§ 7.13 p.m.
§ The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Cledwyn Hughes)
I beg to move,That this House takes note of the Report from the Select Committee on Agriculture in the last Session of Parliament, and of the Departmental Observations thereon (Command Paper No. 3479).This is an historic occasion, because it is the first time that this House has debated a Report from one of the Select Committees appointed, on an experimental basis, to look into the work of particular Departments. It is perhaps a mixed blessing to be first in a race of this kind, but I am glad that time has been found for this debate.
The papers before us are of an importance which justifies their consideration by the House. I am sure my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal, would have been equally glad had the lot fallen to him. By agreeing to make time available so promptly after taking up his new responsibilities he has shown how anxious he is that this Report should be debated.
I should like to begin by paying tribute to the members of the Select Committee, and particularly to their Chairman, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Tudor Watkins), for the immense care and trouble they took over this, their first report. I am sure that the whole House would wish to join me in thanking them. My hon. Friend the member for Brecon and Radnor has written to me explaining why he is unable to be here tonight. I shall have to refer later to some points on which I do not entirely agree with the Committee's conclusions, but I would like to make clear now that these differences in no way imply any inclination on my part to undervalue their efforts.
Perhaps I could now define just what I propose to cover in my speech. I intend to be brief because our debate has already been somewhat curtailed. I propose to deal with those aspects of the papers which relate directly to my Department. These aspects are two: first, the manner in which my Department co-operated with the Committee; second, the scope and adequacy of my Department's assess- 1118 ment of the effects on this country's agriculture, fisheries and food of joining the European Economic Community.
Before I do so, however, I should like to say something about my own locus in this. I was not in charge of the Ministry of Agriculture when the Committee carried out its inquiry. That has its disadvantages and perhaps it has some advantages as well. The disadvantages are that I missed the pleasure of watching the Committee at work and of giving evidence, and I cannot, of course, know every last detail of what the Ministry of Agriculture did at that time. But I have read with very great care the two papers before us and the evidence which was given before the Committee, and I feel sufficiently familiar with all that was done to speak with just a little confidence about it now.
The advantage is that as a relative newcomer I can view all this with a measure of detachment which even my right hon. Friend, with all his well-known objectivity on these matters, might have found it difficult to equal.
First, then, the manner in which the Ministry of Agriculture co-operated with the Select Committee. I am very glad indeed to see from its Report that the Committee has virtually no criticism of this. It records its gratitude for the Department's wholehearted co-operation and for the time and trouble that official witnesses took to ensure that the Committee received the information it needed. I should like to pay my own tribute to those officials.
It would be wrong for me to pass over this without pointing out what I am sure the House recognises: that the establishment of Committees of this kind inevitably means a great deal more work for Departments. The preparation of written evidence and the giving of oral evidence make up a substantial additional burden. I observe from page viii of the Report that the Ministry of Agriculture submitted more than 30 memoranda on different subjects for this inquiry alone. This really represented a substantial additional task for officials in the Department. But, of course, this was recognised when the Committees were instituted. Nevertheless, I do not think that we should overlook it.
I turn now to the substance of the Committee's Report—Part II, which deals with the scope and adequacy of the 1119 Ministry's assessment. This is the real crux of the matter. Was my Ministry's assessment of this vital question thoroughly carried out? Was it accurate? I am very glad to see that the Committee answers both questions in the affirmative. It recognises that the assessment was both detailed and continuous, and that sufficient priority had been given to the task to enable a comprehensive assessment to be made.
It goes on to say that on the three most important points—the effects on British farming, on consumers and on the balance of payments—the assessment had not been disputed and had clearly been based on solid foundations. I am quite convinced from my own observation that the assessment was very thoroughly carried out. The many papers, to which I have referred already, which my Department submitted to the Committee and the extent of its oral evidence—11 sittings of the Committee covering 190 pages of the printed record—are only the visible tip of the iceberg. A very great deal of work had been done so that the Government could take its decisions in full knowledge of the facts.
I have emphasised this because I now have to refer to the reservations the Committee expresses about some aspects of the Department's inquiries. I am sure that members of the Committee themselves would concede that these are subordinate matters which do not affect their main conclusion that the work was thoroughly carried out and the assessment accurate. The Committee's reservations really amount to just two general points. First, it was not convinced that the Department knew enough about the flexibility with which Community regulations might be operated in practice. Second, it felt that the Department might not have sufficiently consulted the interested bodies in this country.
The first of these reservations turns largely on a single point, the fact that the official witnesses did not lay emphasis on the extent to which the Community's agricultural regulations might not be applied to the letter, the extent, that is, to which we might be able to negotiate adjustments in those regulations to suit our own particular circumstances or to which adjustments might come about as a result of the pragmatic application of Community policy.
1120 The Committee ascribes this reticence to ignorance. On this, I believe that it was mistaken. There are hon. Members now present who were members of the Committee, and I feel that, if they look back, they will agree that they did not find witnesses from my Department floundering when asked questions about the practical application of the common agricultural policy. [Laughter.] Looking at the Report, hon. Members must realise that they did not ask many such questions.
There is a perfectly reasonable explanation for this, which is set out in my Department's Observations. At the time when the Ministry witnesses gave evidence, no statement had been made about the Government's negotiating objectives as regards agriculture. If officials had at that time ventured opinions about the extent of the flexibility we could expect, they would have been prejudging not only the statement of our objectives but also the outcome of the negotiations. Clearly—I am sure the House will agree—it would have been quite wrong for them to do so.
To have further implied that, whatever the terms of Community regulations, there would be room for manoeuvre within them could only have given rise to quite unfounded suspicion of our good faith. I think that it was absolutely right for the Government witnesses to rest on the letter of Community law and to explain the effects of applying it without adjustment or derogation.
The Committee gives three examples of cases in which it thought the Department's assessment defective because of its insufficient emphasis on the flexibility of Community arrangements. Two of them were the effect on milk supplies and the effect on areas of particular difficulty. I recall that, although I was not Minister at that time, I was particularly interested, when the matter was being discussed, in the effect on hill farming in Wales. These two examples illustrate clearly the truth of what I have just been saying. Both are matters which the then Foreign Secretary dealt with when he set out our negotiating objectives in his speech of last July to the Western European Union.
My right hon. Friend said then that we would want to take up the question 1121 of help for the hill areas with the Community and that we would want to find a solution to the problem of assuring milk supplies. It would have been quite wrong for officials to anticipate what the then Foreign Secretary said. The Committee's third example concerns the rôle of the management committees. But, however valuable the work of the management committees may be in the detailed implementation of Community regulations, the fact is that they have no power to alter essentials, and it was with essentials that the assessment was concerned.
The Committee's second reservation is about the adequacy of consultation with the various interests concerned—producers, workers, consumers and co-operatives. Here, I think that the best comment is to allow those interests to speak for themselves, as they have done. The National Farmers' Union has said that, so far as it is concerned, the criticism is unfounded. The National Union of Agricultural Workers told the Committee that it had had an open invitation, both from my predecessor and from the Department, to go to them on any matter in connection with the assessment. The Consumer Council expressed its satisfaction with the way in which the Ministry had conducted its enquiries.
