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Mr. David Drew (Stroud): Second?

Mr. Swayne: Well, our second opportunity on a Second Reading.

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The Prime Minister's argument again and again was that the Bill is acceptable because all that it does, in effect, is bring us into line with our European partners, most of whom use the closed-list system. It is entirely appropriate that the Prime Minister should draw attention to the fact that our electoral arrangements differ from those that obtain on the continent. However, that is for an historical reason. Elections took place in this country before political parties were formed. We adopted a system of electing candidates rather than parties. It is only recently in our electoral history that we allowed the candidate's party to be printed on the ballot paper.

On the continent, political parties were well established long before there were elections that enabled them to be elected. Once those elections came along the political parties were in a position effectively to take over the electoral process. Hence the tradition that prevails on the continent, much more than it does here, of electing a political party. Before we fall meekly into line and accept that somehow we are anachronistic, we should remember that our electoral system is our most successful export. It should be understood that 50 per cent. of the voters in the world use the British electoral system, as do 60 per cent. of the world's countries. Our system has served us well and we do not need to take lessons from the continent of Europe. I suspect that we would do much better to retain our existing arrangements by rejecting the Bill.

8.38 pm

Mr. David Drew (Stroud): I spoke on Second Reading and in Committee last time the Bill went round this course, so I am entitled to give myself at least a bronze anorak award. We feel that we have heard every debate and every technicality under the sun, although I am sure that, if my hon. Friend the Member for Battersea (Mr. Linton) speaks, he will come up with new and wonderful technicalities. I shall keep to the matter at hand.

I should say mea culpa because, in Committee, I spoke in favour, in principle, of the open-list system. We had an interesting debate, but no Conservative Member spoke in support of that system. I am pleased that Conservative Members are back on message tonight and returning to their true position of supporting first past the post, although, from time to time, they give the illusion of supporting open lists. I am confused about how they are trying to match proportionality and first past the post.

Our debate considered the implications of open list systems. It is fair to say that both the d'Hondt and Sainte-Lague systems have difficulties, but they are certainly preferable to the open-list system proposed by the Conservatives. It is disingenuous of them to try to persuade us that they are in favour of an open-list system that no one else seems to favour but, until tonight, they have spoken fiercely in its favour. There is opportunism in their support for that system not only in this place but in the House of Lords, where, month after month, they have tried to manipulate arguments on a system in which they do not believe in order to change the position of this House. That is undemocratic, unfair and unacceptable.

I speak whole-heartedly in favour of the opportunity that we have to introduce a proportional system for the European elections. Like the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan), I think that the key principle is that,

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for the first time in a national election, we have established that votes will be counted proportionally. As someone who has long believed in electoral reform, I welcome that development, which is more important than the issue of open or closed list systems. That is why I voted for the Government and will do so again. We must pass the Bill now. We have had a long debate that has gone over every possible ground and will come to a conclusion--hopefully, sooner rather than later. We know that we must put the system in place.

I recognise the benefits of a regional list system because we are moving towards regional identities with the setting up of regional development agencies and, as some of us would like, regional chambers. There is no reason why we should not elect European Members on a regional list system. By introducing proportionality, we will ensure fairness and justice, which we all desire.

I am rehearsing arguments that we had a year ago almost to the day. Conservative Members referred to the need for suitable checks and balances in the system. Why not have different electoral systems for different representative bodies? Why should first past the post be all-embracing and omnipotent? Many of us seek alternatives because we have seen the damage that the system can do when there is an arrogant belief--as I called it many months ago--that it is the only system that can elect people. That is evidently not true.

We have heard all the arguments. It is important that we put in place a proportional system. Some hon. Members want there to be an opportunity for a review. We have had something of a hokey-cokey with the Bill. The Conservative party may still want to table an amendment in Committee. I do not necessarily agree with that, but it is a delaying tactic and we need to get on with the Bill. The candidates are important and need to know that the process for which they have been selected will take place, but returning officers, who have already been mentioned, and the electorate will have to come to terms with the system. That is not unimportant. There is a belief that the way to increase turnout is through fair votes and proportionality. That belief has to be tested, but that can be done only if people know under which system it is to be tested, so the sooner we get on with it, the better.

We have had all the arguments and constitutional conflict; we now need to move on. The Conservative party has used the issue to delay and to wreck, but their efforts have cost them dear in many respects. We know what we are moving toward and we can see the merits of a closed-list system, which were set out in the speech of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary. The sooner we can go out and persuade people of our case, the better.

8.45 pm

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East): I am delighted to have the opportunity to speak in the debate, because I have had the pleasure of speaking in all the European debates of the past 25 years and, by and large, warning the House that disaster lay ahead. I find it difficult to do that tonight, because, to be quite honest, I do not understand why on earth the Government are bothering with this legislation.

Implementing the legislation will cost us a lot of money: the Bill reveals that it will cost £4 million to explain to people how the system works. I am the Member of Parliament for Rochford as well as for Southend, East.

