HC Deb 23 October 1961 vol 646 cc705-16

Motion made and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Chichester-Clark.]

10.21 p.m.

Mr. Stratton Mills (Belfast, North)

I wish to raise this evening certain special problems of Northern Ireland which may arise in any negotiations about Britain entering the European Common Market. The negotiations will shortly start, and I think it suitable for us to discuss these matters this evening. Certain of the problems to which I shall refer are similar to those of other development areas in Great Britain, and some are different because in their essence they reflect a different approach by our Stormont Government to the problem of unemployment. I have four points to discuss.

My first point concerns the general question of industrial inducements. I admit that similar problems arise in development areas in Great Britain generally. I have in mind, for instance, capital grants, factory building schemes at low rents, rate exemptions, and so forth. We have to consider the approach of the Common Market countries to these problems. We note they permit such schemes in special areas. Furthermore, we note the existence of the European Investment Bank, with funds used in a special social development fund in the Common Market countries. I mention these things because they underline the fact that both the United Kingdom and the Common Market countries recognise the responsibility of Governments in helping to provide employment in areas of high unemployment.

I should like Her Majesty's Government to assure us tonight that in the negotiations they will take particular care that the definition of "special area" in the Treaty of Rome is wide enough to include Northern Ireland and other areas of high unemployment so that industrial inducement schemes such as those to which I have referred may be continued.

I come next to agriculture. This, of course, is a very much wider subject than can be contained within the scope of this debate, and I realise that I should be out of order in referring to it in detail. It is clear from what has been said in the House that we may well have to change in Britain the type of support policy which we have been using since the war, and we must adopt a flexible approach to the matter. I am glad that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has said that a prosperous agriculture is absolutely essential to a prosperous Britain. I merely emphasise that by saying that in the United Kingdom about 5 per cent. of the insured population are engaged in agriculture whereas in Northern Ireland about 25 per cent. of the insured population are engaged on the land. It is vital to us, whatever method is used, that a prosperous agriculture should exist. It is important to the United Kingdom, but it is essential to Northern Ireland.

My third point is perhaps the most difficult. I ask for the forbearance of the House if I spend a little more time on it. I refer to the 1947 Act of the Stormont Government, which is aimed at the maintenance and provision of employment. Why is such an Act necessary? The reason is that we have a long history of unemployment, and today the unemployment rate is about 8 per cent. What are the fears in Northern Ireland if the 1947 Act should be removed? Our fear is not that we should have an influx of French and Italian labour. Our fear is that there is the danger that across the border from Southern Ireland there would be a daily influx of people to take jobs in the border areas.

What are our objections on this score? We feel that we have a responsibility to provide jobs first of all for the people of Northern Ireland. To put it another way, our view is that we should not act as a dog in the manger over these things but should act rather as a dog which has to feed its own family first.

The Northern Ireland Government have accepted to a very much greater degree than the Westminster Government and other parts of the United Kingdom the essential need for a planned economy in dealing with an area of high unemployment. We have a programme to provide 5,000 and more jobs each year. Although we have differences from time to time, we have the support in this aim of the trade union movement. Although the trade unions may differ from us in some of the detailed points, we certainly have their support in aiming to provide more jobs.

If I might digress, I should have thought that this debate would have interested hon. Members opposite, but the only hon. Member on the Opposition Benches at the moment is the hon. Member for Cardiff, West (Mr. G. Thomas). It is sorrowful that he has not been able to persuade his hon. Friends to come here for this debate. Also, no Liberal Member is present. The Socialist M.P.s occasionally come to Northern Ireland and lecture us on how to govern ourselves, but when we debate Northern Ireland they absent themselves.

The trade union movement in Northern Ireland is very much concerned over the fact that if in the border areas there is a substantial influx of people from the other side of the border there will be a danger of wage-cutting in those areas. I would emphasise that Northern Ireland will find it very difficult indeed to plan her economic development if there is an open border. The policy of the Unionist Party has been that of the full loaf for each family, but how can we bake this loaf if our oven door is to remain open continuously? That is the problem.

How has this question been dealt with in the Treaty of Rome. The preamble clearly expresses the aim of the complete mobility of labour by 1972. The regulations of June last state that a job will only be advertised in another Common Market country when it has been vacant and unfilled for three weeks and that at the end of each year the permit of a foreign national who has been brought in to fill a job will be open to review.

