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Representation of the People (Amendment)

3.40 pm

Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East) : I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to extend and improve methods of electoral registration and to allow disabled people to gain access to polling stations.

My Bill falls into two parts, one of which deals with the need for a full franchise. It is sometimes mistakenly believed that we already have a full franchise in this country, but whereas in the past legislation was enacted to extend the franchise, in recent years we have let the methods used for registration slip considerably, and we can no longer claim to have a full franchise.

The second part of my Bill is intended to provide access for disabled people and others to polling stations. Even if we achieve the objective of a full franchise, it will not work for disabled people if they do not have full access to polling stations. Their only option would be to use postal or proxy votes, so they would not be able to exercise the franchise in the same way as able-bodied people. So full rights for disabled people are among the measures in the Bill.

What is wrong with current methods of electoral registrations? Millions of people entitled to be included are missing from the electoral register. The problem is probably greatest among those known as "attainers", who, at the age of 18, qualify for registration for the first time in their lives. The percentage of attainers qualifying has fallen year by year, especially since the introduction of the poll tax, and that has not been rectified by the removal of that tax.

Official figures reveal that only 95 per cent. of the people eligible to be registered in England and Wales appear on the electoral registers. In Greater London, only 88.4 per cent. appear. Even those figures are artificially inflated, because people who have died and not been removed from the register are included. Also included are people who have emigrated or moved to other parts of the country, and it is unreasonable to expect that they will all use postal or proxy voting facilities.

There is also a great deal of double counting. Some hon. Members may appear on two electoral registers, one in London and one in another area in which they reside, normally in their constituencies. Many people are merely carried over from previous registers without any serious canvassing taking place to find out whether they should be on the register or someone else should be put in their place. We also have a mobile disenchanted society in which people get on their bikes and move around from bed-sitter to bed- sitter with growing elements of homelessness, and there are serious problems with registration. The Office of Population Censuses and Surveys estimates that 3.4 million people in England and Wales are missing from electoral registers--probably 4 million people in the United Kingdom and 1 million in Greater London.

The method that we use for registration is outdated. The qualifying date for registration is 10 October and the registers come into operation on 16 February. Registers will come into operation tomorrow. Registers last for one year, so the information is 16 months old by the time they are finished. The Hansard Society says that the information on an average register is likely to be 16 per cent. out by the end of its life.

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My Bill seeks to tackle that serious problem by introducing a rolling register to allow for the addition and deletion of names as people move. It will provide extra authority and resources for electoral returning officers so that housing movement information, details of registered deaths, information from statutory undertakings, exchanges of information from other electoral returning officers and regular canvassing can take place. That will be subject to strict confidentiality rules so that the information is used only for electoral returning purposes.

Registers will roll until elections are announced. When an election is announced, the closing date will be the date of the announcement of the election and polling cards will immediately be issued, with massive publicity so that people who do not receive cards will know that they are not on a register and will still have time to qualify to get on a register within a week before the election takes place. After an election, the registers will continue to roll. Annual registration will still be required, but that will be more of a check on the existing state of the rolling register, and extra information may be supplied on which the electoral returning officer can act. Access to polling stations will require accessibility audits to be undertaken by electoral returning officers and full consultation with relevant voluntary organisations representing disabled people--bodies such as Links and the Spastics Society, which produced a substantial report at the last election to illustrate the problems. Designated polling stations will be established in which various characteristics such as wheelchair access and unaided wheelchair access will be required, although the problem of accessibility is for more people than only those in wheelchairs.

Many people who are not registered as disabled and who are merely old and infirm should have the opportunity to exercise their franchise readily and easily. Initially, designated accessible polling stations will need to cover about 50 per cent. of a constituency and people will be allowed access to a designated station if their own station has not qualified at that time. However, the aim will be 100 per cent. designated polling stations with full access.

The key to the Bill is how the Secretary of State for the Home Department will respond to it, because it is a re-run of the private Member's Bill that I introduced last year. At that time, the Minister said that he accepted the principle of seeking to achieve full registration, but felt that the measure was premature. It was premature in that the Home Office was investigating a number of matters concerning electoral registration and electoral provision arising from experience gained at the general election. It was beginning to be accepted that the poll tax had a serious impact on the electoral register, although there were many other elements that provided great difficulty.

We now must ask whether the Bill has begun to be acceptable to the Home Office. It would be nice if the Minister of State, Home Office, who is on the Government Front Bench, could indicate as I proceed through the measure that the time is now right for the proposal. My previous Bill was not voted against on Second Reading, but merely failed to overcome the hurdle of a closure motion. It was carried by 78 votes to nil, but that was not sufficient to ensure a closure so that the measure could move to Committee.

