Skip to main content

Commons Chamber

Volume 930: debated on Wednesday 20 April 1977

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

House Of Commons

Wednesday 20th April 1977

The House met at half-past Two o'clock


[Mr. SPEAKER in the Chair]

Oral Answers To Questions


Rating System


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans he now has for reforming the rating system.

The improvement of the rating system is one of the matters that I am considering in the light of the report of the Layfield Committee of Inquiry into Local Government Finance. The Government's conclusions will be announced in due course.

Does the Secretary of State agree that, given our continuing high rate of inflation and the considerable redistribution of income that has been brought about in recent years, the time is now right to move to a system that is more geared to people's ability to pay?

I am very much aware of the criticisms that have been made in all parts of the House about the domestic rating system. If I understood the hon. Member's remark correctly, this matter was very exhaustively considered in the Layfield Report, and the conclusions drawn by Layfield were that, whatever changes were made, the domestic rating system could not be, as it were, abolished. That view is shared by people throughout the country, except Members on the Opposition Front Bench.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the reform of local government finance should have taken place before the reform of boundaries? Does he feel that the time is now opportune to give back to the towns and cities the powers that they lost as a result of the reorganisation?

My hon. Friend raised a very important question, but it is separate from the question of the reform of local government finance. The question of the structure of local government and the distribution of powers between the two tiers is one that should have, and deserves to have, continued study.

Is the Secretary of State aware that the present rating system is causing tremendous hardship to a large proportion of ratepayers—particularly elderly persons—and to small businesses? We seem to have been discussing reform for a long time. Will he expedite some proposals and let us know when he is coming forward with them?

I hope to report to the House in the next few weeks the conclusions that the Government have reached. Then the House will have ample time to discuss what we are proposing. However, I must point out that, in spite of the harshness with which the rates bear on people, it is true that about one-third of the ratepayers—certainly very many retired people—are in receipt of rate rebates, which are a great help.

It is right that we should take time to get the rating system right, but does my right hon. Friend agree that there are some grievous anomalies in the way in which the rate support grant works? Has my right hon. Friend reviewed the working of the rate support grant this year, and can he offer help to counties like Cambridgeshire, which suffered badly in the last round?

Always, under any system, there are anomalies. To some extent these result from the unpredictable effects of the particular rate support grant formula adopted. We are now considering the proper formula for 1978–79 and I am trying to take account of the many difficulties and criticisms that have been expressed in all parts of the House during the last 12 months.

Derelict Land


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will order an inquiry into vacant or derelict land held by local authorities.

I could not justify asking authorities to carry out such a costly inquiry at this stage.

Is it not in the interests of the inner cities that rehabilitation of such spoiled sites should be developed first rather than that we should follow the deplorable advice contained in the circular to local authorities on the Community Land Act just before Christmas? This advice encouraged the taking of more green field sites and the losing of more good agricultural land.

I agree that it is very much in the interests of inner cities that local authorities should deal with spoiled sites, and the Government are always encouraging them to do just that under the provisions of the Community Land Act. I would not interpret the advice given about the Community Land Act in the circular as encouraging local authorities to use green field sites. We have encouraged them, when they acquire land under the Act, to do so only in circumstances in which it can be quickly and reasonably disposed of.

Does my hon. Friend agree that there should be an inquiry into the location of areas such as used quarries and mines, which can receive waste from derelict sites? There is an urgent need to locate these areas.

I shall bear that point in mind, but it is primarily a matter for the county authorities.

Is the Minister aware of the concern that has been expressed about the loss of agricultural land by reason of its use for non-agricultural purposes? Will he assure the House that the Government see it as a priority that derelict sites should be used first for industrial purposes, rather than that good agricultural land should be used?

I take the point. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the White Paper "Food from Our Own Resources" deals with that precise point.

Is the Minister aware that his first reply was most unsatisfactory because in Liverpool, for example, 800 acres of land are in public ownership and cannot be used for the purposes originally specified, and that Manchester has some 230 acres and Newcastle 150 acres as the start of a catalogue of land in that category? Is it not a fact that this information should be collated and also that authorities should be encouraged to dispose of unused assets at residual value to ensure needed development and the release of capital from such resources which could be brought back into the public kitty?

I shall not attempt to deal with the hon. Gentleman's catalogue of complaints. He may believe that it is desirable to collate this information. I certainly agree that there is a need to deal with land holdings. Local authorities have had some difficulty, because in some cases, as a result of reorganisation, they have inherited inadequate records. We have encouraged them to get ahead with that task as far as possible, but on the question of collating information I must tell the hon. Gentleman that we are unwilling to put local authorities to considerable expense. I recognise the importance of derelict sites in inner cities, and we shall address ourselves to that subject in a White Paper, which will shortly be published. Indeed, this matter was also one of the subjects of my right hon. Friend's recent statement.

Essex County Council (Expenditure And Rates)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will discuss with the Essex County Council the effect of Government policies on local government expenditure and rates.

I am aware of the problems facing the county as a result of discussions at official level. However, decisions about priorities for expenditure are for the county council to take.

Is the Minister aware that, apart from a continuing sense of grievance by many at being penalised for heeding the Government's call for economies last year, there is a strong feeling that not enough account has been taken of the problems created by an expanding population, and one that is still expanding? Will he assure the House that these factors will be taken into account in considering the formula for next year's settlement?

I do not agree with the hon. Gentleman that Essex has been penalised in this respect. This matter has nothing to do with the assessment of the rate support grant needs element; it is a question of the degree to which authorities keep within certain guidelines. It has a great deal to do with the assessment of spending need rather than with the question of spending alone. We shall take into account any points that the hon. Gentleman or the county wishes to raise. There is little evidence to suggest that the growing population and its needs necessarily implies a requirement to spend more per head of population. That, perhaps, is one reason why Essex may feel a sense of grievance.

Will my hon. Friend make it clear that the Labour Government do not support all the vicious cuts imposed by the Essex County Council, particularly in education, where capitation allowances, the heating of swimming pools and the staffing in schools examinations, fees, and all the rest of it have suffered? Is he aware that the Labour group of the Essex County Council has been voted down in efforts to try to maintain some of these services for the public?

It would be wrong of me to comment on the points that my hon. Friend has rightly put to the House—[Interruption.] It is right that the electors in Essex should make their comments in the elections.

Inner City Development (London)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a further statement on his plans for inner city development in London.


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what further plans he has for new development in dockland; and if he will make a statement.


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a further statement on his plans for inner city development in London.

Following my statement on 6th April, I shall be consulting the GLC, the Docklands Joint Committee and other authorities concerned in London with a view to setting up partnership arrangements as early as possible.

I welcome part of that statement by the Minister, but will he clarify further his philosophy? Does he agree that relief in inner areas of excessively bad housing and multiple deprivation should not be given at the expense of outer urban areas and areas that, in total numbers of units, are above average in terms of bad housing in any case?

Because of the unity of London as a housing area and because the area faces great housing problems, we made the whole of London a housing stress area so that we should not interfere with London's building programme. However, there are in London an enormous variety of conditions. In particular inner areas we have identified multiple problems of a kind familiar to most hon. Members who know these areas well. They require special arrangements, and we hope that much good will arise from partnership agreements.

To relieve the housing shortage in inner London areas, what action does the Minister intend to take to put pressure on the Greater London Council to build a substantial quantity of new housing in dockland, which, so far, it has dismally failed to do?

I am amazed that the hon. Gentleman should make those comments. There are substantial proposals for house building in the dockland areas, and I am glad to say that some are now going forward. The GLC, as a strategic housing authority, has tried to deal with the needs of London as a whole. It is right that the commuter boroughs as well as the inner boroughs should make arrangements to help deal with London's pressing housing problems.

Is my hon. Friend aware that, despite what has been said by the hon. Member for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), the Dockland Joint Committee has said that over 1,000 houses are now being built in the dockland statutory area? What proportion of the allocation announced before the recess will be available to dockland?

I cannot give an answer on the second part of my hon. Friend's question, but I hope to be able to make the allocation plain in the White Paper—not only dockland's share of the additional expenditure of £83 million announced by my hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer in the Budget, but also the share of other partnership areas. We may be able to indicate also the allocations among the different partnership areas in the longer-term programme, to which my statement of 6th April was directed. I endorse what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) about the number of houses that have already been built in dockland by local authorities. There is evidence of considerable encouragement in terms of progress made.

Will the Minister turn his attention to the subject of unemployment in inner London? May I ask whether he is aware that in the borough of Lambeth more than 11,000 people were unemployed in October last year—an increase of 44 per cent. compared to the same month of the previous year? Of this total, 681 comprised young persons, and of these does he not appreciate that over half are school leavers who left school some five months before? What are the right hon. Gentleman's plans to remedy the situation?

I am sure that the House will welcome the expression of concern about unemployment in the inner areas. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, Lambeth is one of the areas that we have identified for partnership arrangements. I can conclude from what the hon. Gentleman has said that my proposals are welcome to him and to the borough of Lambeth.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the necessity of trying to get the building societies to co-operate in the regeneration of inner areas such as Lambeth? Is he aware, for example, that the building societies have refused a staggering 59 per cent. of council nominees in Lambeth compared with much lower figures in outer areas?

I am sure that the societies have an important part to play in helping the revival of the inner areas. As my hon. Friend will know, we are now commencing the new arrangements with the building societies—they having begun in April of this year—under which sums of building society replacement lending moneys have been allocated to the major local authorities. It is my intention to watch closely how the arrangements work out.

Will the right hon. Gentleman postpone his discussions on partnership plans until after 5th May, as he may find that any deals that he does with a dying administration may turn out in the end to be just as bad as the Lib-Lab deal that is keeping him in power at the moment?

I wondered when the imminence of the county council elections would be reflected in contributions from the Opposition Front Bench. Although I am not an avid student of Conservative Party literature, I have on the whole been rather encouraged by the expressions of concern for the inner areas, including the partnership areas, that have come from the Opposition benches in County Hall. I hope that I may proceed in the knowledge that whatever I do will have the full backing of all the parties concerned.



asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will visit Camden for the purpose of discussing local government expenditure.

He has at present no plans to do so.

When the right hon. Gentleman or his ministerial colleagues visit the People's Republic of Camden, will they tell the local authority that to build 42 houses at a cost rent of £160 each per week is financial lunacy and of no help to the ratepayers or taxpayers?

I have no doubt that the hon. Gentleman and his predecessors, with their long association with the authority, have made their views well known. As for high costs generally, and without particular reference to the scheme that the hon. Gentleman probably has in mind, it must be fairly stated that there are special problems in Camden and a number of other inner city areas. There are special problems involving the high cost of land and the high cost of servicing land. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman and the House—I have made this clear to Camden and other authorities—that we shall be closely watching the unit cost of housing construction, housing conversions and modernisations. These matters must be treated with fairness. We need the dwellings that are provided. In some areas costs are much higher than those elsewhere.

It is difficult in Question Time to give a list, chapter and verse, of all the contacts that exist between my officials and myself and local authorities with special problems of high costs. If the hon. Gentleman has a particular problem in mind, I can assure him that he may unburden himself to me either by Question or by letter.

Empty Houses (Public Authorities)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will institute an inquiry to determine the extent to which rented housing owned by Government Departments, nationalised industries, public authorities and local authorities is standing empty and is likely to remain empty for more than a matter of weeks.

I do not think that a survey of one sector would be appropriate. I am commissioning a sample survey of vacant dwellings to be undertaken later this year. This will look at causes and at the length of time dwellings remain empty.

In view of the scarcity of available resources, does the right hon. Gentleman accept that it would be desirable to offer on advantageous terms to first-time house buyers properties that are not occupied but under some degree of public ownership, that being a better use of resources and of advantage to those who wish to purchase their own homes?

No, I do not accept that as a general proposition. Much more importantly, I wish to see local authorities and housing associations that are involved in the purchasing of properties on the market and in acquisition programmes seeking to implement their programmes of modernisation and improvement more rapidly and economically—I know, for example, that many local authorities are doing so—so that the dwellings may be more quickly occupied. In that general context there may be particular situations in which dwellings can be made available to first-time buyers or other buyers down-market. I wish to encourage local authorities along those lines, and a number of them are so acting. I visited Newcastle quite recently. The authority there is one of those which are taking precisely that course. Other authorities are doing so as well.

Will my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that the random sample will include houses bought up by his own Department in anticipation of the building of motorways that are subsequently cancelled? Will he consider giving instructions to those responsible in his Department that in such circumstances they should not automatically vandalise the properties at the start of these exercises but should make them safe, in case there is a change of mind later?

The sample to which I have referred will cover all sorts of property—for example, Government-owned property, local authority-owned property and privately-owned property. I do not accept that it is the policy of my Department, or possibly the Department of Transport—in earlier times part of the Department of the Environment—to vandalise properties that have been purchased ahead of proposed road schemes. If my hon. Friend has a particular problem in mind I shall look into it if he cares to put it to me, or I shall ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport to do so. It is the policy and practice of Government Departments to make properties that are the subject of deferred demolition available to local authorities and others for occupation as rapidly as possible. I look into complaints as much as I possibly can.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give the House an assurance that the survey will take place in midwinter? If it does not take place at that time the scandal of second homes and summer lets in Cornwall will not be shown up.

I cannot undertake that the survey will be pursued in the midwinter. Although I recognise that there are local problems in some parts of the country, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman's point is entirely relevant to empty properties. Whatever our views may be about second homes in various parts of the country, second homes are available for occupation by the owners or by tenants to whom the owners may wish to let.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that 18 months ago in reply to me he said that he hoped to have information on this situation? Why does it take so long for the Department to obtain adequate information on a problem that everyone else has been aware of for a long time? Why does the right hon. Gentleman's Department seem to be the last in the line to react to a situation that has been of concern to so many people for such a long time?