How will it affect the United Kingdom as a whole if Frenchmen and Italians are brought into Britain? I think it is true to say that they would go to the prosperous areas—to the Midlands and the London area—but they would not go to the Highlands of Scotland, to parts of Wales where unem- ployment is high or to the North-East. I think that they would concentrate mainly in the areas of prosperity.

If that is true, I would argue that Northern Ireland would be the only high unemployment area of the United Kingdom which would be open to the risk of substantial immigration eating into the few jobs which are created there each year. The question obviously revolves around whether Eire is admitted as an associate member. If she is an associate member rather than a full member, this will be a very much easier problem with which to deal.

I suggest that an appendix might well be added to the Treaty of Rome—I ask my hon. Friend to bear this in mind during the negotiations—permitting Northern Ireland to retain the 1947 Act as essential for economic development. Perhaps this could be done until 1972, when the whole position could be looked at again. Or alternatively, it could be open to review when the unemployment figure comes down over a three-year period to an average of 2½ per cent., or some such formula. That is a matter which we regard as of great importance and one of our foremost interests in the negotiations.

The fourth point with which I wish to deal is the problems arising in the course of the negotiations. My hon. Friend the Minister of State will have noted that the three points to which I have referred earlier are all within the responsibility of the Stormont Government. He will have noted that they are matters with which they are charged under the Government of Ireland Act. By that Act of 1920 the Stormont Government are unable to negotiate in external matters and have to act through the United Kingdom Government. This brings me to the point that it is absolutely essential that in these negotiations the Northern Ireland Government should be kept closely in touch with what is happening by the British delegation taking part in the negotiations.

I am particularly glad to know that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Home Department will be the Minister in charge of the negotiating committee in London and that the Lord Privy Seal will bring the problems that arise from time to time back to the Ministerial Committee headed by the Home Secretary. As the House knows, he is the Minister responsible for Northern Ireland affairs, and we welcome that close link. I ask for an assurance from the Minister of State this evening that if difficulties arise in the negotiations at any time, he will not hesitate to get in touch immediately with the Stormont Government and obtain their views.

I have been given an opportunity this evening of assessing some of the problems, and I appreciate that my hon. Friend at this stage in the very complex negotiations cannot give a very detailed reply or comprehensive assurance. But I have asked for two assurances which would be extremely satisfactory to us if they could be given. First, a general statement as to the appreciation of specific problems which Northern Ireland has as an area of high unemployment and which are different from the rest of the United Kingdom. Secondly, that he will see that the Stormont Government are kept fully in touch throughout the negotiations.

In going round my constituency I have noted that over the last three months there has been a very keen interest in the problems of the Common Market and my hon. Friend will be glad to know that everywhere, with the exception of the three problems which I have mentioned, the imagination of our people has been seized by this idea. They realise that over the past fifteen years we have had in Britain a series of economic crises, with economic ups and downs. When these crises occur and the damper is put on consumer demand the areas which are hurt the most are not the prosperous parts but the fringe areas of Britain; those areas of high unemployment in which there has not been tremendous development. Therefore, the ideal of the Common Market, ensuring that there will be much less of these economic ups and downs but rather a pattern of even economic growth, is attractive to us. I do not say that it will produce a "wind of change" economically, but it will at least provide a breath of hope.

10.35 p.m.

The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. J. B. Godber)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Stratton Mills) for bringing forward this most important matter again tonight. We have, of course, discussed previously the whole question of principle in relation to Britain's possible adherence to the Common Market. It is certainly not my intention to go into the wider aspects here tonight.

I have listened with a great deal of interest to the points that my hon. Friend has brought forward and I will seek to answer those questions that he has asked. I was particularly interested when he said towards the end of his remarks that he had noticed in going round Northern Ireland in recent weeks a keen interest that has been aroused in this problem of the Common Market. That is encouraging. It is encouraging that people throughout the whole of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland are thinking about this matter, about the pros and cons and of what is involved.

I am very glad that my hon. Friend's constituents are acutely aware of the problems involved, but, as I understood his speech, they are concerned not only with the problems but possibly with the opportunities too. I think this is the way in which we should all seek to look at this difficult problem. We shall, of course, later on be having an opportunity of learning something of the negotiations, and until that point is reached there is little that one can say about the principles concerned.