The Committee singled out for particular attention the fact that co-operative organisations had not been consulted on the effect that joining the European Economic Community would have on the newly established Central Council for Agricultural and Horticultural Co-operation. This criticism seems to be based on a misunderstanding. There is no reason whatever to suppose that entry into the E.E.C. would prevent the Council from continuing to carry out its functions, which would, moreover, be just as necessary in Common Market conditions as they are now. There was, therefore, no need, in the context of preparation for negotiations, to consult the co-operative organisations about the Council's position.
In dealing tonight with the broad issues raised by the Select Committee's Report, I have tried to avoid too much detail, largely because the detailed points are fully covered in the second of the papers before us tonight, the Departmental Observations on the Committee's Report. I have also deliberately, and, in my view, properly, sought to concentrate on the 1122 matters directly related to the work of my Department which the Committee was appointed to investigate at the time.
There are two things I should like to say in conclusion. First, I am convinced that my Department carried out this important work objectively and well, and I am glad to see that in all essentials the Committee's thorough investigation confirms that. Finally, I assure the House of my satisfaction that we do and shall continue to keep ourselves continuously informed and up to date on this and all other aspects of Departmental work in the light of changing circumstances and new developments.
The work of the Committee was very valuable. It has enabled us to debate these important subjects in the House this evening. The experiment, as I called it at the start, has been proved to be a success, and I pay tribute again to the chairman and hon. Members on both sides who contributed to that success.
§ Mr. Speaker
I observe to the House that 16 hon. and right hon. Members wish to speak in this half-day debate, including four Front Bench Members and 10 members of the Committee. I hope that speeches will be reasonably brief.
§ 7.29 p.m.
§ Mr. J. B. Godber (Grantham)
I shall make my remarks as short as I can, but I have a rather wider brief to cover than the Minister had.
I begin by congratulating the right hon. Gentleman, for I think that this is the first opportunity I have had since he took office, on assuming his duties at the Ministry, and I wish him well. We shall seek to guide him along the right paths.
The right hon. Gentleman said that this was a historic occasion in that it is the first time we have debated a Report of one of the new Select Committees. He also said that the fact that we are debating it now shows how anxious the new Leader of the House must be to have it debated at an early date. It may be perfectly legitimate to say that, but does not it also show how reluctant his predecessor was to have it debated? He had many months in which he could have brought it forward for debate but failed to do so.
I am bound to spend a little more time on the question of procedure than did the Minister, because this is not only 1123 a historic occasion but an important occasion from the point of view of getting the right attitude to the new Select Committees if they are to carry out their functions properly. There are certain aspects relating to the Ministry, the Leader of the House and the Foreign Office on which it would be proper to comment. I am very glad that the Minister of State for Foreign Affairs is here. I shall have one or two points to address to him later.
First, to get the matter in its right context, we should remember that the Select Committee was set up as a result of something the Prime Minister said to us as long ago as the debate on the Address at the beginning of this Parliament, when he dwelt at considerable length on the great merits there could be in such committees. It is interesting that he instanced three Departments—the Home Office, Ministry of Education and Ministry of Housing—as being suitable, but did not mention the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. But he made it very clear that he viewed this as an important departure and one that he hoped would be of real consequence. I wonder whether his hopes have been fulfilled.
The Select Committee on Agriculture was set up as a result of a Motion of the then Leader of the House on 14th December, 1966, when he made a number of comments on the new type of Select Committee. He drew a clear distinction, as is right, between the Select Committee on Agriculture and the one being set up on technology, because that dealt purely with the subject matter, and this Committee, as he emphasised, was the only one set up to study a Department, and it was Departmental study that the Prime Minister had spoken about originally. The right hon. Gentleman said:It seems to me essential, if we are to restore the prestige and authority of the Commons, that we should give to the activities of these Committees the importance they deserve—…"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th December, 1966; Vol. 738, c. 487]I assumed from that that he was very concerned that these Committees should have adequate powers to fulfil their duties, and that they should be carried out very thoroughly.
The Committee was set up on 30th January, 1967, many weeks after the 1124 initial concept. One of the points made in its Report is the shortness of time it had to consider the problems. It would have been far better if it could have been set up somewhat earlier in the Parliamentary Session.
The Committee chose the subject of the Common Market. The first part of its Report deals solely with procedural matters, and it is these that I want to discuss first. The question of timing is very important. I have instanced the delay in setting the Committee up, and then there was the delay in debating its Report. I absolve the present Leader of the House and present Minister of Agriculture from criticism on that, but there has been very serious delay. I deplore most the fact, which the Minister mentioned, that the Committee's chairman cannot be present tonight. As the debate is arranged on a day when he could not be present, I assume that he was consulted. I hope that we shall be told whether he was, because it is quite monstrous that the very first Report of a Committee of this kind should be debated when the chairman is physically unable to be present in the House. I do not blame the chairman, but I question whether he was given adequate notice of the debate. The House is put at a great disadvantage if we do not have the chairman's advice.
I want to touch on the future of the Committee, which is set out in paragraph 5 of the Report. The paragraph makes it quite clear that the Committee is looking forward to its various problems, and it mentions a number that it wishes to discuss. It is at present engaged on further discussions, but I do not want to go into them because it would not be right to do so when dealing with the Report for the last Session. The paragraph says:…Your Committee consider that a step should be taken towards establishing them on a more permanent basis by following the example of the Public Accounts and Estimates Committees…Bearing that in mind, I was rather surprised at what the then Leader of the House said in the debate on procedure on 14th November last year. Dealing specifically with the Select Committee on Agriculture, he said:…as we all know, the Agriculture Committee got involved in a long and arduous dispute, particularly with the Foreign Office, 1125 about the limitations which can reasonably be placed on its functions by the Executive. I myself believe that this argument, as revealed in the Committee's Report,…ended in a very constructive definition of value to all Specialist Committees. However, the result was that the Committee did not manage to cover more than a tiny fraction of the Ministry's activities, and we have therefore proposed that it should spend a second year studying the Ministry of Agriculture before moving to other field of investigation."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th November, 1967; Vol. 754, c. 260.]What on earth was meant by that? Does it mean that the Committee will be moved on to deal with other matters? Surely, it is a Select Committee on Agriculture and should devote its activities to that? If there are to be Select Committees dealing with other matters, they should be set up quite independently. It was never put forward as a Committee with a roving commission, and the whole purpose of having people who become expert on one Department will be defeated if this is to be done. I hope that we shall have repudiation at some stage, if not tonight, of what the then Leader of the House said, for otherwise the Committee is in a very dubious position at present, and paragraph 5 makes no sense in the context of what he then said.
The problems the Committee has had over staffing are quite extraordinary. Paragraph 6 makes it clear that it had one senior Clerk, with no supporting staff, and he had other duties. Many of us know that this Clerk has done wonders for the Committee, and we should salute what Mr. Taylor did during the period when he was working with the Committee, and place on record our gratitude to him. But at the same time he was working as secretary to the delegation to the Council of Europe, the W.E.U. and the N.A.T.O. Parliamentarians. How he was able to do those jobs effectively and still look after the interests of the Committee. I do not know.
