§ Order for Second Reading read.4.27 pm
§ The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. William Whitelaw)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
This is a short and concise Bill in one substantive clause. It amends the provisions of the European Assembly Elections Act 1978 so that Parliament would have to approve Orders in Council establishing new constituency boundaries for elections to this House before the Boundary Commissions can commence their reviews of the consequential new boundaries for elections to the European Parliament. It relieves the Boundary Commissions of the obligation imposed on them in a schedule to the 1978 Act, introduced by the last Administration, to submit simultaneous reports on the European parliamentary constituencies with their reports on constituencies for this House. The consideration of European parliamentary constituency boundaries will now be a separate task, more firmly based on completed work on our own parliamentary boundaries. In deciding to bring forward the Bill, I believe that it will provide a more logical and acceptable basis for the future work of the Boundary Commissions. The Boundary Commissions themselves take that view, and I hope that their view will ultimately commend itself to Parliament.
It may be of assistance to the House if I describe more fully the background to the present procedures and if in particular I describe the rules for the redistribution of Westminster and European parliamentary constituencies. I am aware that this is a matter which causes a good deal of concern and speculation in the House and elsewhere. I think it is important that the facts should be clearly set on the record.
The procedures under which the Boundary Commissions operate in their reviews of constituencies for this House are set out in the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949—a consolidating Act—and the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1958. As far as their periodical general reviews are concerned, the commissions are required to submit reports on the distribution of parliamentary constituencies at statutorily regulated intervals. Under the 1949 Act this interval was fixed at not less than two years and not more than seven years, but this was found by common consent to be far too short and the period was amended by section 2(1) of the 1958 Act so that the commissions are required to report at intervals of between 10 and 15 years. Accordingly, the present position is that all four commissions, having reported last in 1969, are all required to report on their present general reviews by the late spring of 1984: in the case of the English commission by April 1984, the Scottish commission by April 1984, the Welsh commission by May 1984 and the Northern Ireland commission by June 1984.
There is, of course, nothing in the Bill which changes that statutory interval, nor, indeed, anything which 280 changes any aspect of the work of the parliamentary Boundary Commissions in relation to the conduct of their work on Westminster constituencies. The rules under which they operate in relation to such matters as the criteria for redistribution and the degree to which they may balance such considerations as the importance of maintaining local ties compared with the need for equality in electorate will, of course, remain as set out in schedule 2 to the 1949 Act and section 2 of the 1958 Act. In no sense does the bill change the "rules of the game" as far as the general review of parliamentary boundaries is concerned.
As the House knows, the Boundary Commissions are at this moment in the process of conducting general reviews of Westminster constituencies. It may assist the House to know the latest position on these reviews. In England, so far, the commission has published recommendations for 261 constituencies in 30 counties and for 84 constituencies in 32 London boroughs. It has held local inquiries into seats for 14 counties and for 27 London boroughs. The commission seems to be on course to complete publication of all its initial recommendations by the summer of next year. No doubt there will be further local inquiries to be held. It would then be possible, during 1982, for the commission to decide on its final recommendations for seats in England.
In Scotland, the parliamentary Boundary Commission published its proposals for 39 constituencies in the regions—other than Strathclyde—and the islands earlier this year. It hopes to publish proposals for the remaining 32 constituencies in Strathclyde in the late spring of next year.
In Wales, it is expected that the parliamentary Boundary Commission will issue notice of intention to make a report on the 36 constituencies shortly.
In Northern Ireland, the Boundary Commission is about to hold four local inquiries into its revised provisional proposals for the 17 constituencies established in the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1979.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)
The right hon. Gentleman added to his note on the progress of the England commission an indication of the prospective term of the completion of its work. I wonder whether he is in a position to give a comparable indication with regard to the other three countries.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I have given the best indication that I can in relation to Scotland. In Wales, the commission has just begun its work, so I could not give that indication. In Northern Ireland, I think that the right hon. Gentleman will know, as I do, the particular position of that review. I could not give an answer as to the exact date when that will be completed.
I have set out the position for each commission, country by country, in detail because in the context of the Bill I believe that we must ask ourselves this question: without the Bill, what will happen to the final recommendations of each of the commissions when they are completed?
As right hon. and hon. Members know, the proposals of the Boundary Commissions are not made lightly. They are certainly not made at random, nor, at the other end of the scale, are they made on the basis of mechanical logic and distribution according to mathematical formulae.
§ Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)
The right hon. Gentleman rightly said that there is nothing in the Bill that changes the criteria laid down in the 1949 Act. Have 281 the Government any proposals for a review of those criteria? Many people think that the Boundary Commissions pay far too much attention to the numbers game and not enough attention to communities.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that the Boundary Commissions have an extremely difficult task. I believe profoundly in the importance of their independence in the judgments that they make, and I should always seek to uphold their independent judgment to the utmost of my capacity, because I believe that that is in the finest traditions of the House. They, of course, will pay attention to the kind of comments that the hon. Gentleman has made, but they have a difficult task in balancing the different criteria. Their recommendations, subject to the criteria laid down by Parliament, are arrived at after the mist vigorous scrutiny—I think that this answers the hon. Gentleman to some extent—and in most cases only after they have been subjected to the rigours of one or more local inquiries conducted by an assistant commissioner — a sheriff in Scotland — appointed by the Secretary of State for that purpose.
When a report has been submitted to the Secretary State, he is required to lay it before Parliament together, except in a case where the report states that no alteration is required to be made, with the draft of an Order in Council to give effect to the recommendations, with or without modifications. If modifications are proposed, reasons must be given. The draft Order in Council requires the affirmative resolution of approval of each House of Parliament before submission to Her Majesty in Council.
The Act specifies that the Secretary of State must lay these reports be fore Parliament'as soon as may be".
In other words, the Secretary of State is not permitted to delay the process of translating the proposals of the Commission into the reality of new constituencies. The law envisaged that there should be no delay, so as to prevent politically motivated interference by the Executive in the implementation of the changes proposed by the commissions. Of course, right hon. and hon. Members on the Labour Benches need no reminding of the temptation to interfere in this way, but I can say categorically that this Government intend to respect the independence of the commissions as one of the keystones of our democratic system and to lay their reports before Parliament in accordance with the statutory requirements as soon as practicable—without delay.
We should like to do this as soon as the parliamentary Boundary Commissions have determined their final reports on parliamentary constituencies. But I have to tell the House that, as the law stands, we are not permitted to do this. As a result of legislation introduced to honour an international obligation — the European Assembly Elections Act 1978—the rules were changed, after the commissions had begun their reviews, so that there is now a quite unnecessary delay in reports on parliamentary constituency boundaries reaching the Secretary of State's desk. The reports of the Boundary Commissions with regard to constituencies for this House cannot be presented to the Secretaries of State who then, as I have indicated, present them to Parliament until the commissions complete their reviews of the constituencies of an entirely separate body—the European Parliament.
Thus, an impediment has been introduced—quite unnecessarily and unjustifiably, in my view—to the 282 implementation of the final recommendations of the Boundary Commissions and to the correction of the gross disparities between constituencies which must inevitably arise as a result of quite normal shifts in population. It is that impediment which we seek to remove in the Bill before the House today.
The best estimate is that this additional procedure could, in the case of England, impose a 15-month delay between the completion of work on the parliamentary boundaries, its submission to the Secretary of State and submission by him to the House. Such a procedure could be justified only if it were thought that there was an overwhelming need to interlink recommendations made for parliamentary and European Parliament constituencies, so that the boundaries were permanently coterminous. But there is no such need, and it is illogical to believe, as some people apparently do, that the construction of European parliamentary constituencies must have an impact on the construction of those Westminster constituencies. There is no evidence to suggest that at all, and there are no circumstances in which that can be conceived.
The effect of this new procedure was that, while the reporting date of the commissions was unchanged, their final recommendations on the composition of parliamentary constituencies would inevitably be held back pending completion of work on European Parliament constituencies. The work on the two reviews is, of course, consequential, not simultaneous. The European Parliament constituencies must by law be made up of whole Westminster constituencies. They are the essential building blocks. The commissions cannot sensibly proceed with their Euro constituency work until they know the final form of those building blocks.
Yet the European Assembly Elections Act required that the Boundary Commissions should proceed with the European reviews on the basis of provisional recommendations for Westminster constituencies which Parliament had not approved. They are required to publish provisional recommendations for European Parliament constituencies, hold inquiries, consider representations and generally put people involved in the political processes to a great deal of time and trouble to comment on proposals which could eventually turn out to be unacceptable to Parliament. I hope that that will not be the case, but it is a matter of concern that that possibilty exists. In short, the present procedure seems to be neither sensible nor necessary.
I therefore asked the parliamentary Boundary Commission for England for its view on the proposal to break this link and to revert to the procedure as it would have been before the direct elections legislation. The deputy chairman, Sir Raymond Walton, told me that such severance would be very welcome to both the commission and its staff. Aside from the fact that this would ensure that the submission of the complete reviews on parliamentary constituencies were not artificially delayed, Sir Raymond told me that he could foresee a number of practical benefits. It would, for instance, make the consideration of representations a simpler matter.
Representations received about the commissions' proposals for European Parliament constituencies could not be confused with representations about the Westminster constituencies, and vice versa. The premature disclosure of the recommended Westminster constituencies, which would be inevitable when the 283 commissions published their provisional recommendations for European Parliament constituencies, before they are submitted to the Secretary of State and to Parliament would be wholly averted. I am glad to say that the Bill fully accords with the views of the English and Scottish Boundary Commissions on this matter.
§ Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)
Perhaps my right hon. Friend can clear up something that is worrying a number of us. At the moment, the Boundary Commissions are working on the basis of the electorate for 1976. Therefore, if they run to the 1984 date the electorate will be eight years out of date. Does the Bill allow the Boundary Commissions — from the remarks that my right hon. Friend has made, it appears that they are very much in favour of it — to consider the European seats on the basis of a fresh electorate?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
It will allow the Boundary Commissions to consider the European seats after this House has pronounced its view on the Westminster constituencies — assuming that the Bill is passed. I believe that that must be right, because the European constituencies must be built on the Westminster constituencies. Therefore, this House should pronounce its view on the Westminster constituencies before the Boundary Commissions proceed to discuss the European constituencies. The time that has elapsed since the various considerations of constituencies have taken place is already causing the gravest possible disparities and difficulties. We ought to recognise that fact as well.
§ Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)
It is a long time since we heard the Home Secretary put forward a Government measure with such verve and conviction. Therefore, I am sorry to interrupt him. Can he explain the coterminous issue? In one breath the right hon. Gentleman says "Ah, these constituencies are built on the bricks of Westminster constituencies", but earlier in his speech, unless I misunderstood him, he told us with tremendous enthusiasm that there was no need for the European and Westminster constituencies to be coterminous. Doubtless there is an explanation, and it would be interesting to have it.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
It is a considerable time since I introduced any Government measure at all. Therefore, I do not know what the hon. Gentleman was talking about in the first part of his intervention. I cannot introduce Government measures with verve when I am not introducing them. I do not quite see what the point was.
As to the other point, if I have not explained it correctly, it is my fault. I believe that if we are to build — and I think that it is inevitable — the European constituencies on the Westminster constituencies, it makes a great deal of sense first to decide in this House what the Westminster constituencies will be. Having done that, we can then let the commissions look at the European constituencies that will be built on those Westminster constituencies. I must honestly tell the hon. Gentleman that I can see nothing other than a logical development in that procedure.
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
The right hon. Gentleman voted the other way in 1978.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I do not see that that invalidates my argument. Having regard to what we did then, we now intend to produce a proposal that will make a great deal more sense now. If the House were unable to produce something that made more sense, it would be an extremely poor place indeed. That is what we are trying to do.
I have explained how it was that the procedure provided in the redistribution Acts came to be changed after the reviews by the Boundary Commissions had begun and why the Government believe that change to be wrong, causing unnecessary delay to the work of redrawing parliamentary boundaries. I shall now explain the procedure which the Bill puts in its place.
The substantive provisions of the Bill are contained in clause 1 (1), (2) and (3). These remove the redundant provisions of the 1978 Act which provided for the setting up of the initial European Parliament constituencies in Great Britain under a truncated procedure. They amend the other provisions of schedule 2 to the 1978 Act so as to provide that each Boundary Commission in Great Britain will not make recommendations as to the composition of European Parliament constituencies at the same time as it makes recommendations on the composition of the parliamentary constituencies contained therein. Henceforth, each Boundary Commission will review the composition of European constituencies only after the making of an Order in Council giving effect, with or without modifications, to its recommendations in respect of the parliamentary constituencies contained in those European Parliament constituencies. That provides the firm basis on which the Boundary Commissions wish to act. I was glad to accept the suggestion on the timing of the commencement of European Parliament reviews put to me by the deputy chairman of the English Boundary Commission.
Furthermore, there is a widespread feeling, both in the House and in the country generally, that the present gross inequalities of electoral boundaries have reached such a stage that they cannot be allowed to continue for one day longer than is necessary, allowing, of course, for full and careful compliance with all the appropriate statutory procedures for redistribution. The Boundary Commission for England gave notice of its intention to commence its review in 1976. In the commissions' memorandum of evidence to the Select Committee on direct elections in July 1976, the English commission said that it aimed to report in 1979. That has clearly not been achieved, partly because of the unsuccessful court proceedings brought in 1978 with respect to the report of the local government Boundary Commission for the London borough of Enfield. That brought the work of the parliamentary commission to a virtual standstill for several months.
Thus, the procedures for redrawing parliamentary boundaries have already been elongated, but I must stress that we have not the slightest wish to intervene in any way in the conduct of the commission's reviews. After all, it was not this Government who imposed on the commission a new obligation which had the effect of delaying the submission of its reports on parliamentary constituencies, after it had embarked on its reviews. We have always abided by the procedures. But we cannot accept that the results of the reviews should quite unnecessarily lie dormant as a result of the 1978 Act.
I draw the attention of the House to a set of statistics, freely available in the Library of the House, published as OPCS Monitor, EL 80/2, issued on 20 May. That gives 285 the number of parliamentary electors on the 1980 register of electors in each of the 635 parliamentary constituencies within the United Kingdom The monitor to which I refer shows that in England alone there are 58 constituencies where the number of electors on the register exceeds the electoral quota — the average number of electors per constituency—by more than 30 per cent. Of these, there are 28 constituencies where the difference between the actual number of electors and the electoral quota is more than 40 per cent. and 10 in which it is more than 50 per cent. At the other end of the scale, there are 38 constituencies in England in which the number of electors on the register is more than 30 per cent. below the electoral quota. In 14 of these it is more than 40 per cent below, and in five the electorate is less than half the electoral quota.
Let me illustrate those discrepancies in another way. The latest available figures for electorates reveal that in 1980 there are 11 constituencies containing more than 100,000 electors and 14 constituencies containing fewer than 40,000. As hon. Members know, there is one constituency w lit fewer than 25,000 electors. I challenge any right hon. or hon. Member to justify that position.
§ Mr. Selwyn Gummer (Eye)
Has my right hon. Friend realised that the effect of that means that, in general, it takes twice as many electors in a rural constituency to elect a Member of Parliament as it does in an urban constituency?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
The right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) says that Members in rural constituencies are not as good as those in urban constituencies. I take that point. I stand up as a very large figure in a very large rural constituency. What is more, I have been there for an awfully long time, and I do not intend to leave it.
§ Mr. John Cartwright (Woolwich, East)
Has the Home Secretary included places with special geographical positions, such as the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, in the figures that he has given to the House?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
I was very careful, for a very special reason, to begin my reference with the words "in England alone". I did that deliberately because of the different position that applies in Scotland.
If new constituency boundaries are not in effect in time for the next general election and we must await the parliamentary general election after that, it may be that new boundaries will not be in effect until a general election almost 10 years from now. I challenge any democrat, or anyone who has the best interests of the House at heart, to say that such a situation should be permitted. The Bill, without in any way interfering in the conduct of work by statutorily independent commissions, will at least assist in ensuring that the chance of fairer boundaries for our parliamentary constituencies is not delayed by wholly unnecessary provisions made in the schedule to a Bill dealing with another matter.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees (Leeds, South)
I wish to take up the point that the Home Secretary has just made. He made a case for much shorter reviews. The 15-year period allows changes in population to accrue. Conservative Governments lengthened the period over which reviews 286 should take place. The right hon. Gentleman excused himself when referring to the size of seats in England. I understand the special position of Scotland in the Highlands and Islands. I understand that some of the recommendations of the Boundary Commission would create two seats in Scotland of less than 40,000, not five yards from the English border. In fact, one seat is nearer 30,000. In terms of size, we might have some funny results coming out from the Boundary Commission—I can only assume for very good reasons.
The Bill to amend the 1978 Act is, as the Home Secretary said, almost entirely concerned with one part of the Act. There are some spent provisions. When the original legislation was passed, many wider implications had to be considered. I suggest that there are wider considerations within the rules of order—because they are not dealt with in the Bill—that we should consider this afternoon. The House decided three years ago to have elected Members for Europe. We have not heard anything this afternoon about the next steps.
'There are two aspects, as well as the narrower aspect of the Bill, that we should consider this afternoon. It is on those two bases that I shall address the House. In 1978 the House decided that the method of voting for the European Assembly should be by first past the post and that, consequently, there should be created one-Member, large constituencies based on those for the United Kingdom Parliament. Once the United Kingdom constituencies are available — and I am begging the special position of Northern Ireland, to which I shall return later—they will be the bricks on which the Euro constituencies are built. Obviously, the Boundary Commissions for the four parts of the United Kingdom would put the bricks together and report to the House. In 1978 it was decided that the recommendations should be made at the same time, and schedule 2 laid down the procedures until such time as the next steps in the European election procedure were taken.
The Home Secretary, as I thought he would, went back to 1969. I shall he glad when the papers for that period are made available. When the Labour Administration were in Government, the moment that we interfered in the process of the Boundary Commissions the cry was "Gerrymandering". The 1974 election was the first time that the new boundaries applied, and the Conservative Party lost.
If the cry of gerrymandering could be applied purely on the basis of interference in 1969, I can use exactly the same word now. I shall seek to explain why that is so.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West) rose—
§ Mr. Gummer
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that there is a total difference between suggesting that two separate operations should be done separately and bringing before the House, after a law case forced the then Government to do so, a series of orders that was recommended to be voted down? Surely, that was an example of gerrymandering unequalled in the history of this constitution.
§ Mr. Rees
I do not accept the latter part of the hon. Gentleman's intervention. The Conservative Party has an advantage. It was the House of Lords that rejected the proposals of this place on a previous occasion. Whatever the justice of the case that is advanced from the Labour Benches in this place, the House of Lords will not support it.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley
I think that it should be a Conservative Member who first says in this debate that it is clear that the result of the changes that are proposed in the Bill will be one that is likely to help the Conservative Party in the same way as the results of the 1969 decision helped the Labour Party in the 1970 election rather than the 1974 election.
§ Mr. Rees
It comes from some political commentators in some party offices. They speak of it with the certainty of the law of the Medes and Persians. There is talk of an advantage of 40 seats. I noticed that the press last week was suggesting a 20-seat advantage. It is far too early to be certain. It seems that the effects will be felt most by inner city constituencies, and that will have an adverse effect on the Labour Party. Whatever the inequity in a particular area, whether an inner city constituency or otherwise, it is proper for the Boundary Commission to correct it.
My argument is that the Government have stepped in to speed up the process because it is to their political advantage to do so. I have noticed that Lowestoft, for example, might well be a Labour seat as a result of change, as might Worcester. That makes me think that the Prime Minister is trying to speed up the process so as to make life a good deal easier within the Cabinet. The Government are making a mistake in moving in this way. The same argument applies now as in 1969.
The Home Secretary has given dates. He did so in the context of what is in the statute. What timetable do the Government have in mind for the separate United Kingdom and European elections? The United Kingdom elections, whatever the niceties of the constitution, will take place, approximately, in May 1984. The European elections will take place in June 1984. There will be only a month between the two. I accept that one is a fixed-term election and that the other is not. The timing of the United Kingdom elections is properly, given our constitution, within the command of the Prime Minister. As I have said, there is on the face of it only a month between the two elections.
The commissions do not have to submit their reports until April-May-June. The Home Secretary has given us some additional information. I had not realised that there could be the difference of a month or two. The relevant words are "not later than". Those words were not put in the statute to suit the needs of a particular party. The election was held in 1979—not 1978 or 1977—and the statute is not designed to make life awkward for a Prime Minister when he or she comes to choose the date of an election. In my view, the Government could meet both elections by 1984. There is only a month between the two elections, and these are matters that should be left alone.
288 The Home Secretary informed us that the Welsh redistribution has not yet been undertaken. That is because of what happened in Enfield and not for other reasons. The Welsh will have their first meeting in February 1981. It has been suggested that the Welsh Boundary Commission will find it extremely difficult to conclude its considerations and to submit its report in time. I hope that the Government will not be saying to the House "The Welsh Boundary Commission is not yet able to report, and we shall go into the next general election with only three Boundary Commission reports before the House and not "four." I shall be interested to hear from the Minister of State what the Welsh Boundary Commission has advised.
On the basis of the interference in the processes laid down two years ago, I advise my right hon. and hon. Friends to vote against the Bill. However, there are other aspects that the Home Secretary or the Minister of State should explain to the House. It is suspected that there are other reasons why the Bill has been presented now. If the two elections are unhooked, the Government will not have to reveal their intentions about the next election for Europe. What is the Government's aim? Are we to move to a common basis for the next European elections in June?
When these matters were discussed on an earlier occasion, a commitment was given by a Front Bench spokesman for the then Opposition that the next European elections would be held under a common system. We have heard nothing about that. We shall have to know during 1981 whether that is the commitment. If we do not know by that time, we shall not be able to take steps to deal with it. If the Government had not introduced the Bill, it would have been necessary for a statement to be made fairly soon.
I am advised that the political committee of the European Parliament has been discussing what the steps shall be for the commonality of the elections for Europe next time round. I hear that the chairman of the committee has suggested that, instead of having a proportional representation system that is the same throughout the Nine or the Ten, there should be PR in each member State and that as long as there is PR under any heading that will be good enough for Europe. I understand that the committee is discussing the additional member system of PR that the Germans follow, to the pitch of either a quarter or three-quarters of the total members.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)
The system that the Germans used for their domestic elections was not used for the European elections.
§ Mr. Rees
I understand that the additional member system is being discussed as a possible method of PR that could be used by some countries if they wished to do so. Unless a decision is taken in 1981 that there will be commonality, we shall be using the first-past-the-post system next time round whether or not that is under amended legislation.
§ Mr. Rees
We shall be against the common system. However, the Conservative Opposition said that they were in favour of a common system.
The Home Secretary has told us that the Government's fresh consideration of the 1978 legislation led to this measure. Does that mean that they have considered afresh 289 the commonality idea and that we are not to go into the elections of June 1984 with a common system? The purpose of this legislation is to speed up the process by which we get the United Kingdom elections. I presume that that applies also to setting down the rules for the June elections. I refer to "rules" loosely because I do not want to become involved in Treaty obligations as on a previous occasion.
§ Mr. Russell Johnston
I was disturbed to hear the right hon. Gentleman say that the Opposition would be opposed to a common system, particularly since the 1976 Council of Ministers, which occurred during a Labour Govenment, agreed that a common system would be established in 1984.
§ Mr. Rees
I accept that. However, we have debated the matter in the blouse. I put forward in the White Paper a regional list system. That was defeated. That is the end of the road on that matter for the moment. It does not matter what the Opposition say. The Conservatives in Opposition said that they were in favour of a commonality system Next time round. The Government appear to be taking the decision that it should be first past the post for super Euro constituencies. Is that a temporary decision? Is that why they have unhooked the constituencies? We should be told whether we shall move to PR next time round.
