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Mr. Keith Mans (Wyre) : I am certain that the hon. Gentleman would not like to finish his speech before mentioning the relationship between the Labour party and the socialist parties in Europe and its own manifesto.
Mr. Allen : I certainly would not dream of finishing my speech without a substantial mention of that close relationship, of which we are proud to tell people. It is a close relationship--
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse) : Order. Before the hon. Gentleman goes any further, may I say that it would be of advantage to the debate if he returned to the subject of boundaries.
Mr. Allen : I shall resist the temptation to follow Conservative Members in what could have been an interesting line of debate.
Mr. Cash : Has the hon. Gentleman noted that on 9 February, only a few days ago, the European Parliament, through its rapporteur, Mr. Fernand Herman of the Christian Democrats group, together with socialist MEPs, endorsed a constitution which contains even worse things than the European People's party manifesto? Are the hon. Gentleman and his party to repudiate --
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. My recent remarks apply to the hon. Gentleman as they do to the Opposition spokesman.
Mr. Allen : The bad news for the hon. Gentleman is that Mr. Herman is, in fact, a member of the European People's party-- [Interruption.] With great respect, the hon. Gentleman said that Mr. Herman was a Christian Democrat. He is a member of the European People's party, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will take up that point with his Conservative colleagues who have close connections with the European People's party, as I made clear earlier.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : Is the hon. Gentleman aware that, whereas all the Conservatives voted against the Herman report, the socialists voted for it?
Mr. Allen : I am grateful for that information.
It is important that I make clear the Labour party's position in respect of the article of the treaty of Rome which calls for uniform electoral procedures to be established for elections to the European Parliament.
Hon. Members will recall that the matter was raised during a debate on an amendment during the Committee stage of the European Parliamentary Elections Bill of 1993. We argued then that it was not feasible for an entirely new electoral system to be set up for the European elections in June 1994 and that it was silly to apply a different system for the additional six seats from that applying for the other 81. However, we also made it clear that as part of Labour's wider democratic agenda we would view sympathetically the notion of a plurality of electoral
Column 822systems, which might include legislating for a regional list system of proportional representation for future European elections. During a debate in the House on 7 July, I said :
"The Plant commission, established by the Labour party to look into electoral systems, proposed, as one of its many recommendations, a system of proportional representation--the regional list system--for the European Parliament. Its report said :
Such a system could be used by an incoming Labour Government for the 1999 elections at the earliest.'
That report was sent to our national executive committee. On 19 May the leader of the Labour party stated :
The Committee concludes that different elected bodies can be chosen by different electoral systems. That is a view which I share and I support the proposals made both for a reformed Second Chamber and the European Parliament. The proposal on the European Parliament sensibly recommends consistency of voting for the one election that we share with other members of the European Community.' "--[ Official Report , 7 July 1993 ; Vol. 228, c. 401-02.]
The strong sympathy expressed at the time of the last debate on those matters was approved overwhelmingly by the Labour party conference last October. I state that for the record lest there be any misunderstanding of our position on the voting system. It also highlights the fact that the Government are yet again lagging behind even right-wing and Christian Democrat parties in Europe and are utterly isolated in their unwillingness to contemplate electoral change of any kind.
The European parliamentary constituency committees have now made their recommendations. We have a number of specific disagreements about the way in which boundaries have been drawn. In addition, hon. Members will remember that we called strongly for an additional Scottish seat. Nevertheless, we are generally satisfied that the English and Welsh constituency committees have done a thorough job and, on behalf of my colleagues, I pay tribute to those who served on them and discharged their responsibilities with great professionalism in circumstances made unnecessarily difficult by ministerial dithering and delay.
We live in dark days for democracy, days of Executive decree, Henry VIII' clauses and Bills being passed without proper parliamentary debate. I suppose that in that context we should be grateful that Ministers have not used their power to modify the recommendations of the boundary committees. It is a sad day when the House is grateful for not being abused, but it is just about all that we have to be thankful for until this wretched system is altered root and branch.
I deal now with the regulations that cover the enfranchisement of EC citizens resident in the United Kingdom. We welcome the change which allows EC citizens resident in the United Kingdom to vote in European elections. The regulations, which will give effect to the European Council directive of 6 December, will of course alter the long-standing position whereby only British and Commonwealth citizens and citizens of the Republic of Ireland are entitled to vote in European parliamentary elections. It is a sensible and a desirable change which is welcomed by Opposition Members. I understand--the Minister may correct me if I am wrong--that the order relating to local government elections and European community citizens will be before the House by the end of 1994.