The Government said at one stage that there was to be a Clerk with no other duties in charge of the Committee's activities. The then Minister without Portfolio, replying to the debate on 14th December, 1966, said of the Specialist Committees:They will have a full-time clerk and authority co hire research."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th December, 1966; Vol. 738, c. 604].1126 A full-time clerk is no good if he is nearly full-time on other duties as well. The Government's promise for the Committee has not been fulfilled. Even now the situation is not satisfactory. I gather that a certain amount of extra help has been given, but this Session the Committee has Sub-Committees as well, which require additional staff. I ask the Government to examine this point.
Paragraph 13 deals with one of the problems which arose, the question of supply of documents. We had no reply from the Ministry, and I do not think that we had it from the Minister just now, to the statement in paragraph 13:(…five memoranda received from the Ministry just before the Committee met for the final consideration of their Draft Report had been originally requested at meetings on various dates up to as much as three months previously).He said that there was a heavy burden on the Department. But he will appreciate that the Government themselves decided to set up these Committees and the amount of work that would be involved must have been known to them. To hold up a Committee all this time for memoranda must have made its task very difficult, and I hope that every effort will be made in future to keep memoranda up to date for the Committee.
In paragraph 15 we have the question of the correspondence. It says that the Committee…asked to be supplied with copies of the correspondence concerning the application for assistance…This application was from Sir James Marjoribanks—and there is a good deal of comment in the Report about it. The request by the Committee was made on 26th April and it took three months before this matter was resolved, and even then it was resolved in a far from satisfactory way to the Committee. Whatever the merits or demerits—and this is a Foreign Office point—of whether it was right to ask for this correspondence or, rather, whether it was correct to supply it in view of what the Foreign Office says was the confidential nature of some of the contents, surely the matter could have been resolved in far less than three months. That is a serious criticism.
Even when an opportunity came of providing this corrrespondence with names blacked out, the Foreign Office was not very forthcoming, to put it mildly. It did not produce its paper on staffing until 1127 14th August, after the Committee had approved the draft of its Report. That is really absurd. A measure of criticism must be levelled at the Foreign Office about the delay which arose, quite apart from its refusal to produce the document, which I know irritated and annoyed hon. Members on both sides. We should have some explanation of that.
The other aspect which caused tremendous difficulty was the proposed visit to Brussels. This is referred to in paragraph 17 onwards. It is a fantastic story from beginning to end. It is quite extraordinary to see the way this developed and the opposition which it evoked from Ministers at different stages. The comments of the Departments were published in November, in Command Paper No. 3479, paragraph 6 of which states:…without the agreement of the Foreign Secretary, the Committee, through its Clerk, communicated directly with the Commission asking to be received by them.I ask the House to note the phrasing:…without the agreement of the Foreign Secretary, the Committee, through its Clerk, communicated directly…It is as though there were something evil or wicked in the Committee's doing that. Why should not a Committee of this House communicate with whom it wishes? I could not help thinking, when I read this, of something I had seen in the House. In the "No" Lobby, I found what I was looking for. There is a display case there containing certain ancient documents of the House. Some of us show them to visiting constituents. One of these documents is the record of proceedings of 24th January, 1580, when Queen Elizabeth I expressed her…great admiration for the rashness of this House in committing such an apparent contempt against Her Majesty's express commandment.Is this not rather like the late Foreign Secretary expressing his indignation that a Committee of this House should dare to approach the E.E.C. Commission? In 1580, Mr. Speaker advised the House to apologise and confine itself in future to matters proper and pertinent to its functions, but on this occasion the function concerned was proper and pertinent to the Select Committee, and I find it amazing that a phrase of this kind should appear in the Government's reply. Of course the Committee was entitled to go to Brussels.
§ The Minister of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Frederick Mulley)
I think that the Committee cannot have it both ways. The Committee complained, rightly or wrongly, that the Foreign Office had not made arrangements for its visit. I met the Committee informally and explained the situation. I found it extremely reasonable and it agreed that a formal visit of the kind indicated in its approach to the Commission could have been embarrassing. That is in its Report, so I am sure that that was its general view. The reply was only in response to how this tangled situation developed.
§ Mr. Godber
I was coming to that point. The way in which this passage is phrased made my eyebrows go up, and I am sure that it would raise the eyebrows of anyone considering the Report of the Committee. These Select Committees were set up to protect the House against the Executive in some degree, in the same way as in the battles with the Tudor and Stuart monarchs.
The right hon. Gentleman has made a point about how the matter arose. I take him up on that point in relation to the Government's reply. There is, surely, a serious discrepancy of fact, if nothing else, in relation to what is said in the Report. After the reports of the various meetings which he and Lord Chalfont had with members of the Committee, there is a full print of the letter which the then Lord President of the Council wrote.
Paragraph 9 then says:When, in the light of this letter, the Committee asked whether informal contact between them and the European Commission could be arranged, the Foreign Office immediately arranged for members of the Committee to meet representatives of the Commission…I suggest to the right hon. Gentleman that this is not correct, because it was not in the light of this letter that the Committee asked for informal arrangements to be made. It was on 31st May that it made its request. When it was told by the right hon. Gentleman that a formal approach would be embarrassing, it immediately proposed that there should be an informal visit. That was when this approach was made.
It is untrue to say that…in the light of this letter, the Committee asked whether informal contact…1129 could be made. It was in the light of its meeting with the right hon. Gentleman on 31st May, so I am informed, that the suggestion of an unofficial approach was made, and it was only after a further meeting with him and Lord Chalfont, after an edict, as it were, from the Foreign Secretary himself, that this action was taken. The reply is misleading in relation to the time factor, if nothing else.
The way this has developed and the response of the Government in relation to this visit make a sorry story and it is also strange to read, in paragraph 10 of the Reply, thatAt no stage could there have been any objection to members of the Committee visiting the Commission in their capacity as Members of Parliament…but apparently not as members of the Committee. I do not understand how being a member of this Committee should put anyone at a disadvantage in going to see the Commission. It is an extraordinary way to reward hon. Members on the Committee for all the extra time and work they have to put in. We should be told much more about this strange history.
It is an extraordinary state of affairs, and the Foreign Office does not emerge particularly well from it. However, a small number of members of the Committee did go. Even then there was some trouble, related in paragraph 23 of the Report. It really reads like a story from a Marx Brothers film. The unfortunate Chairman had to sit in the Chamber until 6.15 a.m. and, four hours later, go to London Airport to catch the plane to Brussels. That is an absurdity and the House should recognise it as such. Fortunately, on that aspect there is some encouragement in the Fifth Report of the House of Commons Services Committee, which says that it will no longer be necessary for the Chairman to sit all night to get permission to go to Brussels. We have gained something from the Report in that respect.
These are all matters which should be highlighted if we are to draw the correct lessons from the setting-up of this Committee. There are bound to be teething troubles, but unnecessary difficulties were put in the Committee's way. The Committee seems to have been set up late 1130 again this Session and we do not know whether it will have adequate time for its task. More effort must be made to get it going at the start of a Session and to give it adequate time and staff to undertake its duties properly.
I apologise for having spent so much time on procedural matters, but these things must be got right for the future. I largely agree with what the Minister has to say about the content of the Report. The Ministry came out of these discussions reasonably well, although there are certain aspects with which I would deal if I had more time.