I believe that there should be a different system for Northern Ireland. However, we are not in Government. When we put that to the House in 1978, the Conservative Opposition voted with the Unionists in Northern Ireland in favour of a common system. There is not a word about that this time. This is where the alteration could take place. We do not know where the Government stand over a common system for Northern Ireland.
I can only deduce that the Government have decided that next time round in Europe it is first past the post for the United Kingdom constituencies. The Minister should tell us that. The Home Secretary gave us a great deal of information, bat we heard nothing about the overlying policies of the Government. We should hear more about those.
When the 1978 Act was before Parliament, there was wide discussion on the nature of the Assembly. The Bill is amending that Act. We discussed then the dual system, the purpose of the Assembly and whether it was an advisory body, whether it would have more powers and so on. Two years have passed since Members were elected to the Assembly. What are the Government's views? Are the powers of the Assembly becoming greater? What are the implications of the addition of Greece and, later, other countries? Do the election procedures work? I ask the Home Secretary this not because of any clever thought beforehand.
In the previous legislation, we had a system of inquiry for the big European constituenceis that was different from that for the United Kingdom constituencies. One reason was that we needed more time. A stronger reason was that, once we had the United Kingdom constituencies, with inquiries about local attachments rather than numbers, building the bricks of the larger constituencies raised other questions. Has the Home Secretary considered a different system of inquiry for the European constituencies?
Are the large constituencies manageable? On the first-past-the-post system, there will be a large number of Conservative Members in Europe. Is the system working 290 well? Do people know who the Euro Members are? The House decided the system. We should have a report back on a number of these matters. I read in the newspapers that one Euro Member is selling the information that he gets from Europe within his large constituency. That is a strange way of operating, but that may be the only way to disseminate the information.
We need more information about the European Assembly. How is it working and how are the big constituencies working? What are the Government's intentions next time? I am assuming that the system will be first past the post. I do not believe that they will opt for PR on any basis. They have decided to unhook the constituencies, which, alternatively, could mean that we shall have had PR next time. It could indicate a move in, either direction.
The short title of the Bill is unusually short. It is a short Bill. It is a Tory Central Office Bill for the advantage of the Conservative Party. I recommend that we vote against it.
§ Mr. W. Benyon (Buckingham)
It is arrant nonsense to compare what happened in 1969 with what my right hon. Friend is doing in the Bill. It was totally different. What happened then interfered with the recommendation of the Boundary Commission. Hon. Members were asked to vote accordingly. The Bill does not interfere with the operations of the Boundary Commission. It will simply enable the gross inequalities—these absurdities that we are suffering — to be rectified earlier than otherwise. One could assume from what the Opposition are saying that they will vote against the Bill because they want to perpetuate these inequalites.
Party advantage has already been mentioned. I have seen endless different calculations, which vary from five to 40, as the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) said. It is extremely difficult to assess what the new constituencies will be like. It is difficult to say what the swings will be in new constituencies. I have fought a constituency on four occasions where there has been a rapid increase in new population, and I can vouch for that. However, can anyone defend on a democratic basis, or wish to continue, the present situation with these gross discrepancies?
I have a vested interest. If one leaves out Northern Ireland, where special conditions apply and where the situation will be rectified as a result of the Speaker's Conference, I represent the largest constituency in the United Kingdom. I am proud to do so. I sometimes wish that hon. Members' remuneration was decided on a headage basis, like the farmers. I have 110,000 people in my constituency at the moment. The lists have just been published for next February, which will add a further 7,000. If the delay that I questioned my right hon. Friend about is the maximum—1984—my electorate will then be in the region of 140,000 at the next general election.
At present, we are 63 per cent. above the mean figure for England. At the other end of the scale, Newcastle upon Tyne, Central and Glasgow, Central are 63 per cent. below the mean. That is a ridiculous situation. As I say, I am proud to represent a large electorate in a prosperous and enterprising constituency. However, it is unfair that my constituents' vote is worth one-sixth of a constituent's vote in Newcastle upon Tyne, Central and Glasgow, Central. It does not make sense.
291 The law requires the Boundary Commission to report between June 1979 and June 1984. Because of its current difficulties, it will probably be much nearer the latter date than the former. Twelve other seats in the country, including Scotland but leaving out Northern Ireland, have an electorate above 100,000. At the other end of the scale, there are the examples of Newcastle upon Tyne, Central, with 24,000, and Islington, South and Finsbury, with 39,000.
Many of the small constituencies are in the various boroughs. I mention this matter because I think that it is wrong, as was suggested from the Government Benches during my right hon. Friend's speech, that this happens only in rural constituencies. It does not. Not all the smallest constituencies are in rural areas.
In one sense, this is a ludicrous situation. For instance, one can hear foreigners saying that only the British, the oldest democratic society in the world, would allow themselves to be governed in such an undemocratic fashion.
The situation holds great dangers. There is a widespread feeling—much of it unexpressed—that is critical of our present system. I should be ruled out of order if I went into the question of proportional representation versus first past the post, because that is not covered by the Bill. I am a firm supporter of a change in the electoral system. I expect to see it in my lifetime if I am allowed man's normal span, but I do not expect to see it in my political lifetime.
The argument for the present system is that people can understand it and vote accordingly. If so, its deficiencies must be as plain as its advantages. People appreciate that there must be a certain variance for social and geographical reasons, but they find it difficult to understand why one Member of Parliament is elected by 24,000 electors and another by 100,000 electors.
This matter is governed by the House of Commons (Redistribution of Seats) Act 1949 as amended by the 1958 Act. The main change made by the 1958 Act was to lengthen the intervals between general reviews of constituencies. I understand that the reaction of hon. Members at that time was that the previous arrangement was too frequent and dislocated the system too much. But they did not appreciate the kind of population movements that we have witnessed in the South of England, where very large numbers have moved from urban areas to new towns and elsewhere.
The period of 15 years is at the bottom of the difficulty. An average increase of between 5,000 and 10,000 people a year in Buckingham has created more than one seat in 15 years. The point that I raised with my right hon. Friend is particularly valid in this instance. The Boundary Commission is dealing with a 1976 electorate and we are now in 1980. Buckingham has had an increase in population of approximately 24,000 since 1976.
§ Mr. R. C. Mitchell
Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, even on the proposals so far recommended by the Boundary Commission, the variation in constituency sizes is between 30,000 and 100,000—for example, the Isle of Wight? There may be anomalies now, but there will be just as many anomalies in the new system.
§ Mr. Benyon
I accept that. I have already touched on that problem. The Borders area has been mentioned. I 292 think that it would be difficult to divide the Isle of Wight into two constituencies. There are bound to be discrepancies. But there is not much difference between constituencies in central London, central Birmingham and central Manchester. Likewise, most rural constituencies have similar conditions. The distances are not greatly different. The situation is a little different in the north of Scotland and on the Borders.
The situation in Buckingham has been envisaged for many years. The plan was produced in 1967. During the past five years I have made three approaches to successive Home Secretaries to allow the Boundary Commission to conduct an interim review. But each time I have had the same reply: that it will be too complicated, that it will disturb the total review that is taking place and that it cannot be done for one area as opposed to another.
I can appreciate the Boundary Commission's problem. Scotland has to have 71 seats and Wales 35 seats, but in England there is discretion. The Boundary Commission may feel that there will be a knock-on effect if it takes one area and not the rest. Therefore, there may be an intrinsic difficulty for the Boundary Commission in making an interim recommendation.
I suggest that a simple amendment could be made regarding European seats. I understand that I can move an amendment to that effect under the long title, but I cannot amend the Bill as it affects the operations of the Boundary Commission without altering the long title. I doubt whether I shall be successful in doing that. I believe that there should be a statutory duty on the Boundary Commission that, when a county or metropolitan area varies either up or down by the mean of the country—67,000 for England — it should re-examine the area concerned. For example, if Buckinghamshire's population increased by 67,000 there would be a mandatory duty on the Boundary Commission to re-examine the seats in Buckinghamshire. The same would apply in reverse. If the electorate in London, for example, decreased by 67,000, the Boundary Commission would have to carry out an interim revision.
I appreciate that such an arrangement could cause a small fluctuation in the number of Members in the House, but, by and large, the swings would equal the roundabouts. Although there would be increases in some areas, there would be compensating decreases in others. I see no sign that the rapid population movements that we have experienced in the past will not continue in future. Unless something like that is done, we shall get ourselves into a worse situation. I have already pointed out that we are four years out of date. In fact, the 1976 figures are one year out of date. It will be another two or three years before the recommendation is made. During that time, population movements will be taking place. Therefore, when we start the next 10-year to 15-year cycle the situation will be even worse. Unless we make a change, the inequalities and difficulties of the present situation will become even more apparent.
If we are not to change the electoral system to what I believe to be a fairer, more logical and sensible system, we must make the first-past-the-post system as fair and straightforward as we possibly can.
We are all proud to be Members of the House. We are sent here by the electorate to do a job. It is essential that the system should be seen to be fair and just. I can only describe the present situation as a democratic scandal; there is no other word for it. It must be put right quickly. 293 Therefore, I welcome the fact that the Government are taking this step to make the decision quicker than it would otherwise be made.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)
The Bill removes a smell blemish from the European Assembly Elections Act 1978. It does so in a way which can be logically argued, which commends itself, so the House has been informed, to the deputy chairman of the English Boundary Commission; and the blemish which it removes is one which, so far as I am aware, was not observed in the exhaustive debates that took place in two Sessions, 1977 and 1978, upon the Bill underlying the original Act.
Of course, there is no question of any electoral advantage being sought by the selection of this particular blemish for earlier removal by a Bill exclusively dedicated to that purpose To take a phrase from the mouth of the Home Secretary, I do not need to remind right hon. and hon. Members on the Conservative Benches that never, either in legislation or in administration, has the Conservative Party been in the least degree influenced by considerations of electoral advantage or the outcome of the next general election.
Yet there is a strange anomaly in our proceeding this afternoon; for the blemish, if so it be — and it is arguable that it is in fact a blemish and an inconvenience—with which the Bill deals is not the only blemish upon the face of the 1978 Act. I do not refer to the fact that in the view of many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen—a number which is increasing—the very existence of such an Act upon the statute book is a blemish to the statute hook. I am not seeking to go so wide, but the Act itself contains at least one very grave blemish. It established elections whereby the United Kingdom as a whole would be represented in a particular body, the. European Assembly, and t did a thing totally unprecedented which most hon. Members would have regarded as unthinkable, namely, it laid down for different parts of the kingdom different methods whereby those elections should be conducted.
Whatever may be the merits or demerits—they are not germane to this afternoon's debate—of one method of election or another, one proposition should surely be acceptable. That is that when the United Kingdom has a general election for representation either in this House or in some other body, that general election should be conducted upon principles uniform for the kingdom as a whole. Indeed, under the Treaty of Rome. Which purports to be, but is not actually, the basis of the 1978 Act—the House will recall that a separate treaty had to made to authorise the mode of election embodied in the 1978 Act — it is treated as a foregone conclusion that any elections to the European Assembly would be conducted upon a uniform system. However, even if that were not so, one would not have supposed that in a House where the equality of rights, the equality of status, between one hon. Member and another is taken for granted as one of the underlying principles of the institution it would have been overturned in respest of one part of the United Kingdom.
§ Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)
May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that that is in no way a precedent to be taken for granted in this House, in that university Members of Parliament, when they existed, were elected on a completely different basis from other Members of the House?
§ Mr. Powell
Yes, that is fair enough, and perhaps I might observe that once one has broken through the principle of commonality of basis of election there is no limit to the possible applications which can present themselves as years go by. Indeed, one of the grounds on which hon. Members of this House support one another in maintaining our equality of rights and the identical basis of our presence here is that once the principle is breached in respect of one part of the Kingdom, special reasons can always be found in respect of some other.
So the 1978 Act contained this blemish. It is a blemish which should, I submit, be regarded as such by the House of Commons as a whole as offending against its essential principle but which has, not unnaturally, been particularly felt and resented in the part of the United Kingdom which was treated differently.
In the debates which we had—both the debate on the first abortive Bill of 1977 and that on the Bill which became the Act of 1978—considerable discussion on this very point took place. In the longest and most exhaustive of those debates which took place upon this point on a series of amendments—it was long not only in its actual duration but because it was interrupted in order to insert a guillotine motion, so that it ran in two parts, on 12 January and on 2 February 1978—the point of view put forward by my hon. Friends and myself, and supported on each side of the House by other hon. Members who took part in the debate, was accepted on behalf of the official Opposition by the spokesman who replied to that debate in both its parts.
What was the delight of my hon. Friends and myself when, recollecting that debate and recollecting the part taken in it by the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd), we discerned him on the Front Bench, a distinguished ornament of the Foreign Office—a Department of State with which we have much acquaintance in Northern Ireland, perhaps more acquaintance than we would like to have—but undoubtedly in a position of influence and one not without relevance to elections to the European Assembly.
That debate, however, though it was the longest, was not the only debate on this subject which took place during the gestation of the 1978 Act. There was an earlier debate, in April 1977, upon the abortive first Bill. In that debate, the position which my hon. Friends and I took up was supported in the most vigorous terms by none other than the right hon. Gentleman who is now the Home Secretary. I will not trouble him or the House with full quotation of his argument on that occasion; but he based his support for us on two grounds.
The first was that which I have already mentioned, thatit breaches the principle that any election involving the whole of the United Kingdom at the same time should be held on the same basis throughout the United Kingdom.
But he added a second ground, which has been verified in the event. He said that bound up with the question of the separate and different treatment—the sore thumb treatment—of Northern Ireland in the Bill was the whole question of the sincerity of this House and of a series of Governments in their assertion that Northern Ireland would remain an integral part of a parliamentarly union until it was clearly the overwhelming wish of its inhabitants that that status should be changed.
The right hon. Gentleman, with his experience as a former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, knew that, in Northern Ireland, doubt cast upon that propostion was 295 not just a matter of political dispute. That doubt can and does cost lives. With the authority of his experience, therefore, the right hon. Gentleman went on to say that though it would be wrong to suggest that the pledge of successive Governments and of the House was not sincere,the overriding importance of this commitment is so ingrained in my mind that I am loth to give even the smallest indication of breaking it.It was this anomaly deliberately imposed upon the particularly threatened part of the United Kingdom that clinched the matter for the right hon. Gentleman.
He went on to make clear that it was not simply his personal point of view. It is unusual for a right hon. Member, speaking from the Opposition Front Bench, to go to the trouble of saying what he said, and we are therefore entitled to attach importance to the fact that he specifically associated with himself his right hon. Friends and the whole of the Shadow Cabinet. He said to the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees):I shall tell him that what I have said represents my view and the view of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Shadow Cabinet."—[Official Report, 25 April 1977; Vol. 930, c. 945.]With our recollection of that speech, my hon. Friends and I felt even more satisfaction when we saw the right hon. Gentleman on the Government Front Bench in the key position on legislation of this sort.
§ Mr. Powell
I hope that hon. Members will not in any way spoil the grounds for the conviction which my hon. Friends and I in this House and also the people of Northern Ireland would wish to maintain intact of the good faith of the Government regarding Northern Ireland and its position in the United Kingdom.
Finally, we recalled that the view of the then Opposition was carried to a Division and that the present Prime Minister herself voted in support of the proposition that Northern Ireland's representation in the European Assembly should be on the same basis as that of any other part of the United Kingdom.
The Bill, then, which remedies a minor blemish, still leaves in the Act the very blemish which the Government, on the assurance of some of their principal Members, regard as unacceptable. Are we not justified in assuming that before there is an election to the European Assembly they intend to remove that blemish? There is time to do it: there are presumably Sessions ahead —such, we imagine, is their hope and expectation—in which they will continue to occupy the Treasury Bench. But it is a pity that the convenience of the House could not have been served by a single Bill dealing comprehensively with that major blemish as well as with this particular incovenience and that any doubts should exist in any mind, in Northern Ireland or elsewhere, as to the sincerity and integrity of the intentions of the Government to act in office in accordance with their words in Opposition.
I hope, therefore, that although the Bill is so drawn as not to be capable—unless I am misadvised—of being amended to deal with the major blemish of which I have spoken, the House and those whom my hon. Friends and I represent can feel assured that it will be removed by legislation during the lifetime of this Government.
§ Mr. Tristan Garel-Jones (Watford)
I do not wish to comment on the speech of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) other than to say that I wholeheartedly accept that the non-uniform treatment given to Northern Ireland must give grave offence and cause worry to the people of Northern Ireland. I am delighted that that anomaly is to be removed. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will disagree with me, but, of course, it is my hope that our membership of the EEC over the years will make a significant contribution to helping to do away with some of the tragic misunderstandings among the people in Ireland.
I hope that the House will forgive me if I begin by welcoming the presence of my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford (Mr. Patten) in his exalted capacity as Parliamentary Private Secretary to my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State, Home Office. I do not know whether that is a precursor of any major Cabinet reshuffle or other changes in the Government, but we all congratulate him on his appointment.
In opening this debate, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary said—it was a masterly understatement—that matters concerning parliamentary boundaries cause some speculation among right hon. and hon. Members. He said that Labour Members would have considerable experience of the temptation into which it is possible for parties to fall in this area—again, a masterly understatement. In view of the events that took place in 1969, we can only assume that were the Labour Party now in Government it would not only wish to wait until European Assembly election boundaries were decided before implementing the parliamentary boundaries but it would probably suggest that we should wait for the boundaries for world government to be decided.
During our debates on this subject in 1969, the hon. Member for York (Mr. Lyon) made an important point. He said:In almost every case I have listened to the arguments of the political prophets about what the changes would mean and, in the main, the prophets were proved wrong when the boundary changes were made."—[Official Report, 1969; Vol 785, c. 764.]
Whatever speculation may be taking place about the possible advantage or otherwise to the Tory Party in the proposals of the Boundary Commission, if I were sitting on the Labour Benches I would not be too disturbed about them. In my county of Hertfordshire we have nine parliamentary seats. The number is shortly to be increased to 10. At present, the Conservative Party holds all the seats. When the county has 10 seats, it will be more difficult for the Conservative Party to hold all the seats. But Labour Members will be delighted to know that my constituency will be somewhat safer if these proposals are accepted.
What is the Government's main case in asking us to support the Bill? Why are they right to do so? They are right to do so because at the end of the day this House decides how we can best co-ordinate the proper conduct of parliamentery elections. It is all very well for the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) to talk about Government interference in these matters. The words I have just used come from a speech by the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot), who in 1969 rushed to the defence of the then Prime Minister when he was introducing his rather disgraceful piece of gerrymander- 297 ing. He said that the House of Commons had a perfect right to alter these rules and that Conservative Members were degrading the House when they said that the Government did not have the right to make up their minds and reach conclusions.
I do not want to be unfair to the right hon. Gentleman, so I shall assume that throughout the debates in 1969 he was being naive, because everyone else in the country and in the House—te doorkeepers and the ladies who serve tea— knew that we were witnessing one of the most blatant examples of gerrymandering the country had ever seen. I do not want to embarrass the Labour Party too much, because the right hon. Member for Leeds, South is a kind and courteous man. Although he felt obliged to hint that the Government were involved in a gerrymandering exercise, he did not truly believe it or overstress it. It would, therefore, be only proper for me to omit quoting from the Crossman diaries—
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
No, I shall not quote them because I do not wish to stir up unnecessary controversy. I gathered from the right hon. Gentleman's speech that he does rot believe that the Government are acting improperly.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
Was it not remarkable that the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) hardly criticised the Bill but instead concentrated on other matters that are entirely peripheral to it?
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention Of course, he is right.
In 1969, the main defender on the Floor of the House of the action being taken by the then Horne Secretary was the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman may be naive. Perhaps he did not talk to the doorkeepers, the tea ladies and everyone else who knew what was happening. Perhaps he did not know that it was without: precedent for a Minister to lay affirmative orders and then to whip his party to vole against them. Let us accept all that.
During those debates, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) suggested rather unkindly that the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale was being influenced by the forthcoming election. He dismissed the right hon. Gentleman as a mere column in the Evening Standard. Now that the right hon. Gentleman has progressed from the Bench below the Gangway, from being a column in the Evening Standard to being a pillar of the establishment, I can only express a sense of relief that that part of the establishment's edifice that is sustained by the Labour Party has some flying buttresses from outside, of which the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) and Mrs. Shirley Williams are examples, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will not be let loose on us in that way again.
§ Mr. George Cunningham
I am getting a little lost in these metaphors, but since the hon. Gentleman has gone on about 1969 for about 5 or 10 minutes—do not blame him for doing so—will he take a little longer, in so far as you, Mr. Deputy, Speaker, will permit him, to refer to the substantive ground that was advanced for what was done in 1969 and why he thinks it was invalid?
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
If the hon. Gentleman invites me to venture into that territory, I am delighted to do so. The ground advanced by the then Prime Minister was that local government boundary reforms were taking place that were of such paramount importance that the Government had no alternative but to delay the boundary changes. I can only refer the hon. Gentleman to page 592 of Richard Crossman's diaries, where he refers to the Prime Minister, saying:he began to shape a timetable designed not on the merits of getting, local government reforms that are acceptable to local authorities and public opinion but solely to suit his argument that he is genuinely postponing alterations to the boundaries.
§ Mr. Cunningham
Rather than read out a book which, I must confess, I have never taken time to read—I prefer to read the real story—would it not be better for the hon. Gentleman to read the schedules to the Acts that we are busy amending? They place conformity between parliamentary boundaries and local authority boundaries in a paramount position to be taken into account by the Boundary Commission. That is what gave the substantive case put in 1969.
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
In referring to the substantive case and the schedules, I must repeat the point made by the right hon. Member for Down, South. As a new Member, I am constantly surprised, in referring to Bills passed in the Parliament when the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale was Leader of the House, to find that almost every Bill was guillotined. The schedules to which the hon. Gentleman referred were guillotined without debate. His is not a point I can take seriously. Does the hon. Gentleman want to intervene again?
§ Mr. Cunningham
Yes. The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood either me or the Act. I was referring not to the schedule to the 1978 Act but to the schedules to the main Acts which lay down the principles, the rules so-called, which the Boundary Commissions are to take into account. The paramount rule — paramount above numbers — is conformity between local authority boundaries and parliamentary boundaries, and that was relevant in 1969.
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
That point has been dealt with by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. I think that the schedules refer not to local authority but to county boundaries.
§ Mr. Rathbone
May I remind my hon. Friend that it is all the more important that the new boundaries are introduced to correct the few remaining anomalies that exist between county and constituency boundaries?
§ Mr. Cunningham
May I make a fourth and, I promise, last intervention in the hon. Gentleman's speech? He said that only the county boundaries in the statutes are relevant for this purpose. He is not mistaken about the present position, but he is with regard to that which existed in 1969.
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
If that is the case, no doubt my hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State will pick up the point when he replies to the debate.
I want to accept the doctrine expounded by the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale in 1969 that it is for the 299 House to decide how these matters should be conducted and for the Government to come to the House and make their case. If the case is made, they are entitled to proceed.
We are faced with the European Assembly Elections Act 1978. I am sorry that I misunderstood the previous intervention by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. However, it is important to stress that that Act was guillotined without proper debate. The schedules place upon the Boundary Commission an obligation to report the constituencies for the European Assembly at the same time. The Government are proposing simply to amend schedule 2 and to restore the pre-1978 position. It is important also to stress that no changes in the law relating to parliamentary boundaries are suggested—
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
The hon. Gentleman may say that, but I do not want to go into that process in any detail. However, I should have thought—I thought that I sensed this from the speech of the right hon. Member for Leeds, South—that the Labour Party would be very quiet when talking about self-interest in these matters, because it has an appalling record. The hon. Member for Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) would be well advised to remain silent, in his sedentary position. If he wishes to intervene, I am sorry to tell him that I have a great list of quotations from the Crossman diaries. I should be delighted if he were to intervene to give me a peg on which to hang further embarrassing quotations.