I do not know to which Question the hon. Gentleman refers but I am aware that we undertake an annual relet survey of local authority properties and receive sample information. That information is statistical and does not give the reasons, which is what the survey that I have announced will do. The returns from the relet survey provide basic information. They do not provide the reasons, but make known the existence of unlet properties. The unlet property in the local authority sector is proportionally much smaller than in the private sector.

Urban Problems


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement explaining the criteria by which Government funds are available for combating urban malaise.


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what is the Government's policy towards alleviating urban problems in major conurbations.

We are proposing to give a large measure of priority in the next few years to the regeneration of the inner areas of the major cities. Other cities and towns will have access to urban grants, I hope on an increasing scale, in later years. It is our intention to offer partnerships to five areas initially. We will consider proposals from other authorities with major inner area problems.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that references to the question of criteria seem to have been missed out in the answer? Is he aware that community development requires community involvement? Will the right hon. Gentleman make one criterion for specific spending plans the involvement and participation of the local community?

I am very much in favour of community involvement, but how, in each case, the community, in all its many different forms of activity and representation, can best be drawn in depends upon the discussions that we have with the partnership authorities. The particular arrangements must depend upon the views of community representation and our discussions. As for the answer not dealing with the criteria, I referred, of course, to areas that have a particular and special degree and scale of problem. It is to those areas that we are, as it were, giving our first attention. I think that the hon. Gentleman will recognise that in the areas that we have already identified there is a mixture of problems—high unemployment, rapid loss of population, an unbalanced residual population, and large-scale environmental dereliction all being present.

Is the Secretary of State aware that following the expectations raised by his speech at Bristol his recent statement to the House, though welcomed as a recognition of the problems, came as a disappointment to hon. Members on both sides of the House because of its many inadequacies? Will he tell us precisely when the White Paper will be published, in order that these matters may be debated in more detail?

This is a matter of subjective impression. I was not aware of the universal disappointment to which the hon. Gentleman referred, other than as expressed by him from the Opposition Front Bench. I welcome the Opposition's view that I am not spending enough on the problems of the inner areas. If they are to go on encouraging me to increase the resources available to help solve the problems of our inner areas, they will find me a most attentive listener and very easy to persuade.

I hope to publish the White Paper within the next few weeks.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the deep resentment felt in Newcastle upon Tyne at the exclusion of Newcastle from his inner city partnerships? Is he further aware that on any reasonable set of criteria Newcastle surely must come up to scratch compared with areas which were offered partnerships? Will he, as a matter of urgency, meet a deputation from the Newcastle City Council to talk to him about it and the possibility of including Newcastle in the partnership arrangements?

I am aware of the feelings in Newcastle and, indeed, other cities which have not so far been identified as partnership cities. I have not excluded Newcastle, because I have announced a provisional list. I assure my hon. Friend that I am willing to receive representatives of the Newcastle City Council to consider its case.

Is not the principal urban malaise in this question the fact that over 100,000 people are leaving London every year? Would it not be better to encourage industry to return to London than to encourage three of the London boroughs to persuade some of their residents to move to Crawley in my constituency, where there is an expanding population and the housing programme has been cut?

I am anxious to encourage appropriate industry to return to London and, in particular, to prevent the continued erosion and job loss in the central and inner areas of our capital city. Indeed, a number of the comments that I made in my statement were designed to bring that about.

Will the Secretary of State tell the Chancellor, whose deficit is £2½ billion less than we were told four months ago, that one vital way to help would be to restore the cuts in the amounts that local authorities can spend on buying and improving old houses and in the amounts that they can lend to would-be house purchasers who will not be comforted by building society mortgages?

I assure my hon. Friend that as and when additional resources come forward we shall consider very carefully the priorities for additional expenditure.

In view of the Secretary of State's jibe concerning public expenditure and the finding of resources to resuscitate inner city areas, may I ask why it is that, for the third or fourth time of asking, he has not answered the question that I have put to him previously, namely, the disposal of commercial and industrial properties in new towns in order to release public capital, which has done its job, for reinvestment in inner city areas?

The answer is perfectly simple. I am giving the hon. Gentleman the courtesy of actually considering what he said. It is one of a number of suggestions that are certainly worth study, and I am studying them. I am concerned to find resources to increase public expenditure in areas of greatest need. I welcome this new universal, across-the-Floor approach to the priorities of public expenditure.



asked the Secretary of State for the Environment for what purposes the Government are planning to make available extra resources to combat urban blight in Liverpool.


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he will make a statement on what special steps the Government plan to take to combat urban decline on Merseyside.

As my right hon. Friend announced on 6th April, the Government intend to offer a special partnership to the local authorities for Liverpool. This will involve the joint preparation of an inner area programme. Urban grants will be related to the new programmes and will extend to economic, environmental and social projects. Merseyside generally should benefit from the new priority given to inner areas in the main policies and programmes of Government and from steps taken to strengthen the economies of these areas.

Will the Minister tell the House what is the point of withdrawing many millions of pounds from Liverpool in the shape of improvement grants, home loans, urban aid programmes and community development projects and making such a song and dance about it now that he is returning a bit of it?

I believe that the hon. Gentleman made this point when my right hon. Friend made his statement. I do not recognise the figure that he then quoted or the many millions of pounds about which he talks now. House building in Liverpool has not been cut, Section 105 has not been cut, and virement is possible between different programmes at present. If the hon. Gentleman cares to write to me explaining the details that he has in mind, I shall look into them.

Is the Minister considering the representations of the metropolitan borough of Wirral about the serious problems of inner area deprivation in Birkenhead and Wallasey? Will he give them serious and sympathetic consideration? Will he also explain whether the comprehensive community programme will do anything to help the serious problems in Wirral?

I have not yet seen the representations made from that part of the country, but I shall look at them with great interest when they come. I shall certainly consider them sympathetically. I repeat what my right hon. Friend said about partnership arrangements. The money available has to be concentrated on areas of highest priority. That does not mean that the urban programme, which is being transferred from the Home Office to my Department, will not be made available to other authorities throughout the country. In fact, the money available is being enhanced. Furthermore, we shall want to see comprehensive community programmes more carefully worked out in allocating money from the urban programme.

Whilst in no way wishing to deprecate the problems of places such as Liverpool, may I ask my hon. Friend whether he accepts that other urban areas, such as Kirkby, have employment and housing problems which are just as serious? Following the visit of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction, will the Minister consider sympathetically and carefully the housing problems of Kirkby, which, although a matter for the local authority, cannot be solved without a massive injection of Government money?

I know that my right lion Friend the Minister for Housing and Construction is actively considering Kirkby's housing problems. The fact that the Government have identified the priorities of the partnership cities does not mean that they have ignored or neglected the problems of other areas. Large sums of money go to other authorities through normal programmes. We hope that the country generally and local authorities will begin to recognise, as the Government have, the priorities of inner city problems, including dereliction.

Will my hon. Friend indicate when there will be a meeting between his Department and the local authorities? Is he aware that among all intelligent people on Merseyside there is general support for and acceptance of what the Government are doing in relation to this matter, but that the policy must now be translated into action? Does my hon. Friend realise that the quicker a meeting is held between the Government and local authorities to work out plans and to get something done, the more that will be warmly welcomed on Merseyside?

Obviously, I cannot give a date for a meeting, but I can give the assurance that a meeting will be held as soon as possible. The Government recognise the degree of urgency to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention.

Is my hon. Friend aware of the obvious relationship between public building and unemployment among construction workers? Does he realise that 50 per cent. of the total of unemployed construction workers in the North-West Region are in the Merseyside and Liverpool travel-to-work area? In that sense, do the Government not feel the urgency of getting moving on this matter and of dealing with the dual problems of the housing stock and unemployment on Merseyside?

I accept the point readily. I know that my hon. Friend has made repeated representations in the House on this topic. Some of the money that the Chancellor of the Exchequer has made available for the construction industry will be made available in my hon. Friend's part of the world.

Urban Growth (Essex And Kent)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what plans Her Majesty's Government have for urban growth in South Essex and Kent as part of any dispersal of population from central London.

In South Essex Her Majesty's Government have a direct responsibility for the development programme for Basildon New Town which was not modified in the review that my right hon. Friend announced to the House on 5th April. The Government's more general view on the requirements of the South-East will appear in the response to the 1976 review of the Strategic Plan for the South-East, which we hope to issue later this year.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that The Guardian of 20th April reported that the South-East Joint Planning Team was recommending the continuance of no fewer than 11 growth areas in South-East England and that the provisional report on the South-East—as the Minister indicated—also advocated continued growth of green field sites? Would it not be better to develop areas such as dockland than green field sites that might be more useful for agriculture?

I have seen the report to which my hon. Friend referred. He will understand that I obviously cannot make any comment on that. Such comment as we shall make officially will be made in response to the review of the Strategic Plan for the South-East.

I think that my hon. Friend will accept that it would be wrong to assume that as a consequence of the change in the direction of the Government's policy there will be no development in green field sites. There will obviously need to be some such development, especially in view of the smaller size of households now. That is why there may need to be some green field development. But I accept my hon. Friend's general point.

While my hon. Friend is considering urban development in South Essex and the laudable plans to rejuvenate inner London, will he also consider the problems created in North-West Essex, particularly for the second generation in Harlow? Is he aware that the decision not to go ahead with expansion in Harlow threatens to create a severe shortage of homes for all those in need—particularly for the second generation—during the next 15 years?

I am well aware of the problems to which my hon. Friend has referred. I certainly undertake to consider those issues carefully.

Following the questions that have been put on this matter by hon. Gentlemen on the Government Benches, will the Minister consider whether it would be better if the Government took a fresh look at the development of London itself, particularly dockland? Could not dockland be part of the New Towns Commission, so that proper development could take place? Would that not relieve the extra burden at present placed on the new towns?

I cannot accept the suggestion that dockland should form part of the New Towns Commission, because so much of what needs to be done in inner city development is bound to involve programmes that are already the responsibility of local authorities and of central Government. That is the reason why, after much careful thought, it was decided that the right way to tackle inner city problems was primarily in co-operation with local authorities and by bringing together the programmes of the various Government Departments rather than through the kind of corporations to which the hon. Gentleman refers.

Rate Support Grant (Berkshire)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what has been the percentage increase in the rate support grant payable to Berkshire over the last three years.

Berkshire's entitlement to needs element under the main RSG Orders for 1975–76 and 1976–77 showed increases of 35 per cent. and 19 per cent., respectively, over the corresponding payments for the preceding year. The initial entitlement for 1977–78 shows a reduction of 3 per cent. from the 1976–77 total.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that this is a cut of £5 million in the grant aid to Berkshire? Is it not crazy that my constituency of Reading should be made a housing stress area while, at the same time, the grant is cut so that we cannot provide the facilities needed—particularly in areas of high-rise flats and housing stress?

We do recognise the problems of Reading but, as I think the hon. Gentleman recognises, Reading is only a part of Berkshire. The assessment of the needs element covers the county as a whole. Out of that grant and out of the assessment of need—which, of course, includes the specific problems of Reading—one hopes that Berkshire will see that the resources are diverted to where they are most needed.

Has the hon. Gentleman given any thought to allocating certain sums out of the rate support grant for special categories of expenditure?

Some thought is being given to the topic of specific grants but I am not in a position to say anything on that point now.

Inner City Areas (Grants)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment what sums were made available by Government to relieve inner city depression in 1975–76 and 1976–77; and what expenditure forecast he has for Walsall for 1977–78.

The Government provide a great deal of assistance to local authorities through rate support grant, housing subsidies, and in other ways. I cannot say how much of these grants is spent in relieving inner city conditions, since this is a matter for local authority decision. Walsall forecasts that its total expenditure for 1977–78 will be about £51·6 million.

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that by his answer he has confirmed the feeling in the Black Country that the Government are neglecting the problems there? Does he realise that people there feel badly let down by this? Will the hon. Gentleman do something to remedy this defect when he publishes the White Paper?

I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman said. For example, I draw his attention to the fact that in terms of the rate support grant needs element Walsall's share of the English grant as a whole has risen from 0·57 per cent. in 1974–75 to 0·62 per cent. in 1977–78. That does not demonstrate that on the matter of the rate support grant the Government have neglected the Black Country as a whole.

I repeat that the priorities have had to be identified in terms of the major areas of dereliction and inner city problems. In the West Midlands, Birmingham has been identified in that way, but that does not mean that the Government are unaware of other needs. For example, Walsall should receive grants of £610,000 under the urban programme during 1977–78.

Walsall is indeed an area of considerable urban deprivation. Will the Minister prevail on the local Conservative-controlled council to make an application for urban aid? Does my hon. Friend realise that the previous local authority made no application in 1975 for urban aid and that it has not even spent the money allocated to it in 1974?

I hope that my hon. Friend will make that point clear to the electors of Walsall, who may have an important comment to make on that matter in the coming elections.

Building Societies Association


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment if he has any plans to meet the Council of the Building Societies Association.

My Department is in continuing contact with the Building Societies Association, and I hope to see its chairman shortly.

Will my right hon. Friend request the Building Societies Association to explain better to savers in building societies and to those who have mortgages why building societies need to accumulate such large surpluses, which seem to the ordinary citizen to be spent on strings of offices in High Streets? There seems to be no reason why this money could not be channelled into extra mortgages.

There has been a longstanding criticism of the number of building societies, but this is not the right occasion on which to debate that. On the broader question of surpluses, there is a balance to be struck. We have all been anxious to avoid the sort of famine in money for lending on mortgages that occurred in 1973–74, and to do so it is necessary for building societies to have a cushion of reserves. Otherwise their ability to lend will be seriously impaired and may be subject to wild variations of the sort that we had in 1973–74.

Have the Government not been bringing disproportionate political pressure on building societies to reduce interest rates? If they desist from the stampede against the societies until the level of inflow of funds becomes clearer, is it not likely that the rate of lending to mortgagees will settle down and that we shall avoid the ups and downs of rates that we have seen in recent years?