The Opposition believe that extension of the franchise to EC citizens who are resident in Britain is a clear affirmation of our practical commitment to greater
Column 823European co-operation and rights that apply to all European citizens. Consequently, we have been greatly worried by the Government's delay in bringing forward the legislation, which was adopted in draft on 23 June 1993 and became a Council directive on 6 December 1993.
It is indicative of the Government's approach to all matters European that every obligation under the Maastricht treaty appears to be discharged grudgingly and after unnecessary delay. Often the wheels appear to grind exceeding slow, especially where democratic change is concerned. It was in 1977 that the European Parliament first passed a resolution on voting rights in European elections. I hope that many of the pioneers of that time feel a sense of satisfaction this evening that the Bill and the orders are going through. It may interest them to know that in the past few months the European Parliament has agreed to press for a Bill of Rights for the citizens of Europe and for a written constitution for Europe. Who knows how quickly that may come to fruition?
The principles underlying that change are relatively
straightforward. As the Minister has already said, article 8 of the treaty on European Union, passed last year, entitled "Citizenship of the Union", guarantees the right to move and reside freely in the territory of member states.
Mrs. Teresa Gorman (Billericay) : Is it not also true that the European Union or Community--whatever one likes to call it--also intends to introduce a compulsory identity card in the form of a smart card, carrying details of the citizen's health, but on which there will be ample room to put all types of other information?
Mr. Allen : There are no proposals in draft directive form or before the House on that matter, as far as I know. If that were proposed, Opposition Members would object to it strenuously. Article 8b(2) provides that citizens of the union
"shall have the right to vote and to stand as a candidate in elections to the European Parliament".
At present, there are considerable disparities between the way in which the right to vote and the right to stand as a candidate are treated in various member states. On the right to vote, for example, the United Kingdom grants that right to all United Kingdom citizens who have been out of the country for less than 20 years, while Germany extends voting rights to all German nationals residing in another member country of the Council of Europe and those who have lived in a non-member country for less than 10 years.
Certain member states--Denmark, the Netherlands and Portugal--grant such voting rights only to those expatriate nationals who are living in another EC member state. There are also differences between the states on the ability of people to stand as candidates. The order that we are debating this evening will ensure that there is greater harmonisation in respect of elections to the European Parliament.
Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow) : When the hon. Gentleman became a Member of the House, it seemed to me that he challenged the establishment, and many of us welcomed that ; it seemed to be a breath of fresh air. Now it seems that he has become entirely institutionalised. Can he explain that to the House?
Mr. Allen : Absolutely. I plead guilty. The hon. Member has found me out. I am totally institutionalised, and no doubt the hon. Gentleman will see the truth of that if and when the Jopling report is debated in the House.
The proposals also include additional checks on nationality to prevent multiple candidature and voting. Community voters living outside their home country will be required to meet the same qualifying rules of residence as any other national in that state. That is a reasonable principle, which we support. Regulation 4, rightly, creates an offence of standing as a candidate in more than one member state at the same election.
It is also right that there should be, in new rule 8(5), a declaration on the part of prospective EC candidates that contains details of nationality, address and last constituency in the home member state and evidence that the individual is not standing as a candidate in another member state. We also support the element of flexibility in the new arrangements whereby Community citizens have the option of voting in their country of residence or in their home country via a postal ballot.
While there is much to support, we need to draw attention to the Conservative's half-heartedness in one particular area, registration of voters. We note that the transitional arrangements that apply to the United Kingdom should enable the electoral registers to include as many EC citizens as possible. Regulation 8 authorises electoral registration officers to register relevant citizens of the union as European parliamentary electors. Regulation 9 requires the officer to publish a register of relevant citizens of the union entitled to vote. However, delay has meant that the ordinary electoral register is already published, so regulation 18 substitutes the publication date of 9 May for the European Community citizens register. Applications must therefore be in nine weeks from now at the very latest ; in other words, by 22 April.
Mr. Peter Lloyd : I understand that the hon. Gentleman wants to establish that the Government have been extraordinarily dilatory, that there has been massive delay and that there are problems for electoral registration officers ; but the regulations depend upon the directive. The directive was agreed and promulgated in December 1993. We have been two months in producing this very complicated set of regulations. That is not slow ; it is moving with considerable speed.