I want briefly to examine the Government's case and to say why I believe it should be accepted by the House. The first point is that the Boundary Commissioners are charged to report between every 10 and 15 years. We already know that the last report took effect for the elections that took place in 1974 but that for a number of reasons—the 1969 reasons—that should have happened in 1970, so we are already getting enormously behind on all of this matter.
My hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) is rightly indignant about the fact that at present he is representing 110,000 people. It is an extraordinary anomaly. I am sure that most right hon. and hon. Members on the Opposition Benches will recognise that it is simply not on for there to be seats in urban areas in this country with between 20,000 and 30,000 electors. I am sure that that is common ground on both sides of the House. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister of State made a speech on this subject at the Conservative Party conference. He said that the Government were determined to do everything within their power to ensure that when we came to vote at the next general election the country would be voting under new boundaries, boundaries which would make it certain that a vote cast in Bromsgrove was no longer worth one-quarter of a vote cast in Newcastle, and that a vote cast in Suffolk was no longer worth one-third of one cast in Salford. I think that it is common ground in the House that anomalies of this sort must be ironed out as quickly as possible.
I come to the point about the European Assembly. I see no reason why we in Britain should delay what is a very important process by simply waiting upon some committee in Europe to propose some sort of uniform electoral system for the whole of Western Europe. My belief is that when proposals are put forward they will not be accepted by one, 300 two or three member States and that they will simply be kicked back again and countries will be asked to come up with other proposals. We simply cannot allow our important Boundary Commissioners to be held up by this sort of thing.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I hope that the hon. Member realises that there is a problem in this respect. Speaking as a former Member of the indirectly elected Parliament, I find it extremely unsatisfactory, given the importance of that Assembly or Parliament—call it what you will, according to taste—that political groups turn out to be lopsided because the elections in one country are conducted on a different basis. Take, for example, the Socialist group at present, which is severely disadvantaged because of the elections system in Britain, which is totally different from that of our Community partners. This has meant that the group is absolutely out of balance to what it would have been normally had the elections been conducted on a different basis. Therefore, there is a problem from that point of view.
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
That is a very important point. I suggest that it is not only a question of the electoral system, because in our country, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, it is the practice of the British electorate, whenever they are called upon to vote outside a general election, to vote, broadly, against the Government. Consequently, whatever system we have, we shall always be in a position in Europe, with the dates, that the party which is in government at that time will be voted against, just as it is now in local government and county elections.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
Is it not remarkable to hear the Opposition saying that we should allow the interests of Europe to stand in the way of our own constitutional practices and processes?
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
I am grateful for that intervention. I do not think that that is what was being said by the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell). However, one of the arguments that might be advanced—I believe that it has been advanced from the Opposition Benches—is that this is a scandal and a gerrymander. I would not want to pursue that point because, I repeat, I did not have the feeling that the right hon. Member for Leeds, South believed that. There will be some who will advance that argument, but I do not think that they will believe it either, and they will be advancing it in a purely party-political spirit.
The point made by the hon. Member for West Lothian is important. We shall have a great deal of difficulty in arriving at some sort of uniform electoral system in the European Community which is acceptable to all of us. It is not just a matter of our electoral system; it is also a matter of timing. Even if it were done under a PR system, we should still find that the British public would fulfil their tradition of voting against the Government outside a general election. In any event, therefore, the unfair position under which the Socialist group in the European Parliament now has to labour arises as a result of the fact that they were victims of the unpopularity of the sitting Government when those elections were held. That is another problem that will have to be faced.
That simply underlines the main thrust of my argument, namely, that we simply cannot afford to allow our very important parliamentary boundary recommendations to be held up by considerations of this kind.
301 The Home Secretary has put forward a case for the Bi11 and has said that what he wishes to do is to fulfil his duty to lay before this House the Boundary Commission report, with a draft of the Order in Council for giving it effect, with or without modifications to the recommendations contained in the report. He has said to the House that he wishes to fulfil that duty as soon as may be. I can only say that I have found his explanations and arguments convincing. I hope that the House will not hesitate to give the Bill a Second Reading.
§ 6.7 pm
§ Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)
I am afraid that I am a bit cynical about all this. Being a member of the Liberal Party, facing the Conservative Party inevitably makes one cynical. When the Act that is now being repealed went through the House, no Conservative Member uttered a cheep about what is now being portrayed as an essential change in the procedure. The Bill has been introduced at this stage in order to bring forward the Westminster constituency reviews because it is felt that this will have some effect—we can argue as to about how much— on the next general election. That fact should be faced.
I am not saying that it is all that terribly wicked. Like the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), I shall not go over the whole 1969 experience. However, I am entitled to remark that it is only first-past-the-post systems that have a capacity for gerrymandering or are open to accusations of gerrymandering in this way. A PR system cannot be treated in this manipulated fashion.
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that under most PR systems one inevitably ends up with a group of important and influential people in a political party or organisation taking decisions about who should appear on lists, and that that is the kind of gerrymandering which, in many ways, is much more disreputable than that m which he is referring?
§ Mr. Johnston
I regret to say that I disagree entirely with the hon. Gentleman. I am not going to belabour the argument, but his comparison is invalid and improper. [Interruption.] An improper comparison is one that is riot proper. I do not mean improper in the sense of order. It is an improper argument because it is not a fair one.
The right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) referred briefly to the House of Lords, which, in due course, will have to consider the Bill- He said that it was most unlikely, in his opinion, that the Lords would reverse the Bill in the way that it reversed the 1969 proposals I should like to give one quotation from the Leader of the Opposition—he was then on the Back Benches—to match the many quotations given by the hon. Member for Watford. The right hon. Gentleman said on 14 October 1969:I resent it very deeply that the House of Lords should still retain any power whatsoever to interfere with the system of election which this House may decide to have. It has a constitutional position to do so, but that does not mean that it is right to do so or that it can be justified in doing so".—[Official Report, 14 October 1969; Vol. 788, c. 274–5.]I imagine that the view of the Opposition on the matter is raw slightly different from what it was at that time. It is interesting to contemplate what their Lordships will do. They are the guardians of our constitution. I hope that they ill consider the Bill most carefully.
302 My first main point is that the Bill is wrongly named. It is not really concerned with European Assembly elections. It is about Westminster elections. It interferes with an established timetable for reasons which, I suspect, are not unassociated with party advantage in Westminster. It would be interesting to know from the Government whether the staff of the Boundary Commission are being increased to facilitate and make sure that this operation is carried out with speed. If that is so, it is happening at the same time as staff cuts are occurring all over the place across a fairly wide social field.
I wish to concentrate on the implications for the next European elections. I shall recall some views that were expressed on this matter during the debate in the House leading up to the 1978 Act, which is now to be amended, the effect of that on the 1979 election and the undertakings that were given concerning 1984. As the right hon. Member for Leeds, South said, this matter was not touched upon at all, surprisingly enough, by the Home Secretary in introducing the Bill.
In 1977 the view was accepted by the then Labour Government that it was necessary, in order to achieve just representation of our people in the European Parliament, that a proportional system should be introduced in advance of the uniform system which the Council of Ministers agreed in 1976 would be introduced in 1984. The Government therefore introduced the regional list system. It was disappointing to hear the right hon. Member for Leeds, South say that, following a debate and a vote, the matter, from his point of view, was over. I do not see why, or how, in all consistency, the right hon. Gentleman could argue persuasively, as he did at the time, only to ditch those views two years later, as if the proposal had been a mere expedient. That would be most unlike the right hon. Gentleman, who is not a man given to expediency.
The regional list system was defeated. It is reasonable to say that the major argument against the proposal was that it would probably have represented a double change. The hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd) opposed it, making it clear that he believed in a common system, that it would come about and that it would be proportional but that it was wrong to have two bites at the cherry. The hon. Gentleman said on 13 December 1977:When we began discussing this matter in Select Committee 18 months ago I came quickly to the conclusion that it would he a mistake to depart from the existing system for the first roundThe hon. Gentleman elaborated that by saying:We are faced with the prospect of having to change twice. We shall have to change from the first-past-the-post system to the regional list system if the amendment is defeated. Then, when the common system is devised, we shall have to change again. I do not accept the argument that it is easier to change from one form of proportional representation to another than it is to change from first-past-the-post to PR".—[Official Report, 13 December 1977; Vol. 941, c. 318–20.]That was a potent view in the debate, but it rested on the assumption that there would be a common system in 1984.
A number of hon. Members, especially the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), have already mentioned it, but it is worth reminding the House that the end result, after these new constituencies had been created, was that the elections in Britain, as opposed to those in Northern Ireland, were appallingly distorted. Of the 78 seats, the Conservative Party obtained 60 with a vote of 50 per cent., which represents 77 per cent. of the seats for 50 per cent. of the votes. The Labour Party got 22 per cent. of the seats with 33 per cent. of the votes. The Liberals, with 13 per cent. of the vote, got no 303 representation at all. The Conservatives got 19 more members than would have been the case using any system employed in any of the other eight countries. The Labour Party got nine fewer, and the Liberals 10 fewer.
I remember very well that on the night of the election, on 11 June 1979, even the Paymaster General, whose views on electoral reform, I reckon, would be widely approved by Stone Age man, was moved to say on television that he felt there would have to be a change next time and that it was bound to come.
The onus for making preparations for a uniform system lies with the European Parliament. The introduction of this Bill now ignores the Community timetable in connection with the proposition for a uniform system and suggests that the Government have no intention of having regard to a uniform system. That has led the Liberal Party to put down its reasoned amendment. I recognise, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that the amendment has not been accepted, but I hope that I might be allowed briefly to draw it to the attention of the House.
The amendment proposes:That the House declines to give a Second Reading to a Bill which fails to take account of the commitment entered into by all member countries that the next elections to the European Assembly should be by a uniform system throughout the Community, a commitment which was reaffirmed by the present Minister of State at the Foreign Office, the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon, in the debate on 13th December 1977".
If the Government are sincere in wishing to see a uniform system, a proper timetable would have been for them to await the European Parliament's proposals, which will come forward next year and are likely to be discussed by the Council during the British Presidency of the Council in the second half of 1981. Following agreement, legislation could properly be brought forward in the 1981–82 Session. That would do nothing to prevent the completion of the review of the Westminster constituencies. It would not affect what the whole purpose of this Bill is alleged to be, which is to disconnect the two to ensure that the Westminster constituency reviews are completed before the next British general election takes place.
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
That is on the assumption that the proposals that come forward eventually are agreed by all member States. However, the hon. Gentleman will be aware that, apart from any difficulties that we might have in finding these proposals acceptable, the French, for example, have a very odd electoral system by our standards, and they will find it extremely difficult to accept them. I should say that the chances were much better than evens that whatever proposals emerged would not be acceptable to all member States.
§ Mr. Johnston
Obviously, a point that the Government might reasonably make is that, if there is a failure to reach agreement, it will be necessary for us to update the existing constituencies in order prudently to be prepared for non-agreement and, therefore, to be able to participate in the election itself. I appreciate that that argument will emerge. However, if there is any lack of agreement, at the end of the day it will be the British Government's responsibility and no other Government's. Taking the French example which the hon. Gentleman quoted, all that the French did in the last European elections was to establish a national list. That was a form of proportional representation.
304 Here we come to a difficult area. I shall not elaborate on it. I say simply that I do not think that anyone believes that a uniform system of election means a technically uniform system. But it must mean a system that is based on the same principles, and that again must mean that it is proportional within certain reasonable parameters; and there is no doubt that the British system is not.
After all, the European Parliament is an advisory Assembly. It is not an elected Government. All these arguments about majorities do not apply. It is intended to represent the political attitudes prevalent throughout the Community, and at the moment it does not do that.
I began by saying that I was pessimistic. However, I still make an earnest appeal to the Government. What they are doing at the moment makes me profoundly pessimistic about their intentions, but I still hope fervently that I am wrong.
We heard just now about Northern Ireland. The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) said that it was wrong for one part of the United Kingdom to operate on a voting system that was different from that applying in another part. I suggest with even greater force that it is equally wrong in an advisory Assembly for one part of the Community to have people elected on a basis that is different from that operating in other parts. Britain produced an unrepresentative result in 1979. It was not just unrepresentative; it was grossly unrepresentative. I hope that the Government will not allow that to happen again in 1984.
§ Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)
I begin by thanking my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary for his explanation of the workings of the Boundary Commission for European constituencies and his reassurance that there is no way in which the Bill, if enacted, will have any effect on the application of the Boundary Commission's recommendations in this country.
The Bill is an opportunity for the House to correct a constitutional anomaly—what the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) described as a "small blemish"—which this House itself created. It is, therefore, sensible and a courageous step for the Government to take and, what is more, it is a fair step, as was illustrated most dramatically by the extremely good speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon).
That does not mean that the Bill will not lead to considerable changes in constituency boundaries in this country more quickly than otherwise might be the case, but those changes have to be welcomed if they are fair. If the Boundary Commission's recommendations go through, sadly I shall face the loss of a dearly loved part of my constituency, the area of Hailsham and Hellingly in East Sussex, but I shall be partly compensated by some small jewels from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Eastbourne (Mr. Gow), which he in turn will not wish to give up lightly. But, if fairness is required for the proper operation of our constitutional parliamentary democracy—as I believe it is—these changes have to be brought in, and they have to be brought in very quickly because of the anomalies that exist.
There are, however, some wider considerations, which were touched upon by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston). They have to do with the eventual effect of the Bill on the European Parliament or Assembly. That 305 Assembly represents people's interests, but it is also more representative of the interest groups within each of the European constituencies, and since 1978 those representatives have bee a elected rather than appointed, though I am pleased that there are still hon. Members of this House who find the energy and the time also to be Members of the European Assembly.
That leads me to a slight side tangent which I wish to raise in this context. It has not been referred to so far. It is the issue of proper liaison between Members of Me European Parliament and us as Members of this Parliament.
It is notable, especially during this debate, that there is nowhere in the Galleries in this House where, by right, Members of the European Parliament can sit and listen. I hope that that will be eventually be put to rights.
Yes, but those seats are for ordinary visitors. I am saying that Members of the European parliament should have a position, by right, on a specific Bench in one of the Galleries so that they may hear our debate about their future and how it affects them.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
As a matter of curiosity, do we get reciprocal rights in the European Parliament?
§ Mr. Rathbone
My hon. Friend's intervention leads right into my next point, which is that whereas we as visiting parliamentarians to the European Parliament are provided with day passes which give us a free run of the parliamentary building.—except, I believe, the actual Floor of the Parliament, though I am not even sure about that because a great many people are allowed on the Floor, including television cameramen, which I should welcome in this House, though not necessarily in such an ostentatious way —there is no method for Members of the European Parliament to come in and meet us without going through the procedure which visitors to the House have to go through of checking in, going through a security check and then being checked again by the police in the Central Lobby. There is no way in which they may use our excellent Library or, even more important, make use of our excellent legal facility provided by the Clerks of the House. Some form of special day pass would be extremely helpful to them and would lead to better co-ordination between the House of Commons and the European Parliament.
That is all by way of an aside. The Second Reading of the Bill is one step towards the adoption of a uniform system of elections to the European Parliament. Bit here—I do not make just a semantic point, because it is important—unlike the hon. Member for Inverness, I do not think that a uniform system necessarily means an identical system. The hon. Gentleman said that it should not be technically identical. I do not think that it necessarily has to be the same electoral system, as long as there is the same electoral outcome at the end of the day, namely, that it is reasonably uniformly representative.
It is not a question of the simplicity of one man, one vote, though there are many countries where even that does not exist. In our developed democratic parliamentary system it is a question of one man—or, indeed, one woman—and one reasonably equally powerful vote. That power can be unequal in the numbers of people whom we 306 represent, and it can be unequal in the way in which those people, however many in number, exert their power through the ballot box.
I therefore hope that the uniform systems for Europe will be able to embrace a system that gives fair national representation for the United Kingdom. In the context of the European Parliament, that means allowing all substantial parties to gain representation broadly in accordance with what voters actually want in the casting of their votes. In that same context, it should allow representation of minority groups within each of the parties. After all, within each of the two major parties in this country there are minorities whose views are rather divergent from those of their leaders. Among Conservative Members there are those who are antipathetic towards Europe, and among Labour Members, I am pleased to say, there are those, though in a minority, who have more favourable views on Europe than the leadership of their party seems to express.
Moreover, such a method of representation should allow fair representation locally. By that I mean fair representation for each of the major parties from each of the regions of this country. That is important, because a lack of proper party representation of some regions already exists. There is a heightened risk in certain regions, particularly in Scotland, where under the present first-past-the-post system it is perfectly conceivable that the total representation in the European Parliament would have been Scottish Nationalist. That would not have represented the views of Scotland at all fairly, judging by any recent election or opinion poll.
This issue is of more importance even than the issue of parity of representation, because one of the major tasks of the European Parliament is to help the European Commission to work out a satisfactory regional policy. Unless there is satisfactory regional representation within the Parliament, it will be very difficult for that Parliament, in turn, to work out a satisfactory regional policy.
I come back to the sort of results that can be expected from the present system. What I am about to say is in no way an exaggeration, but it illustrates how absurd results could be. Because of the present method of voting—first past the post—and because of the way in which the votes are distributed between regions, the Labour Party could get 53 per cent. of the votes and have 80 per cent. of the Members. The Conservatives could get 26 per cent. of the votes and have only 6 per cent. of the members.
§ Mr. Rathbone
It does not sit well in the hon. Gentleman's mouth to make cynical sedentary comments of that kind, because I think that he in his heart of hearts, like most of us in this House, would like to see the system work better.
The Liberal Party could get 13 per cent. of the votes and have no seats at all. Scottish Nationalists could get 4 per cent. of the votes and 10 per cent. of the seats. By comparing these figures, we can easily see how absurd the outcome of the present system could be.
§ Mr. Ivor Stanbrook (Orpington)
Has my hon. Friend noticed that many of the well-favoured and favourite institutions in this country do not work in principle but work very well in practice?
§ Mr. Rathbone
I have certainly noticed that. One cannot but notice it. It is all the more peculiar because our 307 institutions work by precedent, as opposed to constitutional rote. But perhaps my hon. Friend will allow me to come back to that matter a little later.
The illustrations that I have given should not lead Opposition Members to gloat, because, as we all know, that happens to be the present position—how people feel about the parties, and the state of politics as a whole at this moment in time. The position could change in the wink of an eye, and there could be a swing back the other way.
So it is important for both Front Benches and Members of all parties to note that these anomalies can occur under the present system, all the more so because the date for European elections is pre-ordained. Therefore, it is not possible for a party to ride on the top of a wave of popularity at any particular moment and choose the moment for an election in order thereby to benefit.
It will not be easy to find a uniform system. As has been said, the European Parliament has been considering the matter for quite some time. I understand that two alternative systems have been put forward to its political affairs committee by the sub-committee on electoral procedure. However, neither of the two systems was considered sufficiently acceptable to be put forward for consideration by the Parliament as a whole. Consequently, the sub-committee has been charged with a further examination of the problem and asked to bring forward revised or alternative systems of a proportional nature.
That will be done some time in the new year, and there are indications that it may be some time in March. It will be a difficult and time-consuming task, because, as has been pointed out, all Members from each country tend to feel that their system of elections suits them. It happens to be the system that got them there, just as our system of elections has got us elected to this House.
But I wonder whether that is a valid claim for the United Kingdom. We picked a grouping of Westminster constituencies, applied the same methods of election as we use here in Westminster and said "That will do for our elections to Europe." It is conceivable, therefore, that one of the other systems used in the United Kingdom would have been, and would still be, more applicable to Europe. I am thinking, for instance, of larger constituencies with multi-Member representation, as exist in many local government areas and in the way that Northern Ireland votes for its European representatives. Indeed, the Labour Party suggested such a system for the ill-fated—and, to my mind, not late-lamented—Scottish and Welsh Assemblies.
An extension of that principle can be used by having larger multi-Member constituencies in which a single transferable voting system can be applied. Again, that is the system at present used in Northern Ireland for elections to Europe. That principle could be extended to other parts of the United Kingdom. Indeed, on that basis I should have been tempted to support the amendment of the Northern Ireland Members of Parliament, had it been called, even though I do not believe that that was their intention in tabling the amendment.
§ Mr. James Molyneaux (Antrim, South)
Does the hon. Gentleman fully understand that in Northern Ireland, where we have three Euro Members, when a problem arises in any part of the Province all three are summoned? They get in each other's way and waste each other's time.
308 Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that he would favour that kind of pattern anywhere in the rest of the United Kingdom?
§ Mr. Rathbone
I hate to suggest to the hon. Gentleman that perhaps there would not be quite the same problem of getting in each other's hair—
§ Mr. Rathbone
—in other parts of the United Kingdom. That problem does not exist where this system of election operates elsewhere. It certainly was not the case when university Members of Parliament were elected to this House by such a system. There was no problem of getting in each other's hair—
§ Mr. Molyneaux rose—
§ Mr. Rathbone
I shall finish this point, and then I shall give way to the hon. Gentleman.
That system of university Members threw up some interesting representatives in this House, including my great aunt, Eleanor Rathbone. It is a pity that we have lost the intent, which I think was in the 1950 Conservative election manifesto, to reinstitute the university Members.
§ Mr. Molyneaux
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way, and I apologise for intervening again. The phrase that I used was "Get in each other's way". What we have is a triplication of effort.
§ Mr. Rathbone
There is not much more than a minor semantic difference between getting in each other's hair and getting in each other's way. I believe that if people work with good will together they will not get in each other's way or in each other's hair. That system of election and representation works extremely well in other countries, and there is not that sort of friction there.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
My hon. Friend said that he was not aware of any friction arising in any other country where that system is adopted. Is he aware that in Western Germany it is possible for a constituency to be represented in the normal way on the first-past-the-post system by a Christian Democrat and also, because of the topping-up system, to be represented by a member of the Social Democrat Party? Those two people within the one constituency not only get in each other's way, because they compete to be at every public function, but in each other's hair, because the member of the SPD is a member of the governing party and knows a great deal about what the Government will do, whereas the member of the Christian Democrat Party is regarded as the Opposition. Yet he is the legitimately elected member for that constituency. Surely, that is a grave defect of that system?
§ Mr. Rathbone
I must quote back to my hon. Friend what he said to me earlier—that it sounds complicated in principle but that it seems to work extremely well in practice. Many people who have reservations about the operation of our whole parliamentary and political system cast envious eyes towards the relative stability of Germany over recent years. It was partly as a result of a contribution from this country that the system was introduced there.
I return to my hon. Friend's previous intervention. It is part of the British tradition to choose an electoral system appropriate to the election concerned. This can be illustrated by reference to various times and various Governments. I give as examples the following: the retention, under the 1972 Conservative Act reorganising 309 local government, of multi-member seats as the norm in English and Welsh districts, despite the Royal Commission's recommendation of universal, single-member seats: the reintroduction by the Consevatives of the single transferable vote in Northern Ireland in 1973; the retention by the Labour Government of STV for the Northern Ireland Convention; the proposed two- or three-Member seats in the Labour Government's Scotland and Wales Bills.
One of the strengths of this country is that we can be pragmatic which I think was the philosophy underlying my hon. Friend's intervention. We have not only been pragmatic but have tuned that pragmatism into practice. It is all the more conceivable that another system could be adopted for elections to the European Parliament because it is a very different Chamber, with very different functions, from this Chamber and its functions. Most fundamentally, it is not a Chamber where decisions are taken. It is essentially an advisory Chamber, which makes clear overall majorities infinitely less important to its effective operation than is the case here. A corollary to that is that it-also makes the representation of minorities all the more important.