Some useful lessons can be learned. The Committee itself in paragraph 39 of its Report said that it had had a very useful document from the Ministry which might not have been prepared but for the existence of the Committee. I do not know whether that is true, but it is fair to claim that the Committee's existence stimulated the Ministry into producing a very full report which has been of value.
There are one or two things in the Report with which I have never agreed, but it is mostly fair and I hope that when again the Common Market becomes a live political issue, as I hope it will, there will still be much to be learned from the Report. Devaluation has changed its character and it will have to be brought up to date, but what the Minister said about it was not in any sense an exaggeration.
Part 3 of the Report is a précis of the evidence. I marked several passages, particularly on page 85, with which I wanted to deal. I wanted to refer to cereal prices, but as that part of the Report has been invalidated by devaluation, I shall say only that I never accepted the Ministry's figures.
It is clear that if these Select Committees are to work effectively, they must have adequate power and staff and time and must not be obstructed unreasonably or unnecessarily by the Executive. But I am not yet fully convinced of their value. They have great possibilities, but far more time is needed to show whether they can fulfill them. I have never thought that the American system of committee procedure was particularly appropriate to us, but I am always ready to learn from the efforts of my colleagues, and I salute them all for what they have done.
1131 I am sure that all members of the Committee worked diligently and conscientiously, and they deserved more help from the Executive than they received. There has been a heavy call on the energies of the Ministry and it would be interesting to know how many people are involved in servicing a Committee of this nature. It would help to give us some idea of the total cost of Committees of this kind if that sort of information could be provided.
The Committee has succeeded in establishing the new principle of a Select Committee operating in this way and meeting regularly in public to the advantage of those concerned. It has established the principle of a Minister of the Crown taking an active part in the work of a Select Committee. It has established, I think, freedom of action for the Committee to travel and hear evidence from whomever it wishes. Those are three useful things which have been established, whatever the content and subject matter of the Report. To that extent, this is an innovation which is paying dividends and I salute the members of the Committee and thank them for what they have done.
§ 7.56 p.m.
§ Mr. John P. Mackintosh (Berwick and East Lothian)
I shall try to deal with some of the issues raised by the right hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) in the absence of the chairman of the Select Committee, my hon. Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Tudor Watkins) who asked me to say a word or two on his behalf. I am not absolutely sure about the timing, but he received a summons to a tribunal in his constituency, the kind of thing which no hon. Member could possibly ignore, almost exactly at the moment when the Government were considering the timing of the debate.
No blame falls on anybody. This is one of these regrettable conflicts of allegiance which occasionally arise in the life of hon. Members, and the Chairman of the Committee could not be more sorry that he was not able to present the Report himself. I am sure that we will all echo what the right hon. Member for Grantham and the Minister have said in commending the splendid chairmanship of my hon. 1132 Friend the Member for Brecon and Radnor.
I was relieved to hear my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture say that he thought that the Committee had been a success and had done its job properly. I hope that he will maintain that attitude when we consider the future of the Committee in subsequent Sessions. In reply to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Grantham, who wondered why this debate should arise now, may I point out that one of the reasons is that, with the reform of the procedure of the House, the Finance Bill has been sent upstairs, a reform which has permitted more time for debates on the Floor of the House. Hon. Members opposite cannot have it both ways—if we had been bogged down in Finance Bill debates, there would not have been time for a debate on the Floor of the House on a critical Report of this kind, and for other important matters.
The opening part of the Report describes the lessons to be learned from the first of the Select Committees which have become known as Specialist Committees. First, the Committee was purely sessional and not a continuing Committee. It was appointed only four months before Parliament rose and, although it could have sat through the Summer Recess, in many ways that was impracticable, and it was left with a mere four months in which to complete its work. Those who make criticisms of certain aspects of its work should remember this restriction of time.
In this Session the Committee was not appointed until January, so that it was not able to start its work until late in the Session. It is doubtful whether it will be able to do its work adequately in the time at its disposal. I hope that the Government will take action to make it a continuing Committee, so that if it cannot complete its work this Session it can continue next Session.
The national composition of the Committee may not be a matter of concern to the whole House, but an important issue was raised. There was an attempt to prevent Scottish Members from sitting on the Committee, on the ground that as the Committee was considering the work of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food it was dealing with a Ministry whose duties were confined to England and Wales.
1133 This raised the very critical point of principle that all Members are Members of this House, with an equal right to discuss subjects, whether restricted to their own area or to others. I am glad that this point was dropped after some consultation and certain Scottish Members added to the Committee. May I say that, in the light of the subsequent experience of the Committee, when more Scottish Members had been added, if some of us had not been there the Committee might have ceased to operate at certain times—[Interruption.] If the Welsh Members had also been excluded, I hate to think of what would have happened.
In our Report we make reference to the usefulness in future, if this type of Committee continues, as we hope it will, of considering agricultural topics which are the responsibility of the Secretary of State for Scotland, because there is great value in looking at slightly different methods of administering the same matters, some in the hands of the Scottish Office, some in the hands of the English Ministry.
As a Scottish Member, I believe that the best approach to the Scottish problems is to link them with the equivalent administration in the United Kingdom, rather than to treat them in a separate Specialist Committee which will wander off over nine different topics and perhaps lack the expertise in the framework of reference that one gets from concentrating on a single subject of this kind.
The question of staff is of great importance. There were some rather curious differences of opinion shown in Ministers' statements and replies to the Committee when it took up this question with senior Ministers. As the right hon. Member for Grantham said, we were given the part-time services of one of the most able Clerks in the House, to whose assiduity we have paid tribute. I can see that he is getting embarrassed by this, but it is not satisfactory that we were given the part-time services of one Clerk. The same has been the case this Session.
I have been told by the Lord President of the Council that this was our fault, because we had not pressed hard enough for full-tine staff. That is all very well, but the Committee has pressed, again and again. Even one full-time Clerk is 1134 not sufficient. We require more than that. We require someone to keep, collect and anotate the vast amount of material flowing through the Committee; we require the services of a research assistant if the Committee is in any way to match a Department and not waste its time. I had the embarrassment of going to a department of agriculture in a university and listening to people asking, "Why, when you had the officials up, did you ask this unimportant question instead of getting down to that and the next thing?"
The answer is simply that we are full-time Members of Parliament, with constituencies, and other committees, masses of correspondence and business. Most of us can only devote one or two days a week to the work of such a Committee, and without expert assistance, collating and sifting material, we can neither make the best use of the Committee from the point of view of the House of Commons, nor can we utilise and save the time of the staff of the Department, and the other expert witnesses appearing before us.
It has been asked: why should not the Committee have a civil servant as a member of its staff, seconded from the Department? I must comment on this view because, it is vitally important that when these Committees are properly staffed, as I trust they will be, the staff should come from the Department of the Clerk of the House of Commons or the Library, or be specially hired, as conflicts of loyalty can arise which would be quite unsatisfactory in the case of a seconded civil servant. This actually occurred in the history of this Committee, and I shall refer to it later in discussing the comic, almost Marx Brothers aspects of the problems of visiting Brussels.
