morning to see that a considerable number of Members of the House of Commons are wakening up to the situation and are going to fight on it tooth and nail. I hope to be alongside them at the barricades.

4.30 p.m.


My Lords, it had not been my intention originally to intervene in this debate, partly because, so far as the Liberal Party is concerned, I think everything has been said, and said very well, by my noble friend Lord Banks; but I have been stimulated to intervene, if not provoked to a certain extent, by the powerful and rousing speech of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, from which I gather one thing, which is that he will not himself be a candidate for the direct elections to the European Parliament, if indeed they take place next year! He seems to have a very poor opinion of the present Parliament, and indeed a poor opinion of the directly elected Parliament if indeed it is directly elected. He said, among other things, that it should not have any real powers—that it could not and that it should not. That was the noble Lord's broad thesis, I think: that, even if directly elected, it should not have any real powers; and, anyhow, it could not have any real powers because this Parliament would not agree to its having any real powers, and therefore it was a myth. That was his thesis, as I understood it. He does not dispute that, I am sure.


My Lords, since the noble Lord has asked me a question, perhaps I may say that nowhere in the course of my speech did I say that the European Parliament should not have any more powers; and if he looks in Hansard tomorrow he will most certainly be able to correct his impression.


My Lords, if the noble Lord is in favour of a European Parliament having powers, why did he criticise my remarks in which I said that it inevitably would have powers some day? I took that as being a criticism of my contention that it would have powers in the long run. But, be that as it may, if the noble Lord now thinks that it should have real powers then it seems to me that he is changing the basis of his whole thesis, though I cannot help that.

In any case—and here I am sure I can reassure the noble Lord—the directly elected Parliament cannot have any more powers than it already possesses until, and unless, these powers are granted to it by all the national Parliaments. That is common ground, presumably. The noble Lord then said that, this being so, he thought that this Parliament in Westminster would never agree to any additional powers. This may or may not be so, but he took great comfort from the fact that the French Parliament could not ever agree because that would mean, according to him and according to a recent decision of the Cour Constitutionelle, a revision of the French Constitution and, of course, a revision of the Treaty of Rome ratified by the French Parliament. Well, that may be so, my Lords, but some people maintain that in a year's time the French Parliament will not be the same as it is now; and it is quite possible that the noble Lord's European socialist friends may take a rather different view in regard to the European Parliament than the present Gaullist majority, which he apparently favours. I suggest that at the least he should not ignore that possibility.

The fact is that, if the elected Parliament finds itself, is a reasonable body and is respected, it may well be that in the next five years (shall we say?) certain powers will be suggested by it and ratified by all the national Parliaments. That cannot be excluded. But if such powers are put forward, they will certainly be the kind of powers recommended by Professor Vedel about five or six years ago; namely, what are called "powers of co-decision". That is to say, major decisions made by the Council of Ministers, which I hope will endure as such, before coming into force, will have to be, as it were, ratified by the directly elected Parliament. But that would not give it anything like the powers of a sovereign Parliament. It would be something quite different.

There is great confusion, perhaps due to the fact that this body is commonly known as a Parliament, though it will not be a Parliament in the national sense. As I see it, it will merely be a constitutional brake, indicative of public opinion generally and of all Parties in the Community, on the actions of the Ministers who otherwise would not be (and especially in regard to the Budget) subjected to any democratic control. This is the intellectual basis in favour of direct elections to the European Parliament. It is a comprehensible one, and I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, apparently thinks it unpatriotic and unconstitutional to suggest anything of that kind. In my view it is perfectly reasonable.

In any case, if that is so, if that is the kind of power the European Parliament may have in five years' time, it will be nothing like a federation. The anti-European people now make a tremendous bogey out of federation. They allege that a horrible federal body is being proposed; that it is going to reduce the Parliament at Westminster to nothing —and they say this simply because they do not like the idea of Europe. It will never be a federation. There are those, admittedly, who think that it will be a definite federation like the United States' constitution; but I do not believe it. I prefer to think that it can be a political democratic entity of a new kind in five or ten years' time.