That is a strange comment. I am not aware of any political pressure. I am aware and I am glad that we have continuing contact with the building societies. The purport of the hon. Gentleman's remarks seems to be that he believes that the recent reduction in mortgage interest rates was either premature or too large, and I do not necessarily share that view.

There is a balance to be struck. We are all in favour of low mortgage interest rates—that wish is shared throughout the county—but we do not want to pay the price of violent swings in the availability of mortgages or have famines of the sort I described earlier.

Is my right hon. Friend aware how reluctant many building societies are to lend on older and cheaper properties? Is he aware that in Salford, six of the nine leading building societies insisted on houses having front and back gardens and possessing—

Order. I have been very tolerant so far in allowing hon. Members to give information, and the House can see how slowly we are going. If the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun) will put his remarks in the form of a question I shall be able to call more hon. Members in the next seven minutes.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention, not for the first time, to the reluctance of societies in certain areas to lend on older properties—the red lining problem to which reference has frequently been made in the House. I am aware of the problem. We have a new relationship with building societies and I intend to take up this matter with them, not just in the general sense, but in terms of monitoring progress and taking account of evidence of specific acts of red lining so that I can take them up with the societies.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his remarks have a different tone from those of the Prime Minister on this subject yesterday? Is he also aware that although we all want lower mortgage rates—especially those of us with mortgages—we welcome what he has said rather more than we welcomed the tone of the Prime Minister's remarks?

I should not wish to be described as tone deaf, but I was not aware of any marked difference of emphasis between what the Prime Minister said and what I have said. As always, we are in perfect harmony.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that even if there is a change in plan there should be no change in emphasis, and that we hope that building societies will bring down their rates to borrowers? Is it not disturbing that when the minimum lending rate has been reduced by 6 per cent. the building societies' rates to borrowers have been reduced by only 1 per cent.? Is he aware that the Government have a right to ask the societies to look at this again in the near future and to bring down rates further?

I am sure that a lowering of the mortgage lending rate is the wish of the whole country and it is also the wish of the building societies to adjust their rates as soon as they can, consistent with the major problems to which I referred earlier.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the level of interest rates chargeable by the building societies essentially depends on Government policy? In the context of the repeated rise and fall of interest rates in the last 12 months and the cost to building societies of such changes, what criteria would the right hon. Gentleman use in giving advice to the societies?

This is inevitably a matter of judgment, which refers to two matters. First, there is the view that one takes of the structure of competitive interest rates for any period ahead. This has been particularly difficult to judge in the past year. Secondly, there is the inflow of money to the societies. We all have an interest in seeing that sufficient money comes in so that building societies are able to lend on the scale and with the consistency that the building industry requires.

Housing Loans (Bolsover District Council)


asked the Secretary of State for the Environment whether he will reconsider the allocation of money to Bolsover District Council for housing loan purposes, in view of the district council's policy of encouraging improvement grants for sub-standard properties.

The arrangements announced on 6th April to provide greater flexibility in housing capital expenditure for 1977–78 will help the council to link its home loans and improvement grants policies more clearly together.

That is a bit Irish. Is my right hon. Friend aware that it really means that last year the council received £238,000 for housing loans and that this year it will get exactly the same amount, not only for housing loans but for improvement grants? Will he tell his right hon. Friend, who described himself earlier as an attentive listener to calls for more public expenditure, that some of the £2½ billion that we have suddenly found we should not have cut from public expenditure ought to be used on housing in inner city areas, urban malaise areas, and urban stress areas—and some in Bolsover?

I always hesitate to disagree with my hon. Friend but I am afraid that his facts are wrong. The allocation for home loans to Bolsover this year is higher than last year's figure of a little over £200,000. This year it will be £238,000, and in addition there will be an allocation of about £300,000—I am sorry, £30,000—for improvement grants. The total will be about £260,000.

I was not speaking Irish or any other language; I was making the point that if local authorities are enabled to switch from one Vote head to another during the year they will better be able to link improvement policy with home loans on older properties. [Interruption.]

Order. We must remember that this is the Mother of Parliaments, where some dignity should be preserved.

Council House Costs (London)


asked the Secretary of of State for the Environment what is the average cost of a new council house in London.

The average cost of a new council house in London in 1975 was about £17,000.

As we now have a partially renovated Government, would it not be a good idea if they paid more attention to the renovation of existing properties in London—which, according to national average figures, costs about £6,000 per dwelling—than to the expensive building of new council houses. which the nation can ill afford?

The national average unit cost figure for improvements would not be applicable to London, though many excellent conversions have been achieved at that sort of cost. I do not accept the hon. Gentleman's general point. We need to provide more new dwellings where they are required as well as providing modernised homes that will not be demolished.

Is it possible that the housing report that the right hon. Gentleman and his predecessor have sat on for so long will point out the appalling unit cost of housing, which means that, including interest over 60 years, some new GLC dwellings cost about £250,000 each? This cannot go on. Is it not time the report was published, so that the country can decide what sort of housing policies it wants to see?

No report has been sat upon. The hon. Gentleman should check his facts. I suggest that he takes his remarks, which are rather exaggerated and a little gross, to the hustings.

British Shipbuilders (Headquarters)

I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

"The decision of the Secretary of State for Industry annouced today that the headquarters of British Shipbuilders are to be located in the North-East of England instead of on Merseyside as had been anticipated."
This matter is clearly specific. It is of vital importance not just to the country but in particular to Merseyside, with its enormously high rate of unemployment. We had felt quite strongly that Merseyside fulfilled all the criteria of the Organising Committee. It has come as a body blow to all those concerned with shipping on Merseyside that Merseyside has been overlooked. The situation requires urgent consideration because unless this House has an opportunity of debating this decision it will be too late. I therefore ask, Mr. Speaker, that you allow me to move the Adjournment of the House on these three conditions—that it is specific, important and requires urgent consideration.

The hon. Member for Wirral (Mr. Hunt) asks leave under Standing Order No. 9 to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a specific and import-and that was a private Act of 1958 by urgent consideration, namely,

"The decision of the Secretary of State for Industry announced today that the headquarters of British Shipbuilders are to be located in the North-East of England instead of on Merseyside as had been anticipated."
I listened with care to what the hon. Gentleman said. He knows that I am not judging the importance of the issue but whether it must take priority over the business of the day. I am afraid I have to rule that the hon. Gentleman's submission does not fall within the provisions of the Standing Order and, therefore, I cannot submit his application to the House.

Domestic Premises (Lighting And Electrical Installations)

3.33 p.m.

I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to enable local authorities to require the installation of artificial lighting by means of gas or electricity in all habitable rooms within their area to require the maintenance in good repair of such installation; to enable improvement grants to be paid for the removal and replacement of defective electrical installations in domestic premises; and for connected purposes.
This Bill, which I can assure the House will be printed—assuming that I receive the leave of the House—is meant to make a contribution to home safety in this country. It is not in itself the complete answer to the problem that I shall outline, but at least it will be a start.

In fact, in my view this is a question which the Government ought seriously to look at and to concern themselves with. The longer they delay, the worse the problem becomes, and lives could be lost while the Government do nothing. The present position is that where an owner, or an owner-occupier, wishes to renew defective electric wiring in a house but cannot afford to do so, he can seek an improvement grant. But, as the law stands, such a grant for rewiring repair would be classified as a repair rather than improvement. Therefore, the grant can be given only if improvements to the same value as the repair are carried out in the house. In other words, if the rewiring were to cost £200, the occupier would be required to do other work, to be classified as improvements, to a further value of £200—making £400 worth of work altogether.

If the local authority then made a grant towards that work, the maximum grant it could give would be £200 or 50 per cent. of the cost. In practical terms it is not possible to get a grant merely for the purpose of rewiring a house. The grant system is therefore discouraging rather than encouraging with regard to the rewiring of property in this country. In fact, the applicant, as my example shows, receives no grant.

The second aspect of the problem is that there is no specific regulation in this country which enables a local authority to require a reluctant landlord to renew defective wiring. It may be argued, and could be said, that either Section 9(1) or Section 9(1)(a) of the 1957 Housing Act takes care of that situation. But those powers can be used only if the local authority takes note of, and requires, the carrying out of work to remedy other defects found in the dwelling. In other words, on a complaint about defective wiring an inspector may, in order to get the wiring repaired, have to require all kinds of other work to be carried out and thus defeat the immediate and most urgent task, namely, the rewiring of the property.

The present powers are at best clumsy. In a letter to the hon. Member for Middleton and Prestwich (Mr. Callaghan), dated 30th November 1976, the Minister admitted that
"There is none"
—that is, no power—
"which specifically provides for the repair of electrical wiring".
It will be of interest to the House to hear that in a recent survey of 21 local authorities—members of the North-Western Home Safety Council—it was found that between them they used no fewer than nine sections of seven different Acts to try to effect repairs to wiring. Of those nine sections, only one Act was specifically designed to effect such repairs and that was a Private Act of 1958 by Manchester Corporation.

In that survey many authorities indicated that they risk only informal notices. In other words, because of the weakness of the existing law they are not prepared to have their notices requiring rewiring tested in a court of law. Local authorities have a duty placed on them to ensure home safety. What my Bill attempts to do is help them in that task.

The whole matter has been raised with the hon. Member for Middleton and Prestwich and myself by the Rochdale Metropolitan District Council. It surely is a fact that all houses built prior to 1940 which have not been rewired must be suspect and, hence, a potential safety hazard to the inhabitants. The Central Electricity Board recommends a check every five years while the Institution of Electrical Engineers has stated publicly that the insulation of all electrical installations done over 25 years ago must be regarded as suspect.

In a letter to Rochdale Council on 29th September 1976 the Department of the Environment
"accepts the importance on grounds of safety for the replacement of worn-out wiring."
Yet the cost of rewiring is usually well over £200 and nearer £300. Since, in order to attract grant, one has to spend double that amount, more and more houses which require to be rewired are not being done. The irony, I understand, is that under Section 13 of the 1961 Housing Act, houses in multiple occupation can be compelled to have installations of gas or electricity in proper working order. Is it therefore not strange that councils do not have similar powers in respect of private or council-owned dwellings which are occupied by one family? Indeed, local authorities have no specific powers whatever to request an owner to provide artificial lighting in any room of a dwelling-house.

I had hoped that my Bill would have removed all these serious weaknesses and gaps in the existing law. The draftsman of the Bill, a Mr. Alistair Webster, to whom I am indebted, has found, however, that to cover them all would require a major Bill, and a Ten Minutes Rule Bill is inadequate. Therefore, my Bill is confined to granting local authorities the right to allow grant for the purposes of rewiring and wiring maintenance, not-withstanding that no other work is to be done in a property.

If the Bill were to become law, it would be a considerable step forward. I hope that the Government will find time for the Bill, which surely must be non-controversial and certainly is in the interests of the safety of people. It is a modest step forward. I want to see the Government tackle this problem realistically and in a wider sense. Meanwhile, I hope that the House will this afternoon help the Government to take a faltering step towards that absolute necessity by allowing me the Bill. I now seek the House to do so.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Cyril Smith and Mr. Jim Callaghan.

Domestic Premises (Lighting And Electrical Installations)

Mr. Cyril Smith accordingly presented a Bill to enable local authorities to require the installation of artificial lighting by means of gas or electricity in all habitable rooms within their area; to require the maintenance in good repair of such installation; to enable improvement grants to be paid for the removal and replacement of defective electrical installations in domestic premises; and for connected purposes: and the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 13th May and to be printed. [Bill 107.]

European Assembly (Directelections)

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Stallard.]

Perhaps I may tell the House that this is one of those occasions when there is an enormous interest in the subject. I have a very long list of hon. Members who have indicated that they hope to catch my eye. I want to warn the House that even with short speeches it will be quite impossible for them all to be called. Those of us who are in the Chair will do our best.

3.42 p.m.

It was in March of last year that we held a full two-day debate on direct elections. We are now approaching the stage at which decisions must be taken on the questions discussed in the White Paper, Cmnd. 6768, which my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and I have laid before the House. The views expressed in the debate today and on 25th April will be of great importance to the Government in considering what form of electoral process to recommend to the House.

In our debate last March we were particularly concerned with the questions which had to be discussed and decided at the Community level. During the debate my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced the setting up of a Select Committee to study the issues. We are all indebted to the Select Committee for the speed and thoroughness of its work. It produced a First Report in June 1976 and the Government were guided largely by that report and by the views expressed on it in the debate of 12th July in the negotiations that led to the 20th September agreement on procedures in the Community for direct elections. The Select Committee subsequently produced two further reports dealing with arrangements for direct elections in the United Kingdom and a great deal of its work has been reflected in the White Paper.

Hon. Members will know that the Government are not announcing decisions at this stage. We shall want to listen and note all the arguments made in the course of debate. In the light of these the Government will immediately thereafter reconsider the issues raised in the White Paper on direct elections. The Cabinet's conclusions—both on the electoral system to be used for direct elections and on the related issues—will then be brought forward by the Government as proposals to the House. My purpose is to set out as clearly as I can the background to direct elections, which is too often misunderstood, and to explain how I see the rôle of the Assembly in the European Community and the way it is likely to develop.

In my first speech to the House as Foreign Secretary I said:
"The Community needs, if it is to command greater public support, to become more relevant to people's daily lives."—[Official Report, 1st March 1977; Vol. 927, c. 200.]
I believe that one of the ways in which this can be done is to involve people in European matters directly through democratic elections.

The principle of a directly elected Parliament was incorporated in the Treaty of Rome 20 years ago as a necessary eventual part of the Community. The arrangement under which delegates were designated by national Parliaments was adopted in the interim but the goal of direct elections was clear and explicit. Participation in an eventual electoral system was one of the goals which we, too, assumed when we joined the Community.