At one point in this episode a Minister from the Foreign Office telephoned the Clerk and said to him:I wish to ask you the following questions and convey the following information in confidence. This must not be revealed to the members of the Committee.The Clerk was not very happy at my revealing this fact—he was reluctant to have it revealed. But I think that it is in the interests of the House that we mention this and discuss it. I told him that I took the view that I should mention this in my speech. In this case, a Minister 1135 rang up a Clerk to a Committee to impart information, to ask questions and then said:By the way, do not tell the members of the Committee this.As it happens the Clerk took the right view, that he was a servant of the House, not of the Minister, and revealed these matters carefully and promptly to the members of the Committee. This illustrates the vital importance of these officials being members of the staff of this House, so that such conflicts of loyalty cannot cause any serious difficulty.
I now come to the difficulties that the Committee had in obtaining information and pursuing its activities, particularly about this question, set out in the terms of reference, of its right to have power to send for persons, papers and records. It is important that Ministers consider precisely what meaning is to be attached to this and that the House considers this, too. As the Committee proceeded, we asked for certain papers from the Foreign Office and were simply denied them.
When we asked why we were denied these, no reason was given. There was some argument that they contained remarks about the personal character or capacities of individual civil servants. The Committee wished to meet the Foreign Office on this matter and said that it would be quite content to have those papers with the substantial matters of fact in which it was interested, with any reference to the private capacities of civil servants deleted or blacked out. Alternatively, we suggested that the Chairman of the Committee should see the papers in private, as this has been done on other occasions and he would simply report their contents to the Committee. All these suggestions were turned down and we got a reply, a Departmental Observation which said:…but Government Departments cannot accept a general obligation to produce all papers for which a Parliamentary Committee asks, particularly "—and I emphasise these words—those relating to internal administration.It is precisely the internal administration of a Department which we were set up to investigate. The Foreign Office says that it cannot produce all papers. What papers will it produce? What are the criteria? How do we know that, as 1136 a result, papers will never be revealed no matter what the Committee wants? We need a proper definition of this power, conveyed in the Order in quite absolute terms. What is the capacity of the Government to limit and restrict the Committee's powers in any particular way?
In many ways this was the most serious and important procedural problem encountered by the Committee, because for future Committees this access to papers is absolutely vital. No hon. Members wish to get at confidential matters which might have an adverse bearing on the safety, the negotiations, or the security of the country. We wanted comments on the staffing position which was something purely internal, revealing nothing secret, but which was essential to the work of the Committee. There can be no argument whatever that there was anything in these matters which could not be properly revealed to a House of Commons Committee. We stand today without adequate explanation of this matter.
§ Mr. Peter Bessell (Bodmin)
Would the hon. Gentleman agree that the important aspect of this is that at no time did the Foreign Office suggest that security questions were involved, and that, therefore, in those circumstances, its behaviour was really quite incomprehensible?
§ Mr. Mackintosh
The hon. Member is quite right. No question of security was ever suggested. The questions referred to individuals with which the Committee dealt, by exempting them specifically. When the final request was put no answer was given. There was simply a refusal to comment or explain these matters. This is a most unsatisfactory situation, of which we would like a full explanation from the Government, and a clear record of what is the position for the future.
On the second procedural aspect, that of the trip to Brussels, this has been fairly comprehensively dealt with by the right hon. Member for Grantham. There are, however, one or two other aspects which we ought to consider. He carefully explained that the statement in the Departmental Observations, in paragraph 9 that…the Foreign Office immediately arranged for members of the Committee to meet representatives of the Commission…was, to put it mildly, inaccurate, and that obstructions were raised to the work of 1137 the Committee until the very last minute. We need to go back a little before then, and see the record of difficulties which the Committee had in this matter and to explain the lengths to which the Committee went to meet any reasonable objections that the Government could have had. I say that because I wish to make it clear that the Committee was not interested in making difficulties or unreasonable requests. It was interested only in doing its work.
Originally, the Committee wrote to the Commission and said that it wished to go as early as 26th April. The reason why the Government was drawn into this matter—and here I should like to correct my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Park (Mr. Mulley)—was that the E.E.C. contacted the British mission in Brussels and said, "Precisely what does your Parliamentary Committee wish to talk about?" Therefore, the matter came within the purview of the Foreign Office, which sat on it and held it up for two months.
There then took place a series of meetings at which the Committee explained its position to officials. Each time we received satisfactory replies, only to return to square one once the Ministry officials had returned to the Foreign Office. On 31st May members of the Committee met the Minister of State at the Foreign Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Park. They explained that there was no desire to embarrass the Government, which might then have been entering into negotiations with members of the Commission for British entry to the Common Market. It was clearly explained that we wished only to ask about certain matters of fact concerning the application of the agricultural policy and that if this would cause embarrassment or could possibly be misinterpreted by Governments unfriendly to this country and not wishing to facilitate British entry, we would go officially to see our legation in Brussels and have informal contacts with the agricultural Members of the Commission.
Incidentally, members of the Committee had had informal contacts as private individuals or as members of party delegations. It is extremely humiliating for the House of Commons if a Committee of the House cannot go when committees of the Conservative Party and Labour Party and committees run by 1138 sundry foundations can go with no misunderstanding of their purpose. To suggest that men like M. Mansholt, a man of great distinction and knowledge of European institutions, would be confused between the appearance of a Parliamentary Committee and an official negotiating delegation from the Foreign Office is ridiculous and underestimates M. Mansholt, who understood fully what we were after. There was no problem of communications or any doubt about why we wanted to go in M. Mansholt's mind or in the minds of Ministers when we explained the matter on 31st May. We received no adequate reply.
There was a change of Minister before the next meeting on 14th June. We had an interview with Lord Chalfont, who had misunderstood our purpose. We explained the matter again. He said that it was a reasonable request. Again, he went back to the Foreign Office. Again, we got no further. On 21st June, we had a second meeting with Lord Chalfont, with the same result. Then we had a meeting with the Lord President of the Council, who had not been informed of what had taken place on the three previous occasions. He adduced many interesting arguments, including the argument that the Treasury could not afford the fares to Brussels. When the members of the Committee suggested that they might pay their own fares, there was a certain amount of embarrassment, and the Lord President decided that there were other difficulties. He informed us that we could go to Brussels if a limited number went as individuals, but we insisted on going as a Committee, and it was finally agreed that we would go as a Sub-Committee of the full Committee.
To say at this stage, as the official reply does, that thereafter all was sweetness and light and that the Foreign Office helped all along the line is something of an exaggeration. As we were attempting to board the aeroplane at Heathrow, the voice over the loudspeaker summoned the Clerk to the Committee to the telephone. We joined him eagerly around the telephone and heard the voice of Lord Chalfont asking what our intention was, where we were going and how we were setting about it. When we again explained the matter to him, he said that no official assistance could be given to us.
1139 When we got to Brussels, after this interesting series of episodes, the Head of the British delegation, Sir James Marjoribanks, was, needless to say, extremely helpful. Our sessions with him enormously facilitated the work of the Committee. The private informal meeting which we had with M. Mansholt enlightened us on many detailed points.
As we were looking into the question of how far the Ministry of Agriculture fully comprehended the regulations of the Common Market, how they would apply in practice to British agriculture and the effect which they would have, it seemed only reasonable that, having heard the Ministry's expert and able evidence as to how the regulations work, we should ask the people who made the regulations whether they accepted that this was how they worked in practice and whether it was a correct interpretation, not of British agriculture, but of the regulations. We wanted to know which regulations were important and which were peripheral. These, naturally, were the sort of things which any investigating committee should ascertain.