I believe also that, even if it does not have actual powers, even if new powers are not ratified by the Nine or the Thirteen Parliaments, nevertheless it will have great influence because it will represent European public opinion. Its Members, for instance, when they come back here to their national Parliaments and give evidence, perhaps to this Parliament or to their constituencies, will no doubt bring pressure to bear in favour of some recommendation of the Parliament which has been agreed by the majority and which, from the mere fact that it has been excogitated in Strasbourg, is the result of thought brought to bear on what is best for the Community and not on what is in the interests of any one national Government. I expect those elected Members will come back and plead with their own Governments and Parties in favour of whatever proposal it may be. By what means they will influence the Council of Ministers in their decisions and enable it more easily to take the great decisions or vital compromises necessary if the Community is going to develop at all.

My Lords, I would make only two other remarks. So far as this Party is concerned, I can say that we rely on Government legislation, in which there will be embodied some element of proportional representation, being laid before Parliament in good time for a vote to be taken before the Summer Recess. This will no doubt be at the beginning, or perhaps in the middle, of August. If legislation is introduced only at the beginning of October—that is to say, technically within the present Parliamentary Session, or even in the middle of October—the crucial vote could not then take place much before Christmas, which means surely that there would be no time to get everything ready for the election in May or June 1978, whatever electoral procedure may be selected. I think that the only result of that would be that the elections would, to our lasting disgrace, have to be put off and perhaps postponed forever.

Now we recognise, as realists, that, even if the vote is taken before we disperse for the Summer holidays, it may not mean that proportional representation will be agreed to in another place. As realists, we must recognise this possibility. Even so, it would probably still be favoured in this House; though whether we would have a chance to intervene and to say something in favour of proportional representation and try to influence them to change their views is another question. But we must accept the fact that the first-past-the-post system might be approved by the other place; but if it were, apart from all other considerations, there would be no time to reorganise the elections and for the Boundary Commissions to do their work and the same situation might come about, as in the event of failure on the part of the Government—which I can hardly believe possible—to produce any legislation at all before we break up in August. The fact that the first-past-the-post system might be selected is a risk that must be taken, as we see it. The main objective, irrespective of that risk, is to get the necessary legislation tabled very soon.

As we all know, the Tribune Group —and I think somebody referred to this— is now campaigning for a complete withdrawal of Great Britain from the Community and, presumably, for the subsequent imposition on this unfortunate country of some directed regime not dissimilar to that enjoyed by that of the German Democratic Republic—the inevitable result if that kind of policy were pursued. Happily, a majority of our people, however discontented they may be at present, will for such reasons be unlikely to fall in with the proposal of withdrawal from the Community.

But the Tribune Group counts among its members many members of the Parliamentary Labour Party—I believe about 70—in the House of Commons. Assuming all these Tribune Group MPs, on a free vote—because that is what is promised—vote against the legislation when it comes up for approval, if it does, it is clear that it can be carried only with at least some Opposition support. That is inevitable. We must assume, therefore, that all those Members of Parliament who favour direct elections in principle—and I assume that they are in a large majority in the other place—will not frustrate the whole object of the exercise by failing to agree on any electoral procedure on the grounds that the one or the other might result in Party political advantage or otherwise. Still, these are all questions for tomorrow, not today. Today the only real question is: when will the Government introduce their Bill? So far as the Liberal Party is concerned, the sooner they do so the better.

4.42 p.m.


My Lords, the House owes a deep debt of gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, for precipitating what has proved to be a fascinating debate which has extended beyond the confines set out on the Order Paper; and indeed, the list of speakers has extended beyond our expectations. I apologise in advance for my contribution in both directions. I hope that in one they will be brief. I apologise for the absence of my noble friend Lady Elles; she is pursuing the cause of Europe and cannot be here, and that explains my rather tardy entry in the lists.