It is difficult for me to see how or why arguments can be put against the adoption of a more proportionate system of election for the European Parliament. That must be why so many people in this country—indeed, so many hon. Members—feel drawn to a more proportionate system of representation for the European Assembly than we Lave here. They can be matched by an increasing number of those who have been elected to represent this country within that. Assembly.
This will all take time. It is to be hoped that it will take place before the next round of elections in 1984, but it may not. Certainly, difficulties have been identified. In the meantime, it mist be absurd to tinker with the present Euro constituency boundaries pending the possibility of much greater change
It is equally absurd to postpone much-needed revisions to the Westminster constituency boundaries by making them dependent upon the long decision process which we as a country, and the European Community as a whole must enter into with regard to European Assembly representation.
It is for that reason that I believe that this is an excellent Bill, deserving support from both sides of the House.
§ Dr. Edmund Marshall (Goole)
The Home Secretary this afternoon moved the Second Reading of a Bill the sole purpose of which is to amend a particular provision of the European Assembly Elections Act 1978. When the Bill leading to that Act was going through the House, the official Conservative Opposition gave it full support. On the day of the Second Reading, 24 November 1977, only a handful of Conservative Members voted against. The speech of the present Home Secretary on that occasion was largely devoted to criticising the Labour Government for not having brought the Bill forward earlier. The burden of his speech was that he had wanted to see the Bill much sooner.
The Conservatives were happy to co-operate in the passage of that legislation. When there was a timetable notion on 26 January 1978, the Conservative Opposition -lad a free vote It is noticeable that those who voted for the motion, which assisted the Bill's speedy passage, 310 included the present Prime Minister, the present Home Secretary and both present Ministers of State, Home Office. I re-echo the point made by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) that there was not a peep from anyone on the Conservative Benches about the matter that the Government now seek to amend.
When a Bill is introduced to amend an Act passed only two or three years previously, it is usually to correct something that was wrong—perhaps a passage that was badly drafted, some constitutional nonsense. No one has suggested that there is anything like that involved here.
I do not agree with the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone), who said that the Bill was to put right a constitutional anomaly. An anomaly is not involved. I take issue with the right hon. Member for Down, South. This is not a blemish. There were good reasons why the European Assembly Elections Act 1978 was drafted in the way that it was.
It cannot be said that the Bill is necessary to enable the Boundary Commissions to meet the statutory time limit of their present general reviews. Nobody has suggested, even with the present requirement that they should conduct a review of the European constituencies at the same time, that they cannot meet the deadlines of April, May and June 1984.
I turn to why the provision which the Bill intends to amend was included in the Act.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
Is the hon. Gentleman saying that if he was satisfied that it was impossible to complete the review of European boundaries by 1984 he would support the Bill?
§ Dr. Marshall
I am saying that there is no need for the Bill in order to enable that provision to be made. If difficulties were caused by the incorporation of the European review with the present review, which would lead to an overlapping of the 1984 deadline, obviously an amendment of some law would be necessary. That could be achieved by amending the legislation that introduced the 15-year limit. That is not questioned. Nobody says that we cannot meet the 1984 limit.
The provision was included in the 1978 Act to enable, as far as possible, the European Assembly constituencies in Great Britain to have coterminosity with Westminster constituencies. Schedule 2(2) to the Act requires that no Westminster constituency shall be included partly in one Assembly constituency and partly in another. For the sake of administrative convenience and general public wellbeing, it is advisable that each parliamentary constituency shall be included in one European constituency. That is helpful to Members of Parliament. We shall each know then that there is one European Member representing each of our constituencies. We might not agree with that hon. Member, but I shall be helped by knowing which European Member represents the Goole constituency and I shall be able to keep an eye on him.
When either set of constituencies is reviewed, there might be an overlap period during which, even under the present arrangements, new constituencies of one kind are operating at the same time as old constituencies of another kind. Such an overlap is bound to arise because the general election dates for the two Parliaments do no coincide. The European Parliament is elected on a fixed-term basis. It must be in everybody's interests for the period of such an overlap—when the two sets of constituencies are out of 311 Step—to be as short as possible. That will reduce confusion and duplication of effort for the elected representatives and for the people who administer elections.
If the Bill is enacted, it is possible that the new Westminster constituencies will come into force at the next general election. I put it no higher than that. That will be in late 1983 or in 1984. It will be impossible for the new European constituency boundaries to come into force until the election after next—in 1988 or 1989. That will result in an overlap of four or five years when the two types of constituency would be out of step.
§ Dr. Marshall
It is almost an assertion, on the basis of the timetable described by the Home Secretary this afternoon. He said that the inclusion of the European constituency review would prolong the present general review by about 15 months. If the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley) examines a calendar, he will see that that makes it almost impossible for all the arrangements to be made in time for the next European elections.
§ Mr. Bottomley
The hon. Gentleman's argument is relevant. A 15 months' delay might occur if the two reviews have to come through together. Does that necessarily mean that once the Westminster parliamentary boundaries are fixed the redrawing of the European boundaries will necessarily take 15 months? Is it not conceivable that they could be drawn more quickly, as they were last time?
§ Dr. Marshall
The 15 months were mentioned by the Home Secretary this afternoon. I must assume that the hon. Member for Woolwich, West has not been following the debate.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Leon Brittan)
What happened last time is not of direct relevance, because the date decided for the first European elections involved a truncated procedure for the first European boundaries, which the legislation being amended today does not prescribe for subsequent boundary reviews.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
The argument had not occurred to me in this manner. The argument is that, under the procedure followed by the Government, new boundaries will not be fixed for Europe until the European election after next, on the basis of the first-past-the-post system. That should be cleared up this evening.
§ Dr. Marshall
My argument is reinforced by my right hon. Friend. With the enactment of the Bill, the likelihood is that there will be a delay in the review of European constituencies and that they will not come into force until 1989. That will mean that in some parts of the country a new Westminster constituency could come into operation in 1983-84 and be covered by a multiplicity of European Members.
Humberside is an example. Under the Boundary Commission's provisional recommendations, a new Boothferry constituency is proposed. That will cover almost one-third of the entire land mass of Humberside and be an enormous constituency. It will overlap three of the 312 present European Assembly constituencies—Humberside, Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, North. I am trying to highlight such an overlap.
If the Bill is enacted, there will be a prolonged period of confusion when the two types of constituencies operate out of step, assuming that elections to the European Parliament take place and are based upon the first-past-the post system.
§ Mr. Stanbrook
If the hon. Gentleman is right, does not that argument equally apply to municipal boundaries? After all, at present we have difficulties when municipal boundaries are based upon parliamentary boundaries which existed previously, as a result of which there must be fresh parliamentary constituency boundaries. In other words, according to the logic of that argument, should we not have municipal, parliamentary and European boundaries together? Would that not be impossible? In the end, would it not be better if they remained separate?
§ Dr. Marshall
In his convoluted intervention, the hon. Gentleman almost ended up at the point at which he started. I am all too readily aware of the gist of what he said, in that my present constituency of Goole is in no fewer than four different counties. I am one of only two hon. Members who have the pleasure to represent four counties in the House, the other being the hon. Member for Skipton (Mr. Watson). Since local government reorganisation in 1974, we have had that unusual position. It was precisely that point which the then Labour Home Secretary argued in 1969. I shall not go into great detail about the whole of that debate, but I am glad that the hon. Member for Orpington (Mr. Stanbrook) has highlighted the argument for me.
Much has been said in the debate about the need for early redistribution of Westminster constituencies because of disparities between the electorates of existing constituencies. Indeed, the Home Secretary gave a long list of existing constituencies which are so much above the electoral quota and so much below. I am sure that every democrat would acknowledge that disparities of the scale that has been mentioned—30,000 to 100,000—are not good for our system and that we want to see an ironing out of those disparities. As far as possible, we should like to see constituencies that are all close to the electoral quota.
But I have news for the Home Secretary. That objective will not be achieved by the present general review of parliamentary constituencies. If one looks closely at the proposed electorates up and down the country, it is astonishing to find how great the divergences are. That is so even if we put aside areas of the country with unusual geographical features, such as the Isle of Wight, with its electorate of 88,460, or Orkney and Shetland, with its electorate of 28,307. One can understand why the Boundary Commissions in their present review are perpetuating those unusual constituencies. However, even if one puts aside those considerations, one will find that, in the proposals so far published or revised in the recommendations of the English Boundary Commission, electorates vary from 46,493 in Surbiton to 80,583 in Wood Green, which are both within Greater London. Another interesting constituency is that of Sidcup, for which the recommended electorate is 49,739.
If one looks at particular cases within particular counties—for example, in Staffordshire—one will find a variation from 51,602 in the proposed constituency of 313 Staffordshire, South-East to 76,180 in Stoke-on-Trent, North. In Lancashire. there is a variation from 52,154 in the proposed constituency of Morecambe and Lunesdale to 76,628 in Blackburn.
Of the 345 constituencies so far proposed for 31 counties in England—that is, if one regards Greater London as a county—92, or well over one-quarter, have 1976 electorates which differ from the electoral quota by more than l0 per cent. and 11 have electorates which differ by more than 20 per cent.
§ Mr. Robin Squire (Hornchurch)
Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that in coming to their recommendations the commissioners are required to look not merely at the existing population but at the expected population changes in the immediate future? If that is so, that could account for a number of the variations to which he has referred.
§ Dr. Marshall
On the contrary, I expect that the population changes that have taken place since 1976 will have widened the divergences about which we are talking. In a sense, it was unfair of the Home Secretary to quote his list on the basis of 1980 figures, because that does not give a fair comparison with the new constitueucies that are proposed in the general review, all of which are based on 1976 electorates. It would have been more interesting had the Home Secretary given a list of present constituencies on the basis of their 1976 electorates.
The position in Scotland is even more interesting. There, the electoral quota is 53,649—somewhat less than in England. So far, only 39 seats have been proposed for the eight regions outside Strathclyde. Of those 39 seats, 17, or more than 40 per cent. have 1978 electorates—1978 is the base yea: in Scotland—which differ from the Quota by more than 10 per cent. and 6 by more than 20 per cent. Even if one excludes the Highlands and Islands, with their special; geographical features, one has a variation in Scotland ranging from 36,299 in the proposed constituency for West Borders to 64,500 in Dundee, West.
When all these proposals are put together, one finds that the constituencies so far proposed for the mainland of Great Britain have electorates ranging from 30,100 in Caithness and Sutherland to 80,583 in Wood Green. Therefore, the arguments that the present disparitie in constituency electorates necessitate the earliest possible redistribution are much overated.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that if he is engaging in this statistical analysis and complaining about unfairness it is grossly misleading to talk about divergences in the new constituencies when he includes within his global figures parts of the country which operate on different electoral quotients?
§ Dr. Marshall
I have quoted only one such instance, and what I said made that perfectly clear. I shall repeat almost word for word what I said earlier, namely, that on the mainland of Great Britain—that is exactly what I said—there is a divergence from 30,100 in Caithness and Sutherland to 80,583 in Wood Green. Therefore, the argument that the present constituencies need to be redistributed as rapidly as possible to iron out the great divergence in their electorates does not fully hold water, because what is now being proposed by the Boundary Commissions will still leave a wide divergence in those electorates.
314 The range has already increased because of the passage of time since 1976. When those constituencies first come into operation, be it in 1983, 1984 or some time later, we shall see how widely they range.
The Home Secretary and the Government are asking the House to amend a previous enactment in one narrow respect, namely, a provision that has never yet been implemented because there has been no review of Westminster constituencies since the enactment of the European Assembly Elections Act 1978. There is no experience of the working of that provision. There is no legalistic contradiction involved in the present state of the legislation. No argument can be put forward requiring the earliest possible redistribution, other than that provided for in the present law, which requires that the reports should reach the Home Secretary not later than 1984. Only the House can judge for itself the real reasons for this move by the Government.
§ Mr. Selwyn Gummer (Eye)
I shall not take up the argument of the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall). It is not an adequate defence for him to say that because the new position will not be perfect we should opt for the old position, which is much worse. However one uses the statistics, that is not a sensible argument. It was interesting to note that the hon. Gentleman showed concern, care and compassion for Euro Members and a desire to co-operate and consult with them, which is touching from a representative of a party that wishes to abolish Euro Members altogether. I wonder whether we can take seriously his crocodile tears or whether we should suspect that there is another reason lying behind his remarks.
The right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), who opened the debate for the Opposition, and the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), who is to reply. should declare an interest. Both of them benefit considerably under the present system. The electorate of the right hon. Member for Leeds, South is 24.9 per cent. below the average. That helps a great deal when answering letters. The electorate of the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury is 42 per cent. below the average. I have no reason to doubt that he will put forward the strongest views for putting off the change for as long as possible. The hon. Gentleman must realise that if the system that is used in the Labour Party allows him to get a constituency, he will need to have 28,000 more electors to reach the necessary average.
There is a strong vested interest within the Labour Party in favour of the present system. Of the four candidates for the leadership of the Opposition, three were in that position. The electorate of the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore) is 11.4 per cent. below average. The right hon. Member for Deptford (Mr. Silkin), who did this country such a disservice when he was Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, has an electorate that is 17 per cent. below the average. The right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Foot), who now leads the Opposition, has an electorate that is no less than 37.6 per cent. below the average—and not the average for England but the average for the already low figure for Wales. Let us begin by realising that there is a good reason for many hon. Members to seek to prolong the comforts of the present system.
§ Dr. Edmund Marshall
Before the hon. Gentleman gets too far into his speech, I wish to take up his reference 315 to me in his opening remarks. I was not pleading for great co-operation between Westminster Members and Euro Members. I was simply saying that it helps me to keep an eye on my European Member if there is only one of him. During the past month I have crossed swords with him simply because I was able to find out what he was doing.
§ Mr. Gummer
The House will now realise that the purpose of prolonging the present position is that of surveillance. No doubt the House will give due weight to that as a proposition. The fact remains that we have a system that starts by being unfair in numbers. That unfairness is sufficiently great to attack the very basis of the democratic system. It cannot be right that my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) represents six times as many people as the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central (Mr. McTaggart). That cannot be a democratic system. Even if this proposal is only a bit better, it is better to be a bit better quicker than to prolong the agony for what may be a further 10 years.
We must look carefully at the numbers. It is not a question of a numbers game but a question of the representation of people who have a right to believe that their representation is at least reasonably fair. The numbers position means an over-representation for the towns and an under-representation for the country. For example, the county of Suffolk has many more people than Manchester, yet Manchester has eight Members of Parliament and Suffolk has only five. Each Suffolk Member represents twice as many constituents as each Manchester Member. That means, for example, that the right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman)—he knows that I intended to mention this—can make my constituents homeless by opposing shorthold provisions. Every one of my constituents knows that the right hon. Gentleman represents half the number of people that I represent. He may represent them extremely well. I am talking not about quality but about quantity. The system is very much weighted against those who live in the rural areas.
The average electorate of the rural constituencies of East Anglia as a whole is 89,000. The average electorate of Liverpool, Manchester or Glasgow is between 40,000 and 45,000. That cannot be fair, and it should not continue.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
Is not the necessary consequence of the difficulties to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention that, because the House is weighted towards urban Members, it is less perceptive to the special needs of the rural areas in which I live?
§ Mr. Gummer
I was hoping that my hon. Friend would lead me down that path, because it is a path that I wish to follow. Within the rules of order, I wish to point out that there is an interesting correlation between the number of urban Members and the amount of rate support grant that happens to find its way into the rural areas. The rural counties that are under-represented receive a smaller share of the national cake per capita than the counties that happen to be in urban areas. I make no allegations. I' propose no wicked plots. I simply suggest that taxation with under-representation means higher taxation. Similarly, benefits fall to those who have the largest number of voices to speak for them as well as those who have the biggest voices to speak for them.
316 There is a further disadvantage in the present system. I put it somewhat lightheartedly and I hope that it will not be taken too seriously. However, it is worth saying. There is the factor of mischief-making. I have noted carefully that many of the hon. Members who interfere and speak widely on constituencies of other Members themselves represent too few constituents. I think of the speeches made recently by the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer), who has 12,000 too few constituents. I think of the hon. Member for Stockport, North (Mr. Bennett)—
§ Mr. Gummer
—who has 13,000 too few constituents. The hon. Member for Bethnal Green and Bow (Mr. Mikardo) has 15,000 too few constituents.
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has 14,000 too few constituents and the hon. Member for Salford, East (Mr. Allaun), who is so prominent on all issues, has 34,000 too few constituents.
If those hon. Members had a few more constituents writing a few more letters, they might have less time to support such unfortunate causes. I mention those but there are many others. There seems to be a mischief factor that lies in the small number of constituents in certain constituencies.
§ Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)
My hon. Friend has confessed to a certain lightheartedness in his approach. Does not he agree that although his bucolic flock may be more numerous than those constituents who are represented by hon. Members with city centre seats, if it is a matter of writing letters—he has not produced statistics for this—the town constituent is far quicker to reach for his pen than his country cousin?
§ Mr. Gummer
I am about to produce not statistics but personal examples. When I was the hon. Member for Lewisham, West between 1970 and 1974, the number of letters that I received was one-fifth the number that I receive as the hon. Member for Eye. Those who live in rural constituencies are no less ready to write. My hon. Friend has inadvertently underlined one of the difficulties. Those who live in the towns are not only over-represented but often extremely patronising to those who live in the country. It is sad that one of my hon. Friends should suggest that those who live in the country are either unable to write or so gripped by the agues of the cold that they are unable to move their pens. His attitude towards my constituents is nothing less than disastrous.
It is unfortunate that my hon. Friend does not have enough rural friends in this place to put him right. That is the point that I am about to make.
§ Mr. Douglas Hogg
My hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens) would have to walk rather more if he represented a rural constituency.
§ Mr. Gummer
My constituency amounts to 640 square miles. It contains 202 villages. Driving as I do and as I should not, it takes an hour and a quarter to drive from one corner of my constituency to the other. It is interesting to compare my constituency with that of Glasgow, Central, a constituency that one can see across. That is a constituency that even my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens) could walk across rapidly. I wish to compare that constituency with mine. I represent 317 72,000, whereas the hon. Member for Glasgow, Central represents only 19,000. He can meet them in a hall. I have to travel from village to village. One hall in the centre of Glasgow, Central could gather constituents from all points of the hon. Gentleman's compass. That is because all points are comprised within two miles. With a constituency that amounts to 640 square miles, it is extremely difficult to ensure that one has that natural and reasonable connection with one's constituents. The changes that we require are needed necessarily and rapidly.
I have taken some care to compare the constituencies in Suffolk with those in Glasgow. I wish to illustrate the differences. The proportion of the constituencies in Suffolk with above-average electorates run like this 46 per cent., 5 per cent, 26 per cent., 40 per cent. and 31 per cent. The constituencies of Glasgow with electorates below the average run as follows: 30 per cent., 19 per cent., 52 per cent., 18 per cent., 23 per cent., 42 per cent., 17 per cent. and 7 per cent. Those percentages are based on an average that is lower than the English average. We are not even comparing like with like. We are starting from the total unfairness of the difference between Scotland and England.
It is important for the House to realise the seriousness of these disparities. The situation is outrageous, and if our constituents understood they would be extremely angry. What should I say to a member of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers who asks me "Why do I have half a vote compared with a member of the National Union of Mineworkers who lives in Ebbw Vale?" Why is it that two members of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers have the same electoral weight as one member of the National Union of Mineworkers in Ebbw Vale? I should find it difficult to answer that question in a way that would not be insulting to the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers. I hope that one of the things that it might achieve by joining with the Transport and General Workers Union is the ability to put pressure upon the right hon. Member for Ebbw Vale the Leader of the Opposition, to do something about the imbalance.
I hope that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will not object if I say that I am sorry that the Bill does not go farther. The time has conic to question deeply the historic fact that Scotland and Wales are given a number of seats that is based, in one instance, on the Act of Union. Even if one adopts the line of some of those on the Opposition Benches, that was rather a long time ago. It is historic precedent that the Scots, for some reason, must have 71 seats in this place. I find that difficult to understand.
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Gentleman, who has only recently entered the Chamber, has one of the smallest constituencies in this place. He is not in a position to argue.
§ Mr. Maxton: rose—
As the hon. Gentleman has not been present for the debate, I do not intend to give way to him.
Only eight of the Scottish seats reach the average of the English seats, and 12 of them have fewer than 40,000 electors. Those that have fewer than 40,000 are not all 318 constituencies such as Ross and Cromarty, Bute and North Ayrshire or Banff. They include Edinburgh, Central; Edinburgh, Leith; Glasgow, Central; Glasgow, Govan; Glasgow, Hillhead; Glasgow, Kelvingrove: Glasgow, Queen's Park and Glasgow, Shettleston. It is outrageous that six Glasgow Members should represent fewer electors than, in some instances, two English Members. That is unacceptable.
Members of this place cannot claim to be democratic representatives in the way that should be open to them. That is why I am attracted to the Bill. However, sadness lies therein because the Government should have taken some account of the real feeling in England that, far from being the overlords and getting the best of things, we are in electoral terms the underdogs. It is time for those who represent English constituencies to say that enough is enough. We have too many Members from Scotland and too many Members from Wales, and we want the pattern of representation changed. I am sorry that the opportunity has not been taken.
What will be the effect on the European Assembly? It has been argued that we shall in any case be having proportional representation. I normally agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone), and I am sorry to disagree with him on this occasion. Proportional representation is an unsatisfactory way of democratic election. It removes the connection between the Member of Parliament and his constituency. It leads to a wholly unnecessary complication. It also gives far too much power to the party caucus. The advantage of our system—not, I am sad to say, as it is operated by the Labour Party—Lis that it enables a large number of different groups of people to choose their Member of Parliament if they live in a constituency that is likely to be held by one party or another in a relatively democratic way. In my constituency, with a party membership of 12,000 or 13,000 people, every voter can vote in those circumstances. That is democratic. It allows for an independence of view and support outside the party. I should hate us to lose that.
However, the arguments for proportional representation on the European scale are stronger than those on the Westminster scale, simply because of the size of the constituency. Many of us would go along with some sort of PR, but we should not feel that it is just around the corner. To suggest that we should not take such steps because we shall have a new system soon is to misunderstand what is happening in the remainder of Europe. In the European Parliament the arguments are fast and furious. I cannot believe that by 1984 we shall have a new system agreed by all the countries. We should accept that the election is likely to be fought under our present system.
If we de-link, it will enable the commissioners to get on with their business—immediately they have presented their report on Westminster constituencies—of dealing with the European Parliament. With luck and judgment, we should be able to get both through by the relevant dates. We cannot produce the one, wait for 15 months while it is organised and then start on the other. That would he a mistake. It is wrong of the right hon. Member for Leeds, South to put that forward.
I hope that the House will not be swayed by the two dominant themes put forward by the Opposition. The first was to push aside the real democratic arguments for a change in the boundaries as quickly as possible. They used 319 arguments that would have done credit to those who opposed the 1832 Reform Bill, who said that they wanted reform but not yet. The argument is that there is this or that in the way and that when those things are put right all will be well.
The other argument used by the Opposition, which is extremely difficult to accept, is that they were pure and innocent in their dealings with past Bills. They suggested that this Bill was gerrymandering. It is unacceptable to compare the two situations. The right hon. Member for Leeds, South suggested that holding up a boundary redistribution and making the system less fair is the same as advancing a boundary redistribution to make it more fair—in other words, to stop something happening and, therefore, make the system less fair is perfectly reasonable, whereas to make it fairer quicker is wicked and gerrymandering. That does not come up to the normal standard of argument of the right hon. Gentleman.