My proposal might not be appropriate if there were to be an alternative Government Bill to deal with such

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matters. I am pleased to say that, when I read out the list of sponsors, it will show the names of hon. Members from all parties in Britain who are true democrats.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Harry Barnes, Mr. Robert Maclennan, Mrs. Margaret Ewing, Dr. Norman A. Godman, Mr. Dafydd Wigley, Mr. Richard Shepherd, Mr. David Trimble, Mrs. Alice Mahon, Mr. David Alton and Mr. Bill Michie.

Representation of the People (Amendment)

Mr. Harry Barnes accordingly presented a Bill to extend and improve methods of electoral registration and to allow disabled people to gain access to polling stations : And the same was read the First time ; and ordered to be read a Second time upon Friday 20 May, and to be printed.[Bill 52.]

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Representation of the People

[Relevant documents : European Community Document No.9882/93, relating to the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in elections to the European Parliament, and the Seventh Report from the Select Committee on European Legislation, HC48--vii of Session 1993-94.]

3.51 pm

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Peter Lloyd) : I beg to move,

That the draft European Parliamentary Constituencies (England) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 20th January, be approved.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : I understand that, with this, it will be convenient to discuss the following motions : That the draft European Parliamentary Constituencies (Wales) Order 1994, which was laid before this House on 20th January, be approved. That the draft European Parliamentary Elections (Changes to the Franchise and Qualifications of Representatives) Regulations 1994, which were laid before this House on 2 February, be approved. I shall deal first with the two constituencies orders which established new boundaries for European parliamentary constituencies. The orders give effect to the recommendations contained in the reports of the European Parliamentary Constituencies Committee for England and the similar committee for Wales. The committees were set up under the provisions of the European Parliamentary Elections Act 1993 to carry out the task of determining the European parliamentary constituencies into which England and Wales should initially be divided to give effect to the increase that section 1 of the Act made to the number of constituencies.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock) : May I ask the Minister a straightforward question? There is a suggestion that France may not promulgate the additional seats that were agreed as part of the Maastricht negotiations. If that were so, and the House passed the orders today, would new primary legislation be required to reinstate the old boundaries?

Mr. Lloyd : The hon. Gentleman said that he would ask a straight question, to which I shall give a straight answer--no, it would not. I will return to my line of explanation, and I remind the House of the background to the matter. Agreement was reached at the European Council in Edinburgh in December 1992 that the European Parliament should be enlarged by allocating additional seats to some member states. The primary reason for that was the large increase in the population of Germany, arising out of the reunification of that country. Eighteen extra seats have been allocated to Germany to take account of the increased electorate there. The United Kingdom received six extra seats under the agreement. Five of those have been allocated to England and one to Wales. The Government believe that is the fairest distribution on an arithmetical basis.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford) : Can my right hon. Friend explain why, although the German Government made it clear in the run-up to the negotiations about the increase in the number of seats that they did not want the additional

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seats, subsequently, for reasons that have never been fully explained, we found that Germany had an additional 18? Can my hon. Friend explain how that came about?

Mr. Lloyd : I cannot tell my hon. Friend the ins and outs of the negotiations. Suffice it to say that the negotiations provided for extra seats for Germany, on account of the additional population that accrued to Germany from the reunification of East and West Germany. At the same time, the opportunity was taken to allot extra seats to some other countries, reflecting more closely the differences in population sizes of the various countries that make up the Community.

The two special committees to which I referred were set up in July 1993. They followed, as far as possible in the time available, the practices and procedures of the permanent parliamentary Boundary Commissions. Indeed, of the six members of the committees, five were members of the parliamentary Boundary Commissions, and they were appointed to the committees after consultation with the Opposition parties.

The committees had to work to a very tight timetable. They published provisional recommendations last September, and allowed one month for representations and counter-proposals to be made. Copies of all the counter -proposals and representations were then placed on local deposit in council offices, and a further period was allowed for representations to be made about them.