The Government have promised to use their best endeavours to hold direct elections to the European Parliament, and the Question asks for a validation of the promise and for a definition of the term, "best endeavours". There is a growing suspicion in many quarters that the promise only remains a promise while it is convenient to the Government to honour it, and that the best endeavours may, not altogether accidentally, prove not quite good enough to permit Parliament genuine freedom of choice in the matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, has just made a very important pronouncement indeed in defining what in terms of time he sees as his Party's expectations from the pact which they now have with the Party opposite. This is something to which I shall revert. The noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, is expert and practised, I regret to say, in giving apparently satisfactory answers without the content which one seeks to find in them—a Bramley's seedless apple of an answer. If for once he pleases us with the pips, then he will have made a great step forward. I wonder whether he has the authority. As regards the promise, both the Government and the nation are committed by treaty to the Common Market. The Government are committed by the Treaty, by referendum, by numerous pieces of legislation and by many personal undertakings, to make it work. They are also committed to the introduction of direct elections, a commitment which was even emphasised in the Queen's Speech at the opening of this Session.

A promise is a promise; but politics are politics and their conduct of late—and, noble Lords can justly argue, from the beginning of politics—has always been such as to make it essential that the promise shall be seen to be expedient for those who have to put it into force. Therefore the Government should at least take this opportunity to give an emphatic undertaking not only that they are still committed to legislation but that they are committed to bringing it in in sufficient time for it to be properly debated, both as to principle and as to detail, in both Houses of Parliament. That is a requirement which the Liberal Party now make of their allies in this matter, and it is in our interest to see that the requirement is fulfilled; because it is a fact that there are several methods of election which can be chosen. It is not the purpose of this debate—and I shall not follow my noble friend Lord Chelwood over this—to discuss the merits of any particular method; but some methods, it is known, take longer than others to implement by reason of the workings of the Boundary Commission. It is widely thought that the method of election favoured by the Liberal party takes less time than that favoured by some others.

Therefore it is particularly gratifying to hear the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, say that it is important for there to be the early publication of a Bill so that there shall he a real choice and not a sort of "shell" of a choice presented to Parliament when the method of election is debated—otherwise there will he a default on the promise, and not only will the Liberal Party be disenchanted about that but also, I think, Parliament and the electorate.

Turning to the more immediate political issues, today's papers report a move, which has been alluded to in two speeches already, by the Tribune Group—a group, incidentally, led by Mr. Hattersley, a former Minister, who was reported in the Financial Times of 14th March—

Several noble Lords: Order, order!


I do apologise, my Lords. Like the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, I make an unreserved apology. I should have said Mr. Heifer. Can we have Mr. Heifer on the record? He was reported in the Financial Times on 14th March as saying that direct elections would take place only over his dead body. That Group has now endorsed this stance very publicly and very provocatively. According to the papers, last night they said that Britain's membership has been: …an unmitigated disaster for the British people", and that the Labour movement: …should commit itself to take Britain out of the Common Market".


Hear, hear!


My Lords, I hear the the noble Lord, Lord Wigg, voicing his loud support for that. It is significant that according to the Press that statement was made after the Party's National Executive had failed to debate a similar Motion. It is equally significant that the business which got crowded off the Order Paper was the very matter of the expectations of the Labour and Liberal Parties of the alliance and whether the Party of noble Lords opposite had been wise to enter into it.

The two matters are interdependent, because the Prime Minister has to retain support both of his Left Wing and of the Liberal Party in order to remain in office. How he is to do so, and for how long, is his affair; but what concessions he is forced to make on Europe in order to do so is very much the concern of all of us, and indeed of the whole nation. Your Lordships may recall that he is committed to allowing a free vote on the system of election under any proposed Act, and I have shown how integral his honouring of the time-scale is to his keeping of the pact with the Liberal Party. I think it is also worth noting not perhaps as a matter of enormous significance but as giving rise to some wry humour on this side of the House, that the only Party which is otherwise committed to withdrawal from the Common Market is the National Front. Expediency does make strange bed-fellows!—

A noble Lord: Cheap!


