HL Deb 12 February 1981 vol 417 cc340-51

7.5 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretray of State, Home Office (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, I beg to move that the European Assembly Elections Bill be now read a second time. This is both a short Bill and, I hope, a straightforward one. It comprises one substantive clause, amending part of the second schedule to the European Assembly Elections Act 1978. The purpose of the Bill is to relieve the three Parliamentary Boundary Commissions for Great Britain of the obligation to submit simultaneously with a report on Westminster constituencies a report on European Parliament constituencies.

As your Lordships will know, the rules which govern the operation of the four Parliamentary Boundary Commissions for the United Kingdom are set out in the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Acts of 1949 and 1958. These require each Commission to submit to the Secretary of State a general report on the constituencies within its area of responsibility between 10 and 15 years after the submission of its previous report. All four Commissions reported last during the first half of 1969. Accordingly, each must report again during 1984—by April 1984 for the English and Scottish Commissions, by May 1984 in the case of the Welsh Commission and by June 1984 in the case of the Northern Ireland Commission. I should like to emphasise that this Bill does not alter that statutory time limit. Indeed, there is nothing in the Bill which would change any aspect of the Boundary Commissions' work in reviewing constituencies for the Westminster Parliament.

When a Parliamentary Boundary Commission completes a report within the time laid down in the statute, the Secretary of State is required to lay it before Parliament. He submits the report, except where it recommends no alteration to constituencies, with a draft of an Order in Council giving effect, with or without modifications, to the recommendations. The Secretary of State must state his reasons for any modifications he proposes. The 1949 Act, to which I have referred, specified that the orders must be laid before Parliament "as soon as may be" after a Boundary Commission has submitted a report. In other words, there should be no unreasonable delay. This procedure ought to be a straightforward one. I have no doubt that the Boundary Commissions, consonant with their statutory duties and responsibilities, complete their work, involving the publication of provisional recommendations, considering representations, and, if necessary, holding inquiries before submitting final recommendations, as soon as they are able to do so. And certainly I can repeat assurances given both in this House and elsewhere that my right honourable friends the respective Secretaries of State, for their part, will present the reports of the Boundary Commissions to Parliament without any delay. But there was introduced in the provisions of the European Assembly Elections Act 1978, an impediment into the workings of the Boundary Commissions in Great Britain which prejudices the swift implementation of Boundary Commission recommendations.

The 1978 Act obliges a Boundary Commission to submit simultaneously with a report on Westminster constituencies, a supplementary report on European Parliament constituencies. European Parliament constituencies, as your Lordships will know, are formed from whole Westminster constutuencies. No Westminster constituency may be divided between European Parliament constituencies. The effect of the provisions in the 1978 Act is therefore that, instead of a commission submitting its report on Westminster constituencies to the Secretary of State immediately on completion of the work, it has to set the whole matter aside for the period that it takes to formulate the consequential recommendations for the European Parliament constituencies.

The best estimate is that the delay that this procedure causes would amount to about 12 to 15 months. While a delay of this type in the submission of a report naturally is to be regretted, noble Lords may of course ask whether this is the price which has to be paid for an arrangement which was provided by the 1978 Act.

The answer to that question, my Lords, is twofold. First, as I have said, European Parliament constituencies are formed from whole Westminster constituencies. Logic therefore seems to us to demand that the review of European constituencies—which in practice has been shown to be consequential to and not simultaneous with the review of Westminster constituencies—should be based on the settled units of established Westminster constituencies.

I suggest that a great deal of possible trouble can be avoided if the two sets of reviews are conducted separately, one after the other. But the 1978 Act requires the commissions to build the proposed European Parliament constituencies from proposed Westminster constituencies and submit the two sets of proposals simultaneously. If the recommendations for Westminster constituency boundaries were altered, even slightly, during the course of the parliamentary proceedings, when the orders are being looked at in the House of Commons and in your Lordships' House, this in turn would invalidate a whole series of recommendations for the European boundaries. As the redrawing of one European Parliament boundary inevittably affects its neighbours, there might have to be a wholesale revision of the original recommendations for European Parliament constituencies. It seems far more sensible for the two sets of boundary reviews to be conducted separately one after the other. The two processes are independent in practice and, if this Bill meets your Lordships' approval, will be independent and separate in law.