The committees made their final recommendations to my right hon. and learned Friend just before Christmas. In making those recommendations, they made it clear that they took into account the representations made and the views expressed to them, while complying with the statutory requirement that they should aim to recommend European parliamentary constituencies with as nearly as possible equal electorates. Although I recognise that they may not have pleased everyone--an aim which I think that the House will agree would be impossible to achieve--I believe that they have carried out their task in an objective and impartial way. The orders give effect, without modification, to their recommendations and I hope that the House will approve them.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) : I apologise to my right hon. Friend for interrupting, but I wanted clarification of the previous point. I did not quite understand the answer given to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). If the French do not proceed, as they have said that they will not, what will happen to the status of our constituencies? Will we have the constituencies as they were before the additional six seats were created, or will we continue with the additional seats?

Mr. Lloyd : We are empowered by the orders to set up the new constituencies. They will not come into effect to enable the elections to be held in them until all the countries of the EC have agreed to the changes that are necessary to accommodate the new numbers of seats that countries will have. The 1993 Act has a commencement power within it. The commencement power will not be put into effect by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary until he knows that the other countries have accommodated themselves to the new arrangements. If they do not, the commencement will not take place, and we shall continue on the existing boundaries.

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Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Lloyd : I will give way to my hon. Friend in a moment. It would create massive inconvenience if commencement did not take place. I see no real reason why the states that have yet to ratify should not do so. My hon. Friend the Member for Lancaster (Dame E. Kellett-Bowman) wanted to intervene with a further thought on the matter, so I give

Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : I am curious to know whether the commencement order can be taken right up to the tape--say, the day before the elections? What will the time limit be on that?

Mr. Lloyd : Yes, it could. It will be for the judgment of my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary how far to take it. He would have to balance the likelihood of other countries ratifying and the inconvenience of those taking part in the election here if uncertainty remains to the end, and perhaps have to revert to the current constituencies.

I hope and expect that these matters will be settled in the next few weeks. My right hon. and learned Friend will become increasingly concerned if there is no conclusion by mid-April. I think that hon. Members on both sides of the House may want to animadvert on when the last date should be. No last date has been set into the legislation ; it provides only that, when ratification is required, the elections on the new constituency boundaries may, from the first day of the following month, take place under the new European rules. That means that a decision for an election in June will be needed by 1 May. It would be difficult after that.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East) : As my right hon. Friend is well aware, this is causing considerable concern among the small percentage of the population in Southend-on-Sea who are interested in European elections, because, instead of our being linked with Chelmsford, as we are at present, it is proposed that we shall be linked with Thurrock. My constituents would like to know what President Mitterrand wants. What price will we have to pay the French before they agree to this? We really do not know.

Mr. Lloyd : That question would be better directed towards the French, or possibly my colleagues in the Foreign Office. My understanding is that the French assembly has approved ratification, but the French Government are declining to append the appropriate signatures to it until agreement on the Parliamentary building at Strasbourg is completed. My hon. Friend, in true parliamentary form, asked a question to which he already feels he pretty well knows the answer. I suspect that my answer squares with what he knows already.

Mr. Geoffrey Hoon (Ashfield) : Following on directly from that point, will the Minister say whether the British Government support the attitude of the French Government? At the time of the Edinburgh summit, the British Government were wholly in favour of the agreement to require the European Parliament to meet in Brussels and Strasbourg. Therefore, I assume that an identity of interest exists between the British and the French Government on that question, because the French Government are maintaining their opposition to the six

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extra seats, simply because they want a new building constructed in Strasbourg. Do the Government support that position ?

Mr. Lloyd : The British Government would like to see a resolution of these matters. Our precise position and attitude, and the assistance that we can give in reaching a conclusion, are much more matters for Ministers at the Foreign Office rather than myself. The hon. Gentleman invites me to tread in areas that do not belong to me and do not belong to the orders that are before us. They are not really relevant to whether we approve the orders.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : Is not there a precedent for all this muddle--an opt-out clause?

Mr. Lloyd : There is, indeed, a precedent for the current situation : when the Labour Government were last in power in 1978, we had to set up the European constituencies. We had a limited time in which to do that. All the countries of Europe had to agree to bring forward the same kind of agreement and put it into effect at the same time.

Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South) : I am becoming increasingly intrigued and want to ask my right hon. Friend a question to which I do not know the answer. I thought that I heard him say that some discretion was involved and that, if the French do not go ahead, the British Government will have some discretion. I thought that it was automatic that if the French do not ratify we shall not be able to ratify.

Mr. Lloyd : The original question was whether we would have to pass new primary legislation to revert to our present Euro-constituencies if the French do not go ahead. I said that we would not, because the Home Secretary would not put the commencement date into effect until he was certain that all member countries were on the start line, that the new constituencies could come into effect properly and that the MEPs could be elected.