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I am not making a political point, but every one of the councillors in the lovely old borough of Rochford, which was in the Domesday book, is a Labour councillor. They were told today that their spending increase over the next 12 months has to be 1.1 per cent., which is less than the rate of inflation. That will mean that they will have to cut services. How the blazes am I to explain to them that we are going to pass a silly Bill and spend £4 million on a totally pointless exercise?

We must ask ourselves: does the European Parliament matter at all? If we are to be honest, we must all admit that, if the European Parliament were to close its doors tomorrow, nobody apart from the taxi drivers of Strasbourg would notice. We keep giving the European Parliament pretend powers, trying to create the impression that it has power, but in fact there is no power and no authority in that place, because the whole underlying principle of the European Community is not democratic and there is no way that it can change, even though people continue to believe that it can change. All the power is concentrated in the Court and the Commission and in horse trading in the Council of Ministers, so we can only give the European Parliament pretend powers. If we were being honest, we would ask whether it really matters what system we use to elect Members of the European Parliament, when that Parliament is basically irrelevant.

My second question is for my hon. Friends. Although I appreciate that some of them feel passionately about the issue of closed or open lists, they must ask themselves what the blazes people are meant to do when they go along to vote. If in an area called the eastern region there are 11 candidates for each party, how on earth am I, the average voter, expected to know who those candidates are and what their opinions are?

There is a passionate minority in Britain--a few people, probably 5 per cent. of the population on either side--who are either strongly for or strongly against the European Economic Community, and such people will make it their business to discover candidates' views, so as to have the opportunity to express their opinions. However, the vast majority of people in Britain have gone to sleep on the European issue; they do not want to know anything about it. In addition, the political parties do not want to discuss the issue, because it can cause strong disagreements.

The only real principle at stake is that of answerability. It is important that we should preserve that, but we must ask whether European matters are the area in which we most want to preserve it. How can a Member of the European Parliament be answerable? If he cannot do anything and people do not know who he is, it is difficult to keep up the pretence of democracy here.

I am genuinely curious as to why the Government are bothering. The Government have advanced only two specific arguments, one of which is that other European countries do it. That should make us suspicious, because we can then see the European principle of regional government being imposed on Britain--on England--even though people do not want it. Huge offices are being built in Cambridge, which is in my local region, and large organisations invite me to lunches, dinners and seminars and send me lots of coloured paper, but I am left wondering what it is all about. Unfortunately, what we find is that regional government is being promoted by the EU, even though the people of England do not want

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it. I wonder whether the whole business of regional assemblies, regional government and regional papers is all to do with something being pushed by the EEC.

The second argument advanced by the Government is that, if we adopt the new system, more Conservatives will be returned to the European Parliament. Is that the principle for which one should support the Bill? I should like to think that we were doing something more significant, not simply expressing a view on that silly matter.

When I came to the House of Commons, the principle of democracy was important to me. When I arrived here many years ago--certainly before many of the hon. Members present were born--I remember that my parents were very proud. They felt that I was joining a worthwhile institution, one that was uplifting and to which Churchill had belonged.

My second son is cleverer than I am, and earns more money than I do because he works for a merchant bank. Last year he was asked, along with everyone else who works at the bank, what his parents did. It upset me when he said, "I did not mind saying that my dad was Teddy Taylor, because people know that you have some unusual views, but I did not like to say that you are a Member of Parliament." That gives us some idea how substantially the standing of this place has gone down.

We should recognise that, over the past 25 years, we have been destroying our democracy. We have taken power away from the people. I hope that hon. Members will think seriously about how we have been abolishing democracy and making people's views almost totally irrelevant. When democracy has been abolished in other parts of the world, the same things always happen: the power goes to individuals who are outwith control, and they always want to help their friends, not necessarily because they are corrupt, but because they are simply not answerable.

It upsets me that the Bill will make Members of the useless European Parliament, which is of no relevance to the people, a tiny 1 per cent. less answerable to the people, even though there is not much for which MEPs can be responsible. I hope that the Government will answer the important question why they are bothering with the Bill. Who has complained about the present system? Who has said that it does not work?

We have had a by-election in Scotland in which only 20 per cent. of the people bothered to vote. They felt that it was irrelevant. The vast majority of the people in Britain think that the European Parliament is irrelevant.

It would be helpful if the Government told us why they are bothering to introduce the Bill. Has there been pressure from the EU to adopt the same kind of electoral system throughout the EU? I have watched all the changes being introduced, step by step, over the past 25 years. Ministers say that changes are taking place not because they are being forced to implement them, but because they want to do so. Later, we find that they have been pressurised to do so.

What has happened to democracy is sad. We are being asked to agree tonight to £4 million being spent wholly unnecessarily to achieve nothing in respect of an assembly that has no power, no real responsibility and no answerability. It is a sad night for Parliament. I hope that the Government will tell us the truth or let us throw out this silly, irrelevant measure.

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8.53 pm

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