Mr. Allen : The directive was promulgated when the Minister said, but it was hardly a bolt out of the blue. It had been around for some considerable time before that, and that excuse hardly applies to the delay in establishing the European parliamentary constituency committees. As the Minister knows well, it was merely a matter of seven weeks, the excuse being that had they had another seven weeks they could have had the public inquiry stage. In reality, there was plenty of time to do this in good order and without the present confusion over the candidatures and the existing European boundaries.
On the registration of electors, if we now have less than nine weeks from this evening for a possible 400,000 people to seek registration, it is essential that the Minister and the Department engage in a serious advertising campaign to ensure that people can exercise their rights. I should like the Minister, in his later remarks, to expand on what, if any,
Column 825measures the Government intend to take to publicise EC voting rights for those 400,000 or so European citizens of voting age resident in this country.
Needless to say, other European countries are taking the job more seriously. There is an advertisement, for example, in a recent issue of The Guardian , and if my Dutch were a little better, I would quote it into the record, but I am afraid that it does not make very much sense to me. I understand, however, that, literally translated, it says that Dutch citizens in this country should contact their ambassador at 38 Hyde Park Gate and ask for the relevant forms in order to register for the election and vote in the United Kingdom. Our friends in the Binnenhof seem to have taken that a little more seriously than the Home Office has.
Similar exercises are being undertaken by other Governments, and there is a tremendous contrast between what they have done and what our own Government have done. No publicity whatsoever has appeared yet, and once again I offer the Minister the chance to tell us later in the debate how the Government are prepared to exert themselves on this matter and whether they want people to register. It is not clear whether this is part of some idea of the Government that people should not register, and the Minister needs to make this clear so that people outside hear the message. Nine and a half million people did not vote even in the last general election.
May I therefore ask the Minister, on another matter, to agree to the proposal that the right to a postal vote should be highly publicised in the RPF 9A form in the newspapers well before the closing date of 20 May, not least because many people will be away on holiday in the summer and some may well be involved in the D-Day celebrations.
It is self-evident that the Government are utterly unconcerned to carry out an obligation to which they are bound by a treaty freely entered into. The Minister must tell us how he squares this inactivity with regulation 9(3), which obliges registration officers to
"take reasonable steps to obtain information"
about who should be eligible to appear on the electoral roll. The Government should declare a willingness this evening to put some energy or resources into maximising electoral turn-out among EC voters. The importance of ensuring a high turn-out among EC nationals surely warrants something more than the complacency and drift that has come to characterise the Government's whole policy towards the European Community.
Tonight the Conservatives have gone through the motions. Law and treaty demanded that boundaries be redrawn and EC citizens be given the vote. These statutory instruments fulfil that bare minimum, and it will be left to others to do the job well.
Mr. Michael Spicer (Worcestershire, South) : I must confess that it is a matter of some indifference to me how many Members we are to elect to the European Parliament. If 81 is to be the new magic number, so be it, although I suppose that one must make a passing reference to the information which has come out in another place and been publicised this weekend in the press that, at almost £1 million a slug, Members of the European Parliament do not come cheap. I suppose that one should make allowances for the fact that they have three parliamentary buildings, they have to go on trips and they have to pay German rates for their bureaucracy, so there are exceptional factors and I would not want to make too much of that.
Column 826What I really want to put before the House is the question of what those Members of the European Parliament will do when they get there, and hence their cost-effectiveness.
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. In this very short debate it may be advantageous to draw to the attention of the House the scope of the debate. It is confined to the desirability of the proposed boundaries for European parliamentary constituencies and the introduction of changes to the franchise and qualifications of representatives for use in parliamentary elections in the manner specified. If hon. Members will keep to that in the debate, it will be of great advantage to the House. It is a short debate and going outside its main scope leaves less time for other hon. Members to speak.
Mr. Spicer : I accept that ruling entirely, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but the point that I want to make--I assure you that I intend to speak only very briefly--is that, if we are trying to assess the correctness of the numbers for which we are going to vote and the boundaries associated with those numbers, it is perfectly fair to ask, as they go off from us, what they are going off into. I assure you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that I do not plan to speak for more than two minutes and I hope that will allow me to make a very brief point on this, because otherwise it is almost impossible- -
Mr. Deputy Speaker : Order. I am not allowing anything outside the scope of the debate.
Mr. Spicer : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. Is it in order for us to discuss the cost-effectiveness of Members of the European Parliament and the costs associated with them?
Mr. Deputy Speaker : The simple answer to that is no, it is not in order.
