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Mr. Straw: I shall deal first with the precise points raised by new clause 4 and then cover the wider issues relating to the other amendments, which touch on the Belgian question.

New clause 4 would require the Government to establish a major inquiry into the conduct of the 1999 European parliamentary elections. I should explain--I hope it will reassure hon. Members who support the new clause--that successive Governments have regularly reviewed electoral practices following both Westminster elections and other elections, and we intend to continue that practice.

The House may know that the Under-Secretary of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Knowsley, North and Sefton, East (Mr. Howarth), is chairing a working group which is reviewing all aspects of electoral procedure in the light of the 1997 general election. That working party involves hon. Members drawn from all the main political parties, including the Liberal Democrats and the Conservative party. We want the review to be as inclusive as possible.

The reviews are not undertaken under statutory authority, and I do not believe that there would be merit--indeed, there are a lot of disadvantages--in tying ourselves to the proposals in new clause 4. It would be sensible--particularly as we are using a new electoral system--not to make decisions about the precise form in which a review should take place until after the election, so we can take account of the experience of holding the election.

5.30 pm

I give an undertaking that there will be a review into the conduct of elections. I do not give an undertaking as to the precise form of that review, but we will consult the other parties. It will be for the Government to make proposals for the review and to conduct it, but we shall consult the other parties before proceeding. We shall seek, so far as possible, to gain agreement.

Mr. Burden: My right hon. Friend will be aware that there is wide support among Labour Members for a review after the election, as concerns have been expressed about the closed list system. May I draw to his attention the fact that much of the support for a more open system has come from Labour and Opposition Members who are in favour of the principle of proportional representation--not just for European elections, but for other legislatures such as the House of Commons, where there is no substantial support for a list system as the basis for any proportional system?

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to my hon. Friend, and it will be for us to decide in the light of experience, but we will take account of his points.

New clause 4(3) states:

This is an old saw, and there are occasions when Speakers' Conferences are suggested as some kind of magic process by which agreement can be achieved.

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I have a list of the occasions when Speaker's Conferences have been held this century; 1908-10, 1917, 1930, 1943-44, 1965-68, 1972-74 and 1977-78. Scanning the list of dates, I am not aware of these Speaker's Conferences producing any significant change in the electoral system of this country. I can think of no legislation on elections--except the European Assembly Elections Act 1977--that coincided with any of those Speaker's Conferences. I happen to know that the 1977 Bill was not prompted by a Speaker's Conference.

Mr. Maclennan: I served on two of those Speaker's Conferences, and I can fully fortify the Home Secretary's argument that they did not lead to significant changes. Indeed, the Speaker's Conference which concluded its deliberations in 1968 recommended votes at 20 for young people, but the Government of the day decided simply to ignore that and to proceed with votes for young people at the age of 18.

Mr. Straw: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary and I were speculating earlier about the right hon. Gentleman's secret of eternal youth. He has sat in this House continuously since 1966, and he looks little older than I remember him 30 years ago. He wears his age very well.

I thought that there was a sting in the tail when the right hon. Gentleman talked about the Labour Government in the 1960s ignoring the decision of the Speaker's Conference to go for a voting age of 20, but he omitted to mention the fact that the committee under Mr. Justice Latey, which reported in 1968, recommended a voting age of 18. As I recall, that was the reason why the then Labour Government chose it.

Mr. Maclennan rose--

Mr. Straw: I am going to be corrected again.

Mr. Maclennan: There was no sting in the tail of my previous intervention, but there might be in this, for I was also on the Latey committee. The committee did not have it within its terms of reference to recommend anything about public rights--it was entirely devoted to private rights, and the age of majority for civil purposes.

Mr. Straw: I am very grateful to the right hon. Gentleman, and I shall be careful before mentioning any other committee in case he has sat on it.

Mr. Linton: There is a sting in the tail in the suggestion from the Opposition of a Speaker's Conference, which is that such a conference can proceed only on the basis of consensus. As the Opposition have said that they are committed to the first-past-the-post system, the new clause would clearly have the effect of a wrecking amendment.

Mr. Straw: Whether it would be wrecking or not, there is a great deal of sense in what my hon. Friend says. I ask the Opposition to think again. A Speaker's Conference would be an unwieldy piece of machinery. I have given an undertaking about a review and the Opposition will be

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consulted. They are certainly involved in the current review, and I hope that the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison) will take that as a statement of good faith.

I now come to the issue for which the British public have been waiting--they talk of little else at my open-air meetings in Blackburn--whether this House should go for the simple, British-manufactured list system, or the Belgian list system. I wish to refer to two preliminary matters raised by the hon. Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill), and a separate one raised by the hon. Member for Hertsmere about the system proposed by the Bill.

The hon. Member for Ludlow made important points about the independence of Members of Parliament and their freedom to speak out and vote according to their conscience, and how that independence derives from our system of election and, above all, from our connection with our constituencies. I agree with the hon. Gentleman--I hope that that is not too much of a shock for him.

The hon. Member for Ludlow was in the Chamber on 25 November for the Second Reading debate, where I set out at some length my belief about the way in which the Commons operates, and how

I believe that passionately, as does the hon. Member for Ludlow. The view is widely shared in the House. However, the hon. Gentleman was advancing an argument about this Chamber--a legislative Chamber which sustains a Government. That is not what we are talking about in respect of the European Parliament, and that is why it causes me no difficulty--notwithstanding my views about the importance of the way in which the representation of the Chamber is rooted in our communities--to propose the Bill.

The difference is that the European Parliament is not a legislature. It is a representative body. It does not sustain a Government and, moreover, the constituencies with which we have ended up are very large--so large, in my view, as to lead to an artificial and distant relationship between the Member and the elector. It follows that, as the function of a Member of the European Parliament is primarily representative, we need to move to a more representative electoral system.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York): Does the Home Secretary agree that the European Parliament now has a legislative role, which the Labour party has consistently--well, certainly for two years--supported? The Single European Act 1985, the enactment of the Maastricht treaty and the legislation to implement the Amsterdam treaty, which the Prime Minister steered through the House, have given legislative powers to the European Parliament, where the Minister of State, the hon. Member for Gateshead, East and Washington, West (Ms Quin), served with great distinction. The real comparison is between the European Parliament and Congress in the United States--there is a similar system of checks and balances, and a

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similar constituency size in terms of electors' and MEPs have forged links with their constituents as strongly as Congressmen.

Mr. Straw: I accept that the three Acts to which the hon. Lady referred--two of which were passed under the Conservative Government--have given the European Parliament legislative functions, but those functions are limited and they are shared with the Council of Ministers and the Commission. I do not want to go down this path in any detail--that would not be in order--but I point out that sovereignty rests with the Westminster Parliament. Parliament can, at any time in the future, decide that the United Kingdom should not be a member of the European Union. That remains the case for each of the other member states. That is what makes the profound difference.

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