My Lords, I do not think it is cheap: it is an observation. The threat to progress might be less real if we were sure of the loyalty of the Cabinet itself to Europe. But as issue after controversial issue comes up, the case against Europe is shouted from the housetops and all we get from the Cabinet Room is a slightly mutinous murmur from behind a half-open door. I am very tempted to quote in extenso, for example, the letter by the noble Lord, Lord Thomson of Monifieth, in The Times today, to put the case for Europe. Many people during this debate have said that it is an unmitigated disaster, that it has operated unfairly, and so on. Two of them have actually made an appeal to patriotism or, as I would call it, nationalism and prayed in aid of getting out, or at least slowing up progress in Europe. I will not fall for that temptation, but with regret. But I would say that, for a Government committed by treaty, by personal undertaking, by referendum and by numerous Acts of legislation to the Treaty of Rome, to hesitate at such a time in putting that Treaty into effect in all its aspects is more than negligence; it is little short of sabotage. And silence at such a time sits upon the lips with venom.

But what are we to make of the unguarded pronouncements of such, for instance, as Mr. Shore? He has never actually said that we must abrogate the Treaty, but on the other hand, in addressing the Labour Common Market Safeguards Committee at Blackpool on 26th September, he said: We are seemingly incapable of stopping our trade haemorrhage into Europe"; and further on, alluding to this problem, he said: If it is not dealt with collectively, then it must still be solved by the British Government and people, if need be alone". That is how he was reported in the Press. I hope that the Press is right. The noble Lord, Lord Wigg, is adamant that we must have a free and unfettered Press, and one must rest one's vigilance upon this.


I am sorry, my Lords, but the noble Lord mentioned me by name. Is he suggesting that I think we have a free and unfettered Press? I certainly do not think anything of the kind. I think that it is the most venal Press in the world.


My Lords, I am always interested in tempting the noble Lord further into the open on all his views. But I rest on this Press, whether venal or not. I think that in this case—


My Lords, there is only one good paper—the Sporting Life.


My Lords, the noble Lord may have more friends in that than he imagines. If this is a correct report, if the Minister said "if need be alone", then I think that the noble Lord who is to reply to this debate must tell us what is the intention of those words, that these problems must be solved, if necessary, by the British people alone. In other words, is the Cabinet still the guardian of the official policy of this country and, if not, quis custodiet ipsos custodes? And is this Cabinet solidarity, or is there, in fact, a gang of four, or is it six? Is it collective responsibility, or is there substance in the growing conviction that what now divides the Cabinet over publication of a Bill is not differences over technicalities, but differences over principle? Are they not aware that, once the first round of direct elections is over, the power will in any case rest with Europe as a whole to decide the manner of the next round of elections, and, if so, are they not straining at a gnat while swallowing a camel? We need to know whether or not there is genuine unity.

This is a question of great constitutional importance and the British public, like the British Parliament, do not want to be kept in the dark about it. Have our leaders lost both their way and their nerve? Are they not, at this critical time, capable of leading the country and of reassuring public opinion and, above all, of securing the loyalty not only of their rank and file but also of their colleagues in the Cabinet? If not, how long will they struggle in the morass, and who will they bring down with them? If they do not today commit themselves to the problems which the noble Lord, Lord Gladwyn, so explicitly put, then the inescapable conclusion that will be reached by a great many people outside this Chamber, and outside this country, is that they are no longer committed to British membership of Europe, and no longer committed to elections to it, directly conducted, which have been fairly argued in Parliament.

4.54 p.m.

The MINISTER of STATE, HOME OFFICE (Lord Harris of Greenwich)

My Lords, I will begin by recognising, as something of a veteran of debates of this kind, as the noble Lord, Lord Elton, has pointed out, that there is anxiety which has been expressed in this debate by a number of noble Lords, who are concerned about the progress towards the holding of direct elections. Before coming to the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, I am bound to say that, of all the speeches that I heard, I was rather saddened to hear the rather extravagant language, if I may say so, used earlier by the noble Lord, Lord Saint Oswald. On reflection, however, I hope that the noble Lord will come to the conclusion that he used rather extravagant language which will not be justified in reality.