I hope that the lesson of all this is that it is safe to let Committees of the House do this kind of work and that obstacles will not be placed in their way again. That concludes my immediate points about the procedural aspect.
I was very glad that, at the beginning of his speech, the right hon. Member for Grantham welcomed the Committee and criticised, as I am doing, the Government for giving inadequate aid and support to it. I was very relieved to hear him say that because I thought that it meant that he realised the value of the Committee. Much that he said suggested that. However, at the end he entered a caveat: he was not yet fully convinced of the value of Committees of this type. I suppose that that was a saving clause so that if some day he finds himself on the Government Front Bench he can take the same view of the Committee which Labour Ministers have sometimes taken. I hope that that is not the case.
If right hon. and hon. Members opposite defend and support the Committee, they should make it clear that they will do so in all circumstances. I should 1140 welcome a statement from the right hon. Gentleman on that point.
§ Mr. Godber
Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that he anticipates that I shall soon be sitting on the Government Front Bench?
§ Mr. Mackintosh
I do not anticipate that for a moment, but I should like to know whether right hon. and hon. Members opposite are prepared to say one thing now and another thing in three or four years' time. It is extremely important that we achieve a certain amount of cross-party agreement in these matters.
I was a little disappointed that the debate began with a defence by the Government and with an official reply by the Opposition. I do not think that this should be necessary when we are debating a Report of this kind. It would be unfortunate if the Reports of these Committees were bandied across the Floor of the House in a party fashion. Their purpose is to provide material to enable all hon. Members to take part in debates. It would have been better if the customary procedure had been followed of allowing the Chairman of the Committee or someone speaking on his behalf to open the debate.
I return to the question raised by the Minister about the work of the Committee. He said that the load on the Department was extremely great and that it took the time of many senior officials. The object of a Committee of this kind is to find out what arguments are going on in the Government and what priorities exist among the officials in the Department and to get behind the facade of Ministerial unanimity and responsibility which is normally maintained. This is the constitutional innovation attempted by such Committees. The only way in which it can be carried out is to attempt to break into the thinking of officials who naturally try to present a unanimous and single viewpoint. Therefore, what may appear to be a petty argument about staffing may become critical if we have to ascertain the difference in priorities between, say, the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Agriculture.
On the question of the load on officials, if one is worried about what an official is saying, there is a temptation for a Committee to say, "Do a paper on this". But what one wants is not a paper but 1141 more forthcoming evidence from the officials. One turns to a paper if one is not getting at the root of the matter.
I hope that in a year or two's time, when officials realise that a Select Commitee offers a method of opening up a discussion on policy which it is in the public interest to undertake, then, rather than attempt to preserve a complete stonewall front and give out official explanations, they will say, "It could be this or it might be that and we on the whole think such and such. We have some evidence for this and some evidence for that. We prefer this solution to the problem". If they would be prepared to do this the Committee would not say, "What research have you done? Produce a paper. Let us have the facts". We would all proceed a great deal faster. I am not blaming the officials, but this is one of the things which we, as a Committee, have learned to do. I feel that this is one of the reasons why some of the extra work has been put on the Department.
I turn to the content of the Report. If there had been no Select Committee, it is certain that we would have had no White Paper and no mass of information of this kind.
My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, West (Mr. William Hamilton), on 6th December, 1966, asked the Prime Ministerif he will issue instructions to all the appropriate Government Departments to supply adequate factual information on the implications of joining the European Economic Community"—[OFFICAL REPORT, 6th December, 1966; Vol. 737, c. 1148.]The Prime Minister replied that it is very difficult to have a series of separate pamphlets from different Departments, and therefore he declined the suggestion.
I suggest, therefore, that it is because this committee was set up that we got information which the Ministry already had. I do not dispute that they had this information, but we got it out for the benefit of farmers, the public, journalists, and those interested in the problem of British relations in the Common Market. We got this material out and investigated the matter. I do not think that this debate should become an argument about the pros and cons of joining Europe, and I was pleased that the Committee never 1142 degenerated into this. We asked about the factual implications.
I should like now to comment on some of the matters to which the Minister referred. The Committee was worried about the lack of flexibility in the interpretation of the implications of joining the E.E.C. I think this was a correct criticism to make of the Department's approach. If one is to understand anything in politics or the application of laws or rules, one must know which are essential, which can be adapted and which are purely contingent to the circumstances at that moment. To treat them all as of equal value, from the point of view of officials, is a safeguard against injecting their own opinions or estimates into the matter, but it may not give an accurate picture.
My impression, after going to Brussels, was that the sort of picture we got of the Common Market agricultural arrangements was the sort of picture one would have got of the Catholic Church if one had studied purely the encyclicals of the Pope and never looked at the way in which the Church acted in the various territories in which it worked. It is the sort of picture which many African students, whom I used to teach, had of the British constitution. They would point out that the Queen could veto laws and do this and that and say there was no law against it. That is true, but one wanted to know how the constitution or set of rules worked in practice.
We said in the Report that on certain aspects an explanation of the regulations did not fully bring this out. The best example concerns milk. The milk regulation, as M. Mansholt explained, was a contingency regulation concerned with the needs of the existing members of the Six. It would have been contrary to their interests had the same regulation been maintained after a country with a totally different milk production pattern had entered the Common Market. This was the sort of regulation which would be changed without difficulty and without difficult negotiations. There were other regulations which would require negotiation to change and there were others which were central to the principles of the Common Market which would not have been changed. We felt that this picture had not been fully brought out 1143 in the White Paper. We thought—and I think on reflection this was correct—that the White Paper did not explain what the implications would have been after joining the Market—the dynamic as opposed to the static implications.
This is a long subject. I will not elaborate, but I will say, finally, on content, that we established that there was a lack of sufficient information from agricultural attachés in the member countries in the Common Market, that there had been an over-concentration on the Common Market as viewed from Brussels, and too little about the precise impact on French, Italian and German agriculture, and, therefore, what we could expect in the way of impact on British agriculture and what kind of adaptations were to be expected.
In saying this, it is unfortunate, but inevitable, that an implication is cast that we are criticising officials. Some officials may have felt that we pressed them too hard. I think that all members of the Committee felt that the individual officials that we had before us were as hard working and expert and able as one could find, but it was our duty to investigate the degree of priority their work had, and the sort of interpretations being placed on it by the Minister. It is part of our duty as a countervailing force, which the House of Commons is or should be in such matters, to press and push. We understand the position of officials and there is no element of individual criticism.
I conclude by returning to my original point, which is the security of Committees of this kind. If anything was proved by the work of this Committee, it was the value and the need for getting this kind of information. There was a debate on the Floor of the House on the implications of joining the Common Market on the 8th, 9th and 10th May of last year, and a number of papers and journals commented on the poor quality of information produced by Members on both sides of the House in arguing about the Common Market. The answer, I submit, is that we had not got this report available before the debate. Nor had we reports from the Board of Trade or the Ministry of Social Security. There was only one thin White Paper produced on certain legal implications. If hon. Members are to debate matters as complicated as the 1144 Common Market they must have this work done for them and have the information produced so that misapprehensions can be removed from our minds and then from the minds of the public.