But of course here, as in other member countries, participation is possible only on a basis agreed by our own Parliament. The renegotiation White Paper of March 1975 made this perfectly plain when it said that, if British membership of the Community were confirmed by the referendum, any scheme for direct elections would require an Act of Parliament. That remains the position. When the Government, in honouring their treaty obligation, come to introduce their Bill, it will be for Parliament to decide. But I do not believe that this Parliament, which has championed democratic involvement for centuries, will block the democratic objective which all the member States have set for themselves in the EEC Treaty and which is now close to realisation.

The target which has been set is, as hon. Members know, to hold the first elections in May or in June next year. This date was set in the course of successive meetings of Heads of Government in December 1974 in Paris and a year later in Rome, and was reaffirmed in the agreement signed on 20th September last.

If my right hon. Friend was announcing a couple of minutes ago that it is for the free wish of this Parliament to decide whether the United Kingdom should be committed to and hold direct elections, why does he say a couple of minutes later, in emotive terms, that he hopes that the House will not block it? Surely that is not the language that should precede a free decision of the House of Commons.

That was my view. It is what Parliament decides. I respect my hon. Friend's views on this matter. I am giving my interpretation of it. My words were "I do not believe". I do not think that that was very emotive.

I am very conscious that almost anything that is said in this debate will be considered emotive on one side of the argument or the other, and I am also conscious that sides of the argument go right across party lines. I am trying to give an intepretation of how I see both the agreement and the future.

This agreement is a statement of political intent to which the Government have subscribed. Textually, what the agreement says is that member States intend
"to give effect to the conclusions of the European Council … that the election should be held … within the period May/June 1978".
The precise date will be fixed by the common agreement of the member States. It is clearly intended that this should cover a single four-day period for all member States, not a series of different dates. Indeed, the constitutional requirements of at least one member State may prevent its holding the elections unless all the member States agreed to do so together. The Government's political commitment is to use their best endeavours to avoid a situation in which delays in the United Kingdom put the target date out of reach for the whole Community.

Perhaps we may clarify one point. The White Paper commitment seems to me to be quite clear and explicit in terms of the commitment to the principle of a directly elected European Assembly and some flexibility on methodology. The question of methodology is for a Bill and the House to determine. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will confirm that the Government are committed to the principle of a directly elected Assembly.

Yes. I have made the Government's position quite clear. However, as my hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) says, this is a question, as I have also made clear, for Parliament to decide. I have made clear that a Bill has to be got through this Parliament.

It might help the House if I tried to make clear to what we are committing ourselves. The treaties provided for an Assembly which was to exercise its advisory and supervisory powers in collaboration with the other Community institutions. While the founding fathers of the Community saw the Commission undoubtedly as the embryo of a future Government of Europe, no British Government have ever been committed to such a federal solution. While the founding fathers therefore intended the Assembly to exercise a power of democratic control, principally over the Commission, no British Government have ever accepted that the Commission should ever have such extensive powers. The Assembly was given the power, often known as "the unusable sledge-hammer", to dismiss the Commission.

What has happened, as in other areas of Community life, is that many of the Community's institutions have evolved in ways unforeseen by the founding fathers. In the event a very different balance, and in my view a much more realistic balance, has evolved between the Community's three main institutions, the Council, the Commission and the Assembly. According to the Treaty of Rome, the Assembly's opinion must be obtained on Commission proposals over a wide range of subjects before the Council can take a decision. This scrutiny is not a mere formality, as many hon. Members will know. The 14 specialised parliamentary committees can call on considerable sources of expertise and have done much effective work.

Perhaps the most important rôle that the European Parliament plays now is in the budgetary sphere, where to some extent it shares responsibility with the Council for the Community budget. It is formally the Parliament which adopts the Community budget, although the size and distribution of that budget is determined primarily by decisions of the Council. The Community's budget procedures are extremely complex. But I think it is true to say that the gradual evolution of these procedures and the establishment in particular of the conciliation procedure to try to concert views between the Council and the Parliament on new proposals with major financial implications are leading towards a more effective rôle for the Parliament in the field of Community expenditure.

The development of the conciliation procedure is also an important example of the welcome and, in my view, growing dialogue between the Parliament and the Council. This is in addition to the dialogue which has existed for some time between the Parliament and the Commission. The Parliament, for its part, has widened its horizons to take in the work of the Council of Ministers and the newly developed political co-operation machinery. Since the arrival of British Members at the Assembly this has taken on a new dimension, particularly in the Question Hour, which is in direct line of descent from our own Question Time in the House.

Many of the desirable reforms in the working of the Assembly have come about because of the work of hon. Members from both sides of the House, but I single out the work of the late hon. Member who sat for the constituency of Saffron Walden. I believe that all Members, wherever they sit, will join me in paying tribute to his work as a convinced and effective European. We all extend our sympathy to his family in their tragic loss.

So, while member States have been willing to permit a gradual extension of Parliament's influence in some quite specific areas, its powers are, by the standards of democratically elected Parliaments, very limited indeed. I have just returned from Strasbourg, where I reported this morning on behalf of the presidency on the Rome summit. I must tell right hon. and hon. Members who see grave threats to the power and position of this House that, having observed that Parliament, I can see no such threat, either at the moment or in the future. The development of the Assembly will depend on the future shape and organisation of Europe. In the last analysis, a clear vision of the Assembly's future presupposes the existence of a clear vision of the future of the Community. I am not sure that any of us has such a clear vision.

That the founding fathers had such a vision there can be no doubt. Their aim was a centralised Community in which the Commission would ultimately evolve into the Government of a united Europe. They believed that a federal structure should one day emerge from the Community. Inevitably, the Treaty's institutional structure had a natural centripetal bias.

In fact, events have shown that even if it were desirable, which I doubt, one cannot dissolve within 20 years national interests and traditions which in some cases, like our own, have had more than a thousand years of uninterrupted development. Running against any federalist aspirations are the continuing power of national sentiment, varying national interests and national perceptions and, regrettably, economic divergence within the Community.

If we compare the history of Western Europe with the history of the United States we can, I think, appreciate just how far we should have to go, even if we wanted a federal Europe. The United States developed a federal system in a society that was relatively homogeneous, both culturally and socially. The 13 original states had a common language and a common cultural, historical and judicial background. They came together against a common enemy and continued together in the face of a common challenge—that of the vast and largely empty continent which they came to occupy. It took a devastating civil war nearly a century after the founding of the republic to confirm the federation, which developed geographically and demographically, in slow and measured steps. Of course I understand the deep feelings which motivated the founding fathers in the late 1940s and 1950s to dream of a Community which might weaken the nationalisms which had brought Europe in this century to its own two disastrous civil wars. It is a measure of the Community's success that no one today believes that Europe is likely to face a third civil war.

But I think we must face facts and I should like to be blunt. It is scarcely conceivable that Europe, with its much greater national, regional, linguistic, cultural and historical diversity, could become a federal State akin to that of the United States within my children's lifetime, or even one's grandchildren's, still less our own lifetime. [Interruption.] Well, it is open to doubt and analysis. I can only give the House—

Does my right hon. Friend not see that in America there were not completely separate nations and nation States as there are in Europe and that the position was fundamentally different from what it is in Europe?

My hon. Friend makes very much the case that I have been attempting to make. I realise that there are many different views on this issue, but if we were to analyse a lot of the emotion and a lot of the anxieties about the whole subject of a European Parliament, we should find lying behind them the issue of federalism, and it is worth discussing it. It was never really fully discussed at the time of going into the European Community. It is quite right to say that there will be very many different views expressed in the House. I can only give my own best analysis of how I see the future development of Europe. But I am well aware that in 10 years' time events may have confounded any analysis that I make. The way that Europe has evolved has been extremely hard to predict.

In my view it is time that we all recognised how unreal the debate about federalism has become. The plain fact is that this House, with the national parliaments of other member States, will define the future shape of the Community. Without the agreement of this House, there can be no major change in the structure of the Community.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. He has just said that he is not sure about his prognostications being confirmed. But when he says that the Assembly shows no signs of becoming a federal threat at the moment, has he forgotten that it would have three times as many full-time Members and that the powers and ambit of responsibilities would be directly competitive with national Parliaments, particularly this House?

I am going on to analyse some of these issues, if the House will bear with me for a moment. I have just said that in my view at this moment the debate about federalism is pretty unreal.

Of course, we recognise that the Community is a unique structure, and what I have said about its development under federalism is not meant to detract from what I believe and have long believed to be a very important influence on the future of this country and of Europe. It is an economic institution, but with a developing political personality. It is an institution that combines elements of domestic and external policy. It is an institution with an inbuilt dynamism which has no parallel in other international organisation.

The pace and scope of the Community's development are determined by the play between national and collective interests. Certainly membership of it entails some limited pooling of sovereignty in those defined areas where there is agreement to develop common policies. But the development of the Community over the last decade has seen the balance between the Commission and the Council shift decisively in favour of the Council. This shift has found its visible expression in the creation of the European Council of Heads of Government. As the supreme guiding force of the Community, the European Council ensures that the ultimate political control of all major Community activities is retained by national governments.

This is the context in which we must view the future of the Assembly and the development of its powers. Direct elections will not of themselves increase these powers. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister pointed out last July that the European Parliament will be elected on the powers it has at present. The Members will certainly demand more powers—many of them do so now. They will perhaps put their claims more vociferously as a result of direct elections.

How far national Governments and national parliaments agree to these demands will be for them alone to decide. The European Assembly cannot seize powers; it can only take those given to it by the member Governments with the approval of their national parliaments. The current debate in France shows the extent to which that is recognised in countries other than our own.

There is no inherent reason why a European Parliament should be federally inclined. A directly elected Assembly will, or should, reflect public opinion in the nine member States on the rôle of the Community and on the powers of its institutions, as on other things. Matters of this kind will be legitimate issues in elections to the Parliament. People will stake out their claims in such elections.

If there is a federal sentiment in the member States—and I would expect to see less federalist sentiment in Britain, France and Denmark and perhaps more in the Benelux countries, Germany and Italy—this will be reflected in the Members sent to the Parliament and the views which they then express.

Does the Foreign Secretary appreciate that throughout his speech he has used the terms "Assembly" and "Parliament" interchangeably? Does he realise that the choice of term can have a significant effect on the public's attitude to the proper rôle of such an institution?

Strictly speaking, it should be referred to as an Assembly. On a strictly juridical basis I should use the term "Assembly", but the terms are interchangeable.

Does my right hon. Friend foresee a situation in which the balance of power will move from the Council to the Commission with the introduction of direct elections? Does he not agree that thereby one of the things that the founding fathers of the Community foresaw will have been created, with the Commission becoming the supranational body within the Community?

Not if I have anything to do with it. There has been a growth in the power and influence of the Community and I cited the European Council, which is a wholly new development, as an example of that.

It follows that if there is no federal sentiment in the United Kingdom, those who fight elections on that plank are unlikely to succeed. But if federal sentiment were to develop in the United Kingdom surely it would be right, democratically, that it should be represented by candidates chosen for the European Parliament. All we have to ensure, as I emphasised to the House on 1st March, is that members elected in this country are genuinely representative. It would be damaging to British democracy, to the standing of the members themselves and to the protection of British interests in the Community if the elections produced unrepresentative members after a low and unrepresentative poll.

I turn to a major practical problem which will be a foremost concern of a directly elected Assembly—the enlargement of the Community. Enlargement reflects the arguments about deepening or broadening the Community when looking to the future. This will be a severe test not only for the European Parliament, but for all the Community institutions, individually and collectively.

Nine member States and six Community languages already make it hard enough for the Parliament to act coherently, still less spontaneously. Those right hon. and hon. Members who make up the British delegation will know this from practical experience. I saw it vividly demonstrated to me today. It is absolutely right and normal that the elected representatives should, if they wish, speak and work in their own tongue. I do not think that anyone in this House can argue that we should add linguistic proficiency to the qualifications for election. Apart from the complications arising from the differences in national viewpoint and political alignment, the possible enlargement of the Community to include three Mediterranean countries—and who knows how many other States in due course?—could in the end add four or five further languages.

Some member States will query enlargement without institutional reform and argue for majority voting. But this has been firmly resisted by Britain and France in the past without some safeguard for their national interest, such as the Luxembourg compromise. This will continue to be this Government's position, although we are prepared to rally to the majority unless important national interests are at stake. In my view enlargement, for linguistic and institutional reasons, is bound to work against federalism.

The yardstick by which we shall judge the real worth and validity of the Parliament in the years to come will be its ability to reconcile national differences through effective co-operation within coherent and democratically responsive political groups. In this way the Parliament can contribute to the strengthening of European democracy and cohesion. This aspiration lies after all at the basis of the 'Treaty of Rome, the preamble of which speaks of laying
"the foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe"
and working
"to eliminate the barriers which divide Europe".
This is a challenge which the European Parliament shares with us all. The formidable difficulties which it presents should in no way diminish the force of our commitment to overcome it.

Edmund Burke once defined Parliament as
"not a congress of ambassadors from different and hostile interests; which interests each must maintain, as an agent and advocate, against other agents and advocates"
but, he said:
"parliament is a deliberate assembly of one nation, with one interest, that of the whole …"
If his words were a rebuke to Westminster in the eighteenth century, he might not notice a great deal of progress were he to return today. But if this is the case in Britain after a millenium of representative government, to fear that the European Assembly will become tomorrow a deliberate assembly of one nation—which is what the fear of federalism amounts to—is a fear which I hope I have shown has no foundations.

Our commitment to building a united Europe and a strong and prosperous Community, to which I hold strongly, is a commitment to participate constructively and positively in a long-term historical process. A directly elected European Parliament will be an indispensable and practical step in the construction of a more cohesive and democratic Europe.

4.8 p.m.

Today's debate and that which will follow on Monday are of an unusual character. We are debating the motion for the Adjournment, and that has allowed the Foreign Secretary to range widely over the arguments about the principle of directly electing a European Parliament, whereas the White Paper addresses itself more closely to the practicalities of the electoral systems that might be devised. I have no dispute with the Foreign Secretary's approach, but I shall not follow him precisely, although I may touch on some of the issues.