Mr. Spicer : If we are not now to discuss the costs associated with electing a greater number of Members of the European Parliament and the boundaries associated with it, I have nothing further to say. 4.49 pm
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro) : I suspect that the brevity of the speech of the hon. Member for Worcestershire, South (Mr. Spicer) will be welcomed if only because a number of us were not sure how much time would be available for our speeches after those of the Front-Bench spokesmen.
I advance two specific arguments : the first relates to the overall boundary review and the second involves my county. If the proposals for electoral reform in the European Union had been adopted, today's debate would not be taking place and boundaries would not be a relevant issue. A common electoral system would mean that the citizens of the European Community could be properly represented. It is unacceptable in any democratic institution for a region to be represented in an unfair and undemocratic way which distorts the Parliament. Under paragraph 3 of article 138 of the treaty, a common electoral system is required.
Mr. Bernard Jenkin (Colchester, North) : On a point of order, Mr. Deputy Speaker. In view of your previous
Column 827ruling, is it in order to discuss different voting systems? Are we not discussing those eligible to vote and the parliamentary constituencies?
Mr. Deputy Speaker : The hon. Gentleman can safely leave the matter for the Chair to decide.
Mr. Taylor : If the hon. Member for Colchester, North (Mr. Jenkin) pays attention, he will appreciate that the boundaries are the nub of the issue in terms of the electoral systems. The Commission should have been asked to address the principle of a common electoral system, to which this country is a signatory and towards which it has agreed we should aim. That system should have been introduced long ago, but sadly both Labour and Conservative Governments have preferred to ignore it for their electoral benefit.
The arguments that have been used to block the introduction of a fair electoral system in the United Kingdom Westminster elections should not block the reform of electoral procedure in Europe. The De Gucht proposals, which demand a common electoral system, have been passed by the European Parliament. They rest on the table of the Council of Ministers. It is common knowledge that the Government have shown the greatest reluctance to make any progress. Such reform is necessary.
It is a pity that the Government have not taken the opportunity of the change in the number of seats to bring a measure of proportionality to the British European elections. Even if the Government did not wish to take that opportunity for a full reform leading to a fair voting system, the extra six seats offered them the chance of creating a more proportional system by creating so-called additional member top-up to ensure that under- represented views gained their rightful place in Europe. They could have created a fairer system and avoided the problems such as trying to redraw boundaries at short notice before the European elections and of getting candidates in place. Given that even that partial reform has been rejected, Liberal Democrats cannot be expected to support the proposals.
I also want to deal with a narrower issue--how the proposals affect my county of Cornwall. I may be the only hon. Member to discuss a specific European seat in any detail, but the proposals are important to our region, as we have long argued.
The European Assembly Elections Act 1978 states :
"The electorate of any Assembly constituency in Great Britain shall be as near the electoral quota as is reasonably practicable having regard, where appropriate, to special geographical considerations." The relative importance given to the second half of that statement is crucial to the argument for a Cornish seat. There is strong evidence that Cornwall fulfils the requirements of those special geographical considerations.
The committee proposals for a Cornwall and West Plymouth European parliamentary constituency provoked an enormous response from those opposing the link with Plymouth. That has occurred on each occasion that the constituency has been reviewed. The late David Penhaligon argued for a separate constituency in 1978 and I argued for it in Select Committee in 1988.
The sheer weight of numbers of democratically elected organisations in Cornwall was the most important feature of those responses. Those organisations included the
Column 828county council, all six Cornish district councils, the Cornwall Association of Town and Parish Councils and 48 Cornish town and parish councils. Those councils are run by various political groupings or, more importantly, by independent councillors at parish level.
Those organisations have responded with a united voice and have declared their support for a separate Cornish constituency. I think that all hon. Members will recognise that it is remarkable to achieve such widespread agreement among councillors working at different tiers and in different regions.
The responses are all the more impressive when one considers the short period for consultation on the proposals. The case for a Cornish constituency has also been supported by the business community and leading academics. Peter Fitzgerald, one of the largest manufacturing employers in the county, and chairman of the Cornwall Economic Forum, has emphasised the importance to local business of Cornwall having its own Member of the European Parliament. The Institute of Cornish Studies, the University of Exeter and even Cambridge university advanced strong arguments for a separate Cornwall constituency and many individuals took their views personally to the Commission.
I want to explain why Cornwall is a special case and why so many local people advanced that argument. There are five reasons : first, precedents exist for concessions on the electoral quota ; secondly, Cornwall has a separate cultural identity ; thirdly, it has a special geographical location ; fourthly, it has economic needs ; and, fifthly, Plymouth also has relevant concerns.
