HC Deb 23 October 1956 vol 558 cc459-61
10. Mr. H. Wilson

asked the Chancellor of the Exchequer if he will make a statement on his discussions at the meeting of Commonwealth Finance Ministers, and elsewhere, on Her Majesty's Government's attitude to proposals for a free trade area in Western Europe.

Mr. H. Macmillan

My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and I took the opportunity of the presence of representatives of other Commonwealth countries in Washington in September for the annual meetings of the International Monetary Fund and the International Bank to discuss with them the possibility of the United Kingdom associating herself with other members of O.E.E.C. in a free trade area in order to establish a large-scale European market for manufactured goods.

Such an area would comprise the proposed Customs Union of the six Messina Powers and any other O.E.E.C. countries that wished to join. It would be a condition of the United Kingdom joining such an area that raw and manufactured foodstuffs, feedingstuffs, drink and tobacco would be excluded from the arrangements.

Her Majesty's Government will take their decision on these questions in the light of any views which other Commonwealth Governments may express, as well as the consultations which they are having with representatives of employers and employed at home. I hope to be able to make a statement soon.

Mr. Wilson

Since the Chancellor will, I am sure, understand that hon. Members on this side of the House, and, indeed, in all parts of the House, will want to give the most careful study to these proposals, which are of very great importance to the economic future of this country, will he agree to make more information available to the House, preferably in the form of a White Paper, including all the documents in relation to the Messina Powers' proposals and such information as he feels he can make available in relation to his discussions with the Commonwealth Ministers? I hope he will answer that point very clearly.

Secondly, would he give the House some idea of the timetable in this matter? Is it not the case that the Government intend to give instructions to their representatives to the O.E.E.C. meeting some time next month, and would he say when is the deadline for this information, and when he expects to be able to make a statement to the House?

Mr. Macmillan

Perhaps I might take the second part of the question first. The position is that a good deal of technical inquiry is going on between the various officials of O.E.E.C. as to the technical possibilities of such a plan—not as to whether it is desirable, but whether it is actually possible. There are problems about Customs, ports, and all the rest, which will take a considerable time to elucidate.

Then as to the question of policy, it will be necessary for Her Majesty's Government to give some instructions in the reasonably near future—I have said probably in the course of next month—to our representatives, for it would be not, I think, honest on our part if we did not give some preliminary instructions, at least for further elucidation. That we shall try to do.

With regard to the publishing of a White Paper, I will certainly bear that in mind. I do not think this moment would be quite the right moment; I should like to be able to add a little more to it. I hope that something might be publishable before the period of any large-scale debate which might well take place in the middle of next month.

Air Commodore Harvey

I was not clear what my right hon. Friend said in his last sentence, but would he bear in mind the desirability of representing to the Leader of the House that we have the debate in this House at a reasonably early date?

Mr. Macmillan

Yes, certainly; but I think at this time of year the timetable actually makes that fairly convenient.