We are not debating the principle of direct elections. I draw the attention of Labour Members to the fact that their own Prime Minister has repeatedly said that this matter is now beyond recall and that the principle is past. The Prime Minister said that yesterday in response to his hon. Friends.

I hope that the right hon. Member is not advancing the doctrine that the Prime Minister, however eminent, decides whether Parliament debates a principle.

I would not have any such thing. The hon. Gentleman knows me well enough to know that I attach such great importance to the position of Parliament in these matters that my integrity can hardly be disputed. The thought has never been even remotely in my mind that we could proceed to direct elections without the statutory authority of Parliament. That is an essential part of the process on which we are now engaged.

I make the important analogy that in what is generally the treaty-making process, whereby a Government proceed along treaty lines, there may be, in regard to the most exceptionally important matters affecting the fate of the country, a treaty subsequently presented to Parliament, and Parliament can reject it. Parliament has, on rare occasions, rejected it, because it was on a serious matter. But on this occasion, the Prime Minister has made the point, with which I agree, that Parliament has been fully consulted on the process to be used under the treaty-making procedure agreement. We have had repeated opportunities to discuss the matter. The result which was finally achieved in the concordat talks of 25th September was the end of a long process, not the beginning of one.

I believe that the purpose today must be to address ourselves more to the specifics of the White Paper than to the question of rehearsing once again the many arguments which are involved. That is what we are asked to do—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]. Labour Members should consult the Order Paper. After all, they are such keen parliamentarians. I see that the hon. Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Heffer) is gesticulating as usual. He is one of the keenest parliamentarians I know. He is concerned with the contents of the Order Paper.

We are required to discuss a series of issues contained in the White Paper. The object of the debate is to look into the factors involved in the White Paper. It is largely concerned with the electoral method and secondarily with the vexatious question of the dual mandate. These are the two issues which the White Paper draws to our attention.

The provisions of the debate are difficult to handle in relation to the decision which must be reached. We are debating the motion for the Adjournment. Goodness knows what means, if any, there will be of debating the issue on Monday. As we are debating the motion for the Adjournment, we have no means as a House of doing what we are expected to do—namely, to reach a conclusive decision on the issues presented as options in the White Paper. We have no such opportunity.

In the light of further consideration by the Government we may find ourselves in a different situation next Monday but at present we have no means of reaching decisions on the options which the Government's White Paper presents. This is a somewhat anomalous situation.

Since I shall be winding up the debate on Monday night, may I ask whether we shall hear the Opposition's view on what options they will support?

The right hon. Gentleman will feel assured by my remarks, which will conform to Mr. Speaker's injunction to be brief and in which I shall try to deal with some of the issues concerned.

I return to the proposal which my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, (Mr. Channon) made yesterday to the Prime Minister—that there needs to be an opportunity, perhaps between the debate on the White Paper and the presentation of a Bill for Second Reading, for decisions to be taken on the issues rehearsed in the White Paper. If that were not so, if the first we knew of firm proposals, as opposed to the options presented, was within the framework of the Bill, we might allow ourselves to be drawn into a cul-de-sac.

I hope that the sensible suggestion made by my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West, will be seriously considered. This has been put to the Leader of the House before, or at least something of the kind was put to him, and he has always taken careful note of it; but, characteristically, he has never done much about it. On this occasion I hope he will. It is essential that when we reach the point of having a Bill before us to which we must give a Second Reading and which thereafter must go through the remaining processes, we should have before us something which represents the conclusions of the House on the vexatious and difficult issues with which the White Paper presents us.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that we shall face great problems if the Government adopt the alternative course of publishing a Bill with one system or other in it? The Government are to allow a free vote on the issue and every hon. Member will wish to express his view in a free way. If the House rejects the Government's proposition it will be astonishingly difficult for the House to amend the Bill adequately to fulfil the conclusions which the House will have reached. That is why I hope my right hon. Friend's suggestion will succeed.

I wholly agree with that observation. I can even foresee a ridiculous situation in which a Bill was passed to become an Act without an electoral system being incorporated in it. That would plumb the depths of absurdity. I realise, of course, that some hon. Members would welcome such a situation, but I have a strong feeling that the majority of hon. Members would not.

I also believe that a conclusion which gave rise to a totally frustrated piece of legislation in one form or another—whether frustrated in the course of its passage through the House or frustrated in its final courses—could hardly be considered to concur with the Prime Minister's repeated assurances that he is committed to bring about the intention to which he was a party last year and to which his late right hon. Friend the then Foreign Secretary was also a party. I speak of the conclusion of 25th September.

It would be remarkable if such a conclusion as I have outlined could be reconciled with the clear assurances which have been given. If that were so, it would result in the Government becoming regarded not just as a dangerous element within the Community, which I think they have been by virtue of some of their activities recently, but also as a laughing stock. That would be a great pity for the country.

Would the right hon. Gentleman care to elucidate this point about the Government being a dangerous element? Is he suggesting that the fight they put up in relation the CAP in trying to keep down prices for the benefit of the British people was acting like a dangerous element in the Community?

Yes, but I do not think that it is appropriate to go too deeply into that matter. The actions of the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have been specifically counter-productive to the interests of the housewife. There is no doubt about that.

But I revert to our primary consideration. It is now clear that all of the other eight member States will certainly be proceeding to the necessary legislative provisions to enable elections to take place early next summer.

Would my right hon. Friend not agree that the Government are showing signs of getting themselves into the same position as that into which they got with the devolution Bill, when it appeared that there might well have been a majority in the House for devolution, but, because the Government did not take the trouble to find out on what terms, the Bill went to the wall? Would they not be wise first to find out, on a vote, what sort of electoral system would be acceptable to the House, lest this Bill goes to the wall in the same way?

I strongly believe that my hon. Friend is correct. I fear that the Government may be doing that, at least by default. Equally, there could be great shame in such an action. There is a majority in the House for direct elections to the European Parliament, and on a determined electoral system, and for us to fail to achieve that would be an act of ineptitude for which there is no excuse.

I return to the question of the dangers involved in being the sole failing country in the Community. Until recently, there were doubts about the ability or wish of other member countries to carry through the necessary legislative process to ensure direct elections. But those have been dissipated. At one time, there was some doubt whether Denmark was able or willing to do so, but it is clear that it is both able and willing to do so.

I was in France on Monday to try to clarify in my own mind the position there. There had been some doubt, but there is no doubt now that the Gaullists, the RPR, and the Communists, will not seek to obstruct the enactment which is necessary for France to proceed to elections to a European Parliament in May or June next year.

That being so, if we fail, we shall be the only member of the Community to do so, and if we are the only one, we shall stop the rest—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] There will be no forgiving and no forgetting the fact that we shall have done so. Therefore, unless steps are now urgently taken to clarify the process of what decision we take on the electoral system, we are in danger, by intent or by malintent, of failing to do so.

I turn now to the specific issues of substance within the White Paper. The first is the dual mandate. All the evidence leads one to the conclusion that it would prove virtually impossible effectively to discharge a dual mandate of membership both of this House and of the European Parliament at the same time. The parliamentary demands in Westminster are certainly much heavier than those of any equivalent Parliament in the Community. Adding to that what seems to me inevitably the growing weight of work in the European Parliament itself makes the combination of the two virtually unthinkable in the generality.

The Foreign Secretary referred to the greatly lamented death of Sir Peter Kirk, whom we all knew both as a very stout colleague and as a great friend. Undoubtedly, his death owed something to the extraordinary burdens put on people in discharging the dual duties involved.

I willingly accept that there may be exceptional cases in which, for specific reasons, there would be a need for an individual perhaps to fulfil a dual mandate, but that the generality of the 81 Members of the European Parliament could at the same time be Members of this House is unthinkable. Therefore, our conclusions should go towards making a dual mandate not impossible but at least unlikely. It should not be excluded, but it should certainly not be obligatory.

I take the view that the electoral method which is decided upon is of secondary importance to the attainment of direct elections themselves in line with the other eight countries. For my part, I am content to abide by the majority decision of the House on the electoral system that it desires. Whatever the House wishes—provided that it gets an opportunity clearly to declare which electoral system it favours—I am content to abide by it.

Labour Members would be hard-pressed indeed—[Interruption.] I wonder what the Foreign Secretary finds so curious about that. I should have thought that he among others would have been attuned to the thought that the will of the House should prevail on the electoral method involved.

I think that the right hon. Gentleman missed the crack which came from behind me, which was to the effect that he had no alternative—that is, that the House had no alternative. Whatever view one may take, eventually it is the House which will decide the system.

Of course it will. All the more reason, therefore, to ensure that the opportunity is provided for the House clearly to declare its will on the matter. This has not yet become clear from the Government side. The Government have not made it clear how they propose to deal with the matter.

Would the right hon. Gentleman make it clear from his side specifically what electoral system he would propose on behalf of himself and his colleagues?

I will certainly do so, but I shall do so when the opportunity is afforded me to vote. That is what I seek.

The hon. Member mistakes the point. Am I not right in saying that the Prime Minister declared to the House that he would subject this matter to a free vote? Surely that means that when that opportunity is offered, I shall vote as I freely wish.

May I respond to the point? I have no reason personally to declare at this stage, until I have that opportunity, what I shall vote for.

But the right hon. Gentleman is the spokesman for the Opposition. I take the point that he has made, but would he nevertheless inform the House where he personally stands on the matter? Let us at the very least hear his personal approach to the question of which electoral system he would support.

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman should put that question to me. Incidentally, he did not put it to his right hon. Friend. We have yet to have a full debate on this White Paper. It might be reasonable for us all to make it clear that we intend to listen to that debate, as I propose to do.

What we have said from this side is that, on the method, there will be a free vote. The right hon. Gentleman is quite right, that we are listening to the debate and that then, in the terms stated by the Prime Minister, we shall come back to the House. But am I correct in inferring from what the right hon. Gentleman has said that the official Opposition will have a free vote on the method as well?

Order. It is customary, when a right hon. Member has been asked a question, for him to answer that question before he deals with the next one. We might as well stay in order.

I thought that the right hon. Gentleman had answered it most satisfactorily, Mr. Speaker.

May I clarify the situation, Sir? The answer is, yes, the Opposition will do so.

I am very grateful. There is one part of the White Paper in which the Government have declared their position on the electoral system—that is, paragraph 24, in which they say that, because of particular reasons in Northern Ireland, whatever reasons the rest of the United Kingdom has, there should be a system of proportional representation in that Province. Does the right hon. Gentleman at least agree with that recommendation and, if so, why does he think that a first-past-the-post system has defects which make it inapplicable in Northern Ireland?

I have it very much in mind to come to that question in a moment, so the right hon. Gentleman will get his reply. I repeat what I have said, that I personally consider—I do so against the background of an entitlement to a free vote on this matter—that in the event the electoral system to me is less important than the election itself.

I am convinced that it is necessary to proceed to these elections. I therefore judge my view as one Member exercising a free vote in relation to the situation I then find at the end of this debate. I hope that that adequately answers those who have probed these matters.

However, I should not be happy with an arbitrary assessment by the Government of the will of the House based simply upon the discussions within this debate. It will be unsatisfactory if the Government come back to the House with a Bill, saying that they have inserted such-and-such an electoral system because they judged from the debate held on this White Paper that that was the system preferred by the House. That would be inadequate in the absence of any vote at all. There must be a vote in this House to signify agreement with any electoral system. Surely that must appeal to Labour Members below the Gangway as much as it does to those above.

The electoral system chosen is of secondary importance for a number of reasons. First, it is probable that the election next year will be one operation which will be followed by subsequent operations, expectantly on an agreed common basis of voting throughout the Community. Therefore, we are not prejudicing future voting for a European Parliament by adopting any single electoral system next year.

Second, I doubt whether any major precedents will be set for our domestic elections. The nature of the election for the European Parliament will itself be very different from that of our domestic elections. We shall not be electing a majority party to construct an Executive or a Government. We shall be electing people to participate in a joint Parliament of many countries, where there is no purpose to elect an Executive or a Government. That is therefore sharply different from the case of a domestic election.

I now revert to the question of Northern Ireland, which was raised by the right hon. Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe). I note that the Government have said that whatever electoral system is agreed elsewhere, there needs to be a particular system in Northern Ireland because of the peculiar circumstances that obtain there. I understand that comment, but I must say to the right hon. Member for Devon, North that I would find it a very unhappy situation if two different electoral methods applied in the United Kingdom. It seems very desirable that there should be only a single electoral method applied for these purposes throughout the United Kingdom.

Proceeding to elections is of paramount importance, whereas the nature of the electoral method itself is of secondary importance—first, because I believe that the European Parliament, when directly elected, will bring a kind of searching wind of true representative democracy into the council chambers of the Community, which it has hitherto lacked. That is very necessary.

Secondly, I believe that direct elections will buttress the capacity of Westminster to scrutinise and influence the activities of the Community. I speak with some experience of this matter, as I have been Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee for some considerable time. Despite all the arduous work that the Committee performs, and all its endeavours, it is still failing to scrutinise the totality of Community activities because of the inherent difficulties attendant on a Select Committee. It cannot call into discussion matters which are of primary importance for this country and this House in relation to Community activities.

I speak of commercial treaty making for instance, amongst other things. The Scrutiny Committee has no capacity to draw such matters into discussion and to present them to the House in a timely way. It is evident to me that the European Parliament, which has such capabilities, and is not impeded by the rules of this House—as I believe I was impeded as Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee—could act as a very worthy support to the House's activities.