I said that the Home Secretary would have some discretion when he imposed the commencement date. He would not merely bear in mind what is happening in Community countries and when they are commencing their changes, but would also consider the amount of time that we, the political parties and their candidates would need to run an efficient election campaign here.

Obviously, we do not want to be in two minds until the last day and we would not do that. There is, however, quite some time for discretion, but we would have to make a judgment as the time got shorter. I suspect that the time for a judgment would come in April.

Mr. Cash : My hon. Friend will remember that, in part II of the Maastricht treaty, entitled "Citizenship of the Union", article 8b states not only that citizens of the Union are given certain powers but that they

"shall enjoy the rights conferred by this Treaty and shall be subject to the duties imposed thereby."

It continues :

Every citizen of the Union residing in a Member State of which he is not a national shall have the right to vote and to stand as a candidate at municipal elections in the Member State in which he resides, under the same conditions as nationals of that State." It also states that the right "shall"--not may--

"be exercised before 31 December 1994 by the Council, acting unanimously on a proposal from the Commission and after

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consulting the European Parliament ; these arrangements may provide for derogation where warranted by problems specific to a Member State."

My right hon. Friend is saying that some solution may need to be found to deal with the problem of the intransigent French. Apparently, the treaty lays down a requirement, which cannot be abrogated by any member state, and which can be enforced only by reference to the European Court of Justice.

In the light of the deep-seated concern of the French about Strasbourg and the European Parliament building, and the knowledge that has such importance to the comity of voting and representation in the Community and the European elections, do the Government intend, by some means or another, to ensure that matter is brought before the court so that it can be sorted out?

Mr. Lloyd : If I have followed my hon. Friend, I think that he is confusing two things. He began by mentioning the right of citizens in other member countries to vote in a country where they are not a citizen ; we shall come to that when we discuss the regulations. However, that right does not enable anyone to take legal proceedings against France or the French Government for not ratifying the arrangements that would lead to the election of six additional Members of the European Parliament in this country and six more in France. Those matters are quite separate.

The purpose of the regulations to which my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash) alluded is to extend to citizens of other member states of the European Union who are resident here the right to vote and to stand as candidates in elections to the European Parliament.

Our legislation on elections restricts the right to vote and to be a candidate to British and other Commonwealth citizens and to citizens of the Irish Republic. The treaty on European union signed at Maastricht, however, gave voting and candidacy rights to citizens of the Union who live in a member state without being a national of that state. Article 8b.2 related to elections to the European Parliament, which is the subject of the draft regulations. The regulations extend those electoral rights to citizens of the other member states of the European Union who are resident here, by making a number of technical amendments to existing legislation. The overall aim of the draft regulations is, therefore, very simple. But the regulations themselves are somewhat long and complex--as those who have tried to read them will have noticed. The reason for the length and complexity is that our electoral legislation rightly goes into often minute details of prescription and practice. That level of prescription is valuable in safeguarding electoral procedures from ambiguity, but it means that even simple changes require complicated amendments to many legislative minutiae. That accounts for the complexity of the document before the House. The general principle of article 8b.2 of the Maastricht treaty is that non-national residents in a member state should be treated, for electoral purposes, in the same way as the nationals of that state. The draft regulations seek to achieve that equality of treatment in practice, and we are not introducing of our own accord any requirements on citizens of other member states that we do not impose on our own citizens.

To register to vote, for example, a Union citizen must have been resident in Great Britain on the qualifying date of 10 October, or 15 September for Northern Ireland, in

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exactly the same way as British or other Commonwealth citizens. Citizens of other member states who wish to be candidates at the election to the European Parliament must also conform to the same nomination procedures as candidates have hitherto.

However, we are placing one or two small differences of procedure on Union citizens. These stem directly from the provisions of the EC directive implementing article 8b.2 of the treaty.

In mentioning the directive, I pause briefly to apologise to the House for the fact that the document was not made available at the draft stage. An unfortunate combination of human error and several failures of communication meant that the Select Committee was deprived of the opportunity to consider the directive at its draft stage. I have noted the Select Committee's report, which has been placed in the Vote Office in the usual way, and I acknowledge that the Government did not meet their scrutiny obligations with regard to this document in the normal way. I can only repeat here the apologies that have been made outside the House.