The second part of the Opposition's argument, which ran right through speeches, was a general opposition to the nature of the European Parliament. I believe in the change primarily because I want a more democratic system in the United Kingdom. I want to achieve as quickly as possible a fairer system in this country. However, it is most important that it should not be thought by people here that, because of an arrangement in Europe, democracy is held up. The Labour Party blames the EEC far too often for everything. The Opposition are now trying to blame the EEC for the fact that this bit of fairness does not go ahead. That is not proper or sensible.
I believe in the European Parliament. I have the very best relationship with my MEP, as do all hon. Members in his constituency of Suffolk and Harwich. I wish that hon. Members would build up such relationships, which they would find valuable in their work in this House. They would be thereby contributing to Europe and to the strength of this nation instead of sniping at it. I support my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes in his belief that in this House we should make every provision for the regular attendance of our colleagues who represent the European Parliament. In that way we should be able to make sure that overlapping matters are discussed together regularly and that this House is au fait with what the European Parliament is doing.
We want the Bill because it is fair. It advances the cause of democracy. It stops the scandal whereby the hon. Member for Ardwick can block legislation for my constituents while representing only half the number of my constituents. The present system ensures that there is more work for mischievous hands. I hope not only that the House will pass the Bill but that Labour Members will realise that the balance of the debate has shown that the case put forward by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South does not stand.
§ Mr. R. C. Mitchell (Southampton, Itchen)
I do not intend to follow the many red herrings introduced into the debate by the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Gummer). If I may say so, it is an appropriately named constituency for the hon. Gentleman.
It is amazing how the Conservative Party rediscovers democracy only when it is to its electoral advantage to do so. We all know that the only reason for the Bill is that the 320 Conservative Party wants redistribution of seats in parliamentary constituencies before the next general election. It considers that it will be an electoral advantage, and the guesstimates of that advantage are between five and 40 seats. If it had been suggested that such a measure would give the Labour Party an advantage of five to 40 seats, the Bill would not have come before the House. That is the political reality. I do not blame the Government. If we were in Government, we should probably do the same. However, the Government should not come here with pious talk of democracy when they are playing a political game for political advantage.
I regret that the Bill does not go a little further. The Home Secretary may have misinterpreted my intervention. Our parliamentary democratic system is unique because of the relationship between the Member of Parliament and his constituents. Other countries have different electoral systems. A few years ago I helped a Socialist Democratic colleague in his election campaign in Germany. Several of us walked through the streets of Munich with him, and not a soul recognised him. That was because of the German system. British Members of Parliament, certainly those who represent provincial areas and towns, know that they will be recognised if they walk through their town. I am not boasting when I say that I allow three times more time than others to walk from my house to the library because of the people who stop me and ask to discuss a problem. That relationship is fundamental to British politics. It does not exist elsewhere. That is why I am opposed to any system of proportional representation that would destroy the constituency as it is now.
However, it does not matter whether it is a constituency of 50,000 or 80,000. I accept the argument about a very small constituency and a very large constituency: it is wrong that one should be 25,000 and another 110,000. However, for constituencies there is not much difference between 50,000 and 80,000.
I do not accuse the Boundary Commission of being biased. The terms of reference have existed for a long time. The Boundary Commission is concerned only to balance numbers, not to maintain the community aspect—the relationship between the Member of Parliament and his constituents. For example, a large village with a population of about 20,000 to the west of Southampton has changed constituencies in every boundary redistribution since the war. It has gone from one constituency to another merely to balance the numbers.
What is now proposed in my constituency is ironic. My local council has spent £10 million on building a bridge across the River Itchen. The bridge was built to improve communications between the two sides of the river. What has the Boundary Commission done? The ward with which the bridge connected has been taken out of Southampton and shoved into Eastleigh, which has no relationship with Southampton. No one from that ward shops in Eastleigh. The only reason for the change was to maintain the numbers. My constituency has a population of 83,000. That was thought to be too big, so the Boundary Commission cut out one ward. One ward in Southampton, cutting across local government boundaries and so on, has been pushed into another constituency with which it has no relationship whatsoever.
I hope that either this or another Government will seriously look at the criteria involved in the Boundary Commission's proposals and will pay more attention to 321 keeping communities together—that is the essence of parliamentary democracy—than to balancing the numbers.
§ Mr. Whitelaw
The hon. Gentleman may feel that I misled him earlier, but I do not think that I did. I said that that was the purpose of the local inquiries which are undertaken after the initial recommendations are trade. The points that the hon. Gentleman has just made ought properly to be made at those local inquiries.
§ Mr. Mitchell
The only trouble is that local inquiries have to act within a general remit. I can argue that another ward, not that: particular ward, should be taken out, and I will no doubt do so. However, the local inquiry will not maintain my 80,000 electorate because of the difference in numbers. That does not come under the local inquiry's remit.
As regards the European constituencies and the system that we shall have in 1984, my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) was right when he said that we should now know the Government's thinking on this matter. My right hon. Friend said that the Labour Party was opposed to a uniform system. I am not opposed to a uniform system, or, as the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) said, a uniform type of system, even if it is not a technically uniform system.
What happened in the European Assembly election was outrageous. The whole structure was distorted by what happened in this country. What happened here was bitterly resented by other parliamentarians because it distorted the whole structure. The Government should give us some idea of their thinking on the kind of electoral system they intend to operate in 1984 for the European Assembly election. It is essential that we have the answer to that question.
The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) talked about there being a blemish on the present system. By that he meant that a different system would be to his party's elector al advantage.
§ Mr. Mitchell
The argument is that if there are three separate European Assembly constituencies in Northern Ireland, there will be three Unionist Members and no SDLP Members.
§ Mr. Powell
The hon. Gentleman is mistaken on a point of fact. In Northern Ireland the party results of elections based on proportional representation are virtually the same as those based on direct voting because of the layout of the respective colours of the population. [Interruption] It is no use the hon. Gentleman disputing it, because it has been proved time and again. The reason why my hon. Friends and I object to this proposal is that it is a differentiation between an integral part of the United Kingdom and the rest of the United Kingdom, quite apart from the reasons given by the hon. Gentleman about its divorcing the representative from his constituents.
§ Mr. Mitchell
I appreciate the point made by the right hon. Gentleman, but should like to return to his first point. It depends how the boundaries are drawn. As the right hon. Gentleman knows, it was notorious in the past in Northern Ireland to draw boundaries in ways which gave certain results That is what many of the troubles were about in 1959. There was dissatisfaction with the electoral system because it gave certain results. The way out of the 322 dilemma in Northern Ireland is for the rest of the United Kingdom to adopt the Northern Ireland system of proportional representation for European Assembly elections.
I imagine that most hon. Members do not want to give the European Parliament too many powers. The job done by the Euro Member is fundamentally not a constituency job. He does not deal with constituency matters relating to tax, social security and so on. Therefore, it is less important for him than for national Members of Parliament to have a direct relationship with individual constituents. For example, the Euro Member deals with farmers and farm workers through organisations.
Do the Government have any plans to review the criteria upon which the Boundary Commission works? What is the Government's thinking on the type of electoral system to be introduced for the 1984 European Assembly election
§ Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)
It is always a pleasure to follow in debate the hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell). I listened with interest to his remarks about his constituency. I know that he is highly regarded there as a hard-working constituency Member. We in Hampshire take the view that, if we must have a Labour Member, there is no one better than the hon. Gentleman to fill that role. It is no part of my job to assist the hon. Gentleman to remain a Member. I simply say that we shall enjoy having him as a Member for the time remaining to him.
It is clear from the argument that we have heard so far that it is proper not to allow the reviewing and implementation of the Westminster constituencies to be delayed by the review of Euro constituencies. Therefore, the Bill must be implemented as quickly as possible.
In wishing the Bill a fair wind, I should like to make some points which are relevant to it. The first concerns the problem of the Euro constituencies. I find myself in sympathy with the hon. Member for Itchen, who referred to the system in the European Parliament currently favouring the Conservative Party. The election was held when the Conservative Party was electorally favoured on the first-past-the-post system.
At the moment, the Conservative Party is overrepresented in Europe, but that situation will not always continue. There may be a time when perhaps the Conservative Party will not be as popular as it was. We shall then have the reverse situation. The Conservative Party will be under-represented and the Labour Party will be over-represented. Therefore, I support the proposal that election to the European Parliament should be based on proportional representation because that tends to give a better balance overall. It tends to iron out some of the peaks and troughs in representation. It will mean that over the years the United Kingdom will be represented by a fairer balance reflecting the views of people in this country than by representation based on the first-past-the-post system.
We also have some substantial problems few people have faced up to them—in regard to the way in which this country is represented in Europe and the facilities that we give to the Members of the European Parliament. There has been no proper attempt made to grasp the problems of how we can link the views of Members in Westminster with the views of Members of 323 the European Parliament in Strasbourg. We meet irregularly, on a spasmodic basis. The Members of the European Parliament have virtually no facilities here. They have to send in cards if they wish to see individual Members of Parliament in Westminster. There is no way in which they can link into our Westminster system. The result is that since the direct elections there has been increasingly a divorce of views between Westminster and Strasbourg. Those who believe in Westminster and those who believe also in our membership of the European Community should not allow this system to continue.
The present system is playing right into the hands of those who are screaming that we should come out of the European Community. It is playing right into the hands of those who say that there is nothing in common between Westminster and Strasbourg, because at the moment there is indeed very little in common between them. We have no proper briefing on what happens in Strasbourg, and the MEPs find it difficult to keep in touch with our activities here.
The grasping of this nettle ought to be linked with the similarly important issue of constitutional reform involving the House of Lords. I should like to see Members of the European Parliament having some access to Westminster through the House of Lords. We simply cannot allow the present position to continue. Those who believe in our present membership of the European Community should realise that we are playing into the hands of those who wish us to come out of Europe.
If we were to introduce a system of proportional representation for the election of our Members of the European Parliament, it would cause very little damage to the present system of geographical representation by the Members of the European Parliament, because their areas are already so large that they do not really represent a geographical area in the same way as Westminster Members. There would be very little damage done to that link if we were to have a change.
I agree completely with the hon. Member for Itchen—in saying this I shall do even more damage to his electoral chances next time—that Members of the Westminster Parliament have increasing links with and responsibility within their own constituencies. The days have gone when a Member of Parliament could have casual, rare links with his constituency. Now, it is the norm for a Member of Parliament to have very strong links and to accept personal geographical responsibility for the area that he represents and for everything that happens within it.
For that reason, I can see the argument for saying that we should not play the numbers game—to talk in the code of those who speak about boundary redistribution—the numbers game being to stick as closely as possible to the average number and make each constituency conform to that. I can see the argument of those who say that we should not play the numbers game but should pay particular regard to localities and communities.
In my constituency, Gosport, there are 50,000 voters. The constituency was first created for the February 1974 election. The parliamentary constituency being exactly coterminous with the borough of Gosport, we have a tremendous sense of community within the borough and within the parliamentary constituency. I deal with one 324 borough council and I think that the council prefers to deal with one Member of Parliament. The arrangement works extremely well.
If the parliamentary constituency is to be extended, it will mean inevitably allowing a parliamentary constituency to take part of the neighbouring borough of Fareham, and the Member of Parliament will represent one borough and part of another. I can see the arguments that many people have against such an arrangement, but I do not think they are persuasive, for the more we allow the sense of community, the subjective sense, to enter into this calculation, the less likely are we to have objective decisions and the less possible is it to justify the decisions on objective grounds.
The numbers game—taking a norm and sticking to it as accurately as possible—is fairer overall because it irons out the distinctions which could be put forward by individual localities which seek to evade the norm by saying that they are special and should have a larger or smaller number.
§ Mr. R. C. Mitchell
In what way is it fairer to have Gosport and Fareham divided into two equal numbers, regardless of community, rather than have one Member representing 50,000 voters in Gosport and the other Member representing, say, 75,000 voters in Fareham? How does it become fairer by taking a little bit off one and putting it into the other?
§ Mr. Viggers
It becomes fairer because the more we allow subjective judgments to enter into the matter, the more likelihood there is that the ultimate result will not be objective because it will be tinkered with on the way through.
So far, there has been little comment on the way in which parliamentary constituency boundaries have been fiddled in the past. I choose the word "fiddled" carefully. My hon. Friend the Member for Eye (Mr. Gummer) pointed out very fairly that the Bill simply allows a redistribution to be brought forward, and that is completely different from the proposal to hold back a redistribution. He did not go one step further and point out that the record on this matter is rather a black one and shows that Cabinet members have in the past influenced parliamentary boundaries and caused them to be distorted. The more we allow subjective judgment to enter into this matter, the more likely it is that that subjective judgment will be used incorrectly.
I should like to refer to the way in which Richard Crossman, when he was the Minister responsible, fulfilled his responsibility to the country. At the risk of boring the House with a lengthy quote, I feel that I must put this on record and show that, if objective judgments are discarded, subjective judgments come in and the result can only be described as corrupt. Richard Crossman wrote in the first volume of his diaries, at page 65:as Minister in charge of local government boundaries, I alter a county boundary I may affect the fate of the MP sitting for this borough. Very soon after I became Minister I had been approached by Bert Bowden, Lord President of the Council, and told that if the reform of the boundaries of Leicester went through, at least two of the Labour seats would be in danger, including his own. I also discovered that in Coventry there were risks involved, but that I could by a minor amendment make practically sure that Coventry remains our way. So I find myself as Minister of Housing a powerful politician in my own right. Of course, it's a little improper to see these local government boundary changes in relation to parliamentary divisions and we must remember that the Parliamentary Boundary Commission 325 responsible to the Home Secretary won't be reporting until five or six years' time, i.e. after the next election. Nevertheless, my colleagues are bound to consider the impact of local government boundaries on their constituency boundaries; and I also have to consider what general attitude I should take to the Local Government Boundary Commission as well as how I shall handle these particular decisions.
The story goes on through the diaries, and Crossman emphasises on page 88 of the first volume:They are my personal decisions. Not even the Prime Minister can influence me in them. My colleagues know this and this gives me an odd detached power in dealing with them. After all, I can make or mar George Brown at Belper, Bert Bowden in Leicester, Bill Wilson in Coventry, Ted Short in Newcastle; each of them now knows that as Minister of Housing the decision I make may be life or death for them in terms of representation at Westminster.
How did Crossman exercise his stewardship? How did the responsible Minister exercise his judgment on behalf of the nation? On page 240 of the first volume of the diaries, he says what he did:Of course I realised that this solution would put the maximum number of Labour votes inside the borough and the maximum number of Tory votes outside in the county, and so save the Labour seats in this next parliamentary redistribution. This is the line I forced on the department.
Finally, Crossman says on page 243 of his diaries, referring to June 1965:Yesterday I announced my three local government decisions, and my first job today was to see how the national press treated them. I saw deceit pieces in The Times and in The Guardian. Certainly, they saw nothing sensational in my decisions and they don't make any charges of gerrymandering. This is a case where the less said the better.
That is the record in the words of a Labour Minister who was responsible for exercising judgment in the matter of redistribution of parliamentary boundaries. That record is sufficiently shocking for all hon. Members to feel that objective judgments should prevail wherever possible. It is important that we should strive to ensure as far as possible that parliamentary boundaries are dictated by the numbers within those constituencies, because that diminishes the risk that subjective judgments will be used.
§ Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield, East)
May I inform the hon. Gentleman that we all hope that great and high principles will rule in this sort of matter? However, in Kirklees, Batley and Morley we had a recommendation from the Boundary Commission which the Home Secretary overturned on the recommendation of an interested party—a Conservative Member of Parliament. The hon. Gentleman is saying that the same thing happened under a former Minister in the Labour Government.
§ Mr. Viggers
I have no knowledge of the area referred to by the hon. Member for Huddersfield, East (Mr. Sheerman), but no doubt if there is a point of substance in what he said ray hon. and learned Friend will deal with it in his reply or will write to the hon. Gentleman. The record can indeed be put right.
In discussing the Bill, we are dealing with one simple point. Should the current situation, where some constituencies are far too large numerically and some are fur too small numerically, be redressed sooner rather than later? It should be redressed sooner, and therefore support the Bill with enthusiasm.
§ 8.2 pm
§ Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)
I do not wish to follow the avenues and byways opened up by the hon. 326 Member for Gosport (Mr. Viggers). He quoted at length from the diaries of the late Richard Crossman. If my memory serves me correctly—I am not an avid, regular reader of the Crossman diaries—the episode that he referred to was not about parliamentary boundaries but about local ward boundaries. In the case of Leicester, to which he referred, he was talking about a decision that was taken in about 1968 to extend the city boundaries beyond the then existing city boundaries and to incorporate into the city boundaries local authority housing which up to that date had been outside the county. I do not read such a horrendous picture into the Crossman diaries, even taking into account the natural exaggeration of Crossman.
§ Mr. Viggers
I am happy to put the hon. Gentleman right on this point, and as he is not as avid a reader of the diaries as I am I shall read a few sentences to him:I soon discovered that as a Labour politician these are for me not merely decisions about the boundaries of local authorities, but decisions which will influence the boundaries of constituencies. The reason for that is simple: constituency boundaries are drawn broadly in conformity with the boundaries of county boroughs.
§ Mr. Marshall
That is my point. The then city boundary was being extended to include areas that had been built and which were owned by the city council. I do not think that that is a form of gerrymandering. That statement does not say that Crossman gerrymandered parliamentary boundaries. The hon. Gentleman will know that Crossman was not responsible for parliamentary boundaries. They were then, and still are, the responsibility of the Home Secretary.
§ Mr. Dalyell
As the late Dick Crossman's PPS for six years, without entering into the details of the argument, I should add—if such statements are to be made—that he was approached, to my most certain knowledge, by hon. Members from both sides of the House who argued about their personal futures.
§ Mr. Marshall
I wish that my hon. Friend had kept that intervention to himself. He may have been trying to put the record straight, but it does not help my argument. It helps the argument of the hon. Member for Gosport.
The second point made by the hon. Member for Gosport, a view shared by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell), was that there should be a debate some time in the future about the terms of reference of the Boundary Commission. One of the points that has been made throughout the debate is that there is a desire for a wide-ranging discussion on the terms of reference of the Boundary Commissioners. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) will turn his mind to that when he replies to the debate.
I hesitate to refer to the remarks of hon. Members who are not in the Chamber, but, in view of some of the comments of the hon. Member for Eye (Mr. Gummer) regarding some of my hon. Friends who were absent from the Chamber, I should like to deal with some of the points that he made. He referred to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and commented on his activities in the House. Most hon. Members will know—the ignorance of the hon. Member for Eye will be forgiven—that my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover has not been well for some considerable time. I think that 327 I speak for some of my hon. Friends when I say that his presence in the Chamber is greatly missed—not only on this side of the House.
§ Mr. Marshall
No, I shall not give way to the hon. Gentleman.
The hon. Member for Eye referred to the fact that his constituency covered 640 square miles. I wish that the hon. Gentleman were here. I can only say that even with a constituency of that size he spreads himself far too thickly, both in his constituency and in this Chamber.
I agree with the spokesman for the Liberal Party, the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston), who is also absent. He said that the Bill had nothing to do with the European Assembly elections, a point that was borne out by the hon. Member for Eye. It concerns the effect of the 1978 Act on the Westminster elections. If there is an underlying principle in the Bill—I do not believe that there is one—it is basically one of political expediency. It was only 21 months ago that the House gave a Third Reading to the European Assembly Elections Bill—16 February 1978. The number of hon. Members who voted in favour was 381 and the number who voted against was 98. On any objective assessment—the hon. Member for Gosport made great play of the objectivity that figures can impart—that is an overwhelming majority in favour of the legislation. Explicit in that Bill was the link between the drawing of boundaries for Westminster constituencies and the drawing of boundaries for European Assembly constituencies. The linkage between the two was explicitly stated. A number of prominent Conservative politicians voted in favour of the Third Reading of the Bill. My hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) named a few. In addition to the present Prime Minister, the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Energy and the Secretary of State for Industry voted in favour of it. If they think that it is necessary now to uncouple, why did not the thought go through their heads when they passed through the Lobby on 16 February 1978?
What has happened in the meantime to produce this gigantic U-turn? We are beginning to see small economic U-turns, perhaps because the Government see political advantage down that avenue. But why has a gigantic U-turn been taken in this sphere? One is led to believe that the Government see political opportunity down that road. The reason for the change is not too difficult to identify. In successive parliamentary replies, Home Office Ministers have confirmed that the English Boundary Commission is running behind its schedule. We all know the reason. It is the hiatus caused by difficulties arising from the Local Government Boundary Commissioners which were eventually resolved by a judgment in the High Court.
I believe that the Minister of State is indicating from a sedentary position that that is not so. However, he will see that parliamentary replies by his Department to questions asking when the Westminster boundaries were likely to be reported indicated a date of early 1982. The hon. and learned Gentleman and his Department are now saying that it is no longer early 1982—they have dropped the "early", which indicates that difficulties are arising in the 328 way I have outlined which in turn have precipitated the decision that the Government are presenting this evening. There is, therefore, serious slippage in the time scale.
The Government can, therefore, see a distinct possibility of the United Kingdom parliamentary boundary changes not being implemented in time for the next general election. They are not interested in the equality of voters in particular constituencies. Their interest was adequately summed up in The Daily Telegraph of 27 July 1980, which stated that Conservative Party estimates put the figure of seats which it was likely to gain arising purely from parliamentary redistribution at between 20 and 25. Let us not have any crocodile tears from Conservative Members when they refer to the need for the equality of voters in parliamentary constituencies. They are interested not in the quota figure but in the figure of 20 to 25 seats. They are already beginning to clutch at straws in their desire to win the next election. I suggest to my hon. Friends that even if we give the Tories a 20 to 25-seat start at the next election that will still be insufficient to ensure the re-election of a Tory Government.
So the uncoupling of the Westminster and Euro Assembly constituencies is based purely on party political expedience. The Government and their supporters believe—it has been stated implicity throughout the debate—that there is party advantage in that course of action. It is, therefore, a partisan Bill in spite of the hon. Member for Gosport hoping that it will have an easy passage. I hope that my right hon. and hon. Friends will give it a passage that is far from easy. The Bill is shabby, squalid and mere political manoeuvre, something that the Minister of State, a man renowned for his integrity, should have nothing to do with.
I am not a supporter of the European Community, and I do not support direct elections to the European Assembly. Unfortunately, I was unable to vote against the Third Reading of the Bill on 16 February 1979 because, like my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer), who, I think, will make the same point later, I was constrained by being a very minor member of the last Labour Government. We were able to exercise our right to abstain, however, and I showed my displeasure for that 1978 Act by positively abstaining at all stages of its passage—
§ Mr. Marshall
The right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) refers to "the diaries." Perhaps I shall put it in my diary in 30 or 40 years' time—
§ Mr. Marshall
In spite of the prescience of the late Richard Crossman, I do not think that he referred in his diaries to my activities on 16 February 1978.
If I were not so deeply disturbed by the blatant political gerrymandering of the Bill, I would favour unlinking because I would support anything that would bring European elections into disrepute, but not if it is based on squalid party political manoeuvres. So, reluctantly, I have to support the reasoned amendment tabled by my right hon. and hon. Friends. They can on this occasion count on my active and positive support in the Division Lobby tonight.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley (Woolwich, West)
I have bad news for the hon. Member for Leicester, South (Mr. Marshall). I do not think that the amendments have been selected. He will, therefore, have to find some other way of doing what he told us he did before, and that is to make a positive abstention an indication of negative disapproval, if that is not getting too involved. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman did not allow me to intervene during his speech on the question of the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), because I wanted to say that many of us share the views of the hon. Member for Leicester, South—
§ Mr. Bottomley
I hope that I shall embarrass a number of people.