My Lords, the second reason why the new procedure in this Bill is more appropriate is because of the gross and well-known disparities which presently exist between the electorates of different Westminster parliamentary constituencies. I should like to illustrate that briefly by reference to the office of Population Censuses and Surveys Monitor, EL 80/2, published on 20th May 1980, a copy of which is in the Library of the House. This monitor indicates that in England alone there are 11 constituencies with more than 100,000 electors, while, at the other end of the scale, there are 14 constituencies with fewer than 40,000 electors. There are also—if I may put it another way—in England alone 58 constituencies where the number of electors on the register exceeds the electoral quota—the average number of electors per constituency—by more than 30 per cent. At the other end of the scale, there are 38 constituencies in England in which the number of electors on the register is more than 30 per cent. below the electoral quota. In 14 of these it is more than 40 per cent. below; and, in five, the electorate is less than half the electoral quota.

These discrepancies have arisen out of perfectly natural movements of population. But their consequences are most detrimental to the principle of fairness and equality of representation. In order to ensure some continuity of representation, the boundary reviews are only implemented at lengthy intervals. But I put it to your Lordships that, in the interests of democracy and fairness, it is not right to extend the time which is taken for constituencies to be reviewed. Our objection to the 1978 Act, which was introduced, incidentally, after the Parliamentary Boundary Commission for England had given notice of their intention to review constituencies in England, is that it was bound to lengthen the whole procedure without any obvious gain.

So far as parliamentary constituencies are concerned, this Bill reverts to the procedures which existed before the 1978 Act. The substantive provisions of our Bill are contained in subsections (1), (2) and (3) of Clause 1. Having removed certain spent provisions relating to the initial truncated procedure for dividing Great Britain into European Parliament constituencies, which only refer to the 1979 election, these substitute a requirement that once an Order in Council has been made under the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949, following a review of Westminster constituencies, the appropriate Parliamentary Boundary Commission will thereupon review the European Parliament constituencies and, as soon as may be, submit recommendations on those to the Secretary of State. We believe that this procedure, taking the reviews one after the other, provides a firm base on which the commissions may do their work.

When the Government began to consider this matter, I think the House will wish to know, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary sought the views of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission for England. The deputy chairman told us that the separation of the two procedures for Westminster and European boundaries proposed in this Bill would be very welcome to members of his commission.

I believe that it is widely recognised in this House and elsewhere that the Boundary Commissions have an extremely difficult task. I think that it will be widely agreed also that the Parliamentary Boundary Commissions in the past have carried out their remit with skill and judgment. I have no doubt that they will continue to do so. The purpose of this Bill is to assist them in their task, by relieving them of a cumbersome and unnecessary procedure. The Bill, if enacted, will also help to ensure that the implementation of the Parliamentary Boundary Commissions' reports into constituencies in Great Britain are not unduly delayed, and that the effectiveness of their reports is not undermined by the passage of time. I beg to move this Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Belstead.)

7.18 p.m.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has, as is always customary from him, explained this Bill in a very clear and fair way. I want to make it quite clear on behalf of these Benches that we accept that the other place has passed a principle and therefore we accept that situation. Having said that, there are a number of points which we wish to put forward and we hope that we shall get the Government's view on them.

When the 1978 European Assembly Elections Bill was before Parliament, it had at that time the full support of the then Conservative Opposition. Their spokesman on that occasion was none other than Mr. William Whitelaw, the present Home Secretary, who introduced this present Bill in the other place. Schedule 2 to the 1978 Act is quite clear in setting out that in future when a Boundary Commission for any part of Great Britain submitted a report containing recommendations for the United Kingdom parliamentary constituencies, it would be accompanied by a supplementary report with regard to the European Assembly constituencies. The question must be asked: Why has the Conservative Party changed its view on that provision? So far as I can see from reading the Official Report of the debates, that met with no criticism whatever when it was introduced in 1978. It seemed to be accepted on all sides that it was sensible to submit reports for both United Kingdom parliamentary and European Assembly constituencies at the same time.

During 1980 the Government were pressed repeatedly about the progress of the work of the Parliamentary Boundary Commissions. There appeared to be satisfaction expressed by Government Ministers that the commissions would meet the target. As far back as 27th March, 1980, a Home Office Minister stated in another place that he could well understand and appreciate the view that it is perhaps an unnecessary requirement for reports on both the United Kingdom and European reviews to be submitted together. Later on it was stated that the Government were giving consideration to a possible change. That was 27th March, 1980, and subsequently.