As to the position in Northern Ireland, I should like to take up one or two of the points raised by my hon. Friend, and discuss them briefly. In anything that I say in this context, it must be clear that it is governed by the fact that discussions have only just begun. We have not got down to any detailed negotiations yet. They will be starting next month. Therefore, any reply that I give must inevitably be in the most general terms. And I hope that my hon. Friend and his colleagues in Northern Ireland will realise that point. Therefore, if I am unable to say anything really precise, I trust that he will realise that it is not because I have not a keen interest in these problems but because of the position in which we are placed.

My hon. Friend raised four separate points. Perhaps I could deal first with the last point which he raised which was that of problems arising in relation to the negotiations. It is, of course, true, and one must remember this clearly, that Northern Ireland has its separate Parliament. But my hon. Friend will also agree with me that it is inevitably an integral part of the United Kingdom and, therefore, of course it is right and proper that negotiations should be carried on by the United Kingdom Government as a whole—I do not think that is disputed in any way in Northern Ireland—provided—and I think this is my hon. Friend's point—that there is the closest possible consultation at all stages in the negotiations.

Here I should like to give a firm assurance. On this point it is the Government's intention to keep in the closest possible contact with the Northern Ireland Government at all stages of the negotiations on every matter that is of interest to her. I say that and I emphasise it because I think it is essential that there should be that close contact and that the Northern Ireland Government should be put fully in the picture at all stages in matters that refer to them.

I was glad, too, that my hon. Friend referred to the position of the Home Secretary as Chairman of the Ministerial Committee concerned. He reminded us that he is also the Minister responsible for Northern Ireland affairs. Thus, there is a double assurance.

A third assurance I can give my hon. Friend is that my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal, who is directly responsible for these negotiations, takes a keen interest in the problems of Northern Ireland. He has visited it on several occasions. He has seen the country for himself and he has asked me to assure my hon. Friend that he has the problem very much in mind. I hope that those assurances on this point will go some way to reassuring my hon. Friend and his colleagues of the keen interest Her Majesty's Government takes, and is determined to continue to take, to see that the Northern Ireland Government are kept fully in touch.

I now turn to the question of agriculture. My hon. Friend pointed out—rightly, I think—that 25 per cent. of Northern Ireland's labour force is engaged in agriculture. That is a very large proportion in any context and, compared with Britain as a whole, is an extremely large figure indeed.

It is therefore obvious that the people of Northern Ireland are very much concerned about any agreement which may be reached in relation to the position of agriculture. My hon. Friend reminded us that the system of support for agriculture in the Common Market countries as planned but not yet finalised and the systems which are generally in force throughout the Continent, which no doubt will become the general picture, are dissimilar to that which we have in the United Kingdom and in Northern Ireland.

If we were to agree to accept this same system, it would clearly mean substantial changes. But as my hon. Friend reminded the House, the Prime Minister has said that a prosperous agriculture is absolutely essential to a prosperous Britain. This is entirely true and our objective in these negotiations is to secure for all United Kingdom argiculture a stable position and a prosperous future. We must be satisfied that the standard of living of our farming community will not suffer.

I emphasise that because it is important in this whole context. Representing an agricultural constituency myself, I am not unaware of the interest that there is in this country, just as there is in Northern Ireland.

But, in regard to the special problems of Northern Ireland concerning agriculture, a common agricultural policy has not yet been formalised in any way. We are in the process of discussing it now. Also, I should like to draw the attention of my hon. Friend to Article 39 (2, a) of the Treaty of Rome, which says: In working out the common agricultural policy and the special methods which it may involve, due account shall be taken of: (a) the particular character of agricultural activities, arising from the social structure of agriculture and from structural and natural disparities between the various agricultural regions. That Article allows for the frame-work in which some of the existing special help could be given to Northern Ireland's agriculture, which we hope will continue to flourish. Article 42 (a) of the Treaty states: The Council may, in particular, authorise the granting of aids: (a) for the protection of enterprises handicapped by structural or natural conditions … It is not for me to say whether the conditions in Northern Ireland are such as to handicap people. They do not seem to have handicapped my hon. Friend in putting forward his remarks. But I believe that these Articles provide certain safeguards in regard to the agricultural problems of Northern Ireland.