My Lords, let us hope!


My Lords, I thought that the noble Lord was rising to withdraw the references he made earlier, but perhaps I was being a little over-optimistic. Once again the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, has given the House the opportunity to discuss this issue and the very many difficult questions arising from it. I should like to make it quite clear at the outset of my reply that the Government's position on direct elections has in no way changed from that which was set out in the gracious Speech at the beginning of this Session of Parliament.

A number of questions have been raised in the debate which go a great deal wider than the subject of direct elections which is before us, including a number of the points that were touched on by the noble Lord, Lord Elton, who has just resumed his seat. They range from those put by my noble friend Lord Bruce of Donington, who discussed certain aspects of the Common Agricultural Policy, and perhaps some alterations to the Treaty, to those put by my noble friend Lord Wigg. At least I think he is my noble friend Lord Wigg, for he said he is on the fringes but still within the Labour Party.


Yes, my Lords.


Which I rejoice to hear, my Lords. The noble Lord discussed the question of direct elections, but before doing so he also mentioned the Zinovieff letter, some of the earlier European defence arrangements and the future of this House, which I know is an issue in which he is very interested. I am bound to say in passing, as my noble friend will realise, in the most affectionate way, that his view periodically changes. When we discussed the seat belts Bill earlier this week, I thought, rather by implication, that my noble friend felt that this House had a useful role to play. Indeed, it was one of the many reasons why I so cheerfully joined him in the Division Lobbies on that occasion. With him, I was saddened by the outcome of that debate, but I have heard with equal sadness today that my noble friend takes the view that the sooner we are abolished the better.

The noble Lord then touched on one fundamental point with which I should like to deal. I really wonder whether it is particularly sensible or wise to speak about fifth columns in the Government. Fifth columns in the Government, as I understand it, are Ministers who have accepted the clearly established will of the electorate of this country. My noble friend campaigned vigorously for a referendum, and the people of this country gave a decisive vote when that referendum took place. Every single mainland area of this country cast a decisive vote in favour of British membership of the European Community. When the Government make —and I hope that they will always make, whatever the Government may be—the best possible endeavour they can to ensure that we play a loyal role within the European Community, they do so as a result of the clearly expressed wish of the people of this country. This is the wish not just of the people in areas represented by the Parties of noble Lords opposite but of the people in the great Labour heartlands of this country: in the mining areas and in many other areas where Labour Members of Parliament have obtained their seats. That is the position so far as the referendum campaign is concerned. Many people, including my noble friend, campaigned vigorously for the referendum. They got that referendum, and I am bound to say that they must accept the result of it.


My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt, but the Minister has missed the point. I linked together the Zinovieff letter, the savings bank scare and the referendum as three elements or three sides to the same problem, regarding which temporarily the Press of this country put one side only. The referendum was due to the resources of the Conservative Party, big business and the Press. For months, millions of pounds had been spent on persuading the public of this country to vote as they did. The Minister will now notice if he watches the results of the by-elections, and particularly the Stetchford by-election—and it will not be the last by any manner of means—that the proof of the "pud" is in the eating; the eating has started and pretty unpalatable it is.


My Lords, there is always a risk of following my noble friend down attractive by-ways, but I should like to say just one thing to him. As someone who in the past earned his living from journalism, I am bound to say that I do not have the same high regard for my profession or its power as has my noble friend. I recall that in 1936, to take an American example, Mr. Roosevelt was passionately opposed by the overwhelming majority of the American Press and he carried all but two States in the Union. I do not believe that that explains in any way why the British people voted as they did. Nevertheless, my noble friend campaigned, perfectly legitimately, for the referendum and I am bound to say that I believe we all have to accept the clearly expressed wish of the British people in that referendum—and in fact the Government are determined to do just that.