Two years after the passing of the 1978 Act the Government consider that a change is desirable. We must ask why. Also, why did the Government vacillate for eight months from March—when the question was raised with them, they said they were looking into the matter—before introducing this Bill? Yet they now plead that there is some urgency, as without this Bill the Boundary Commission for the parliamentary constituencies might not otherwise be able to keep to the targets they wish to keep to in the light of the next general election.

On 2nd December 1980 in another place on Second Reading the Home Secretary said that this present Bill would provide a more logical and acceptable basis for the future work of the commissions. He also referred to the provision that both sets of recommendations had to be submitted together as an impediment which had been introduced, as he said at col. 427, quite unnecessarily and unjustifiably in my view". But that is not what the right honourable gentleman said when the Bill was introduced into Parliament in 1978. He now says it is, in his view, an impediment introduced unnecessarily and unjustifiably; yet in 1978 the European Assembly Elections Bill was accepted apparently with very little criticism, and certainly not along those lines. What was considered to be satisfactory two years previously is now said to be illogical and unacceptable. Naturally I must ask why.

We all knew there were going to be disparities. There were disparities in the United Kingdom parliamentary constituencies. One must pose the question, although I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, will wish to comment on it, but there must be some feeling about the disparities in electorates because they have to be straightened out. I wonder whether the enthusiasm for separating the two reviews, rather than keeping them together, as was regarded as essential two years ago, has something to do with estimates made by various political commentators as to the gain in seats there might be for the Conservative Party as a result of redistribution.

At what stage did the Government decide that the uncoupling of the United Kingdom and European reports was necessary? Why, apart from the point mentioned, did they consider it to be necessary? In the same speech to which I have referred, Mr. William Whitelaw said on 3rd December in another place at col. 428: Such a procedure could only be justified if it were thought that there was an overwhelming need to interlink recommendations made for parliamentary and European Parliament constituencies so that the boundaries were … coterminous". He said there was no such need. I repeat: that was not what was said when the 1978 Bill was introduced. In fact the 1978 Act provides that no parliamentary constituency shall be spread over more than one European constituency, and, so far as I can see, that criterion is not changed by the Bill now before us. Therefore, it is still desirable that the boundaries of European and parliamentary constituencies should be coterminous, except that I understand that the 1978 Bill provided that the constituencies used for the first election could be used at the next election, a long as the provision was not superseded by Orders in Council.

The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, has said that the parliamentary constituencies are the blocks on which the European constituencies are built. If this Bill is approved, there will be instance where the proposed new parliamentary constituencies will have parts in more than one European constituency. Therefore there will be cases where the criteria laid down in the 1978 European Assembly Elections Act will be breached. In effect the Government are proposing that the Boundaries Commissions shall make the best of it so far as the European constituencies are concerned.

It would seem that the Government do not envisage any review of the present European constituencies in time for the next European elections. Thus the existing European constituencies may continue until the subsequent European elections in 1989, even though some of the boundaries will not be coterminous with those of the new parliamentary boundaries. Some of the electorates will show a disparity as well by that time. I must ask the noble Lord: why should the composition of European constituencies not have the same considerations of fairness and equity as we all say there should be for United Kingdom parliamentary constituencies?

When the 1978 European Assembly Elections Bill was before Parliament, there was widespread agreement that the first direct elections in Great Britain should be on single-member constituencies, with voting on the basis of first past the post. I must ask: has the Government's readiness to leave the European constituencies as they are, with any disparities there may be, anything to do with the fact that the Government may be envisaging changes in the European constituencies before the next European elections? If so, they must make a very clear statement on that.

On this side of the House, few of my noble friends wanted direct elections. We were content with the nominated delegations, which kept a close relationship between Parliament and those who were going to the European Assembly. But Parliament accepted direct elections with large constituencies and with voting on the basis of "first past the post". If the Government are envisaging any change in European elections, I think we must be told in good time so that the issue can be debated in this House.

In view of my previous work, I fully appreciate the work that has to be done by the parliamentary commissions: in fact I had the pleasure of meeting various commissions on various occasions. I understand their work and fully appreciate that the work of the commission for England was brought to a halt in consequence of legal proceedings taken by the Enfield London Borough Council arising from what they thought were wrongful procedures on the part of the Local Government Boundary Commission. Therefore, we ought to be able to see exactly how that was effected.