Thirdly, I believe that a directly elected Parliament will bring the whole Community process much closer to the people. So far it is clear that the Community has seemed very distant. I do not entirely exonerate the Government from blame for this. The Community's performance has often been presented in a hostile fashion, and reports of its achievements have been adulterated by those who have no friendliness for the Community and who therefore present its activities in an unfavourable light. A directly elected Parliament will be a powerful force for avoiding those dangers. I see no danger of the European Parliament becoming a kind of power-hungry monster, and even it it were, its ambitions would soon be thwarted by the constitutional rules of the Community itself. I was not happy with the remarks of the Foreign Secretary on this matter. He was rather brushing aside the European Parliament as being of secondary importance in his remarks about his recent visit to Strasbourg. That is not my view. My view is that it has a major rôle of great importance to perform, because it has an extremely influential rôle, which will be the more so when it is directly elected.

I know that it is the habit of all executives—I do not exclude myself—broadly speaking to maintain that they alone are the people who decide everything and who make decisions in the light of pressures exercised upon them. It would be very unwise of the Foreign Secretary to try to diminish the potential importance of the European Parliament when it is directly elected.

I therefore firmly call on the Government not just to listen to the debate that will take place today and on Monday but to do what is necessary to ensure that when they present the Bill to the House they present it in a form which will allow it to proceed reasonably to its statutory conclusion. By that I mean that it should be preceded by a proper reference to the House on the question of the electoral method that would be employed and presented in the Bill. Without that, it will prove to be a frustrated and a frustrating Bill.

4.35 p.m.

The right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) made a very curious speech. First, he implied that the principle of the matter was virtually decided and did not require much further debate from the House. But when he came to the details of the electoral system he failed to tell us either what the Opposition or he himself was recommending.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made a much more reasonable speech today than did the right hon. Member for Knutsford. My right hon. Friend made no attempt to pretend, as the Prime Minister has done on earlier occasions, that this country or the House is under a legal obligation from the Treaty of Rome to accept direct elections. I very much welcome the fact that my right hon. Friend took that line today, for there is really no doubt about the hard facts.

Under the Treaty of Rome there is no obligation on this country to embark on direct elections, and there is no mandate from the electorate to do so, either from a General Election or the referendum results. Until there is, I am wholly opposed to any such far-reaching constitutional change of this kind. It is worth looking at what Article 138 of the Treaty of Rome actually says on direct elections:
"The Assembly shall draw up proposals for elections by direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all Member States."
That is a legal obligation on the Assembly, not on member States. Article 138 then states:
"The Council shall, acting unanimously, lay down the appropriate provisions, which it shall recommend to Member States for adoption in accordance with their respective constitutional requirements."
That is an obligation on the Council, not on the member States. Therefore, in the treaty, there is no obligation whatever on member States or on their Parliaments, which are perfectly free to do what they think right on the merits of the case. A recommendation from the Council is not, of course, binding.

Thirdly, no date is mentioned in the treaty by which direct elections have to be held. The White Paper quite rightly points out that the Community has carried on for 19 years without direct elections, and, as far as treaty obligations are concerned it could continue to do so as long as it wishes.

I think that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will agree that even the agreement that Ministers reached in the Council in September 1976 to name the date of May 1978 for direct elections was not a formal decision with legal effect but was simply a political commitment of the Ministers represented there. That, in effect, is what he told us today. But Article 138 says clearly that the elections to be held are to be by
"direct universal suffrage in accordance with a uniform procedure in all member States."
What is now proposed is not a uniform procedure at all. Therefore, far from being asked to carry out an obligation of the treaty, we are in fact being asked to act in a way that is contrary to the treaty.

I have the valuable testimony of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary to that effect, when I asked him in the House on 22nd December, when he was Minister of State, whether the Government's proposals would honour the conditions of a uniform procedure. He gave this illuminating answer:
"It will not be the first case, or the last, I suspect, when the literal interpretation of the Treaty of Rome is not followed."—[Official Report, 22nd December 1976; Vol. 923, c. 667.]
Since my right hon. Friend said that he has been made Foreign Secretary, so I suppose that he must have been right.

So do not let us have any dishonest pretence that we are bound to these proposals by the treaty, when the truth is that on any fair interpretation it is very doubtful whether they are in accordance with the treaty at all.

Next, there is no mandate for direct elections from the referendum. The electorate plainly voted in the referendum on the understanding that these further proposals would be a matter for Parliament to decide. I think that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary agreed with that today, and if he did I welcome it. Before the referendum the Government published, in March 1975, a White Paper on the results of renegotiation. It said of direct elections only this:
"If British membership is confirmed, any scheme for direct elections to the European Assembly would require an Act of Parliament."
That clearly must mean that Parliament has the right to say "Yes" or "No" when the time comes.

Then, in the referendum itself, the Government's own referendum manifesto, which was pushed through every door in the country at public expense, made no mention whatever of direct elections. I am sure that the members of the Government are all honourable men. If they thought that the referendum authorised us to proceed to direct elections, they would clearly have said so in the prospectus that was distributed to the country at the time of the referendum. They did not do so, however. In that manifesto they said, in the section on the powers of Parliament:
"No important new policy can be decided in Brussels or anywhere else without the consent of a British Minister answerable to a British Government and British Parliament … Thus our continued membership will depend on the continuing assent of Parliament".
That again means that this Parliament is perfectly free to say what it thinks right one way or the other.

When the right hon. Gentleman was speaking on this theme on 7th February he also referred to this aspect and to Article 138. Does he agree that since he stated then, from the quotation, that any proposal must ultimately be acceptable to the Parliaments of all the States, if there is a majority in the House for the direct elections Bill he will enthusiastically support it?

I shall do what I hope the hon. Gentleman does, and that is to accept the decisions of the House about Bills even if I do not agree with them. I should have thought that that was clear.

I have quoted the assurance that was given to the electorate at the time of the referendum. Any pretence now that direct elections were authorised by the referendum would be just another manoeuvre in this long and rather murky story. The record surely proves that Parliament is now perfectly free to decide what is right on the merits of the case. Parliament has the duty to do that. It is worth considering, therefore, what those merits are.

I am a little puzzled by the right hon. Gentleman's last remark. If my memory serves me correctly, the anti-Marketeers circulated several leaflets during the referendum campaign saying that the campaign was related to the question of a directly elected European Parliament. If the anti-Marketeers said that, it surely implies that the decision by the country by an overwhelming majority to stay in Europe should decide this matter.

The hon. Member is both incorrect and irrelevant. The important fact is the manifesto that the Government put before the electorate.

I come now to the merits of the case. I believe that we are now being faced with the fundamental dilemma that arises with a supranational, as opposed to an international, institution, a dilemma that has underlain this whole controversy. It is this: that a supranational body must be either undemocratic or it must be federal. If the legislative body is unelected, it is undemocratic. But if it is elected it is, of course, a federal system.

Direct elections are being urged upon us by those who support them precisely because they are a big step towards a federal system. It is no good anyone pretending that they are not. We have the authority of a publication called "Facts". It is one of the many glossy mouthpieces of the European Movement, which is the holy of holies in this whole operation. In the July and August issue of this paper last year the European Movement said:
"In 2 years' time member countries of the Community will elect their first European Parliament. This historic decision represents the first step towards the creation of the United States of Europe."
Of course, direct elections represent such a step, but that is not what the electorate voted for. Even my right hon. Friend, now the Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection, agreed in this House after the referendum that it was not a vote for merging this country in a federation.

It is also worth remembering now that the whole purport of Hugh Gaitskell's memorable speech in October 1962 was that, if the merging of this country into a federation was proposed, the explicit assent of the electorate was essential.

Let us then consider the real practical consequences of direct elections. If they meant anything at all, it would be to diminish the power and authority of this House, and therefore of the British electorate, over legislation and decisions, which affect their daily lives. At present nobody disputes that Ministers are responsible to this House for what they do and for what they accept in Brussels, just as they are for what they do and accept anywhere else.

We often argue that this House has not as much control and influence over the Executive as we should wish, but at least it has some control. Ministerial responsibility here is a reality. The last six months have proved that by its decisions this House can control to a very great extent what the Government are doing, both in terms of some of the legislation we have had, and of the actions of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture in Brussels in the last few weeks.

But what if we set up a rival elected Parliament elsewhere? Ministers will say that we may not like certain things, but that the Strasbourg Assembly has approved them, and that therefore Ministers do not care what we at Westminster may say. Does anybody really think that the British electorate will have comparable control over what happens in Strasbourg? Do we really think that a group of British Assembly men, each representing about half a million voters and totalling a minority of about one-fifth of the Strasbourg Assembly, can really exercise decisive control over what the Council and the Commission do? If ever there was a case of abandoning the substance for the shadow, this is it.

If, therefore, we are to remain members of the EEC, true democratic control is control at Westminster of British Ministers and what they do at the Council in Brussels. That is the heart of the matter.

Then there is the question of timing. At present Greece, Spain and Portugal are all seeking membership. As long as they are democratic countries, the EEC has no right to refuse their membership. Do we want to pass legislation setting up an elaborate system of constituencies, members, and national quotas. and then find that we have to unravel it again in a year or two because of the admission of a number of new member States?

On top of all this it is being suggested by the right hon. Member for Knutsford that we should rush into a new electoral system. If I understood him correctly, he said that we should introduce, half-heartedly and by the back door, some form of proportional representation into these elections. But whichever system of proportional representation is selected, it means that more power and patronage is given to the party machines. In this case it will involve offering people jobs with salaries of £25,000 a year, or something like that. That means that the public will be voting increasingly for parties rather than individuals. I am wholly opposed to moving any further down that road. I should have thought that we had enough examples recently in some of the Honours Lists, of what nomination and patronage can mean, even without the £25,000-a-year jobs being involved. Hon. Members may think that that is unfair, and an argument adhominem or perhaps ad feminam. But I seriously do not believe that this is an attractive prospect to introduce by the back door.

Whether one looks dispassionately at the grievous damage done to our whole economy by the CAP and the common fisheries policy, or at the danger that these present to the possibility of a pay agreement at present, the fact is that this has all happened because we joined the EEC. Do not let us, therefore, walk gratuitously further into this quagmire, until at least we know that the CAP has been drastically reformed, until the new member countries have joined, and, above all, until the British electorate has explicitly said "Yes" or "No".

4.54 p.m.

I welcome the fact that the Government have published this White Paper. It is absolutely right that they should set out the options. Also, I am glad that we are having this debate on the motion for the Adjournment. I hope that when the debate ends on Monday there is no possibility of the Government putting down a motion on which we can vote. It would not be right for the House to take a vote on this matter at this time.

I think that the Government are absolutely right about coming to a firm conclusion on Northern Ireland. For the rest, I know what a heavy burden the Foreign Secretary has carried since he took up his office, particularly in the last 10 days. But I do wish that he had taken a more positive and forward-looking view rather than appearing to fight a long rearguard action on the question of federalism. I have long believed that whether we have a federal organisation or con-federalism, this is not the argument here.

I agree with the Foreign Secretary that we shall develop our own institutions to meet our own needs. That is what is happening now. I do not think that when the founding fathers began the EEC they thought that the Commission would become a Government. They could not have believed that Europe would accept a non-elected body as a Government. But they though that the Commission could provide proposals on which elected Ministers could take decisions, and amend or reject them. They set up a machinery by which the system could be made to work.

If we look at how the system has developed over the last five years, we see that in 1972 the Heads of Government came together for the first time and planned to meet the second time in 1976. However, they had to meet in 1973 because of the oil crisis, and then they agreed to have meetings every six months. Now the meetings are held every four months. This is an example of the organisation developing in a way that was not allowed for in the Treaty. But it is functioning and it would be impossible for the Community to work without it.

After this debate speedy action is required. Those who are trying to delay and procrastinate are wrong. I am reminded of 1973 when this House wanted to make a change in Northern Ireland. A major White Paper was published on 20th March, the legislation was law by the end of May and the elections took place on 13th June. That included a change to an electoral system of proportional representation. When this House makes up its mind to achieve something it can be done, and done quickly. I hope that the Government will give a lead from now on.

I have great sympathy with my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies), who spoke of the technical problems facing us in deciding on the system by which the elections will be pursued. It is due to the limitations of the House's procedure that if there are four main options open to us on which the House wants to take a decision, there is a problem how we can vote on them. This is a reflection on the procedures of the House. There is no device by which we can take decisions on alternative proposals. We can have one vote on an alternative and if it is carried a substantive motion is overruled. If it is defeated the substantive motion is then carried or defeated. There are two options only. The Government should devote their mind fairly speedily to the question how the House can be given an opportunity of taking decisions on up to four options on the electoral system required.

We shall not be excused for delaying. Other countries have been cited as possible members who are not prepared to take part, but that excuse is no longer open to us. Mention has been made of France, the Republic of Ireland and Belgium, but they are all prepared to take part, even if they delay. In my view, in this case we should give a lead. One of the fields in which Europe expected us to give a lead was in parliamentary affairs. Our European partners recognise that in our financial and economic difficulties we cannot come forward with proposals other than those that are in our own interests, but in parliamentary affairs we have much to give Europe.

The Community must be made democratic. I respect the views of those who thought that we should not go into the EEC, and I am glad to hear the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) say that he has accepted the verdict of the House and the referendum. We are in the Community and we are there to stay. However, I fail completely to comprehend those who accept that we are in the EEC but refuse to make that organisation more democratic by holding direct elections. One allegation of those who opposed our entry was the fact that the EEC was an undemocratic organisation. Now that it is proposed to make it more democratic these very same people are doing their utmost to stop further development.

The right hon. Gentleman asked a specific question. The answer is that it cannot become fully democratic unless the Assembly becomes a Parliament of a new federal State with all the powers that go with it. That is the answer we would give. Will the right hon. Gentleman say why in the 1971 White Paper issued by his Government he did not refer to the obligation which he claims to direct elections?

With great respect, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman listened to my remarks with his usual care. I did not say that there was the obligation of direct elections. I said that I believed the House should give a lead to make the Community more democratic and that other countries in the Community expected us to do so.