As I have said, the draft regulations impose on Union citizens a few minor differences from the procedures that we require of our own citizens. The main difference from our normal arrangements is that Union citizens will have to apply to register to vote and will have to do so to their local electoral registration officer by 29 March. We shall not be placing on electoral registration officers a duty to seek out non-British or non-Irish citizens for registration. A further small difference is that we shall be requiring intending voters and candidates to supply information about their electoral rights in their home member states. Member states will be exchanging information on non-national electors and candidates, on the basis of the information provided, with the aim of preventing double voting or candidacy, and to enforce concurrently disqualifications imposed by a home member state. That requirement stems from the directive to apply the provisions of the treaty and is designed to meet the concerns of some other member states.

As I have said, the regulations seem complex, but they merely effect a simple extension of rights to vote and to candidacy, in conformity with our treaty obligations. I hope that the House will approve them.

4.13 pm

Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North) : I am glad that, at last-- after some further delay--hon. Members have an opportunity to discuss the important matter of the boundaries on which the European elections of 9 June will be fought and the extension of the vote to European Community citizens in the United Kingdom for those elections.

The European project goes on. For many of the newer generations in the House it is no longer an article of faith but a part of the political landscape that has to be dealt with on merit. It is all the more ludicrous, therefore, that the Conservatives' internal divisions over Maastricht have led to a situation in which, in certain constituencies, candidates in the ever more important European elections are only now being selected--just 14 weeks before the election. Given the size of the European constituencies, it will be difficult, if not impossible, for candidates to be widely known and for an informed choice to be made.

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As we argued throughout the proceedings on the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, the Conservatives are entirely responsible for the fact that the process of drawing up the new European boundaries had to be compressed into such a short time. They are also responsible for the fact that the boundaries were drawn up not by the independent Boundary Commission, but by the new European Parliamentary Constituency Committee.

It took from the Edinburgh summit in December 1992, when the current Prime Minister first announced the Government's intention to legislate on the issue, until 30 June 1993 before the European Parliament Elections Bill was given its First Reading. We all know that the reason for this inordinate six-month delay was that the Government could not be sure of carrying a vote on anything European in the face of hostility from its Maastricht rebels--those whom the Prime Minister famously dubbed the illegitimate ones.

I understand that even at this late stage the review could be overturned by the refusal of France to agree the new allocation of seats. We have already had an exchange suggesting that whatever we decide today might be overturned completely by the inability of the French to ratify their part of the arrangement. The Minister referred to that as a massive inconvenience. If we have to resort to fighting the elections using the old boundaries--with all the problems that will create for the selection of candidates--it will be one of the greatest understatements ever, even in the House.

Opposition Members will seek to press the Minister still further on the latest developments in France and on what influence we can exert to ensure that, if we pass the orders today, they will become the basis of the European elections.

When the Bill was in Committee, the Opposition believed, as we do today, that, had the Government been more efficient in the organisation of their parliamentary business, there would have been sufficient time for proper public inquiries. We now that the organisation of business is not the Government's strong point at the moment. Whether it is being run ragged by their own rebels or clumsily breaking down the usual channels, our non-co- operation policy seems merely an extension of the one that has been working so effectively within the Conservative party under the present Prime Minister.

Amidst all that confusion, it is important that the procedures used in the parliamentary review should never be deployed as a precedent for future boundary revisions for Strasbourg or Westminster. We must be clear that it must be the exception and not the rule. If people are to have confidence in our democratic system, they need to be sure that the electoral boundaries on which our system operates are beyond reproach.

When the Bill last came before the House, I stated that I did not believe that the Home Secretary intended to fiddle the boundaries. Some felt that I was being generous to the Home Secretary, but in his case we should be prepared to understand a little more and condemn a little less. It was always our contention that not only should justice be done, but that it should be seen to be done by the due process of public inquiry.

We have enjoyed the public inquiry process for more than 50 years, and it would be most helpful if the Minister could tell the House that the Conservatives do not intend to sidestep the public inquiry on any future boundary proposals, European or otherwise.

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Mr. Peter Lloyd : In any boundary changes we would like the full panoply of inquiry. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the timetable was short and we had to follow the model that had been provided by the last Labour Government in 1978 which had similarly to timetable the legislation, took a similarly short time for the reviews and where the normal inquiries had to be dispensed with.

Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : The Government wasted a year.

Mr. Lloyd : One could look back to 1978 and say retrospectively that the process could have been started considerably earlier. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that it was not practicable to launch an inquiry while the European Communities (Amendment) Bill was winding its way through the House--although the processes were started before the governing legislation was on the statute book. I understand why Opposition Members wish to make their party points, especially those who were not in the House in 1978. That does not, however, apply to the hon. Member for Birmingham, Perry Barr (Mr. Rooker), who knows very well that a similar machinery was used then--as fairly, honestly and impartially as time allowed.