The Question that has been tabled by the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, asks whether the Government's promise to the European Community to use their best endeavours to hold direct elections to the European Parliament in 1978 still stands. Certainly, as I have indicated, we have in no way abandoned that commitment. Last month's publication of a White Paper on direct elections and the arrangements for extensive debates in both Houses of Parliament are indications of how seriously the Government take this matter. Certainly, we have always recognised that ultimately it will be for Parliament to decide the arrangements for holding those elections, and that has been made clear by others who have spoken in this debate.

Although the Community Instrument which was signed by the United Kingdom with the other Member States in September of last year refers to an intention to give effect to the conclusions of the European Council in Rome in December 1975 that the election of the Assembly should be held between May and June of 1978, no specific date is incorporated in the Instrument itself. That of course is in recognition of the fact that before such a date can be determined Member States must complete their own internal arrangements for ensuring that the elections can be held. The Government have pressed forward with a view to making those arrangements in time, but it is right that I should emphasise the exact terms of the commitment on this aspect that we entered into when we signed this Instrument on 20th September last year.

The noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, also asked about the legislation which is necessary to implement our undertaking to hold direct elections. I hope the reasons why legislation has not been introduced will be clear from a study of the debate which was held in another place on 20th April, and indeed the debate which took place in this House. There is still widespread disagreement, not only over the principle of direct elections, but also about the character of the electoral system which is to be used. Certainly the Government must consider, as they have undertaken to do, the points made in that debate in another place and in the debate in this House.


My Lords, would the noble Lord—


My Lords, if I may deal first with this particular point I will gladly give way. The noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, to some extent emphasised some of the problems involved. These are not matters which can simply he brushed aside. Only today he came up with an idea of a different character for another variation of an electoral system which certainly has not been introduced before in this House, so far as I am aware. As I understand it, it is some form of election which would be arranged on a county basis. The noble Lord asked whether I would give an undertaking to look at that point, and of course I will gladly do so.

In passing, he mentioned the German system, but I think I should say to him that as I understand it the German Government have presented a Bill to the Bundestag which will provide for elections on the basis of Federal lists, with a 5 per cent. qualifying minimum. Therefore, they have themselves decided that the system which is in use for their national elections is not in fact going to be used for European elections. Nevertheless, the noble Lord has asked me to look into it and I will gladly do so. But I should say to him that I would not like to hold out a great deal of hope, because if the proposal is as I understand it, it would have some similarities, in my view, with the national list system which was considered in the White Paper, and the Government indicated at that time—and indeed I recall indicating myself—that there are a number of significant objections to this idea. Nevertheless, the noble Lord asked me to look into the point, and, of course, I will gladly do so.


My Lords, in introducing the whole subject of the character of the electoral system, the noble Lord said a word I did not quite catch, and I would rather like to hear it now before Hansard is printed. He said progress was held up—and he was discussing the difficulties of the Government—not only, I thought he said, by the question of principle but also by the character of the system. Am I right in understanding that there is a question of principle?


No, my Lords; I have made the position of the Government quite clear: we stand quite firmly by the words used in the gracious Speech. What I was pointing out was that in the debate which took place in another place there was obviously disagreement so far as the principle of direct elections was concerned, but there was also this very substantial disagreement over the type of electoral system to be used. That was the point. I can assure the noble Lord that there was no sinister significance in what I was saying.

The position is that when the Government have finalised their views on the matter a recommendation will be made to Parliament, and, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has already indicated, a free vote will be allowed on the electoral system to be used. We very much hope that, once a decision on the electoral system has been taken in this way, the necessary provisions for direct elections will be passed without undue delay. This is why the Government believe it is worth while taking time to get the decision on the electoral system right rather than run the risk of moving into procedural difficulties because the issues are not clearly understood.


My Lords, arising out of what the noble Lord has just said, that a free vote will be allowed on the system to be used, does that mean that various systems will be set out in the Bill itself?