The criteria for the mean electorate size for a European parliamentary constituency have been used as a justification for ignoring Cornwall's case. Yet concessions that have led to the establishment of constituencies which do not meet the size requirement have been given to other regions because it is accepted that European parliamentary constituencies should be created along the lines of natural communities, with common identities and interests. Cornwall has a strong identity as a separate community. The present arrangement that links Cornwall with west Plymouth does not benefit either area.
Although the English review is being conducted independently from the rest of the United Kingdom, it is relevant to examine the overall picture. Northern Ireland returns a representative for every 384,000 electors and even on the mainland, there are marked variations. I understand that the proposed West Wales seat will have an electorate of only 400,000. The electorate in the Highlands and Islands seat is 310,000.
Cornwall's electorate of 372,000 is higher than that of the Highlands and Islands and virtually the same as that of Northern Ireland and West Wales. There are only 36,000 electors per Member of the European Parliament in Luxembourg and 161,000 in the Republic of Ireland. The size of the constituency is not the most material issue. The European Parliament has a wide range of electors per Member and, if Cornwall were to obtain its own seat, its electoral quota would not be extraordinary.
Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington) : What size are the Devon seats?
Mr. Taylor : A wide range of changes would follow. I accept that a change in Cornwall should not create an
Column 829over-size Devon seat. We have argued from the first that any change should be part of the review and that Cornwall should not be considered in isolation.
Cornwall has one of the most rapidly growing populations in the country and it is expected that it will not remain much under quota for very long. It is estimated that the population will grow to 500, 000 relatively rapidly. The electoral quota argument is not final. Other arguments run counter to the Commission's suggestions and its brief.
Cornwall has a separate identity with its own traditions, history, customs and language. Those attributes are firmly rooted in a Celtic past that bears more relation to Scotland and Wales than to Devon. There would have been objections if regions in Scotland or Wales had been linked with parts of England for the convenience of the review. It seems that Cornwall, which has a distinct and separate identity, continues to be ignored. The European Union recognises that special regard must be paid to areas with strong regional identities. Indeed, the European Parliament's resolution is specific on that point and I believe that the boundary commission has failed to take the opportunity to observe that requirement.
Thirdly, it is disappointing that the committee has ignored the well- defined geographical boundary of Cornwall along the River Tamar. That is still a substantial physical and psychological barrier between Plymouth and Cornwall. The Tamar bridge is the only road vehicle crossing for 23 miles from Rame head northward to Gunnislake bridge. Cornwall is almost an island, with natural boundaries fixed by the coastline and the River Tamar. It is effectively isolated from the rest of the country. That is often forgotten in conversation, when people tend to say, "I was in Bristol at the weekend, in your part of the world," forgetting that Bristol is nearer to London than it is to Cornwall. Indeed, for some Cornish people the distance between their home and Plymouth is longer than the journey from London to Bristol.
My fourth point is probably the single most important reason why Cornwall should be treated as a special case. It is not an emotional reason ; it is the fact that there has been a failure to take into account the economic geography of the county. Plymouth and Cornwall have totally different economic identities, so European entanglement between them will be mutually economically detrimental. The economy of Cornwall is still heavily reliant for its income on traditional industries such as fishing, farming, tourism and mining. Plymouth relies mainly on the fact that it is a conurbation with a growing and diversified industrial and commercial base.
The two economies' distinctive and incompatible needs have been recognised in a development that occurred since the committee met. Europe's regional economic development programme has afforded Plymouth objective 2 status, which is targeted at areas fighting industrial decline. Cornwall, on the other hand, has objective 5b status, which is aimed at developing rural areas. That demonstrates the difference between the two. I do not oppose links where they are relevant. I argue for them, encourage them and defend them when I believe that they are important, but I do not believe in links that are irrelevant and unhelpful.
Cornwall is one of the worst black spots in the country for unemployment, poverty and other economic difficulties. It has one of the lowest gross domestic products in Europe. According to the Central Statistical Office's regional figures for Cornwall, the county is so badly off that in 1991 our GDP was only 73 per cent. of the national
Column 830average. Devon's GDP was 87 per cent. of the national average. The different progress of the two areas is shown by the fact that in 1989 Cornwall's GDP was 75.6 per cent. of the average, so it has fallen comparatively, whereas that of Devon was 85.5 per cent. in 1989 and has since grown. The two areas have been moving in opposite directions. Their economic performance is divergent and they have a different set of problems.