The critical matter, as I have said, is the security of the Committee and its membership in future. It is at present only a Sessional Committee. We have already had experience of, not tampering, but arrangements affecting membership which could have had a very adverse effect on the working of the Committee It is essential that a Committee like this should be left alone and that those members who are developing some little expertise should' be allowed to remain on the Committee Session by Session so that it can carry on with its work and become a body of informed opinion. Yet we had a long delay before the reappointment of the Committee and the coercion—it was coercion, because this is what hon. Members have told me—of nine further members to raise the membership from 16 to 25.
The 16 members had been co-operating satisfactorily and there had been a high degree of attendance. The Committee worked well and satisfactorily. The reason for the addition of the extra nine members was never explained. We are told by members of the Government who dislike Specialist Committees that it is difficult to find hon. Members to serve on them. The standard arguments are trotted out about not being able to man Committees. If that is so, why assemble extra members who are not needed? This is very peculiar. When those extra members met they realised that if the Committee were 25 strong further attempts at careful cross-examination would fall to pieces, so all but one or two decided not to attend. I am not suggesting we are not grateful for the attendance of those one or two extra members, because we have found their membership valuable. I am merely asking: why build up a Committee beyond a useful working number? A number of members decided to stay away or to concentrate on the Sub-Committees, and I am sure that if the Committee is ever cashiered we will be told that poor attendance is evidence that the Committee has not worked satisfactorily. The fact is that it is working very well indeed, and we want an assurance that we will continue Session by Session as a continuing Committee.
1145 I should like the Minister to deal specifically with that, and also with the curious remark—to which the right hon. Member for Grantham referred—by the Lord President of the Council on 14th November:Our original intention was that a Departmental Committee should spend one Session on each Department and then move on."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 14th November, 1967; Vol. 754, c. 260.]That was contrary to the idea of having Specialist Committees. The whole point of the word "Specialist" is that one continues to investigate the same topic. If we move from one Department to another, the whole principle of the Specialist Committees will collapse, as it will if the Committee is allowed to lapse.
At one time when the Lord President of the Council discussed Specialist Committees, he took the view that we should not be like the old Estimates Committee, moving from one subject to another, because that is what it does. That is the major reason for the weakness of the Estimates Committee, and I trust it will be made clear that this Committee is to continue, on the subject of agriculture because, as the Minister said, it is a great success.
I have dealt with the question of the burden of work on officials, but I should like to make the broader point that officials work very hard dealing with farmers' unions, with preparing legislation and statistics, and with pressure groups, and it is, therefore, only reasonable that they should do the same amount of hard work to explain their policies to the public through a Select Committee. That is not too much to ask.
We asked the Ministry whether it had ever costed the amount of work put into the Annual Price Review. We were told that that was impossible. I am sure that the Ministry is costing the work put into this Specialist Committee in case they need to make a case that it should not continue. We will watch that with extreme care, because if the Committee ceases to exist the Government's faith in Parliamentary reform will be disbelieved. This is the touchstone. These Committees are the one effective agency out of the whole gamut of Parliamentary reform left to back benchers, the one method by which we can probe and make good use of our time by questioning the Gov- 1146 ernment. If the Committee ceases to exist Parliamentary reform as put forward by the Lord Presilent of the Council and the Deputy Leader of the House will be dead. Everyone ought to realise that and do everything possible to keep Specialist Committees going.
§ 8.31 p.m.
§ Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine (Rye)
It is a pleasure to have the privilege of being called immediately after the excellent speech of the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh). It is not often that we are able to say to an hon. Gentleman opposite that we hope we are not embarrassing him if we say that we agree with nearly everything he said.
At the beginning of his speech the hon. Gentleman said that if the Finance Bill had been taken on the Floor of the House, and we were bogged down with it, we would not have had the pleasure of taking part in this debate. I ought perhaps to tell him that there are at least two hon. Members present, of whom I am one, who have the best of both worlds in that we are involved in the deliberations of the Finance Bill Committee, and also have the pleasure of being here tonight.
I am not sure that I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would be a good thing if Scottish matters were considered by the Select Committee on Agriculture. I think that some Members would feel that if we are to deal with matters affecting Scotland there should be a sub-committee of the main Committee for that purpose.
I associate myself with everything that has been said about the absence of the Chairman of the Committee. I find it incomprehensible that we are having a debate of this importance in the absence of our chairman, who put in so much hard work which was appreciated by both sides of the Committee. When we get this kind of problem, the usual answer is that the matter will be discussed through the usual channels. On this occasion, however, the Leader of the House could surely have had a discussion with himself and discovered that tomorrow night there is to be a debate on fish which could easily have taken place tonight, and we could then have discussed today's topic tomorrow when 1147 the Chairman of the Committee would have been present. There would not have been any difficulty about the usual channels. It would have been a matter simply for the Leader of the House. I am very disappointed that our Chairman is not present.
I want to make only three points, and I shall make them briefly because they have been referred to already. I can perhaps be even more brief than I expected when I came into the Chamber.
If a Committee of this sort is to be effective, there must be a new approach to the way in which we carry out our deliberations. The Minister told us with some pride that during the Committee's Sittings 33 memoranda were submitted by his Department. He said that that meant a heavy load of work for his Department. Since he is not here, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will convey to him my belief that this also provides considerable work for those on the Committee. In the current Session, I have already received 36 documents—
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Hoy)
My right hon. Friend was not complaining about the load of work but was simply recording the amount entailed to show how much it was. Obviously, if he had prepared it, he hoped that the members of the Committee would at least do those who had prepared it the courtesy of reading it.
§ Mr. Godman Irvine
I entirely agree. I understood the Minister to be claiming that a good deal of work had been done by his Department, and I am saying that if those documents are to be read by the Members of the Committee, they, too, have to put in a good deal of work.
In the current Session, in only four months, we have already received 36 documents. One of the more recent with an annex was the statement of the National Union of Agricultural Workers. The hon. Member for Norfolk, North (Mr. Hazell), who is present, will have read it and will know all about it, but other Members of the Committee have to read not only the document itself but the accompanying memorandum. That is why I feel that the point of the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian 1148 was so important. If we are to make use of the material made available to us, and if we are to ask the right questions of our witnesses, we need more assistance.
During the last Session we had the services of Mr. Taylor, who gave us all that we could have asked from one man. Hon. Members on both sides have paid their tributes to his capacity and willing service. I would like to add mine. It has also been pointed out that he had other responsibilities, and it is asking far too much of one man to service a Committee of this sort on a part-time basis.
Equally, if we are to have this vast volume of documents to consider, we need not only further assistance from the Clerks, but also the type of assistance which the hon. Gentleman mentioned, to enable us to get the full benefit of those documents so that we make use of them and ask the right questions. Therefore, much of this work is, at the moment, being wasted because we cannot make full use of the documents. If we had someone to annotate them and help us to extract the real information which they contain and which we should put to the Departments, we should be much more effective. We need more staff and more assistance.
That brings me to the hon. Gentleman's observations about the size of the Committee. In its last Session, we were much more effective than we can hope to be in the present Session. I hope that when these matters are considered for another Session, there will be no thought of having a Committee of the present size. That is leading to further inefficiency and is making it impossible for us to do our work.