Where I differ from the hon. Gentleman and from the right hon. Member for Battersea, North, is that I do not agree that the existence of a directly elected Assembly will create a federal organisation. I do not think that any constitutional lawyer or historian in this country or in Europe would say that to have a directly elected Assembly makes it a federal organisation. Nothing could be further from the truth. I wish to deal later with the other argument—namely, whether this will automatically lead to a federal Assembly.

It is right that legislation is required to bring in direct elections. I do not understand why the right hon. Member for Battersea, North is making such a fuss. He will get his legislation and can express his view. I believe that we should deal with the matter on its merits. Let us not say that this will create federalism, because it will not. Let us deal with the merits of the case. It will create elected Members who will have more democratic control over the Commission and the Council of Ministers.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the House is not bound or committed by the treaty but is free to act on the main issue of the holding of direct elections?

I have the treaty with me. The Council makes a recommendation. The right hon. Gentleman is right to suggest that this has not been an official recommendation by the Council of Ministers, but is an agreement by the Heads of Government. I repeat that I do not understand what he is complaining about. The fact that it is a recommendation by the Heads of Government means that it is not bound up with Article 138, which is the other part of the treaty which the right hon. Gentleman has quoted. If and when the Council of Ministers makes an official recommendation, the question of uniformity will come into play, but the matter has been handled in a different way. Therefore, in many ways the situation is much more satisfactory. It gives flexibility to member Parliaments to decide how they will have their own elections. Since the right hon. Gentleman is always complaining about rigidity within the Community, I am sure that he welcomes this additional flexibility which is being put into effect.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that whether the procedure in Article 138 has been followed, this House is still free to take a decision on the principle whether to hold direct elections?

Yes, of course. What I have not been clear about when Labour Members have been shouting loudly on these aspects is why they wish to reopen the whole principle whether we should remain members of the Community. That is not the point. What we are now seeking to settle is the principle whether to have direct elections.

I believe that some of the problems that beset Labour Members, and indeed some of my hon. Friends, arise from a misunderstanding—the belief that direct elections will transfer power to the European Community. Some interventions in this debate by Labour Members have confirmed that impression. I must tell those hon. Gentlemen that direct elections do not transfer any power to the Community. The sovereignty pooled was transferred by the Treaty of Accession and was confirmed by this House through legislation, and the country through the referendum also confirmed the situation. We must decide whether to have a directly elected Assembly, and whether it is to have greater power and support to help it in the Community with the sovereignty that has already been pooled. That is the issue with which we are dealing.

I do not see how anybody with any experience of our democratic parliamentary background can doubt that we should have directly elected Members who can deal in the Community with that pooled sovereignty. It has not affected the way in which this House deals with sovereignty through the Council of Ministers and through ministerial committees.

I sum up this part of the matter by saying that direct elections, in my judgment, will change the balance of power within the Community but will not change the balance between the Community and member countries. I believe that there is a change which should be brought about in the balance within the Community. If power were to be changed, it could come about only by a change in the traditions and it can be ratified only by every member Parliament of the nine countries. Nor will direct elections in any way decrease the power of this House in overseeing instructions issued by the Commission, nor will they change the machinery, because that is entirely within our influence.

The right hon. Gentleman said that direct elections would change the balance of power within the Community institutions by increasing the relative power of the Assembly. Will he indicate which of the institutions will relatively lose power? Will it be the Commission or the Council of Ministers, or both?

I believe that it will be the Commission. I believe that an elected Assembly will bring much more influence to bear in the way in which we carry out our rôle in this House through challenge, debate and questions. That process can be directed at the Commission. I also believe that it will bring influence to bear on the Council of Ministers. In many ways this is desirable because it will be supplemental to the influence which national Parliaments bring to bear on their own Ministers. [Interruption.] I hear the babble among Labour Members, but there are many matters that are of common interest to all members of the Community. Community life is not just a question of nine constant battles between members. The one thing that a European Assembly can do is to influence the Council of Ministers in matters which are of common concern to all countries.

With great respect, it is not federalism, and it is a loose use of language to suggest that it is.

I have been dealing with the negative arguments, and I shall now attempt to put the positive arguments on direct elections. I shall briefly add one further negative argument. In regard to this Parliament, I do not believe that the system of indirect elections is workable. The combination of trying to serve in Westminster and in the European Assembly is not bearable, and I wish to add my tribute to Peter Kirk, who gave everything he had to the services of the Assembly, this House and Europe.

The first thing that direct elections will do is to give the Assembly greater status within the Community. That is desirable. Europeans want to see that they have directly-elected Members with proper status. Secondly, it will give greater influence over the Commission. Thirdly, it will afford greater influence over the Council of Ministers. Fourthly—and this is a most important matter—it will give the opportunity to constituents to lobby their European Assembly men, and constituents will be able to write to their representatives demanding that they should attend meetings, in exactly the same way as they demand such attendance from local councillors or Members of Parliament. That, too, is desirable. It will certainly be welcomed by industry and agriculture. They feel that this is a gap in the contacts which they have with representatives in Europe.

Fifthly, it will give the Community greater status and distinction in the eyes of the rest of the Western world and in the eyes of developing countries. That also is desirable. The Community already has agreements with 47 developing countries, and it is desirable that they should see the Assembly as represented by those who are directly elected.

I turn to the subject of systems, and I propose to declare my own views. The first-past-the-post system would produce constituencies of half a million people. That is in no way out of the question. There are other countries, including Commonwealth countries, that have constituencies much larger than that. But what I do not find acceptable is that with a constituency of 500,000 people the matter should be settled by one vote first past the post. We have a large number of constituencies—there are 630—and we have accepted that on the whole matters will average themselves out. However, with 81 constituencies the public will not take that view. The public have an instinct in these matters and I do not believe they will be prepared to accept a situation in which a considerable proportion of the 81 constituencies of half a million people may be settled by a very small majority on a first-past-the-post basis.

Secondly, I think that such a system would prevent smaller parties from being represented. I cannot believe that that is in the long-term interests of democracy. Such a system might appeal to the two major parties at any particular time but it cannot be in the long-term interests of parliamentary democracy.

I have heard the argument that if we allow the smaller parties a chance the National Front will come forward. I find that a contemptible argument. In any case, it is a matter that can be dealt with, as it is in the Federal Republic and in many other countries, by having a percentage limitation that has to be jumped before a party can go forward.

I do not wish to deal with the National Front in that way. The way to deal with the National Front is the way of dealing with all things that are objectionable in politics—namely, to out-argue it, out-manoeuvre it and beat it at the polls. That is what I want to do. It is a contemptible argument to say that we should not give small parties a chance because of the National Front.

The third reason is that with constituencies of half a million people the system will be open to widespread distortion, taking the country as a whole. It is said that we might get wide swings from election to election. Some of us have had experience of such swings since the creation of the GLC and the metropolitan boroughs. Originally the elections were every three years. They are now every four years. Instead of getting gradual changes and policies accepted we are getting wide swings. It means that in the term available policy cannot be created and implemented before there is a wide swing in the opposite direction. Policy is not implemented because the system produces wide swings. I am not arguing about who introduced the system. It is sometimes suggested that I should learn one or two lessons. This is one lesson that I have learned. I believe that we should not take this risk in respect of European elections.

My fourth reason for thinking that the first-past-the-post system is not acceptable is that in the rest of the Community, and in the rest of the Western world, it will be thought to be an unrepresentative system. That cannot be healthy for us, or for our standing in Europe or in the Western world.

My fifth reason is that I think there will probably be a change to a unified system in the next round of elections. No one can conceive that other countries in Europe will move to the first-past-the-post system. Therefore, it is better for us to make a move towards what will be a more representative system for 81 constituencies rather than saying, that we must do what we have always done in the past.

My right hon. Friend has indicated that there might be a change later towards a unified system in Europe which will not be a first-past-the-post system. To avoid confusion, would it not be better to keep to one system this first time and to change to the agreed unified system when that comes about? If we do not follow that course, there will have to be two changes.

I appreciate the importance of my right hon. Friend's point but I do not agree with him. First, I think that the other arguments I have advanced far outweigh the one that he has quoted—namely, the undesirability of making a change twice. Secondly, if we make a change which proves acceptable, we have a far greater chance of persuading the rest of the Community to move towards it than we shall ever have of influencing them if we continue to operate the first-past-the-post system. In future it is important that we should be able to influence the Community in that way.

My sixth argument is against those who say that the people will not be able to understand it, which is the argument at which my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford hinted. I cannot accept that. When we changed the system in Ireland it was only three months from White Paper to election. Northern Ireland had first-past-the-post elections and then there was a change. The people of Northern Ireland were able to understand it in the short time of three months. I do not understand why it is argued that the rest of the electorate in the British Isles will not be able to understand a change of system.

The other argument that is put forward is that if we do anything different from that which we do at this moment we shall have to change the electoral system at Westminster. I understand that argument when it is put forward by those who may be particularly interested, but as my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford has said, here at Westminster we have a different purpose. We are here to see that a Government are created and supported. We are also here to legislate. That is not the case at the European Assembly. Those are two major functions that the European Assembly does not have to carry out. Whatever system we have for the European Assembly, it does not mean that it has to be adopted here. If by any chance it was thought to be a better system than the one we have at present, I do not see any problem. If it does not turn out to be so good, we can keep our present system.

There are alternative systems and I do not wish to be dogmatic. I am prepared to be influenced by argument, but the argument will have to be specific. My own view is that a regional list is better than a first-past-the-post system or a national list. I believe that a regional list would be more representative than the first-past-the-post system. I believe it would be preferable to a national list because the list would be shorter and more manageable. Those are two powerful reasons for giving serious consideration to a regional list.

A regional list is closer to the systems adopted by other countries, with the one exception of Eire. I understand that what will happen in some of the other Community countries is that when the election has taken place the Members in each party elected will agree among themselves as to the part of the area for which they will have responsibility. Surely that is a natural course to follow from the point of view of a party organisation once Members have been elected. If a Member does not represent a party when elected, he can announce whether he will look after the whole region or make an arrangement with someone else. This system gives the opportunity of having a type of constituency representation on a regional basis.

There is the additional member system, in which the Member's constituency would be very much larger than half a million. It would probably be 1 million. After the election it could be topped up from the list to give a proportional effect. There is the drawback that the constituency will be very much larger. I do not think it has any advantage over the regional list system. There will still have to be a list for topping-up purposes. I do not see that it has any advantage over a straightforward regional list election in which everyone can see for whom they are voting and the subsequent result.

Reference has been made to the danger of party influence. Of course this is a danger. It is one that we already recognise. We have seen it recently on both sides of the House—namely, the dangers in a constituency system of party choice. The way to deal with the danger is to ensure that we have an active democracy in terms of the people who are choosing. If we are to combine constituency representatives to make a choice for the region, that can be just as representative and democratic as constituency selection may or may not be.

The argument is not about the fact that there will be party influence but how it is handled, either in a constituency or from the centre. We should devote our attention to ensuring that there is a democratic way of dealing with these affairs. This is a matter that has been under discussion recently.

Many people have been discussing whether we should have primaries in elections. That is something that can be discussed further. In exactly the same way, the Foreign Secretary did not seem to realise that a great debate is now taking place throughout the country about federalism. That has been brought about by devolution and the problems that that has caused. It has also been brought about by those who believe that we should have a Bill of Rights inscribed into a federal system to maintain the liberties of individual citizens. The debate will continue. The debate about whether we can ensure democratic choice in terms of the list will continue as well. We must face the fact that other democracies do it extremely successfully. We ought to adopt some of the flexibility that we find elsewhere.

I want to deal with two other points. The first is the dual mandate. It clearly cannot be compulsory. On the other hand, I hope that the option can be kept open. It is possible that from time to time people will be members of both Westminster and the Assembly. That option will be kept open in the rest of the Community. Of course, other member States' representatives will have fewer problems, because the distances involved are smaller and often they are close at hand. It is up to them if they are prepared to do it. However, I hope that we shall keep that option open.

The second point concerns the importance of contact between Westminster and the Assembly. The Select Committee suggested that our Members of the European Assembly could meet Members of the House in a Grand Committee or that they could have seats automatically in the House of Lords for the period for which they were elected to the Assembly.

I do not regard that as sufficient. As this House is concerned with most of the matters dealt with by the Commission and the Council of Ministers, it is not satisfactory to have European representatives from the Assembly in the House of Lords. Nor do I think that a Grand Committee meeting is adequate for today's circumstances. Therefore, I make what is probably the most controversial proposal of all, which will produce an even greater outcry from below the Gangway—that those directly elected to the European Assembly should have the right to sit and speak in this House, but not the right to vote. I believe that would be an effective way of ensuring that they know the views of this House and that on European questions they would have the opportunity of explaining—

Perhaps I could finish the sentence first. On European questions they would have the opportunity of explaining here what action they had been taking in the European Assembly. Because of the nature of the task, it is unlikely that they will be able to attend this House, except on important European matters. I believe that will be more effective than having them sitting in the House of Lords or in a Grand Committee.

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for giving way. I believe that he has made an interesting suggestion. However, in practical terms, if we had 81 Members of the European Parliament sitting in this House, with our present system of Mr. Speaker calling Front-Bench speakers, then Privy Councillors by tradition of right, ex-Ministers and leaders of minority parties, when would an ordinary Back Bencher get into a debate at all?

I shall not be led down that path by my hon. Friend. That point has been made repeatedly since I came into the House in 1950 and it is still being made. It is a question for Mr. Speaker. We must recognise that a proportion has to be kept between all these matters. I think that my hon. Friend was hinting that I should draw my remarks to a close as soon as possible, and I shall immediately do so.

This matter has proved a challenge to Parliaments throughout the Community, and they are dealing with it flexibly. They look to us to do the same. We ought to try to discuss and work out among ourselves the best form of representation possible. The Government should then find a means by which we can express our views in concrete terms through the procedure of the House.