The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Eye (Mr. Gummer) was making was not a personal attack on the hon. Member for Bolsover. The only aspersions that my hon. Friend cast—I believe inaccurately—were against the right hon Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) and the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham). I think that my hon. Friend got it wrong. One of the last persons whom hon. Members would regard as doing anything for his political future is the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury. During the last Labour Government he showed a disregard for his political future and preferment by a number of actions on which the Opposition supported and congratulated him. Just because he finds himself on the Opposition Front Bench, we should not say that he is likely to produce a speech that will in any way be based on the size of his constituency. That is not what we would expect of him, and I am sure that we shall not be disappointed when he speaks.
It was important for me to intervene, when the right hon. Member for Leeds, South was speaking, to be the first to say that there is general agreement that the political result of bringing in the new boundaries before the next election will probably favour the Conservative Party. That view may be wrong, but it is general. It is also worth saying, however—and I am sorry that the hon. Member for Leicester. South did not say it—that the opposite side of the coin, which he, in his more excited and less serious moments, regarded as a shabby manoeuvre, is that if the new boundaries do not come in before the next general election the Labour Party is likely to maintain an advantage which, on any objective assessment, is undeserved.
I hope that we shall all approach the Bill basically on its merits and he willing to acknowledge openly the likely political advantages and disadvantages but that we shall rise above them and instead discuss what appears to be right and suitable.
§ Mr. Jim Marshall
The hon. Gentleman referred particularly to the point about the 20 to 25-seat gain arising from redistribution of boundaries. Does he agree that there was evidence a the time of the passage of the Act early in 1978, with the boundary changes then known and the way in which one saw boundary changes going, that that situation was likely to arise anyway, so that the right hon. Gentlemen to whom I have referred and who now occupy high office in the present Government knew that that would happen but still voted for the linkage between the two?
§ Mr. Bottomley
The hon. Gentleman's memory is obviously better than mine. I do not recall whether the circumstances in 1978 were such that we needed to get that Bill through quickly and have an abbreviated procedure for drawing the Euro boundaries. That may or may not be relevant. What is relevant is that very few people in 1978 believed that the proposals for the new boundaries, both for Westminster and Euro constituencies, could be delayed beyond early 1982. Most people in 1978 expected the election following the one to come in 1978–79 to come in 1983–84, and if both sets of revised boundaries had been put forward in early 1972 there would have been no problem. I do not believe that we would have seen this Bill. I do not regard it as a particularly big or significant Bill. It can be useful in the circumstances, but there is a danger that the extra delay in linking the proposals for both the European and Westminster constituencies might mean that the next Westminster election will be held on boundaries that are drawn up on populations of many years back.
The hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) produced a statistical porridge that contained rather more water than oats. However, he tried to argue that already the differences in constituencies proposed for the counties for which the Boundary Commissioners have put forward their views are so great that it hardly makes any difference.
My hon. Friend the Member for Eye managed to deal with that point, and it is clear that if we have constituencies that are now running at under 20,000, or even one under 20,000, and constituencies over 100,000, it will be a great improvement if we come to a range—leaving out the Highlands and Islands—that goes perhaps from 30,000 to 40,000, or from 40,000 to 50,000, to 70,000 to 80,000 at the higher level.
If one lays down a certain number of seats for a county, there is clearly a problem of trying to keep within borough boundaries. I am aware of that in London. Perhaps I may declare an interest, in that if the Boundary Commissioners had decided to reduce the number of seats in the Greater London area by two my seat would have gone. My constituents would not have gone, but I might have gone.
If one is to keep London constituencies within boroughs, it is not possible to avoid the problems of Wood Green. If Wood Green is 80,000 and one wants to halve it—the same argument applies to the Isle of Wight, outside London—one may be stuck with either two constituencies of 40,000 or one of 80,000. That is a problem that must be faced. Obviously, it can be faced by going more often over county or borough boundaries or whatever, but if we can bring the electors in particular constituencies into a closer range so that they are closer to each other, that is clearly an improvement.
There are very few people who have put forward a convincing argument—I do not think that I have heard one from the Opposition Benches today, although the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury often surprises us all—that justifies keeping the linked responsibility of the Boundary Commissioners in such a way that we may be left for another seven years before we get revised Westminster constituencies.
I hope that the Government will take the opportunity of breaking that link—which is all that the Bill does, in effect—and the opportunity presented by breaking the link for saying that they are open to adopting different systems from those that we have now for the European Assembly elections. I believe that it would be possible, 331 even if we had to have another accelerated procedure, to allow the House to consider going on to some changed form of election.
It is always a bit difficult for a representative of a party that has had sweeping majorities on the first-past-the-post system for the first European Assembly elections to say that we now want to change the system so that the other side does not get a great majority of its own. I think that the same thing would apply even if there were a risk of the Conservatives getting a large majority in Europe again and moving on to a more balanced system. Virtually any system that we could introduce for the Assembly elections would be better than the one that we have now.
I do not really mind whether one has something rather like the French system, under which people vote a week later if one candidate does not get a majority of the votes. I do not mind whether we have a fairly straightforward PR system or whether we go on to an added-Member system. I think that the Government ought to say today that if the Bill goes through there will be an opportunity for the House to consider what system will be used for the next European Assembly elections.
While on the subject of the possibilities of PR, may I say that I hope that the Government will also give consideration to bringing in a changed system for local government elections. Looking at my own borough, Greenwich, which is perhaps a little more in the news than it often is because of the council's apparent—and, I hope, temporary—reluctance to sell council houses, and at the balance of votes there and the balance of councillors, one finds that there is as much a disproportion there as there is in the representation of United Kingdom electors in the European Assembly.
I hope that we shall use the opportunities that will be available during the rest of this Parliament, and, I hope, in the next Parliament, to revise our system for the Assembly elections, to reform the House of Lords and to give serious consideration to our election system for local authorities. For local authorities, I prefer either to see one-third of the councillors elected each year or each two years, so that one cannot sweep out virtually a whole council because of a national change, or, go on to a form of PR. The hon. Member for Southampton, Itchen (Mr. Mitchell) showed how one could accept most forms of PR and maintain constituency links if most MPs or councillors were willing to represent greater numbers than they do now and get an element of proportionality and keep the constituency linked, which is very important.
I believe that one thing that will come from altering the parliamentary constituencies for Westminster elections will be more marginal seats. I approve of having more marginal seats. It helps to break central party control over associations, candidates and MPs. It makes it easier for those of us who are occasionally in advance of our parties to argue certain views. In my case it is probably true. I need to get about 1,000 Liberal votes and 1,000 Labour votes to continue being elected, so if occasionally I appear to be drifting towards the pink side of the political spectrum it must be appreciated that there are justifiable reasons for it in terms as well as the fact that I normally vote and speak in the way that I believe to be right.
It is worth noting that the constituencies that have the largest Labour Parties in Britain are the marginal constituencies of Woolwich, Southampton and, I think, 332 Eastleigh—traditional marginals in which the Labour Party has to recruit members because it knows that it is into a fight. I do not think that is true so much of the Newcastle upon Tyne, Central, Glasgow, Central and Manchester, Central seats.
The hon. Member for Leicester, South referred to a gigantic U-turn on the issue. I do not think that that is worth taking seriously. What is worth taking seriously is the value of the Boundary Commission itself. Few people have argued that the Boundary Commission put forward in its draft proposals new constituency boundaries that have been influenced by party political considerations. Obviously, the representations put forward by many people at inquiries are influenced in that way. I do not mind saying that the mild suggestions that I have put forward to revise the draft proposals for my constituency were based entirely on community of interest. The particular wards that I wanted were those closest to the centre of the constituency. Others could have argued that the Member of Parliament was trying to keep Conservative wards and lose others. The same thing could be said of the proposals put forward by the local Labour Party. That has not been said about the Boundary Commission itself.
The question of the terms of reference has been raised. There is a good case for saying that the Boundary Commission should be able to anticipate population changes. That seems self-evident, but the more I think of it the more I think that such a proposal is open to political manipulation. It might be possible for a local council to say that it intended to build 5,000 new homes in an area and ask the Boundary Commission to make room for that development in its plans. We need to reconsider the terms of reference of the Boundary Commission. I can see a good case for some changes, but I suspect that, on balance, the situation is roughly right. We need to make sure that the Boundary Commission reports every 10 years and that Parliament implements its proposals if they have gone through local inquiries.
§ Mr. Tarn Dalyell (West Lothian)
I agree with the last remark of the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Bottomley). Where population and demographic changes can be foreseen, the Boundary Commission should take them into account. Like the hon. Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon), I represent a growing new town, or part of it, at Livingston. As at Milton Keynes, the population can be seen to be increasing, and these matters should be taken into account. There should be some kind of rolling plan.
The hon. Members for Gosport (Mr. Viggers) and for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) had some fun with Dick Crossman's diaries. Looking at the words in cold print, they are entitled to do so. My memory of the situation is different. This was one of the comparatively few subjects over which Dick Crossman absolutely agonised, I was his PPS and am, therefore, in a position to know what happened. He agonised for a very human reason. Not only can colleagues of a long time be deeply affected, but political opponents can be affected. Dick Crossman agonised, possibly more than some people think he should have done, over the question whether a particular boundary redistribution would seriously disadvantage a leading member of the Opposition at the time and whether, if certain decisions were made by the then Housing Minister, they would be seen as an act of malice towards the Opposition generally.
333 These are tricky issues. As my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) will recollect, a holder of his former job—I refer to Sir Frank Soskice, later Lord Stow Hill—was once and probably twice done out of his constituencies by boundary redistribution. Anyone who has to live with this kind of situation knows that it is not so simple as those who put forward clinical judgments might like to suggest.
§ Mr. Viggers
My purpose, I assure the lion. Gentleman, was not to have fun or to throw mud. My purpose was to make a serious point. I confirm my understanding of what the hon. Gentleman says and agree that great care was taken over the decisions. The question that arises is whether this is a good way for boundary redistribution decisions to be made. Should one perhaps emphasise more the objective way of carrying out this task by virtue of the numbers game rather than through the subjective judgment of the Minister?
§ Mr. Dalyell
It depends upon what one means by "objective" and "subjective". Many hon. Members do not consider that often the Boundary Commission is particularly objective. As my hon Friend the Member for Bothwell (Mr Hamilton) and I know—we are both Scottish Members—the Boundary Commission in the last few months has made a proposal for two constituencies of 39,000 and 40,000 in Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles, where in 1959 I was a candidate. I know the area well. Some of my relations come from there
To propose two tiny constituencies on the Scottish border while leaving some major constituencies—I represent 90,000 people and, therefore, know something about the situation—is hardly a very objective judgment.
The Boundary Commission may have reasons fordoing it, but there are those of us who can see that we are just as objective as the commission. Anyone who, like me, has attended hearings of the Boundary Commission on local authority boundaries knows that there can be at least two views. My hon. Friend may recollect the saga of Greenrigg and Harthill, which came before the Scottish Committee, where clearly the decisions of the Boundary Commission were made without the knowledge of the intimate situation affecting the local people.
I do not want to go into any specific case, but these are matters where objective judgment depends on who is making the objective judgment. It is rather as though the objective judgment was mine and the subjective, non-objective judgment was someone else's. The two may be reversed, and each unto his opinion.
I want to ask a question of the Minister—it may be a heresy or it may be something of a daft Willie question. How is it that tie Boundary Commission takes such ages to come forward with its proposals? There are some of us who, in a naive way, think that we could sit down one evening by out firesides with the proverbial pencil and back of an envelope and a map of Scotland and put forward some fairly sensible proposals for the Scottish constituencies; and I have no doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Coleman) could do the same for Wales. Why does it take such a long time for the Boundary Commission to come forward with its proposals?
There may be an answer to this, but some of us do not understand why it lakes so long, and, frankly, we do not understand why the staff of the Boundary Commission has to be increased. I put the question in the hope that it will 334 elicit some comment before the end of the debate. Why is it that the staff of the Boundary Commission is apparently increased when everyone else is having to cut down?
I move to the European issue. I am now one of those who think that direct elections were a mistake and that if we are to have a European Assembly its Members should sit there on the old indirectly elected basis, though I hasten to add as one who for four years was a Member of that Assembly that there should be some kind of rota system and that no Member of the House of Commons, the Bundestag or the Folketing should be a Member of the Assembly for more than four years. I know that there are seniority problems and so on, but, with the advantage of hindsight, if there is to be a European Assembly I should like to see a revolving system. My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) always held this view and was wiser than others of us were at the time.
Having said that, I must face the fact that there is a problem. It is the one about which I interrupted the hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), and it was also referred to by the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston). We are asking a lot of the Members of the European Assembly, given their system, if we alone have a system where the pendulum swings far further than in any other country in the Community and the nature of the British representation is that of a yo-yo swinging perhaps from one extreme to the other.
That is all very well in an atmosphere of adversary politics and decision-making. But with an advisory body one has not adversary politics but hemicycle politics where groups are for ever coming together and trying to work out consensus. It makes life a bit more difficult at their end.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I am expressing myself badly. I am talking about the numbers rather than the policies. It is a numbers question. There are 60 Members of the Assembly representing the Conservative interest and 17 representing the Socialist interest. If one is to take the Socialist group in the Assembly seriously as a group, that is extremely damaging to those Members. All that I am saying is that if no one else, no other country, has the swing of the pendulum and we do, it creates a distortion which is a problem for them.
Does the Home Office accept that that is a problem? If so, what is its answer? The only practical answer in one sense, given our system, is proportional representation. I have always voted against it, but I should be interested to hear the Government's view of it if they recognise as serious the problem of the lopsided nature of the British representation in the European Parliament. In particular, I must ask whether we have in mind any initiatives when it comes to the British Presidency of the EEC in July-December 1981.
I want to raise what I believe is a related issue. With my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury and the hon. Member for Beckenham (Mr. Goodhart), Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I attended a conference at Nuffield college, Oxford under 335 the chairmanship of David Butler. It was attended by Mr. Gordon Wasserman, on behalf of the Home Office, and a number of academics, such as Professor Bryan Keith-Lucas and members of the Hansard Society. The subject matter was a rules of referendums Bill.
As one who has played a very active part in one referendum and a less active part in another, I can say that the truth is that if we are to have another referendum, particularly—dare I say?—in a possible situation in Northern Ireland, some of us think that it is high time rules were firmly laid down beforehand for its conduct. For example, I hope never again to be in the position of having to go to the High Court to obtain injunctions on the question of the allocation of media time. All this had to be done for the Scottish referendum in great haste, when it seemed that there would be a four-to-one majority in television programmes against the then "No" point of view in the referendum.
I say that in detail because we must come to grips with the fact that if we are to have referendums, by their very nature sprung on us at short notice, it is better that rules be laid down beforehand as far as possible on major issues such as finance for umbrella organisations rather than having ad hoc decisions that will be thought to be unsatisfactory by those who have to participate.
My hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Cathcart (Mr. Maxton) will remember the dispute and difficulty about the rules and ground rules for a referendum in Scotland. Let us not suppose that a referendum in Northern Ireland would be any easier.
§ Mr. Dalyell
I shall give way to the right hon. Gentleman if he wishes, though he is entitled to make his sotto voce remarks.
I do not think that anyone will dispute the proposition that if there is to be a referendum in Ulster rules should be laid down well beforehand. Otherwise, a referendum would have no chance of satisfying anyone.
The basis on which results are announced is important in terms of any referendum. That takes us back to constituency issues and the allocation of constituencies, given that there should be a referendum decision. I am entitled to ask in general terms whether the Government regard the referendum issue as being connected in any way with the present legislation. What is the Government's thinking on the size of unit on which any referendum answer should be received by the returning officers and announced in public? Clearly, this is not simply a matter of mechanics. Whether referendum results are announced on the basis of constituencies, on the basis of regions or on the basis of the entire area covered by the referendum matters a great deal.
I have been given an opportunity to ask some questions. I look forward to the Minister's comments.
§ Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)
I apologise for missing much of the debate because I had to attend a Select Committee meeting.
I have little or no hesitation in supporting the Bill. It is an excellent Bill. Generally, it is admitted that its effect is likely to be favourable to the Conservative Party. It is none the worse for that. Nobody can seriously argue that 336 it involves any cheating. That certainly cannot be argued by Labour Members after the events of 1968. Accelerating redistribution does not help me since my constituency is of quota size. I accept that even after redistribution wide variations will occur. In so far as they involve scattered rural areas, the variations are inevitable. There are bound to be country constituencies which are thinly populated. It is ludicrous to expect that such constituencies come up to the quota. I see nothing anomalous about that.
Merioneth has 37,000 electors whereas other constituencies have 80,000 or more. Such anomalies are inevitable. No one suggests that, for example, the Western Isles should be amalgamated with three other North of Scotland constituencies to meet the quota. Equally clearly, it is indefensible that such anomalies should continue in city centres where some areas of 20,000 or 30,000 electors constitute entire constituencies.
I echo what the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) said about the incredible slowness with which the Boundary Commissions operate. The House is also slow in giving effect to their recommendations. The Commissions operate with a paralytic slowness. Public inquiries also take a long time. That is, perhaps, understandable, but an incredibly long time elapses before reports are issued.
I have no doubt about supporting the Bill. It is defensible and I am happy with it. However, I am a little worried about its title. It has little to do with European Assembly elections. I should have been happier if the Bill had a title which reflected more closely its contents.
Since the Bill is entitled "European Assembly Elections", one has the right to comment on some of the provisions which should be in a Bill which is so named. One of the matters which might have been included and which is of importance is the necessity—long overdue—to provide access for European Members to the Palace of Westminster to make contact with hon. Members elected to this Parliament.
It is extremely difficult to have the necessary contacts between Members of this Parliament and its corresponding Members in the European Parliament when they must queue up at the entrance, go through security checks and send in green cards to make contact with their corresponding number here. I very much hope that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, whom I, along with other hon. Members, have repeatedly questioned on this point, will soon be able to give effect to the recommendations of the Services Committee concerning the provision of better access for European Members.
Another matter which is more directly relevant to the Bill, and which I would like to have seen in it, is a provision allowing British subjects who are eligible to vote in elections in this country to vote in elections to the European Assembly when they are resident within the EEC. I should have liked to have introduced that subject in a Private Member's Bill. I have drawn a fairly high place in the Ballot, and I had toyed with the idea of introducing it. However, I understand that, before long, the Home Office is to issue a Green Paper on the subject. I also understand that the timing of that Green Paper would awkwardly cut across the timing of the Private Members' Bills procedure. I have, therefore, had to drop the idea. However, this matter should be looked at as soon as possible. It is absolutely absurd that people who operate 337 within the Community, particularly those who operate on our behalf, should be debarred from voting in the elections which affect them more than they affect anyone else.
This measure is called the European Assembly Elections Bill. As such, I believe that it should have dealt with the method of elections to the European Parliament. I make no secret of the fact that I believe that those elections ought to be carried out by a system other than that of first past the post, which produced such strange results during the previous European elections. The first-past-the-post system has enormously benefited my party, and, therefore, I cannot be accused of making party points when I say that the result was a disreputable one which did us no good whatever within the European Assembly.
I say that despite the fact that the European Democratic group within that Parliament, which I had the privilege of visiting a few weeks ago, has established a high reputation for the seriousness of its contributions to debate, the assiduity of its attendance and the general contribution which it has made to making it a surprisingly effective Assembly. However, the mere fact that the disparity in the numbers is so staggering, and the fact that there is no Liberal representative whatever from this country in that Assembly, reflects badly or our claim to be the Mother of Parliaments, the inventor of democracy and so on. That does us no good at all, and I should like to see some change.
I think that we talk a lot of nonsense about the importance of contact between the Member and his constituents when we talk about European constituencies. It is just possible to have meaningful contacts with one's constituents when one represents a constituency of 60,000 or 80,000 voters. When one gels to 100,000, it becomes extremely difficult, and when one has constituencies of 250,000 it is absolute drivel to talk about the importance of maintaining the link between the elected Member and his constituents.
I believe that the argument is overwhelming for having some kind of proportional representation system. I do not think that it should be on a nationwide list basis, because that is impersonal and gives total power to the party machines. But the argument relating to large regions with four or five Members each and a proportional system within those regions is a powerful one indeed.
We stand pat on our reputation for having evolved a uniquely successful system of parliamentary representation, but it sounds a little odd coming from a country which emerged from the war less damaged than many of our Continental competitors, with so many assets, but which has probably been the worst governed country in Western Europe in the years that have elapsed since 1945.
By common consent, we have as efficient a bureaucracy as any in Europe. We have men in public office of as high a reputation and integrity as any to be found anywhere. Some of our failure must be due to a system that exaggerates the swing one way or the other. I am unrepentantly one of those who want to see a change in our domestic system that would greatly reduce the impact of the swings and make possible a greater continuity of policy between one Government and the next. However, that is not what the Bill is about. It is about elections to the European Assembly. We have no justification whatever for seeking to impose our unsatisfactory system of parliamentary elections on an Assembly that should reflect the real balance of political forces within the country.
338 The system benefited the Conservative Party at the last European election. I suspect that next time, after the Conservative Party has won a general election victory in 1984, there might be the sort of reaction against that victory that we are seeing now. When the next European elections take place later in 1984 we may, even as quickly as that, see a massive swing against the Conservative victory and a Labour landslide into the European Parliament similar to that of the Conservatives at the last European election. As Labour Members apparently will consist entirely of people committed to wrecking Britain's membership of the Community, the result will be a dog's breakfast.
I regret that the Bill does not purport to deal with the vitally important question of the method of election to the European Assembly. But, such as it is, poor thing, I have little hestitation in supporting it.
§ Mr. Ron Leighton (Newham, North-East)
I wish briefly to underline some of the questions asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), who reminded us that the Bill is called the European Assembly Elections Bill, and I should like the Minister to touch on these questions when he replies.
What will be the nature of the elections, if we have any further elections? I could conceive of circumstances in which we would not have them. The Treaty talks of a uniform system of elections. We did not have that last time. It was suggested that we would have it this time.
Will the elections be harmonised on proportional representation? Most hon. Members who have spoken in the debate do not want that. Will we have the German system with half first past the post and half proportional representation, or will we have the list system? It would be interesting to hear what the Government have in mind. The more that we think about the issue, the more we realise the difficulty of grafting on to our electoral process an essentially incompatible—really alien—EEC structure.
My right hon. Friend said that it is two years since we had a directly elected Assembly and that we should ask how it has performed. How many citizens even know the name of their Euro Member? One of the objects was to reform the CAP. Has any progress been made there? I do not think so. The Assembly held up the last budget for a long time, but it eventually passed an even worse budget. That was not an auspicious omen. Currently, the Assembly has virtually no powers. It is an elaborate facade or charade. It is a fig leaf. It gives an illusion of democratic control—a veneer of democratic legitimacy. If we wished to change it and give it extra powers—and some want to see that happen so that the Assembly will become the engine of political union and federalism—it could be done only by taking powers from national Parliaments. Extra power for Strasbourg would mean less power for Westminster. That would undermine our system of democratic self-government. Were that to happen, we would be governed by an institution in which we would be in a permanent minority. We would be governed by laws that we could not ourselves change. We would be ruled by rulers whom we could not ourselves remove.
How can we exercise democratic control over the Community? The only way is to make Ministers 339 responsible to the House. I read one sentence from the manifesto issued by the Conservative Party for the referendum: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 a British Parliament.
As a member of the Scrutiny Committee, I consider the present situation to be unsatisfactory. We should repatriate these powers to our own Parliament. I hope that the next Labour Government will do so by repealing section 2(2) of the European Communities Act 1972.
The previous Euro elections were unwanted by the British people. They were foisted on them. In the event, they were one Euro yawn. For example, 69 per cent. of the British people voted with their feet by abstaining. Those in the Assembly who claim a mandate have only 12 to 15 per cent. of their voters to support them. There was a massive vote of no confidence in the Assembly when the Euro elections took place.