No, my Lords, I do not think my right honourable friend was indicating the kind of system that would be used. What he indicated was that a free vote would be allowed, so far as the supporters of the Government were concerned, with regard to any question touching on the electoral system to be used. That is the point that he made on that occasion.

The importance of the electoral system question, and of the many variants from which to choose, was illustrated on the last occasion when we debated this subject by the suggestion made by the noble Baroness, Lady Elles: that was the debate which took place on 3rd May. The noble Baroness suggested that a regional list system with first-past-the-post voting might be used for direct elections; this, she said, would be similar to the system used in multi-member wards at local government elections, whereby the voter is allowed to vote for as many candidates as there are seats, and the seats are filled by those who have obtained the most votes. In winding up the debate I said that I would reflect on this, and I have.

I think the main difficulty about such a system is that it is likely to produce a final result in which the seats won by a particular Party are quite out of proportion to the votes cast. This tendency exists even in local government elections where multi-member electoral areas are, generally speaking, fairly small. As the White Paper on direct elections pointed out, however, this distorting effect might be magnified with single member constituencies for direct elections on a simple majority basis. Even greater distortions could occur in very large multi-member electoral regions, because the tendency is for electors to vote for all the candidates of the Party of their choice.

Although in theory, of course, an elector may divide his votes between the candidates of different Parties, in practice this rarely happens. Thus, one Party or another could win all or nearly all—or, of course, none—of the seats in an electoral region representing several million voters. With great respect to the noble Baroness—who I am sorry cannot be with us today, although I understand the reason for her absence—I do not think that a system of this sort would generally be considered as a satisfactory method of electing our representatives to the Assembly.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Chelwood, expressed an interest in the agreement made with the Liberal Party as regards the timing and method of voting. I am bound to say that I am a little surprised at the noble Lord seeking to obtain this information. I think that he referred to mystery and even to secrecy. That, very properly shocks the noble Lord, Lord Byers. The situation is that the Prime Minister discussed this precise point during the debate in another place on 23rd March this year. The most sensible thing for me to do is to quote what he said on that occasion. He said: The issue of direct elections is a difficult one …The Liberal Party has reaffirmed to me its strong conviction that a proportional system should be used as the method of election. … in view of the arrangement that I now propose to enter into with the Leader of the Liberal Party, there will be consultation between us on the method to be adopted and the Government's final recommendation will take full account of the Liberal Party's commitment ".—[Official Report, Commons, col. 1307.] The Prime Minister was interrupted at that point, but clearly he intended to complete his sentence by referring to the Liberal Party's commitment to proportional representation. So there is no mystery or secrecy; that is exactly the situation as defined by the Prime Minister on 23rd March.


My Lords, in that case is there no agreement with the Liberal Party as to when the legislation should be on the Statute Book, which is the crucial question?


My Lords, I understand the noble Lord's impatience on that point, but as I have already indicated the Government are considering the matter in the light of the debates in both Houses and will move as expeditiously as possible when they have completed consideration of the matter.


My Lords, would it not be more accurate to say that the Liberal Party is still pressing for action in this field and that we should welcome early legislation?


My Lords, the noble Lord has now made his position clear and I am sure that that is consistent with the views of the Liberal Party in another place.


My Lords, by leave of the House, we should like clarification. Does that mean that introduction of a Bill only after the Summer Recess would still be in accord with—


My Lords, no; with respect, it does not mean anything of the kind. The noble Lord, Lord Byers, has perfectly reasonably made the position of the Liberal Party absolutely clear. He did not mean anything other than that. I should like to conclude by pointing out that the Government's basic commitment, as I have made crystal clear throughout my speech on the issue of direct elections, has not changed. Certainly I recognise that there are fears in many quarters that time is running out. But I repeat: our options are still open and it will be for Parliament to pass the necessary legislation in time. As I have already indicated, the commitment made in the gracious Speech remains the position of the Government. We have in no way retreated from that position.