I understand that the English commission gave notice of its intention to start its review in 1976 and it stated that it would be able to report in 1979. I fully recognise, as I say, that the work of this commission was held up by these legal proceedings and I understand it was held up for some months; but that surely does not explain why we now have to wait until 1982 before getting the final reports of the Boundary Commission. That is a deferment of far more than just a few months because of the dislocation due to legal proceedings: it seems to be nearer a couple of years.

Does this mean that the English commission has already put on one side any consideration of any provisional review of European constituencies, even before the passing of this Act by Parliament? No one has suggested, I gather, that the 1984 date-line could not be reached, and the general election for the United Kingdom Parliament does not have to be until somewhere around May 1984—naturally we would like to see it as soon as we could have it, for obvious reasons, but it need not be—and the European elections about June 1984. The noble Lord has said quite definitely that if the procedure under the 1978 Bill has to be followed it could delay the final report to Parliament by some 12 months. That would still get it in time for a possible general election in 1984.

We regard the Bill as unsatisfactory on two grounds. First, it cannot possibly be said that what was generally agreed two years previously to be right and correct has now been found to be illogical and has to be put on one side. Secondly, it is highly desirable that the European constituencies should be considered as seriously by Parliament as we should want to consider the United Kingdom constituencies; but that does not seem to be the case. We should like to see the reviews conducted so that we can have revised constituencies for both the European constituencies and the United Kingdom Parliament. As I say, as the other place has agreed on the principle of the Bill we obviously shall not oppose it, but there are these important questions we should like the Government to answer.

7.30 p.m.

Lord Banks

My Lords, I should like to join the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, in thanking the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, for his very clear explanation of the contents of this Bill. It is called the European Assembly Elections Bill, yet it is not intended to have an effect on the 1984 European parliamentary elections. But it would make it easier for the Conservatives to win the next election for the Westminster Parliament. The Bill detaches the review of European constituencies, as the noble Lord explained, so that the Boundary Commissions can conclude their Westminster reviews and present them separately.

The Government want the next Westminster elections to be fought on the new boundaries, which it is generally reckoned will give them around 15 to 20 seats on past patterns of voting; and they want to be able to hold a general election on a date which suits them, probably in the last 15 months of this Parliament. One can well understand that they would not be unhappy to see the boundary changes for Westminster completed early. If this Parliament goes its full term—and the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, has underlined this—the new Westminster boundaries will be in force under the existing legislation and the discrepancies, to which the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, referred, will have been removed.

The advantage which this Bill gives the Government is early dissolution on new boundaries. The ability to seek a dissolution of Parliament at any time, gives very great tactical advantage to the Prime Minister, whose power is thus considerably increased. My party are of the opinion that it is unhealthy for the Prime Minister to have such power, and that is one of the reasons why we have been in favour of fixed-term Parliaments. It is bound to be extremely inconvenient to have European and Westminster constituencies out of phase—and, again, the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, raised that point—and it must cause problems for electoral registration officers, party organisations and candidates.

Under the change proposed in the Bill, it appears that the European review need not be completed in time for 1984, as the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, said. Perhaps the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, can give us an assurance on this point when he comes to reply. I am sure he agrees that it would be absurd to have Members of the European Parliament having to work in the late 1980s to boundaries that were last used nationally in 1979 and based on pre-1974 local government boundaries. This Bill, by keeping alive a procedure for new single-Member Euro-constituencies seems to assume that the present electoral system will continue, and on that point I put a different interpretation from that put forward by the noble Lord, Lord Underhill.

We on these Benches object to a European Assembly Elections Bill at this time, which completely ignores the commitment entered into by all the member countries that the next elections to the European Assembly should be by a uniform system throughout the Community. The single-Member Euro-constituency was a temporary expedient. In 1977, the Conservative Party accepted that there would be a uniform system for the second time round. Further, Mr. Douglas Hurd, now Minister of State at the Foreign Office, appeared to assume that the uniform system would be proportional, because he argued against the regional list system of proportional representation—which was put forward by the Labour Government—for the first round, because he said that we would simply have to change again to another proportional system, which might well be different, the second time round.