§ 9.1 pm
§ Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)
I shall be brief. I am grateful to the Front Benches for curtailing their right of reply in order to allow a more generous allocation for Back Benchers. That is a good augury.
It is surprising that a Conservative Government have brought a Bill such as this before us. On 24 November 1977, most of the leading members of the Conservative Opposition who are now members of the Government leapt eagerly into the Lobby for the Ayes to give the European Assembly Elections Bill a Second Reading. The Bill was given a Second Reading with a vote of 381 Ayes and 98 Noes. That was not an expression of Conservative voting alone. The Bill was accepted with alacrity, but not only by Conservative Members. It was consensus legislation.
There had been a good deal of argument within the Labour Party about the Bill. At one stage Ministers were told that they would be allowed to vote against the Bill because it represented a view that was opposed to Labour Party policy. They were then told that if they voted against the Bill they would be sacked. The machinery of this place was brought into operation to get the Bill through the House. Hansard does not record, on Second Reading or at any subsequent stage, the concern of the present Home Secretary, the Minister of State or any member of the present Cabinet over what was proposed in the Bill.
Why was that concern not expressed? There were anxious discussions behind closed doors about consensus legislation. Moves took place between the usual channels in the process of deciding how the legislation was to be brought forward. As my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall) said, the only complaint that the present Home Secretary had at that time was not about the Boundary Commission but about the fact, as he claimed, that the Bill had not been brought forward earlier. He argued that the then Labour Government had not been speedy enough or eager enough to introduce it.
Nowhere in the debates was it suggested that the procedure on which Government Members voted was faulty. Why is the item so important that it merits a Bill to itself? We all know the reason. A few pompous Conservatives have tried to brush it aside by saying that it is an excellent Bill and well merited, and other 340 misleading nonsense. The truth is that the Government's economic policies are failing fast. Unemployment has accelerated so rapidly that the Prime Minister called her own Secretary of State for Employment—
§ Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)
Order. Do the hon. Gentleman's remarks have anything to do with the European Assembly elections?
§ Mr. Cryer
My remarks have a great deal to do with them, Mr. Deputy Speaker.
The Government are trying to ensure, by any means that they can, that they will get back into office at the next general election. They fear that if the legislation that they voted for is allowed to stand the Boundary Commission procedure will take too long and those 20 or 25 seats that the Daily Mail mentioned will not be handed to them.
Legislation has never been a balk to Tory electoral ambitions. We saw their concern over the old London County Council. They could not take over the London County Council, so they introduced the London Government Act 1963 to bring in the lush stockbroker belt, in the hope that that would help them gain control. The Local Government Act 1972 has not produced more efficient local government. Everyone criticises it. It was pushed through because the Tories hoped that by extending the boundaries of the old county boroughs they would never again yield control to the Labour Party. That is precisely the aim of this legislation. It has been introduced in the forlorn hope that by altering the parliamentary constituency boundaries in time for the next general election the Tories will pick up the 20 or 25 seats for which they are hoping and praying.
My hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham) drew out the announcement about the legislation only by repeated questioning at the Dispatch Box. The proposal was not in the Tory election manifesto and was not announced in the previous Session of Parliament. If the Government's economic policies were not such an almighty disaster, I believe that they would have decided not to trouble too much with this petty gerrymandering. It will be seen to be petty gerrymandering of the electoral machine for Tory advantage by those outside the House.
The Tories' economic policies, which are not based on their election promises, are such an almighty disaster that unemployment is rising at an enormous speed and is irreversible. No matter what tawdry little Acts they bring forward to try to gain political advantage, their action will not save them at the next general election. They will be defeated.
§ 9.8 pm
§ Mr. George Cunningham (Islington, South and Finsbury)
The House is grateful to you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and your predecessors in the Chair for exercising a fair degree of latitude in the debate by allowing hon. Members to stray outside the technical matters precisely covered in the Bill. I do not refer to my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer), whose remarks were entirely relevant.
The discussion has thrown up interestingly many points of concern in relation to the Boundary Commission that are not covered in the Bill, such as the criteria for redistributing the boundaries and the relationship of population to local community connections. It may well 341 be that on those issues and on the future of our form of election for the European Assembly a means should be found some time in the next few months to allow the House to go over that ground again.
There is common ground in the House that where distortions and discrepancies arise in the size of constituencies clue to the passage of time as against other geographical considerations, those distortions ought to be eradicated as quickly as possible. Representing, as I do, a constituency where the number of electors is well under 40,000—and it has never been much above that in the whole of my 10 years in the House—I still feel that it is highly desirable that that process should be proceeded with with all due haste within the proper rules as they have been laid down over the years.
But what is happening in the Bill? We are changing the law in a manner which is generally thought—who knows whether it will turn out to be true?—to benefit the Conservative Party at the next election to the tune of about 20 seats. Whenever that is the situation, a red light should shine in the minds of all Members just as a red light shone in 1969. I do not mind people being concerned in 1969. I disagree with the conclusions that they reached, but it was right that they should be concerned and that the matter should be probed.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley said, we have been probing this issue now for a few months. We have been asking the Government whether they intended to change the law of the land in a manner which would benefit the Conservative Party's interests. It was pretty dear from the first answers that we got that that was in their minds. Now we have the Bill.
I want to refer to the situation in 1969 before we go any further, because there have been many references to it. The situation then was that great importance was rightly attached to the need to make parliamentary boundaries match local authority boundaries.
In this debate, most Members have laid greatest stress on the need to have parliamentary constituencies of similar size. They may think that it ought to be the paramount criterion, but it s not. That is not the force of the second schedule to the 1949 Act. That Act sets down some criteria and then goes on to those which are, as it were, interrelated. The very first of the criteria set out in that schedule is thatno county or any part thereof shall be included in a constituency which includes the whole or part of any other county".
At that time though not now, there were similar references to the need to avoid the crossing of what we now call district boundaries. So, in attaching importance to that consideration, knowing that the 1972 change in local authority boundaries was coming up, the Government of that time were doing no more than adhering to the principles set out in the legislation. Of course, most interesting arguments are not 100 per cent. one way and zero the other; they are 60–40. That is all I claim for that argument. It is 60–40.
There was a respectable ground—it is no use the Minister of State dismissing it in that way—for arguing that what was done there was right. The consequence of what we did was to end up with a non-correlation between parliamentary constituencies and local authority boundaries, reflected perhaps most starkly in the debate by the situation described by my hon. Friend the Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall), whose constituency contains several counties. That is not a desirable situation, and that was a 342 consideration in 1969. This is not the time to debate it in full—it was done at that time—but the critical remarks which have been made in the debate should not be allowed to pass without that defence.
It could be desirable for us to find an opportunity soon to discuss exactly why that criterion is put so high up the list, because it is clear from the debate that most Members who have spoken really do think that the comparative size of constituencies is in their minds more important than the congruence between parliamentary boundaries and local authority boundaries. We need at least to pursue that, because there seems to be a difference between the law as it stands, for which we are responsible, and the thoughts in the minds of the Members who have spoken in this debate.
Listening to the Home Secretary at the beginning, one would have thought that there was absolutely no case at all for doing what the whole House, without one vote against or one voice against, chose to do in 1978. It is true that the provisions were guillotined, so the discussion was curtailed. Nevertheless, from beginning to end—and it came up on many different occasions—no one in all that discussion suggested that this particular feature was an unfortunate one and would need later to be changed.
Is there a case for it? Yes. My hon. Friend the Member for Goole stressed one aspect of the case, which is the desirability of ensuring that one does not have a parliamentary constituency featuring in more than one European constituency. It is noticeable that that criterion continues to be a part of the legislation which will not be changed by the Bill we are debating tonight.
There is another consideration. The Home Secretary suggested that one gets one's bricks, which are the British parliamentary constituencies, and, having got those absolutely unchangeable and decided, one then proceeds to build one's European constituencies with eight or nine of those bricks. I know that the Home Secretary is from Cumbria and, therefore, probably is more accustomed to the stones that go into dry stone dykes than to bricks, but I must tell him that one does not actually build buildings in that way with bricks. One does that with dry stone dykes, but not with bricks. One chops them to fit the thing that one is trying to build.
That was why this provision was put in in 1978, I have no doubt. The idea was, in addition to the points mentioned by my hon. Friend, that one might find oneself with one's eight or nine bricks and with no way of producing a sensible system if one did not allow oneself to change those British parliamentary constituencies. That at least was what was in mind at that time, and that is a respectable argument.
What the Government are suggesting is that, once these British constituencies have been decided, the Boundary Commission just has to make the best of it so far as making European constituencies out of them is concerned. We know that the distortion between seats and votes, which may be great in the case of the British Parliament, is very much greater in the case of the European Parliament on the single-Member constituency system. So the Boundary Commission will be extremely limited in the extent to which it can endeavour to make the seats and votes fit each other if we have first determined the British parliamentary seats.
That was the reasoning behind what was done in 1978, and it was perfectly sensible.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell
Is the hon. Gentleman contending that the drawing of the constituencies for representation in this House should be different from what it would otherwise be in order to fit into a potential European Assembly constituency? Is that his case?
§ Mr. Cunningham
I am merely saying that that consideration is a perfectly legitimate one. When one has to go on to make use of the units that one has decided, it is legitimate to say "Do not absolutely finalise the first ones until you are able to make use of them for your second purpose."
That is a consideration which was relevant in 1978. I am not arguing that I like it or that on balance it is the best way of doing it. I am simply saying that that was a perfectly respectable consideration leading to the provisions in 1978, whereas, listening to the Home Secretary, one would have thought that there was no justification for it at all and that it had slipped into the schedule entirely by accident.
I hope that when the Minister of State replies he will say something, as invited by my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees), about the position as it stands now in the European Parliament with regard to proposals coming forward on the next European elections, perhaps on a common basis.
I could understand the breaking of the link between British constituencies and the European ones if the Government had given up their intention of resisting proportional representation. If they had faced in their mind the certainty that they have no chance of having a common system that does not involve Britain going over to PR and that they would want to go over to a common system, there is no point in keeping the link. What we need from the Minister of State tonight is either an assurance that the Government stick to their previous position on resisting proportional representation or an honest indication that they are facing the fact that if they want a common system it will have to be one which has PR within it.
The Secretary of State said something rather disturbing in reply to an intervention in his speech. He implied, if we understood him rightly, that there was a possibility that the Boundary Commission would not be able to complete its work on the European constituencies in time for the next European elections in 1984. If that is the case, we shall end up with the kind of hotchpotch arrangement described by my hon. Friend the Member for Goole. That has not been made clear, and we cannot have it left as a possible implication in the Secretary of State's speech. It ought to be cleared up.
It is interesting to look at where the whole proposal stemmed from, or at least where we can pick it up in the records. I first observed a remark by the Minister of State in a speech, not to any dispassionate and non-political body but to the Conservative Party conference in the autumn of 1979. Anyone looking for signs that the Bill before us tonight might come before us would have to turn to the press release of the Minister's speech at that conference. After rehearsing differences in the size of constituencies which existed and which were likely to get worse, the Minister said:I can therefore promise this conference that the Government is absolutely determined to do everything within its power to ensure that when we come to vote at the next general election the country will be voting on new boundaries".
I take no exception to that sentiment. But Ministers should be very careful where they express such sentiments 344 and about the motivation which appears to lie behind them. From reading the whole of the Minister of State's speech, it is clear that it is not an academic speech about the principles of electoral representation. It is a speech about how the Conservative Party advances its interest. Ministers of State at the Home Office should fall over backwards several times to avoid giving the impression that what they are doing is bringing forward proposals for a party political reason. I believe, of course, that the Government are putting forward the proposals for a party political reason and nothing else.
Why is it that on that occasion, too, at a party political conference, assurance was given about other difficulties? Why was the Boundary Commission being so slow? The press release of the Minister of State's party conference speech states:But there have been other difficulties. At one stage potential staffing problems threatened the work of the commission. We took immediate action to deal with that.
Those were his remarks to the Conservative activists in the autumn of 1979. The DHSS offices might have longer queues than they have had before. The Home Office might make people wait for two years, or whatever it is, to be registered as a United Kingdom citizen, because of the shortage of staff in the Home Office. But when the Boundary Commission needed a few extra staff to secure 20 more seats for the Conservative Party, immediate action was taken to deal with that.
§ Mr. Garel-Jones
Up to now the hon. Gentleman has been very fair, but surely he recognises that my right hon. Friend took steps to enable him to fulfil his obligations under the law to this House. The difference is that in 1969 the steps that the then Home Secretary took did not fulfil his obligations.
§ Mr. Cunningham
The Minister's obligations under the law, as it was then, were clear. They did not require the bringing forward of a Bill to change the law. I dealt with the 1969 situation earlier.
§ Mr. Gummer
I wonder whether the hon. Gentleman is merely saying that, whatever the motive—that is a matter for argument—surely it is better to have a fairer system of election than we had before. Will not the hon. Gentleman accept that rather than question motives?
§ Mr. Cunningham
Motives is interesting, as they say—unprovable, but interesting, are they not? It is very important that the whole business of electoral redistribution should not be sucked into the political arena. I have advanced the defence of 1969 on respectable grounds. The situation now, whereby a Minister of State at the Home Office chooses the Conservative political conference to give assurances of that nature at the very least—[Interruption.] Let me give a more direct example. Let us refer to one seat about which the Boundary Commission has had an inquiry today. I refer to Whitehaven, in the Home Secretary's area. That seat is what would be regarded as a safe Labour seat, although I do not believe in that concept.
The Minister of State went to Whitehaven, and I have seen a copy of a press report of a speech that he made there to a Conservative meeting. He said:I am very confident in our future. The idea that this constituency is a Socialist possession is going to be knocked skyhigh.We have all gone to constituencies held by the other party with a massive majority and we have said things like that. 345 But when the Minister of State, Home Office, who is responsible for the Boundary Commissions., says that in Whitehaven in the context of a Boundary Commission recommendation which is extremely controversial—I do not wish to enter into the nature of the proposal, except to say that it is extremely controversial and has been much argued about, and will be more so—he is doing things that are not proper to his office.
Is the hon. Gentleman seriously suggesting that because of my present departmental responsibility I should not go to constituencies that we hope to win at the next election and say that we shall win them, and that, merely because the Boundary Commission is covering the area in which that seat is included, that is improper? That is a fantastic suggestion.
§ Mr. Cunningham
I say that the Minister should exercise discretion in going to such areas and saying things that will certainly be interpreted by people locally, who will say that he is the Minister in charge of the Boundary Commission and that the Boundary Commission has made a recommendation of a highly controversial character. If the Minister is showing that degree of insensitivity to the need for discretion, that worries me even more.
§ Mr. Ron Lewis (Carlisle)
As one who attended the Boundary Commission in Kendal yesterday—it met today and will meet again tomorrow—may I assure my hon. Friend tint the quotation that he has given from the Minister of State is giving the impression that the Boundary Commission is being rigged?
§ Mr. Whitelaw
This argument concerns my part of the world and it may, there fore, interest hon. Members to know that the proposals put forward by my party to the same inquiry would destroy my constituency, something that the Boundary Commission had not originally proposed. I did not object to that. Now, then, answer that!
§ Mr. Cunningham
I congratulate the Secretary of State on his relations with his local party, but the humour of that exchange does not detract from the seriousness of my point. I hope that in future Home Office Ministers will be very careful about what they say. If they show that degree of insensitivity, that backs up even more the allegations I am making.
It has been suggested that because hon. Members have been able, correctly, to quote cases where there is a small Labour seat, like mine, and a large Conservative seat, the existing system must operate to the disadvantage of the Conservative system and to the advantage of the Labour Party. At the general election in 1979, the Conservatives had a majority over Labour—I leave out the Liberals, who have their own grievances, and deal only with relations between the two main parties—of 7 per cent. on votes. That was increased by the system to a majority of 11.2 per cent. on seats. So, although one can certainly pick individual cases and argue the case anecdotally, seen in the round the system at the moment does not give my party a built-in advantage.
§ Mr. Peter Bottomley
The basic flaw in the system has nothing to do with, whether redistribution should come early or late. The hon. Gentleman might remember the February 1974 election, when, with a minority of votes, the Labour Party got more seats, which demonstrates the problem of redistribution rather than of the general election system.
§ Mr. Cunningham
But it is also important.
I want finally to quote a figure on 1974 in relation to what has been said about 1969. In 1970, under the system that we were supposed to be fighting to retain, a Conservative majority of 3.4 per cent. on votes was transformed into a Conservative majority of precisely double that on seats. In the first 1974 election, under the system whose introduction we were supposed to be resisting, a Conservative majority of 1 per cent. on votes was transformed by the system into a Labour majority of just under 1 per cent. on seats. Those facts destroy the anecdotal evidence mentioned in the debate, and they suggest convincingly to me that, primarily, self-interest has motivated the bringing forward of the Bill.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Leon Brittan)
I do not think that anyone would claim that in debating this quite short Bill the House has always been narrowly confining itself to the subject matter of the Bill. But the debate has been none the worse for that, in that it has led to being a wide-ranging number of matters of general electoral interest being raised. What I thought was the saddest moment of the debate was when, hon. Members on both sides of the House having raised points of substance and detail, the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Cunningham), in winding up—seeking to conceal the paucity of his arguments—wrapped himself up in a tissue of fabricated allegations which carried no conviction whatsoever and did great damage to the reputation which he has deservedly held until now for rationality and fairness. It is sad that he should have done that, and the House will judge him accordingly.
The debate started with the right hon. Member for Leeds, South (Mr. Rees) making an allegation of gerrymandering. My hon. Friend the Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones) paid the right hon. Member for Leeds, South a richly deserved tribute and compliment, with which I wholeheartedly associate myself, in saying that the right hon. Gentleman did not sound as though he believed his own allegation. That is about the size of it.
But the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury was not prepared to leave it at that and sought to rake over the coals of 1969 and put forward an allegation in defence of what was done in 1969, for which he could not, even with all his strained logic, claim more than a 60–40 chance of success. What he said was that it has traditionally been local government considerations that have been dominant in these redistribution matters and that all that happened in 1969 was that the Government of the day took a different view from that expressed in the House today and thought that local government considerations should take precedence over the question of equality of representation.
That is a travesty of what occurred. It is a travesty which began with a travesty of the law. What the hon. Gentleman started by saying was that in the law as it then existed the predominant consideration in the redistribution of seats was local government boundaries. That simply is not so. Let me simply show that to the House. What the second schedule to the 1949 Act says is that so far as is practicable, having regard to the rules, local government boundaries should be followed in the process of redistribution. But it is very significant that that is rule 4. Rule 5, however, goes on to say: 347The electorate of any constituency shall be as near the electoral quota as is practicable having regard to the foregoing rules"—
that is to say, the rule relating to local government boundaries. If the House wants to know which of the two considerations should be paramount, the answer is provided by the very next words of paragraph 5:and a Boundary Commission may depart from the strict application of the last foregoing rule"—
that is, the rule relating to boundaries of local government authorities—if it appears to them that a departure is desirable to avoid an excessive disparity between the electorate of any constituency and the electoral quota, or between the electorate thereof and that of neighbouring constituencies in the part of the United Kingdom with which they are concerned.
§ Dr. Edmund Marshall rose—
§ Mr. George Cunningham rose—
§ Mr. Brittan
I shall not give way. I am answering some of the points that have been made.
The fact is that it is clear that the dominating consideration must in the last analysis be the question of equality of representation. If the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury was right and the previous Government were dominated by a concern that the principles of local government boundaries should continue to play the role that they did, how can he explain the fact that his Government sought to persuade the House to do that by bringing a Bill before the House which, presumably, was designed to give effect to the principles which the hon. Gentleman claims have at least a 60–40 chance of being right?
When the legislation failed to get through Parliament, it was then that the Government of the day—instead of dropping it, instead of complying with the provisions operating as far as the Boundary Commission was concerned and implementing the recommendations that the utterly independent Boundary Commission had put forward—having been duly forced to act by the threat of legal action in the courts by the late Ross McWhirter, came to the House and put forward the orders implementing the recommendations of the Boundary Commission and then invited their own supporters to vote them down. That is what happened. It is one of the most disreputable episodes in post-war parliamentary history. It is not surprising that allegations of gerrymandering today are put forward by the right hon. Member for Leeds, South with patent lack of conviction and by the hon. Member for Islington, South and Finsbury with a patent inability to convince anyone else. That is the reality.
I turn to the Bill and what it does. Whatever else may be said against me about my speech at Whitehaven—I am delighted that it received such good coverage and that the hon. Gentleman has ensured that it gets even better coverage—I should like to make a declaration of non-interest. The parliamentary Boundary Commission has reported both for Cleveland and for North Yorkshire, in which two counties my constituency of Cleveland and Whitby sits. What it has recommended amounts simply to the dismemberment of my constituency. I can, therefore, safely say that I am declaring a non-interest.
Much of the debate has concentrated on issues other than those in the Bill. We were castigated for what is claimed to be the possibly misleading title of the Bill. It 348 was rightly pointed out by the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston) that the Bill is essentially about boundaries for the United Kingdom constituencies rather than about anything to do with the European Assembly. I do not disguise the fact, and I am happy to confess to any quotations that are prayed in aid, that the purpose of the Bill, among other things, is to enable the parliamentary Boundary Commission review to be completed in time for disparities that at present exist to be redressed before the next general election. It seems to me that the most convincing argument that anyone has been able to bring forward against that approach is not that it was wrong to introduce an elementary measure of democracy in such a way but that it was wrong to tell the Conservative Party conference that we were doing it. That is a strange basis for criticism. It is characteristic of everything that has been stated from the Opposition side—quite apart from remarks about what the Bill might have contained rather than what it does contain.
The Opposition have failed to answer one very simple question to which the House was entitled to expect an answer and on which the whole argument ought to depend. The extent to which the argument has not depended on it is due to all the red herrings that have been thrown across the trail. Listening to my right hon. Friend's account of the disparities that at present exist, listening to him tell the House that there are at the moment 11 constituencies containing over 100,000 electors and 14 constituencies containing fewer than 40,000 electors, hearing hon. Members such as my hon. Friend the Member for Buckingham (Mr. Benyon) explain those figures and hearing my hon. Friend the Member for Eye (Mr. Gummer) develop the point, the simple question that the Opposition have not answered is whether they are saying it would be right for the next general election to be fought on the boundaries that currently exist. That is a question that the Opposition have not answered. They have said everything other than that. They have talked about the European method of elections, about other changes that should be made in our electoral process and about matters of detail, but they have not answered the central question, which is whether they believe that it would be right to hold the next general election on the present boundaries.
There can be only one answer to that question. No one who believes in democracy, that it is right that there should be, broadly speaking, equality of representation and that votes should be as close to being equal in value as possible can doubt that there can be no justification for holding the next general election on the present boundaries.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
The point has been made that, under the redistribution, we shall have small constituencies as well. Given the small size of some constituencies, therefore, of couse that is necessary.
However, let me plut two questions to the Minister. First, if this legislation does not go through, is it right that the redistribution scheme will not have been approved by this House by 1984? Secondly, as a result of what is being done, is there not a very good chance that the next European elections will be fought on the constituencies that were sorted out three years ago and that they will not be put right until 1989?
§ Mr. Brittan
I shall answer both those questions, but first I want to confirm my understanding of what the right hon. Gentleman said, which is that he concedes that it 349 would be quite wrong for the next general election to be fought on the present boundaries. [Interruption.] I do not know whether the right hon. Gentleman concedes that. I cannot make him concede it. However, I can say that there is no justification for any view other than that the present boundaries are unjustifiable and that there ought to be a redistribution before the next general election.
The right hon. Member for Leeds, South now seeks to shield behind the possibility that there might be a premature general election. That is unworthy and does not meet the point that what we are talking about is the normal life of a Parliament.