Linking part of Plymouth with Cornwall will create a wholly artificial unit unrelated to geographical, social or economic reality. Indeed, the creation of a split within the city of Plymouth makes that divide even more stark. As Plymouth city council has been keen to point out, it is even clearer that is not in the interests of Plymouth. Plymouth's interest is as clear as Cornwall's, and its natural links into south Devon provide the basis for a seat in which it could be better represented.
Cornwall needs a voice of its own to argue its case for regional funding to improve its infrastructure, reduce its unemployment and encourage its industry. Funds need to be directed at improving Cornish roads, rail links and other communications.
The Liberal Democrats oppose the basis of the review. We believe that at national level an opportunity has been missed, or perhaps ducked, to encourage the common fair electoral system to which this country is supposedly a signatory. But even if the chance for a fair electoral system has been lost, at least we should have played to what strength there is in a single-Member system and recognised properly the individual communities of the United Kingdom. That chance has been missed, and on that ground I do not believe that the review should take effect.
Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills) : As the Government and the Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen want to introduce the measure fulfilling their commitments to the Maastricht treaty, I accept the methodology and precedents that the Government cite. They are indeed appropriate.
However, I must say briefly that the vote is no longer like the generality of the population voting for membership of a golf club in which we have varying degrees of interest. We are now trying to affirm citizenship through the vote, so the way in which we distribute the seats and the affirmation that we give through the vote will not relate to any of the sentiments expressed by the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, the hon. Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen). Both he and the spokesman for the Liberal Democrats, the hon. Member for Truro (Mr. Taylor), ally themselves to an outer reach of lunacy not shared by the general populace outside the House.
I understand that at the previous European election only 31 per cent. of the population could find their way to polling stations, although that may be because they were denied the Liberal Democrat's panacea for everything-- proportional representation. There is a profound and deep argument that system is no more representative and provides no truer a democracy than do single-Member constituencies. That is a legitimate debate and the parroting of proportional representation as the only way forward is inappropriate for serious people trying to discuss the
Column 831matter. One understands why the Liberal Democrats wish to pursue the idea, but not necessarily why the Labour party wishes to do the same.
Mr. Campbell-Savours : Boundaries.
Mr. Shepherd : This has a great deal to do with boundaries, as the hon. Gentleman well knows, but the essence of the argument is that the procedure is wholly inappropriate in terms of trying to attest citizenship through an arrangement of six additional boundaries into a union and a political state. That is the profound objection that Conservative Members have long expressed and it reflects the public mood in the country about the elections and the way in which the boundaries are drawn. In conclusion, we now have further evidence of the irrelevance of the House in reflecting and attesting to public opinion.
Mr. Jeff Rooker (Birmingham, Perry Barr) : I do not wish to follow the hon. Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Mr. Shepherd), who is one of my parliamentary neighbours, but I believe that it is part of grown-up politics to ensure that the political opinion of a nation is adequately represented in the forums of that nation, whether they be this place or the European Parliament. For that reason, I make no bones about the fact that I wish that we were debating a different electoral system.
I did not wish to intervene in the Minister's speech because this is a short debate and I did not want to take up too much time. However, our electoral system, which is unique in Europe, means that our deadline will be different from that of all the other member states. They all use proportional representation with either national lists or large regional lists, so it is easy for them, even literally the day before, as the Minister said, to change the cut-off point. That will not affect the value of anybody's vote in those countries, but that cannot be the case with single-Member constituencies. For us, there will have to be at least 21 days ; that is the rock-bottom minimum.
I suspect that the French have us over a barrel, and we shall have to cough up for the enormous expenditure on an extra building in Strasbourg which I believe is not needed--although I do not have the details of that argument.
I sincerely hope that these are the last boundary changes that we shall have to debate. It has been said that we may have to go through the process again, but I hope that we do not. I suspect that the wipe-out of the Conservative party in the European elections on 9 June may make even Conservative Members think that to save their own skins in future they had better start thinking about a fairer electoral system.
Indeed, I am sure that a unified system is on the way, and if we do not take it upon ourselves to act it will be forced on the House by Europe. That will be our own fault because we will have shirked our responsibilities. As my hon. Friend the Member for Nottingham, North (Mr. Allen) said, the Labour party is now firmly committed, both by the voices of the leadership and by the votes and resolutions at our party conference, to a system of proportional representation for the European Parliament.
I hope that when the elections come on 9 June, and people argue about why they are voting for European