So the first-past-the-post system was kept for the first round, and we all know the appallingly unrepresentative result to which that gave rise, as many of us said, again and again, that it would. The Conservative Party got 77 per cent. of the seats, but only 50 per cent. of the votes; the Labour Party got 22 per cent. of the seats and 33 per cent. of the votes, while the Liberal Party got no seats, but 13 per cent. of the votes. Mr. Brittan, the Minister of State at the Home Office, speaking for the Government in another place on 3rd December 1980 said: We are in favour of a uniform system".—[Official Report, Commons; col. 534.] and I welcome that, as far as it goes. It is, of course, for the European Parliament to put proposals for a uniform system to the Council of Ministers. If one of the recommendations is that the uniform system shall be proportional, will the Government accept that? Are they prepared to accept the principle of a proportional system for Europe?

I very much hope, having seen the distorted representation which the United Kingdom secured in the European Parliament in 1979, that the Government will not be content with a purely passive role in this matter, but will actively seek to promote a uniform system on a proportional basis. Would it not be right to make clear in this Bill that, in so far as the provisions in this Bill affect the review of constituencies in the European Parliament, these provisions shall be in force only up to the introduction of a uniform system, when new procedures will be required? We on these Benches do not like this Bill, because we see it as conferring a tactical advantage upon the present Government, because we think it would cause problems for all concerned with European elections and because we consider that it appears to assume the continuation of a discredited electoral system.

Viscount Barrington

My Lords, before the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, answers, I do not know whether it is worthwhile putting it on record, as the subject of proportional representation has been raised, that the number of Members on the Conservative side, the number of Members on the Labour side and the number on the Liberal side are exactly equal at the moment. That is a rare occasion.

7.37 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lords who have spoken on this Bill, even though not giving it a welcome from both Benches which have been represented in this debate. None the less, it has been a interesting debate, and the noble Viscount, Lord Barrington, has added to our debate as well.

When I introduced the Second Reading, I ventured to say that this is a short and straight forward Bill. It seeks to relieve the Boundary Commissions of the duty which was laid upon them by the 1978 European Assembly Elections Act, of having to review the boundaries in both European constituencies and Westminster constituencies simultaneously. The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked me why it was that the Government had decided now that the Bill was necessary, and not at some previous date. One of the reasons why the Bill brings forward its provisions now is that the requirements of the 1978 Act place a burden upon the Boundary Commissions, which it is fair to say was not foreseen. If I may illustrate what I mean by that, the Parliamentary Boundary Commission for England gave statutory notice of its intention to review constituencies in England before the 1978 Act was ever introduced. Thus the time scale which that particular Boundary Commission had allowed to enable its review to be completed, within the 15-year maximum time limit, had been calculated before it was realised that the 1978 Act would place an additional duty upon the Boundary Commissions to review simultaneously the European constituency boundaries. The noble Lord also asked me when it had become clear to the Government that we ought to uncouple the two sets of reviews.

I think it follows on from what I have just said that this became increasingly clear, certainly since the present Government came into office. Indeed, I said during my initial remarks that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary had communicated with the deputy chairman of the English commission to ask at one time whether what was being proposed in this Bill would be welcome to the Members of this commission and received a reply in the affirmative.

However, as time went on over the last 18 months what became increasingly clear was that a period of time has to elapse after the Commissions have completed their work. After they have completed their work, first the Secretary of State has to consider the commissions' reports; then the relevant Secretaries of State have to lay the necessary orders; then Parliament has to decide upon those orders. If those orders are approved by Parliament—nobody will understand this better than the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, with his very long experience of administration in politics—new constituency organisations will then have to be formed, with all the work which goes into that. The need to see that these procedures are carried out fairly—I say that because they are procedures which affect all political parties—is accentuated by the gross disparities which have become evident between constituencies. I shall not repeat what I said on this in my opening remarks.

Both noble Lords who have spoken from the respective Front Benches suggested that in order to rectify these discrepancies and in order to apply the rules for the redistribution of seats, which are set out in Schedule 2 to the 1949 Act, some advantage will accrue to the Conservative Party. Only the voters can answer that particular allegation. The noble Lord, Lord Banks, as I know from the speeches which I hear the noble Lord make in Parliament, is as firmly a supporter as anyone of the principles and practice of parliamentary democracy. I am sure the noble Lord would agree with me that anybody who believes in parliamentary democracy would not wish to see the next general election contested on the present boundaries.