The right hon. Gentleman asked two questions, and I shall answer them, I hope, with candour. He asked whether, if this legislation were not passed, the Boundary Commission would complete its deliberations before the next general election.
§ Mr. Brittan
The answer is that the Boundary Commission is under a legal obligation to complete its deliberations, and I have no reason to doubt that it will complete them, within the statutory period. However, there is rather more to it than that. The statutory period ends in the spring of 1984. That means that one does not know quite how close to that the Boundary Commission would go in the absence of this legislation. Certainly it would go pretty close.
Once the process has taken place, what matters is not coming to this Dispatch Box and presenting the conclusions of the Boundary Commission which have the legal effect from that moment that any election is to be fought on the new boundaries. That is only the beginning of the process. When we talk about a situation in which hundreds of constituencies are to change their shape, it means that all political parties will have to set up new organisations reflecting the new constituencies, and new candidates will have to be chosen. That is the process that takes time.
This has nothing to do with party politics. It affects all political parties. It is not in the interests of democracy that the Boundary Commission should present its proposals, say, right at the beginning of 1984 when there can be a general election at the very latest in, say, June 1984, and in that period all the political parties in each new constituency should have to re-form themselves and select new candidates. I do not think that that is democracy as we know it, either.
Therefore, there is every justification for facilitating the process that will enable the parliamentary Boundary Commission to complete its work substantially earlier than that and in time to enable the parties to re-form in the new constituencies and choose their candidates, In my view, that facilitates the work of democracy rather than thwarting it.
I hope that in the light of that answer the right hon. Gentleman, even now, will accept, as he at least appeared to concede, that there is no justification for the gross disparity outlined by my right hon. Friend to remain until the next general election, and that the right course for him to adopt is to advise his right hon. and hon. Friends not to oppose the Bill.
§ Mr. R. C. Mitchell
If the Bill goes through, when does the hon. and learned Gentleman expect the orders to be laid before the House?
§ Mr. Brittan
I cannot say, because the Boundary Commission is an independent body. It has estimated that it will produce its reports in 1982. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall then bring the orders before the House as soon as possible.
I turn to the one other major topic, raised by the right hon. Members for Leeds, South and for Down, South (Mr. Powell). It relates to the whole question of the operation of European Assemblies, in the proper sense of the word. I think that it is conceded, and I hope that I have explained sufficiently, that the Bill in itself is silent on the future arrangements for European Assemblies. All that the Bill does is to sever the connection in time between the working out of the boundaries for Westminster constituencies and those for the European Assembly elections.
Both right hon. Gentlemen fairly said "This is all very well, but what will happen regarding the method of election for the European Assembly? What will happen in particular with regard to the method of election for Members representing Northern Ireland, as compared with what happened at the last election?" They properly sought to tease the Conservative Party with quotations expressing views about what ought to happen. They said that the Bill contained no steps that would lead to that end, and they are, of course, right.
The European Parliament is deliberating at present on the whole question. It is producing a report, which has to go to the Council of Ministers. The assumption is made that in the last analysis the report will recommend a uniform system of elections that will be inconsistent with the arrangements in the 1978 Act. That may or may not be right.
It is fair to say that the Treaty imposes no time limit for the establishment of uniform procedure, nor does it define the scope or nature of the concept of uniformity. As my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) and the hon. Member for Inverness said, there is considerable room for doubt about how uniform a uniform procedure has to be. Once agreement has been reached by the Council on a proposal from the Parliament, it will really then be for each member State to implement that agreement according to its own constitutional requirements. That will require legislation. We have not got to that yet.
A sub-committee of the political affairs committee has prepared a draft report for the European Parliament. It sets out the options of proportional representation, the additional Member and the regional list systems. That report has yet to be considered by the European Parliament. It will be a long time before it goes to the Council. At this stage, all that one can say is that we are awaiting proposals which might be put to the Council of Ministers. When we consider such proposals, we shall consult opinion in Parliament and throughout the country.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell
Nothing that the hon. and learned Member has said prevents the Government now from confirming, or reaffirming, their conviction that, whatever the system, it should be uniform throughout the United Kingdom. I have listened carefully to the hon. and learned Member. He said nothing in contradiction to that. I hope that he will reaffirm that that is indeed the Government's view.
§ Mr. Brittan
I do not think that events will arise like that. The essence of what is being worked out in Europe 351 involves a uniform system—a system which will be uniform throughout the Community, let alone throughout the United Kingdom. It follows that any proposal is bound to apply uniformly throughout the United Kingdom. I believe that that disposes of the right hon. Gentleman's point. I hope that he regards that assurance as sufficiently adequate.
§ Mr. Merlyn Rees
In 1978, when we debated the original Bill, members of the present Government who were then in Opposition voted in favour of a uniform system. Are they still in favour of a uniform system?
§ Mr. Brittan
We are in favour of a uniform system, but it will arise in the way that I have described. There is no inconsistency. The flesh and bones of a uniform system have not yet arrived.
§ Mr. Michael English (Nottingham, West) rose—
§ Mr. Brittan
I shall not give way.
I now turn to the point made by the hon. Member for Goole (Dr. Marshall). It is important. He said that even if one concedes that the purpose of achieving a greater degree of equality of representation is just, and that even if one believes that it is democratically right that one man's vote should not count for substantially less in one part of the country than in another, there is nothing to be said for making it easier for the Boundary Commission's proposals to come forward before the next general election. The reason that he gave was that in those constituencies with which the Boundary Commissions have already dealt—in the counties where the review is complete and for which provisional proposals have been made—substantial disparities remain between constituencies.
Of course, that is so. It must be so as long as the Boundary Commissions are not obliged simply to chop up the country into mathematically equal portions and so long as they are entitled to take account of local government boundaries to any extent, as they are entitled to take account of major geographical features.
The only point that matters is that, although disparities remain, the effect of the proposals is enormously to reduce the disparities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Eye said, it is absurd to suggest that because the problem has been drastically diminished and not totally removed the Bill should not be supported.
The Bill is not a general measure for electoral reform or electoral law. These are matters that we are considering. What it does is to enable the gross disparities that exist at present to be removed. It enables that to be done by severing a connection between the Westminster parliamentary boundary redistribution and the European one, which was quite irrational and need not have existed in the first place. It is for those reasons that I commend the Bill to the House.
§ Question put, That the Bill now read a Second time:—
§ The House divided: Ayes 296, Noes 241.
|Division No. 7]||[10.00 pm|
|Adley, Robert||Amery, Rt Hon Julian|
|Aitken, Jonathan||Ancram, Michael|
|Alexander, Richard||Arnold, Tom|
|Alison, Michael||Aspinwall, Jack|
|Atkins, Rt Hon H.(S'thorne)||Fletcher, A. (Ed'nb'gh N)|
|Atkins, Robert (Preston N)||Fookes, Miss Janet|
|Baker, Kenneth (St.M'bone)||Forman, Nigel|
|Baker, Nicholas (N Dorset)||Fox, Marcus|
|Beaumont-Dark, Anthony||Fraser, Rt Hon Sir Hugh|
|Bell, Sir Ronald||Fraser, Peter (South Angus)|
|Bendall, Vivian||Fry, Peter|
|Benyon, Thomas (A'don)||Galbraith, Hon T. G. D.|
|Benyon, W. (Buckingham)||Gardiner, George (Reigate)|
|Best, Keith||Gardner, Edward (S Fylde)|
|Bevan, David Gilroy||Garel-Jones, Tristan|
|Blackburn, John||Glyn, Dr Alan|
|Blaker, Peter||Goodhart, Philip|
|Body, Richard||Goodhew, Victor|
|Bonsor, Sir Nicholas||Goodlad, Alastair|
|Boscawen, Hon Robert||Gorst, John|
|Bottomley, Peter (W'wich W)||Gow, Ian|
|Bowden, Andrew||Gower, Sir Raymond|
|Boyson, Dr Rhodes||Gray, Hamish|
|Braine, Sir Bernard||Greenway, Harry|
|Bright, Graham||Griffiths, E. (B'y St. Edm'ds)|
|Brinton, Tim||Griffiths, Peter Portsm'th N)|
|Brittan, Leon||Grist, Ian|
|Brocklebank-Fowler, C.||Grylls, Michael|
|Brooke, Hon Peter||Gummer, John Selwyn|
|Brotherton, Michael||Hamilton, Hon A.|
|Brown, M. (Brigg and Scun)||Hamilton, Michael (Salisbury)|
|Browne, John (Winchester)||Hampson, Dr Keith|
|Bruce-Gardyne, John||Hannam, John|
|Bryan, Sir Paul||Haselhurst, Alan|
|Buchanan-Smith, Hon Alick||Hastings, Stephen|
|Buck, Antony||Havers, Rt Hon Sir Michael|
|Budgen, Nick||Hawksley, Warren|
|Bulmer, Esmond||Hayhoe, Barney|
|Burden, Sir Frederick||Heddle, John|
|Butcher, John||Henderson, Barry|
|Butler, Hon Adam||Heseltine, Rt Hon Michael|
|Cadbury, Jocelyn||Hicks, Robert|
|Carlisle, John (Luton West)||Higgins, Rt Hon Terence L.|
|Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln)||Hogg, Hon Douglas (Gr'th'm)|
|Carlisle, Rt Hon M. (R'c'n)||Holland, Philip (Carlton)|
|Chalker, Mrs. Lynda||Hooson, Tom|
|Channon, Rt. Hon. Paul||Hordern, Peter|
|Chapman, Sydney||Howe, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey|
|Churchill, W. S.||Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldf'd)|
|Clark, Hon A. (Plym'th, S'n)||Howell, Ralph (N Norfolk)|
|Clark, Sir W. (Croydon S)||Hunt, David (Wirral)|
|Clarke, Kenneth (Rushcliffe)||Hunt, John (Ravensbourne)|
|Clegg, Sir Walter||Hurd, Hon Douglas|
|Cockeram, Eric||Irving, Charles (Cheltenham)|
|Colvin, Michael||Jenkin, Rt Hon Patrick|
|Cope, John||Johnson Smith, Geoffrey|
|Cormack, Patrick||Jopling, Rt Hon Michael|
|Corrie, John||Joseph, Rt Hon Sir Keith|
|Costain, Sir Albert||Kaberry, Sir Donald|
|Cranborne, Viscount||Kilfedder, James A.|
|Critchley, Julian||King, Rt Hon Tom|
|Crouch, David||Kitson, Sir Timothy|
|Dean, Paul (North Somerset)||Knox, David|
|Dickens, Geoffrey||Lamont, Norman|
|Dorrell, Stephen||Lang, Ian|
|Douglas-Hamilton, Lord J.||Langford-Holt, Sir John|
|Dover, Denshore||Latham, Michael|
|du Cann, Rt Hon Edward||Lawrence, Ivan|
|Dunn, Robert (Dartford)||Lawson, Nigel|
|Durant, Tony||Lee, John|
|Eden, Rt Hon Sir John||Lennox-Boyd, Hon Mark|
|Edwards, Rt Hon N. (P'broke)||Lester Jim (Beeston)|
|Eggar, Tim||Lewis, Kenneth (Rutland)|
|Elliott, Sir William||Lloyd, Ian (Havant & W'loo)|
|Emery, Peter||Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)|
|Eyre, Reginald||Loveridge, John|
|Fairbairn, Nicholas||Luce, Richard|
|Fairgrieve, Russell||Lyell, Nicholas|
|Faith, Mrs Sheila||McCrindle, Robert|
|Farr, John||MacGregor, John|
|Fell, Anthony||MacKay, John (Argyll)|
|Fenner, Mrs Peggy||Macmillan, Rt Hon M.|
|Finsberg, Geoffrey||McNair-Wilson, M. (N'bury)|
|Fisher, Sir Nigel||McNair-Wilson, P. (New F'st)|
|McQuarrie, Albert||St. John-Stevas, Rt Hon N.|
|Madel, David||Scott, Nicholas|
|Major, John||Shaw, Giles (Pudsey)|
|Marland, Paul||Shaw, Michael (Scarborough)|
|Marlow, Tony||Sherton, William (Streatham)|
|Marshall Michael (Arundel)||Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)|
|Marten, Neil (Banbury)||Shepherd, Richard|
|Mates, Michael||Silvester, Fred|
|Mather, Carol||Sims, Roger|
|Maude, Rt Hon Angus||Skeet, T. H. H.|
|Mawby, Ray||Speed, Keith|
|Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin||Speller, Tony|
|Mayhew, Patrick||Spence, John|
|Mellor, David||Spicer, Jim (West Dorset)|
|Meyer, Sir Anthony||Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)|
|Miller, Hal (B'grove)||Sproat, Ian|
|Mills, Iain (Meriden)||Squire, Robin|
|Mills, Peter (West Devon)||Stanbrook, Ivor|
|Miscampbell, Norman||Stanley, John|
|Mitchell, David (Basingstoke)||Steen, Anthony|
|Moate, Roger||Stevens, Martin|
|Monro, Hector||Stewart, Ian (Hitchin)|
|Montgomery, Fergus||Stewart, J. (E Renfrewshire)|
|Morris, M. (N'hampton S)||Stokes, John|
|Morrison, Hon C. (Devizes)||Stradling Thomas, J.|
|Morrison, Hon P. (Chester)||Tapsell, Peter|
|Mudd, David||Taylor, Robert (Croydon NW)|
|Myles, David||Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)|
|Neale, Gerrard||Temple-Morris, Peter|
|Nelson, Anthony||Thatcher, Rt Hon Mrs M.|
|Neubert, Michael||Thomas, Rt Hon Peter|
|Newton, Tony||Thorne, Neil (llford South)|
|Nott, Rt Hon John||Thornton, Malcolm|
|Oppenheim, Rt Hon Mrs S||Townend, John (Bridlington)|
|Page, Rt Hon Sir G. (Crosby)||Townsend, Cyril D, (B'heath)|
|Page, Richard (SW Herts)||Trippier, David|
|Parris, Matthew||Trotter, Neville|
|Patten, Christopher (Bath)||van Straubenzee, W. R.|
|Patten, John (Oxford)||Vaughan, Dr Gerard|
|Pattie, Geoffrey||Viggers, Peter|
|Pawsey, James||Waddington, David|
|Peyton, Rt Hon John||Wakeham, John|
|Pink, R. Bonner||Waldegrave, Hon William|
|Pollock, Alexander||Walker, Rt Hon P. (W'cester)|
|Porter, Barry||Walker, B. (Perth}|
|Prentice, Rt Hon Reg||Walker-Smith, Rt Hon Sir D|
|Price, Sir David (Eastleigh)||Wall, Patrick|
|Prior, Rt Hon James||Walters, Dennis|
|Proctor, K. Harvey||Ward, John|
|Pym, Rt Hon Francis||Warren, Kenneth|
|Raison, Timothy||Watson, John|
|Rathbone, Tim||Wells, John (Maidstone)|
|Rees, Peter (Dover and Deal)||Wells, Bowen|
|Rees-Davies, W. R||Wheeler, John|
|Renton, Tim||Whitelaw, Rt Hon William|
|Rhodes James, Robert||Whitney, Raymond|
|Rhys Williams, Sir Brandon||Wickenden, Keith|
|Ridley, Hon Nicholas||Williams, D.(Montgomery)|
|Ridsdale, Julian||Winterton, Nicholas|
|Rifkind, Malcolm||Wolfson, Mark|
|Rippon, Rt Hon Geoffrey||Young, Sir George (Acton)|
|Roberts, M. (Cardiff NW)||Younger, Rt Hon George|
|Roberts, Wyn (Conway)||Tellers for the Ayes:|
|Rossi, Hugh||Mr. Spencer Le Marchant and|
|Rost, Peter||Mr. Anthony Berry.|
|Royle, Sir Anthony|
|Abse, Leo||Barnett, Rt Hon Joel (H'wd)|
|Adams, Allen||Benn, Rt Hon A. Wedgwood|
|Allaun, Frank||Bennett, Andrew (St'kp't N)|
|Alton, David||Bidwell, Sydney|
|Anderson, Donald||Booth, Rt Hon Albert|
|Archer, Rt Hon Peter||Boothroyd, Miss Betty|
|Armstrong, Rt Hon Ernest||Bottomley, Rt Hon A. (M'b'ro)|
|Ashley, Rt Hon Jack||Bradley, Tom|
|Ashton, Joe||Bray, Dr Jeremy|
|Atkinson, N(H'gey)||Brown, Hugh D. (Provan)|
|Bagier, Gordon A.T.||Brown, R. C. (N'castle W)|
|Barnett, Guy (Greenwich)||Brown, Ron (E'burgh, Leith)|
|Buchan, Norman||Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)|
|Callaghan, Jim (Midd't'n & P)||Hughes, Roy (Newport)|
|Campbell, Ian||Jay, Rt Hon Douglas|
|Canavan, Dennis||John, Brynmor|
|Cant, R. B.||Johnson, James (Hull West)|
|Carmichael, Neil||Johnson, Walter (Derby S)|
|Carter-Jones, Lewis||Johnston, Russell (Inverness)|
|Cartwright, John||Jones, Rt Hon Alec (Rh'dda)|
|Clark, Dr David (S Shields)||Jones, Barry (East Flint)|
|Cocks, Rt Hon M. (B'stol S)||Jones, Dan (Burnley)|
|Cohen, Stanley||Kaufman, Rt Hon Gerald|
|Coleman, Donald||Kerr, Russell|
|Concannon, Rt Hon J. D.||Kilroy-Silk, Robert|
|Conlan Bernard||Kinnock, Neil|
|Cook, Robin F.||Lambie, David|
|Cowans, Harry||Lamborn, Harry|
|Craigen, J. M.||Leadbitter, Ted|
|Crowther, J. S.||Leighton, Ronald|
|Cryer, Bob||Lestor, Miss Joan|
|Cunliffe, Lawrence||Lewis, Ron (Carlisle)|
|Cunningham, G. (Islington S)||Litherland, Robert|
|Dalyell, Tarn||Lofthouse, Geoffrey|
|Davidson, Arthur||Lyon, Alexander (York)|
|Davies, Rt Hon Denzil (L'lli)||Lyons, Edward (Bradf'd W)|
|Davies, Ifor (Gower)||Mabon, Rt Hon Dr J. Dickson|
|Davis, T. (B'ham, Stechf'd)||McCartney, Hugh|
|Deakins, Eric||McDonald, Dr Oonagh|
|Dean, Joseph (Leeds West)||McElhone, Frank|
|Dempsey, James||McKay, Allen (Penistone)|
|Dewar, Donald||McKelvey, William|
|Dixon, Donald||MacKenzie, Rt Hon Gregor|
|Dobson, Frank||Maclennan, Robert|
|Dormand, Jack||McNally, Thomas|
|Douglas, Dick||McTaggart, Robert|
|Douglas-Mann, Bruce||McWilliam, John|
|Dubs, Alfred||Marks, Kenneth|
|Duffy, A. E. P.||Marshall, Dr Edmund (Goole)|
|Dunn, James A.||Marshall, Jim (Leicester S)|
|Dunnett, Jack||Martin, M (G'gow S'burn)|
|Dunwoody, Hon Mrs G.||Mason, Rt Hon Roy|
|Eastham, Ken||Maxton, John|
|Ellis, R. (NE D'bysh're)||Maynard, Miss Joan|
|English, Michael||Meacher, Michael|
|Evans, Ioan (Aberdare)||Mellish, Rt Hon Robert|
|Evans, John (Newton)||Mikardo, Ian|
|Ewing, Harry||Millan, Rt Hon Bruce|
|Faulds, Andrew||Mitchell, Austin (Grimsby)|
|Field, Frank||Mitchell, R. C. (Soton Itchen)|
|Fitch, Alan||Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe)|
|Flannery, Martin||Morris, Rt Hon C. (O'shaw)|
|Fletcher, Ted (Darlington)||Morris, Rt Hon J. (Aberavon)|
|Foot, Rt Hon Michael||Morton, George|
|Ford, Ben||Moyle, Rt Hon Roland|
|Forrester, John||Newens, Stanley|
|Foster, Derek||Oakes, Rt Hon Gordon|
|Fraser, J. (Lamb'th, N'w'd)||Ogden, Eric|
|Freeson, Rt Hon Reginald||O'Halloran, Michael|
|Freud, Clement||O'Neill, Martin|
|Garrett, John (Norwich S)||Orme, Rt Hon Stanley|
|George, Bruce||Owen, Rt Hon Dr David|
|Gilbert, Rt Hon Dr John||Palmer, Arthur|
|Ginsburg, David||Park, George|
|Golding, John||Parker, John|
|Gourlay, Harry||Parry, Robert|
|Graham, Ted||Pendry, Tom|
|Grant, George (Morpeth)||Penhaligon, David|
|Grant, John (Islington C)||Powell, Raymond (Ogmore)|
|Hamilton, W. W. (C'tral Fife)||Price, C. (Lewisham W)|
|Hart, Rt Hon Dame Judith||Race, Reg|
|Haynes, Frank||Radice, Giles|
|Healey, Rt Hon Denis||Rees, Rt Hon M (Leeds S)|
|Hogg, N. (E Dunb't'nshire)||Richardson, Jo|
|Home Robertson, John||Roberts, Albert (Normanton)|
|Hooley, Frank||Roberts, Allan (Bootle)|
|Horam, John||Roberts, Ernest (Hackney N)|
|Howell, Rt Hon D. (G'ldf'd)||Roberts, Gwilym (Cannock)|
|Howells, Geraint||Robertson, George|
|Huckfield, Les||Robinson, G. (Coventry NW)|
|Hudson Davies, Gwilym E.||Rodgers, Rt Hon William|
|Hughes, Mark (Durham)||Rooker, J. W.|
|Roper, John||Tilley, John|
|Ross, Ernest (Dundee West)||Torney, Tom|
|Ross, Stephen (Isle of Wight)||Varley, Rt Hon Eric G.|
|Ryman, John||Wainwright, E. (Dearne V)|
|Sandelson, Neville||Wainwright, R. (Colne V)|
|Sever, John||Walker, Rt Hon H. (D'caster)|
|Sheerman, Barry||Watkins, David|
|Sheldon, Rt Hon R.||Weetch, Ken|
|Shore, Rt Hon Peter||Wellbeloved, James|
|Short, Mrs Renée||Welsh, Michael|
|Silkin, Rt Hon J. (Deptford)||White, Frank R.|
|Silkin. Rt Hon S. C. (Dulwich)||White, J. (G'gow Pollok)|
|Silverman, Julius||Whitehead, Phillip|
|Smith, Rt Hon J. (N Lanark)||Whitlock, William|
|Snape, Peter||Wigley, Dafydd|
|Soley, Clive||Willey, Rt Hon Frederick|
|Spearing, Nigel||Williams, Rt Hon A.(S'sea W)|
|Spriggs, Leslie||Wilson, Gordon (Dundee E)|
|Stallard, A. W.||Wilson, Rt Hon Sir H. (H'ton)|
|Steel, Rt Hon David||Wilson, William (C'try SE)|
|Stoddart, David||Winnick, David|
|Stott, Roger||Woodall, Alec|
|Straw, Jack||Woolmer, Kenneth|
|Summerskill, Hon Dr Shirley||Wrigglesworth, Ian|
|Taylor, Mrs Ann (Bolton W)||Wright, Sheila|
|Thomas, Dafydd (Merioneth)||Young, David (Bolton E)|
|Thomas, Jeffrey (Abertillery)||Tellers for the Noes:|
|Thomas, Mike (Newcastle E)||Mr. James Hamilton and|
|Thomas, Dr R. (Carmarthen)||Mr. James Tinn.|
|Thorne, Stan (Preston South)|
§ Question accordingly agreed to.
§ Bill read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Committee of the whole House.—[Mr. Boscawen.]
§ Committee tomorrow.