If we do not carry a Bill for direct elections now, if we prevent the rest of the Community from having the form of democracy that it wants, we shall be failing not only ourselves but the Community.

5.24 p.m.

I listened with great interest to the speech by the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath). The right hon. Gentleman suggested that we should add to the burdens of this House by allowing the 81 Members who will represent us in the European Parliament to sit here. One of the difficulties that are often put forward is that Members who go to the European Parliament now do not have sufficient time to devote to their Westminster and European duties. I do not know whether they would have time to be in this House, and of course, they would not be accountable as Members are today.

The right hon. Gentleman said that elected Members at Strasbourg would take some power away from the Commission and would, therefore, have some effect on the Council of Ministers. If they have some effect on the Council of Ministers will that not lessen the effect that this House has on the Council of Ministers? We should be faced with the situation outlined by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) in a very thoughtful speech—namely, that when we debate European matters we should be told by the Minister that a decision had already been arrived at in Strasbourg. However it is dressed up and however attractive the package is made—the right hon. Member for Sidcup tried to make the package attractive from his point of view—it means that we shall lose some democracy from this House. That is what we are debating today.

Whatever was said prior to the referendum, either in the White Paper or in the pamphlet that was issued, what was not discussed was a federal political union. Whichever way pro-Europeans may put it, this is a step along that road. It would be better for such Members to be honest with this House. If they said that it would be a step towards a federal Europe, that would be honest. Some pro-Europeans—I fully understand their argument, but it is not as strong as it was a few years ago—still deny that this is a step towards a federal Europe, but at the same time try to take us gradually in that direction. The White Paper on renegotiation stated that the Government did not accept any commitment to any kind of federal structure in Europe.

The pre-referendum pamphlet on Britain's new deal in Europe made no mention of direct elections. Indeed, it made great play of the right of veto on the Council of Ministers and the continued assent of Parliament as a condition of our continued membership of the EEC. At the time of the referendum, those opposed to the Common Market tried to point out that this could be one of the dangers which would result from membership. On the other side there was a complete denial of that assertion, or the argument was not pursued. That is the position in which we now find ourselves.

I accept that the British people overwhelmingly agreed to go into the Common Market. However, I find that, not only in my constituency, but in contacts with people in all parts of the country, people are completely disillusioned with the Common Market. They are absolutely fed up with it. They question—they have the right to question—what benefits we get from membership. Indeed, as far as I can see, direct elections represent a dead issue. People just do not want to know about them. Many who devoted a great deal of time and effort to the referendum campaign are now saying that our entry was the worst step that we ever took. Far from wishing to tie themselves closer to Europe they want to know whether they will ever have another opportunity to pull out of the EEC.

I agree that the right hon. Member for Sidcup was trying to overcome the problems. I understand what he meant when he talked about the 81 European Members also being Members of this House without voting rights, but that would mean that we would be setting up two types of elected representatives. I foresee that there will be all sorts of strains and difficulties between those Members and those of us with constituency responsibilities and with constituents to look after, and that frustrations will arise if there is an elected Assembly in Strasbourg. We shall have less power over decisions taken in Strasbourg.

I can see problems arising because European Members will have salaries of £25,000 a year, and they will be elected from a regional list, or they will have constituencies of 500,000 people. They will have little contact with the people who have elected them. The contact would be even less as a result of a list system than as a result of election on a regional basis. I do not know how a European Member would try to look after those who had elected him, but I cannot see that he would have many dealings with them. The people who would be seeking out these European Members and attempting to be in constant touch with them would be the powerful vested interests who would be setting up lobbies. There would be an industrial lobby, a fanning lobby and, no doubt, an oil lobby with its eyes on North Sea oil. Those are the people who would be interested in the Members of the European Parliament—not the ordinary people, who would find such Members remote, and the decisions taken in Strasbourg even more remote.

There is another danger. Many of us said during the referendum debate that we could see our powers at Westminster passing to Strasbourg and that the powers remaining here would be gradually taken away. In the end we would be left with not many more powers than those of an ordinary county council. I still think that that could be a danger that might arise through what is happening now. Some of us believe that this could happen as a result of a wrong decision. If it happened the public would wake up and there would be a backlash from the British people. They would want no part of it, and they would say that they wanted to be in control of their own destiny. Those views were put at the time of the referendum and they were thought by some to be extreme, but, because of steps that we have taken, we can now see that it could come about.

At the time of the referendum the Labour Party machine did not play a substantial r—le either regionally or nationally. I am not too sure about the Conservative Party machine, although I think that did the same. Despite that, there was a substantial poll. However, if European Members were elected through regional lists or large constituencies I doubt that people would turn out to vote. There would not be enough interest in those elections. We all know that there is not enough interest at present, and that people feel remote from the decisions taken by county councils. There are usually low polls in county council elections.

The situation would be worse if elections were extended to large constituencies or regional lists and if electors were asked to vote for a representative to have consultative powers in Europe. People would show little interest. Yet these Members would be powerful, and responsible to nobody. I cannot for the life of me see how this can be a step towards a democratic Europe. Taking away powers from this House is a step away from democracy, and the people of this country know it.

I understand the commitment that some people have to Europe, and I admire their enthusiasm, but I cannot understand how they can show enthusiasm for a body that has been shown to fail on every occasion. The right hon. Member for Sidcup said that Heads of Government met regularly, nearly every four months, but he did not go on to talk about the results of those meetings. They hardly agree on anything or on any policies. I have never understood the point of having meetings if they do not achieve anything. So we see a Europe in disarray. Although I understand the enthusiasm that some people have for Europe I do not understand why they want to rush us into the next stage of direct elections so soon.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North rightly pointed out that other nations now want to join the EEC—Spain, Portugal and Greece. Would it not be better to stand back and to wait to see whether they are accepted? I can see no reason why they should not join. They are all moving towards being democratic countries. If they joined the EEC we should then have to start all over again with the distribution of seats at Strasbourg.

This is far too important a constitutional decision to be rushed. I begin to wonder what activates those who want to move us towards direct elections so quickly and why they should say "Whatever the result, let us get it done and done quickly". Whenever something is done so quickly, it is usually a bodged job. This would certainly be far from perfect. Why can we not stand back, take our time, look at the matter carefully, hear all the arguments and work out the best possible system, instead of going headlong into this and setting a date? Why should we be rushing to meet a timetable?

I say to those in favour of direct elections that that is not the way that they should work things out if they want the backing of the British people. That is the way to create hostility to direct elections. All this is being proceeded with far too quickly. I doubt that we are committed to direct elections, and there are many hon. Members on both sides who feel the same. Instead of rushing towards direct elections we should think carefully before taking such a step. We should think not only of the immediate consequences for this House, but of the long-term consequences of a shift of power from Westminster and the first step towards a federal Europe. I do not believe that the British people are prepared to accept that.

The hon. Gentleman referred earlier to the remuneration of members of the Assembly. Does he not feel that the differential between the salary of hon. Members and the pay proposed for Assembly Members will cause considerable conflict and that those who go to Europe will have the grandeur, the glory and the gravy train while hon. Members here will have to do all the work and receive a pittance for doing it?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As a good trade unionist, I have noticed this aspect, and, if pay is to be related to work load, I shall put in a claim, when we return shortly to free collective bargaining, for double the salary paid to Members of the Assembly. If they are worth £25,000, any hon. Member is worth double. We shall be taking all the responsibilities, while they will be responsible to no one, except the powerful lobbies which will be pursuing them. I can promise the hon. Gentleman that I shall do all I can to see that we get the right salary level in comparison with the people who go to Europe.

It will not be opportune to have direct elections in 1978, however they are organised. The British people would not thank us for them.

Rather than tying us more closely to Europe, the Prime Minister—if he wants to win the next General Election—should be thinking of ways to get us out of Europe. We have received no benefits from the EEC, and I cannot see how we ever shall derive any benefit.

5.43 p.m.

I strongly suspect that even if the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Hoyle) were given all the time in the world for contemplation of this proposal, he would still come out against it. He is rather like the sinner who said "Cure me of sin, O Lord, but not yet". The hon. Gentleman's argument that we should have more time to consider the matter—during which time he would breach phase 3 and put in an equalisation grant for himself and his colleagues—carries rather less conviction than the arguments that we usually hear from him.

Our last debate on this issue was on 25th March and those who were here will remember poignantly the speech by Peter Kirk. I was privileged to be an undergraduate at the same college with Peter Kirk and I was up at the same time as his wife Elizabeth. I have known them for 30 years. Peter Kirk has always been one of my closest friends and colleagues in the House. I pay a very warm tribute to the selfless way in which he helped to maintain a British presence in Europe and to the part he played to restore the balance in Europe in which the British voice could be heard. I extend very deep sympathy to his wife and sons.

I shall leave the Government to convince their own supporters on the juridical argument. It goes without saying that there can be no direct elections without the necessary legislation being passed by the House, but to those who disagree with the Government I say that although Article 138 and the treaty are not strictly binding in law unless confirmed by this House, it has been customary for the past two or three centuries for treaties entered into by Governments to be more often confirmed than rejected by the House. It is extremely unlikely that the House would ever reject a treaty solemnly entered into by the Government of the day.

At no stage when the Labour Party was in opposition was there a suggestion that we should repeal the Treaty of Accession by which we adhere to the Treaty of Rome. Labour spokesmen merely said that they would renegotiate the treaty to see whether better terms could be obtained. Nor was there any suggestion in Labour manifestos that the treaty would be repealed.

I wish to concentrate on the dual mandate and the electoral system. In our debate last month, Peter Kirk referred to the obligatory consultations that have to take place with the European Assembly. There are certain matters on which the Assembly has to express an opinion before the Council of Ministers can act. Peter Kirk instanced the case of our two-day agriculture debate before the Copenhagen meeting of the Council of Ministers on agriculture. Because of the vicissitudes of this House and the fact that we were having a major debate here, it was difficult for the debate to take place in the Assembly, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that it was spatchcocked into the Assembly. If it had not been, the Council of Ministers would not have been able to take a decision.

The second example was that on 1st January funds might be levied by the Community. That would require a quorum of half the Members to be present with at least two-thirds voting in favour. That means that a high turn-out of members would be needed at the Assembly. It is not for us to say whether dual membership of this House and the Assembly shortened Peter Kirk's life or was the main cause of his death, but we can say that if the Assembly is to have ever greater control over the Community and the Commission, the civil servants of the Community, it will be increasingly difficult for Members to serve in both Houses.

I agree with the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath) that we should leave open the possibility of dual membership, but it would be disastrous to make it mandatory and I do not believe that we could have two classes of Members in this House—one European and the other non-European.

I found the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) a little coy about the electoral system. He suggested that he wanted a debate and a vote first and enunciated what we may in future call Davies's Doctrine, namely "No vote, no views". Remembering the right hon. Gentleman's distinguished predecessor, I must say that it was never like that in Sir Walter Bromley-Davenport's day and I must warn the right hon. Gentleman that if this coyness continues, I shall be making strong efforts to see that Sir Walter is brought back at the next General Election, even if he has to stand as an independent.

The House may be surprised to hear that I shall be saying slightly more than the right hon. Member for Knutsford about the electoral system. The White Paper sets out the options with complete frankness and fairness and it details the defects of all the systems, because none of them is perfect.

I hope that the House will agree that there are certain criteria which we should seek to achieve in whatever system is used. The first is fairness of outcome. I cannot see that it is a merit of a system to be unfair, and therefore fairness should be one of the factors borne in mind. Secondly, we should consider the ease and speed with which a system can be introduced. This is not the only test, but it is a factor in favour of any system. Thirdly, there should be some guarantee that the system we use does not artificially distort the balance between the different party groups in the European Assembly. To do that would do grave damage to the democratic reputation of this country.

I say straight away that by these three tests the first-past-the-post system for the European elections is, in my view, condemned out of hand. It would produce a perfectly ludicrous result in the European Parliament, on the assumption, which I do not concede, that we could even be ready in time to hold elections under that system. I propose to say why.

The Government gave away the game in paragraph 24 of the White Paper. It was the one point on which I tried to get the right hon. Member for Knutsford committed, and even on that he was not very forthcoming. Paragraph 24 states
"Whatever electoral system is used in the rest of the United Kingdom for direct elections to the European Assembly, the Government considers that the special circumstances of Northern Ireland would make it appropriate for direct elections there to be conducted by a system of proportional representation."
Of course, in saying that they were merely giving expression to the actions of the previous Conservative Government in 1973 when they reintroduced the system of PR in Northern Ireland. Why? What is wrong with the first-past-the-post system which, to quote the White Paper,
"has stood the test of time."?
It is as English as roast beef, cricket and hanging, and is equally good for the character. The Government and the Opposition know why the first-past-the-post system had to go, and go very rapidly—because it could not guarantee fair representation for the Roman Catholic minority. That is the first point. The second reason is that there were constant allegations of gerrymandering, many of which were wholly true. Thirdly, without question it caused a polarisation between extremes.

When the summit conference took place, Mr. Cosgrove indicated that he hoped that, since there would be an increase in seats all round, enabling Britain to have 81 seats, there would be three seats for Northern Ireland. The obvious expectation was that the Catholic minority, which represents two-fifths of the community, would be entitled to at least one of those three seats. But, of course, under the first-past-the-post system this is very unlikely to happen.

There are 12 Westminster seats and if we group them into three groups of four, which is what we shall probably have to do under the first-past-the-post system, there is no contiguous group of four where the Catholic-based parties can win. The closest would be Fermanagh, South Tyrone, Londonderry and Mid-Ulster. But even in that area, where there are the most concentrated numbers of Catholic-based votes, in nine General Elections the total Catholic vote has been smaller than the Protestant vote. I therefore do not believe that under the first-past-the-post system the Roman Catholic minority would be fairly represented.

The right hon. Gentleman is jumping to a lot of hasty conclusions in putting forward those statistics. In fact a lot of Catholics support Unionist candidates.