I now move on to the question of special aids to Northern Ireland industry. Here, there are problems in addition to those mentioned by my hon. Friend. Article 92 has some bearing on the requirements of Northern Ireland. It says that in— any aid granted by a Member State … The following may be deemed to be compatible with the Common Market. … aids intended to facilitate the development of certain activities or of certain economic regions, provided that such aids do not change trading conditions to such a degree as would be contrary to the common interest. Here is a specific item written into this Article which takes some account of same of these special requirements. In the same Article, under 3a, it refers to … aids intended to promote the economic development of regions where the standard of living is abnormally low … I would not equate that with Northern Ireland but it goes on to say: or where there exists serious under-employment. There there are safeguards in regard to special aids to industries within Northern Ireland. I think there are provisions already in the Treaty which can be called in aid in this particular respect.

Mr. Stratton Mills

I hope I am not anticipating my hon. Friend, but may I ask that in the course of the negotiations one might well seek clarification on Article 92 in the Treaty to see that an area like Northern Ireland and certain high unemployment development areas do in fact in the view of the Commission come within the terms of this Article?

Mr. Godber

We shall certainly be seeking clarification of a wide range of matters, and I assure my hon. Friend that this particular one will not be lost sight of. He was very right to remind me that this could apply particularly to certain areas in the United Kingdom, certain special development areas, and we do not forget Wales in this matter. It would be right and proper that we should seek clarification where any doubt exists.

With regard to the question of the employment of workers to which my hon. Friend paid particular attention, I realise and quite understand that this is a special problem for Northern Ireland, but the Community has still to work out in detail how the provisions of the relevant Articles of the Treaty are to be applied. My hon. Friend mentioned the present Regulations which were brought in in June this year. It is true that there were some regulations brought in then which carry the position forward for the next two years.

These state quite clearly that priority should be given to indigenous labour. As long as this continues there is no problem in this matter at all. But one cannot expect that that will need to be a permanent aspect of the Treaty in view of the general trend and extent of the Treaty itself.

I think Article 49 has some relevance here where it lays down: Upon the entry into force of this Treaty the Council, acting on the proposal of the Commission and after the Economic and Social Committee has been consulted, shall, by means of directives or regulations, lay down the measures necessary to effect progressively the free movement of workers … in particular … by ensuring close collaboration between national labour administrations. That gives one an opportunity straight away for close contact in regard to any developments that there may be in that field. Further in the same Article it refers to the setting up appropriate machinery for connecting offers of employment and requests for employment with a view to equilibrating them in such a way as to avoid serious threats to the standard of living and employment in the various regions and industries. That again provides an opportunity for dealing with the problems which arise here. I do not think it would be appropriate for me to comment here on the position of Eire and what will happen in regard to her application. We must wait and see what the outcome there is, as indeed we must in regard to our own application, but I have taken note of the point my hon. Friend rightly brought to our attention in regard to this particular problem of movement of workers. If we join and if we become liable to the provisions of the Treaty, we must not forget the simple fact that by virtue of it we shall then be in a position to represent fully any special problems in relation to the United Kingdom, and of course to Northern Ireland, whether it be in this field or in any other. In other words, once we are active partners, if we become active partners, in the Treaty of Rome clearly our voice will count just as much as any other in discussing these matters. I do not think we should forget that.

Various members of the Six have special problems over a wide range. We have no reason to suppose that, if we embrace the principles of the Treaty, we will find them unsympathetic to the special problems that affect Northern Ireland. I assure my hon. Friend that it is our intention to watch all these matters, to which he has rightly drawn attention. We will ensure that they are given the most careful consideration in all the negotiations with which we shall be concerned; and I fear that they may be prolonged and will cover a wide field. What my hon. Friend has raised has been of particular interest to a particular part of the United Kingdom. We must look at this in the context of the whole. At the same time we shall certainly not allow ourselves to be diverted from remembering the particular importance of that part of the United Kingdom. I assure my hon. Friend that we shall play a full part in these negotiations, seeking arrangements which will be acceptable in regard to the United Kingdom as a whole but equally seeking to ensure that we can safeguard the arrangements to which my hon. Friend has rightly drawn attention this evening.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.