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8.30 pm

Mr. Lansley: I did not intend to speak, but, having read the amendments and listened to the debate on them, I feel that they point compellingly to the argument

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presented by my right hon. Friend the Member forNorth-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney). I also think that the argument has developed during the debate.

We should be grateful to the hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) for reminding us that it is incumbent on us to respect the views of minorities, and minority faiths in particular, whatever may be our personal view. I share the feeling of my right hon. Friend: although I am a practising member of the Church of England, I would not have any difficulty in voting on a Sunday, but I know and respect others who would. I also think that people with different faiths--Jewish or Muslim--might not want to vote on a Saturday. We should strain not to impinge on the views and interests of minorities. After all, as the debate has made clear, it is far from obvious that there is any benefit to be derived from holding elections at weekends.

Moreover, leaving aside the objections to which I have referred, weekend elections would be a significant constitutional innovation. Such an innovation should not be entered into lightly or ill-advisedly, and--as my right hon. Friend said--it should certainly not be entered into on the basis of an order laid by the Secretary of State without debate in the House and an affirmative resolution. I stand to be corrected by the Minister if I am wrong, but I think that my right hon. Friend was right in saying that, under the Bill, the order would be made under the negative resolution procedure.

If the election is not to be held on a Saturday or a Sunday, I see no reason to give Ministers discretion to choose a day other than Thursday. I do not think that anyone has argued today that one weekday is better than, or different from, another. I think that we are all accustomed to voting on Thursdays. Returning officers, party organisations and, indeed, voters probably consider it normal to vote on Thursdays, and would think it abnormal and unconventional to do so on any other day. We are all creatures of habit, and I suspect that, as voters, we are all very much the same. I think that we might see a lower turnout on a weekday other than Thursday. If Saturdays and Sundays are excluded, therefore, there is everything to be said for accepting the proposal to specify Thursdays.

I dare say that any order presented by the Secretary of State will refer to a day within the normal confines of the election of MEPs on a Europewide basis. That has already been mentioned. Nevertheless, I feel that any discretion used by Ministers should involve an affirmative resolution of the House. It should be customary in the House for electoral matters to proceed as far as possible by way of consensus between parties, and as little as possible by dictate of the majority party. I hope that no Government would want to feel that they were contriving an electoral process--including election day--that was advantageous to that Government rather than to democracy.

Ms Quin: This short debate has raised a number of issues.

The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire (Sir B. Mawhinney), the shadow Home Secretary, seemed to want to be North-West Cambridgeshire's Mystic Meg. He tried to predict what I would say, and I am not sure whether he will be disappointed.

All the amendments deal with the day on which European general elections are held. Let me provide some background information about how the day is selected.

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As I suspect the hon. Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh) knew, the key document is the one entitled "Act concerning the election of representatives of the European Parliament by direct universal suffrage annexed to the decision of the Council of the European Communities dated the 20 September 1976". It provides that a European parliamentary general election must be held five years after the last election; but, should it prove impossible to hold an election on that exact day, the Council is empowered--if there is unanimous agreement--to vary the date by one month in either direction.

As the hon. Member for Vale of York said, the election period runs from the Thursday morning to the following Sunday. Under the legislation, each member state is free to pick the day within that period on which it wishes to hold its election. It is possible, therefore, to vary the day now, although we have no plans to do so.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) and some of my hon. Friends, pointed out that it was theoretically possible to vary the day. The pros and cons of holding elections on Saturdays were discussed. Elections to the European Parliament are generally held on Sundays in many of our partner countries, but the Government have no plans to switch from our traditional Thursday polling day, and we certainly intend the 1999 elections to be held on a Thursday.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to rule out other days for all time, but, as we all know, Parliament cannot bind its successors, and it would be very foolish of me, as a junior Minister, to try to bind my successors for all time. I can only offer the right hon. Gentleman the reasonable proposition that we have no present plans to change.

Mr. Hogg: If that is the case, why not include it in the Bill?

Ms Quin: What is being suggested is no different from the arrangements that obtained during the 18 years for which the right hon. and learned Gentleman's party was in power. The Conservatives saw no need to change the arrangements in this way. I have said what the legal position is, in terms of all parties being able to vary the day, but I have also made it clear that we do not intend to do so.

The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire said he did not feel that the voting day was a partisan matter, and there is considerable merit in that view, in regard to our own general elections as well. We are, however, dealing in this debate with the European elections and their legal base. I accept that, if we were tempted to go down such a route, there would be difficulties. Hon. Members have commented on that. Certainly, people in Britain are used to voting on Thursdays. As for the European elections, I think that the combination of a new voting system and a new voting day would be unfortunate. We hope and believe that the new voting system will encourage more people to vote in European elections, for many of the reasons that have been advanced during our debates. If we changed the voting day at the same time as we changed the electoral system, it would be extremely difficult to know what contribution each of the two innovations had made to the change in turnout.

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As the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing) has pointed out, there would be problems in certain parts of Scotland and, no doubt, in other parts of Britain where there would be strong religious objections to trying to introduce Sunday voting. I am tempted to say that Scotland pioneered Sunday trading, which I voted against, but the hon. Lady's points were well made in terms of the area to which she referred. As I have said, the Government have no plans to introduce Sunday voting for elections to the European Parliament and, because of that, I hope that the hon. Member for Moray will recognise that her amendment is unnecessary.

I hope that the right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire will see that the first of his amendments is unnecessary and that it could cause problems in the future. As I have already outlined, member states do not have a free hand in setting election dates. The election has to be held in a Thursday-to-Sunday period. It is possible--I accept that it is highly unlikely--that, at some time in the future, that could be changed to a Sunday-to-Wednesday period. In that case, the right hon. Gentleman's amendment would cause real problems and I urge him to withdraw it.

The right hon. Member referred to turnout. I listened to everything he had to say, but he seemed basically to be saying that turnout in the European elections tends to be lower than in national elections--we all know that. We hope and believe that the system we are introducing will encourage people to vote. Whatever the merits or demerits of our present first-past-the-post system, many votes do not count towards the final total. That will not be the case in the system that we are introducing for the European elections. We hope that the turnout for the next European election will be higher than in the past.

Mr. Syms: If the turnout is lower, will the Government reconsider their future position?

Ms Quin: The hon. Gentleman will have heard my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary say that after the elections we will look at what has happened and evaluate it. That was in response to a suggested amendment from a Labour Member. Obviously, we will look at the result of the elections and I hope that we will look at all the factors that obtained in the European parliamentary election period.

The right hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire began with a few snide comments about new Labour, new harmonisation. In case there is any doubt, let me make it clear that the Government have no interest in harmonisation for harmonisation's sake. I am more than happy to celebrate the diversity of the regions and the member states of the European Union.

Sir Brian Mawhinney: I will not detain the Committee because I think that we should draw this issue to a conclusion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Maidenhead (Mrs. May) said that we could vote either at the weekend or during the week. For reasons that many hon. Members have adduced, voting at the weekend creates real difficulties. The hon. Member for Finchley and Golders Green (Dr. Vis) made a valid point which helped to

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strengthen the argument about religious diversity in our country. This issue is important not only to Christians but to a whole variety of religious groups who hold their beliefs strongly and whose lives and life behaviour are influenced by those religious beliefs. That point was also made by the hon. Member for Moray (Mrs. Ewing).

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