But the Bill has a further and very different advantage to which I referred initially and to which, very briefly, I will refer again because it arises from a matter which the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, put to me. When the 1978 Act was going through Parliament, Schedule 2, which required the reviews to be conducted simultaneously for both the Westminster Parliament and the European constituencies, was not debated at all in the other place because it was guillotined. Indeed, in your Lordships' House amendments were not made because time was very pressing. It is arguable that time was pressing because of the policies and steps which had been followed by the Government of the time. In his speech the noble Lord said to me: Why, when the Bill came before another place, did not my right honourable friend, the present Home Secretary, then oppose Schedule 2? I think I have given the answer. There simply was no possibility of doing so because the matter did not arise in Committee in another place; it was guillotined.

Lord Underhill

My Lords, that may be acceptable, but it was not criticised or opposed by the noble Lord's right honourable friend during the Second Reading debate.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, that is a perfectly fair point, but it is also fair for me to say that I think I am right in saying that my right honourable friend at no stage said that he thought it was a good idea. The reason why neither my right honourable friend nor, indeed, anybody else at that time could see very much further than that was because it was only later, when events began to unfold, that we began to realise the effects which the 1978 Act was having upon the work of the boundary commissions.

No real thought at that time therefore was given to the problem with which this Bill is designed to deal. The probability is that the requirement for simultaneous reviews would make it necessary for the boundary commissions to make premature disclosure of final recommendations for parliamentary boundaries if they are to be able to have the time to bring forward recommendations for European constituencies, which have then to be submitted to the Secretaries of State simultaneously with the Westminster constituencies. But when the simultaneous recommendations came to be made, as they would have to be made as the law stands at the moment, if Parliament were to reject any of the recommendations for the parliamentary constituencies and those recommendations therefore had to be modified, that in turn—I know I am repeating a point which I have already made—would throw into confusion the recommendations for European constituencies.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, chided the Government for not taking the drawing of the European constituencies with the same seriousness as the drawing of the parliamentary constituencies. With respect, I think that is a little less than fair. The danger to which I have just referred and, indeed, the previous danger to which I have referred—which is hurrying the commission's work on and making them put in premature recommendations—will be averted by the Bill. That is why I think that the two processes of review should be separate. And they will be if the Bill becomes law.

The noble Lord, Lord Underhill, asked me about the period of time when the boundaries of the parliamentary constituencies will be redrawn but the boundaries of the European constituencies will not be redrawn. Paragraph 8(2) of Schedule 2 to the 1978 Act provides for precisely this. It provides that the existing boundaries can be used until new European Parliament boundaries are determined, even though the parliamentary constituencies have been changed. I am not suggesting for one moment that this is going to be a desirable situation, but I believe that the period of time when the European boundaries have not been changed in line with the Westminster boundaries is going to be comparatively short.

The noble Lord asked me, in essence, whether the European Assembly constituencies review is going to be completed in time for the 1984 elections. May I simply repeat the remark which was made by my honourable friend the Minister of State in another place on the Third Reading of the Bill that I have no advice to the contrary.

The noble Lord, Lord Banks, asked me for an assurance that the European Assembly constituency boundaries would not still be being redrawn in the late 1980s. I can answer that question simply by asking the noble Lord to glance at the Bill, where we find the words: … that the work of reviewing the European boundaries shall be proceeded with as soon as may be after the Parliamentary Boundaries Order is approved by Parliament". As I have just said to the noble Lord, Lord Underhill, the period which the review of the European boundaries will occupy should not be overlong. I am advised that it will probably be in the region of, roughly, 15 to 20 months. I say that without any prejudice to the work which the commissions are doing, which is a matter for them. However, I understand that the bulk of the preparatory work for the European constituencies can be set in hand as soon as the commissions' reports on the parliamentary constituencies are ready.

Finally, the noble Lord, Lord Banks, asked me this: if the proportional representation system recommendation were to be made by the European Parliament, would it be accepted by Her Majesty's Government? The United Kingdom Government await any proposals which the European Parliament might put to the Council of Ministers on the matter and in considering such proposals we shall consult opinion in Parliament and in the country. If any change in our arrangements for electing representatives to the European Parliament seems appropriate, substantive primary legislation will of course be required.

This Bill is not designed to be a general measure of electoral reform. It is short and it is simple. By returning to the system which existed before the 1978 Act, this Bill will enable the Boundary Commissions to complete their work, which should be welcomed by all who believe in the fairness of parliamentary representation.

On Question, Bill read 2a and committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Viscount Long

My Lords, I beg to move that this House do now adjourn during pleasure until eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended front 7.49 until 8 p.m.]