Mr. Allen : I am more concerned about future possibilities--not least the possibility that, if we fight the next European election on the first-past-the-post system, further boundary changes will be needed in the near future as a consequence of the proposals of the parliamentary Boundary Commission.

I hope that the Minister will assure the House that this was a one-off decision caused by time constraints. I shall deal with the reasons for those constraints later. It is sad that the party political considerations to which the Minister alluded--the difficulties experienced by the Conservative party in relation to the Maastricht Bill--caused United Kingdom boundary procedures to be tampered with. We are currently seeing a welcome expansion of democratic forms elsewhere in the world--for instance, in eastern and central Europe, and in South Africa ; at the same time, we are witnessing the erosion of such forms in the United Kingdom. We--people in the country and, indeed, the House of Commons--are capable of deep complacency at a time when we should be ever vigilant about our democracy and the precious forms that it takes. An example is the public inquiry stage of the Boundary Commission procedures.

Sir Teddy Taylor : The hon. Gentleman is being rather unfair to Conservative Members in regard to their attitudes to Maastricht. As a Euro- enthusiast, does he accept that an opinion poll published by the European Commission three weeks ago showed that the Labour party's tepid support for Maastricht was wholly out of line with the views of the average Labour voter? It clearly demonstrated that the majority of people in Britain were opposed not only to Maastricht but to the notion that the European Community was a good idea at all.

Mr. Allen : I feel rather like a stranger walking in on a Maastricht annual reunion dinner. I do not wish to cross swords with the hon. Gentleman over the details of the Maastricht Bill, but I must tell him that the false divide between Euro-sceptics and Euro-fanatics does not appeal to a number of people--perhaps including some Conservative Members, who may be prepared to admit it.

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The new generation of Members of Parliament- -on both sides of the House, I suspect--consider that we are now in Europe ; we need to make the best of it and treat Europe on its merits, rather than reliving the battles of the late 1970s and early 1980s.

The public inquiry process is no mere decoration ; it has an important function. During the previous round of European parliamentary proposals, there were 10 European boundary inquiries, five of which overturned provisional recommendations because people's views were listened to in public. In Committee, on the Floor of the House, the Home Secretary admitted that a public inquiry stage would have added seven weeks to the boundary process. That could easily have been accommodated if the Bill had been introduced seven weeks earlier. The problem was not the extra seven weeks but the wasted 32 weeks between the Edinburgh summit and the introduction of the Bill. That delay was caused entirely by party political

factors--Conservative splits over Europe in general and Maastricht in particular.

Mr. Richard Shepherd : The hon. Gentleman may not know, but perhaps the Home Office will be able to say how many EC nationals are presently registered to vote in the forthcoming election.

Mr. Allen : At the moment no nationals are registered. I shall return to that point, but I understand that, potentially, some 400, 000 people could register.

The Labour party looks forward with confidence to the 1994 European elections, within whatever boundaries they take place. At the European elections in 1989, Labour took 45 seats to the Conservative's 32 seats. Labour Members are looking forward to the elections in June when the Conservative party, riddled with divisions and disagreements, will suffer further losses and Labour, we hope, will make further gains.

We all know that there is a fundamental divide in the Conservative party which no amount of packaging can camouflage. The packaging in the previous elections was not as good as it could have been. Perhaps the Conservative party will make a more serious effort in the European elections, given that a potential influence on the outcome of the next leadership contest lies in the balance.

In Europe, the Conservative MEPs are led by Sir Christopher Prout, who is the vice-president of the European People's party.

Mr. Cash : The vice-chairman.

Mr. Derek Enright (Hemsworth) : He is the vice-president.

Mr. Allen : A debate may take place on whether he is the vice- chairman or the vice-president, but my information, until it is corrected, is that he is the vice-president of the European People's party. The Conservatives have a rather ambivalent relationship with the European People's party. They sit with it in the European Parliament. They speak on the European People's party membership of committees--the only way in which they can find a voice in committees--and they take their share of the European People's party funding. There seems to be a close relationship between the European People's party and the Conservative party, if only on that circumstantial basis.

The European People's party manifesto calls for a single currency, a central bank, the incorporation of the

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social chapter, a common immigration policy and a constitution for the whole of Europe, all of which have been greeted by Conservative Members with great acclaim as concepts obviously close to their hearts. I wonder whether it will bear much relationship to the manifesto which is finally produced by the Conservative party before the next European election.

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