I turn now to the visit to Europe. I and many members of the Committee have been to Europe and seen the Commission, so we took a somewhat aloof and academic interest in the discussions about the Committee going to Europe. But, having had the advantage of going there and discussing these matters with officials in Brussels, I should have thought that, at the very beginning of the last Session, the right thing was for us to go as a Committee to Brussels. Then, we would have been able to see how these things were organised and we would not be working merely from the documents and trying to see what the regulations said.
1149 Had we done that, we would more quickly have discovered the difficulties under which some of the officials were labouring. They had to read the documents and say, from their experience, what would happen if they were put into action. But they had not had the discussions to which the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian referred. They had not discussed, for example, the question of how milk was organised in the Community. Had that discussion taken place, we would not have got into difficulty over the question of milk. Going to Brussels was a vital part of the organisation of the Committee and it was not until somewhat later in our deliberations that the proposal arose of our wanting to go to Europe.
In the Departmental Observations we are told on page 2:When members of a Select Committee travel abroad it inevitably puts itself in a position where its presence at a particular time in a particular place may prejudice the Government's negotiations".There were no Government negotiations taking place at that time. Most of us had been to Brussels without embarrassing the Government and I believe that it would have been most valuable had the Government co-operated and seen that the Committee went to Brussels to see what was happening there.
§ Mr. Bessell
Would not the hon. Gentleman agree that the statement he quoted is a reflection on the integrity of the Committee and implies that had we gone to Brussels as a Committee we might have embarrassed the Government, which we would not have wished to do?
§ Mr. Godman Irvine
That is the point I was making. Most of us managed to get ourselves to and from Brussels without embarrassing anybody and the fact that we went as a Committee does not seem to add anything to the point made by the Government.
§ Mr. Mulley
Surely both the hon. Gentleman and the members of the Committee realise that there is an enormous difference between going in their individual capacities as members of the Committee or Members of Parliament and going as a Select Committee of this House. They undervalue their importance and the importance of Select Committees If they think that going in their 1150 corporate capacity and taking evidence in a formal way is not different from a Member of Parliament dropping in on Brussels, as it were.
§ Mr. Godman Irvine
The Minister of State made that point when we saw him. That argument has been used on several occasions but I remain unconvinced. Members of a Select Committee are not wild animals who will rush around making a nuisance of themselves. If hon. Members are appointed to a Select Committee, Ministers should assume that they are responsible people who may be let loose at least as far from home as Brussels without causing anybody embarrassment.
If the Minister is not persuaded by my arguments thus far, he might be interested to know that I completely fail to follow why it took two months for us to be given an answer. What is more, we then had the privilege of seeing not only the Minister of State but the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor, whereupon another three or four weeks passed before we got any further. There was, therefore, a delay of three months before the Foreign Office decided what it would do.
Then we had the ridiculous business of the telephone conversation about what happened at Heathrow on the very morning the Committee was leaving. We had the other unfortunate aspect of the Chairman of the Committee having to come to the House at 6.15 in the morning to get permission to leave, followed by the extraordinary business of him having a Motion on the Order Paper which, by mischance, was not put—I say it was not put because no doubt it was called—and having to return to the House for a second time to obtain the required permission.
Paragraph 23 of the Report reads:So, however, was the next motion on the Order Paper, giving precisely similar powers to the Science and Technology Committee and standing in the name of the Chairman of that Committee, despite the fact that he was not present and notwithstanding the rule which had given the Agriculture Committee so much trouble".So the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, although he was not present in the House, was given facilities which were denied to the Chairman of the Agriculture Committee a day or two previously. That shows quite 1151 clearly that the Government were not giving to this Committee the support which it deserved.
Exactly the same thing happened in relation to the documents. Two months elapsed before a reply was received from the Government. A further four weeks elapsed after a reply had been received, and a total of 13 weeks had elapsed from the time we asked for the documents until 26th July when the final refusal was given.
The documents which we were asking to see contained confidential reports on the character of some members of the Department of Agriculture If the Chairman of a Select Committee is not a fit person to see documents of such small national importance, it seems to me that there are very few documents which a Select Committee can be allowed to see. If it takes 13 weeks for the Government to reach a decision that seems to disclose a serious lack of co-operation.
Those are the three points which I would like to lay before the House for consideration. The first is that we must look again at the amount of assistance that is available to the Committee. The second matter is the way in which the visit to Europe was handled. The third is the length of time which elapsed in connection with the documents which could surely have been shown to the chairman.
§ 8.47 p.m.
§ Dr. John Dunwoody (Falmouth and Camborne)
The deliberations of this Committee have provided for those of us who have been able to take part in them an exciting and valuable Parliamentary experience. I would pay tribute to the Ministry of Agriculture, whose co-operation throughout our deliberations, both at Ministerial and at Civil Service level, was of considerable value to us. As we have heard, this degree of co-operation was not perhaps so marked with some other Government Departments with which we had to deal. This was perhaps inevitable with an experimental Committee such as this. Indeed, one could suggest that it was right and proper that there should be differences of opinion, and that if there had not been differences of opinion such as we were faced with it 1152 would mean that we as a Committee were less effective.
I will concentrate on the first part of our Report, which deals with the work of the Committee and with the procedure by which we produced the Report. Before I do so, I would say that I wish that we had been able to debate the Report at an earlier date. This is an exceedingly important Parliamentary experiment. We are one of the first two Specialist Committees to be appointed. We are the first to have reported, and the first on whose Report the Government have produced an Opinion, and yet we have had to wait too long before we have had an all too brief opportunity to debate the Report. I hope that in the future there will be some guarantee by the Government that time will be found to debate Specialist Committees' Reports as soon as possible after publication.
When we first met, we discussed the various subjects about which we could have talked. We deliberately chose one which to an extent was provocative and in the mainstream of politics. Some of us felt that it was only in this way that we could test the concept of a Specialist Committee. It would have been easy to have chosen one of a number of subjects suggested to us which would have been less controversial and not involved us in such battles with our Ministerial colleagues. But it would not have produced a Report as valuable as this one, nor would it have provided the experience of the Specialist Committee concept with which we can come here today.
Turning to the membership of the Committee, and particularly the point raised about the recent rapid increase in the number of members, we started with a mere 14. We then increased to 16, to bring in two of our Scottish colleagues. I do not object to that, but it is a little anomalous that we are not able to discuss Scottish affairs. It seems extraordinary, for example, that, every time raspberries are mentioned, the subject is ruled out of order, because raspberries grow in Scotland. Now that we have more than two Scottish members, I think that the time has come when our deliberations might cover the whole of Great Britain.
As for the increase to 25 members, as my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick 1153 and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) said, hon. Members have been press-ganged into becoming members of the Committee. This is at a time when we hear complaints from all sides about the pressure of Committee work upstairs and at a time when many of us find that we have three or four simultaneous engagements on mid-week mornings. It is regrettable that it has happened, and I am prompted to ask why it has happened. I doubt if it was at the request of our Chairman or with the willing acquiescence of previous members. Then again, if we have increased our membership to 25, why has not the other Specialist Committee?
As has been said already, our staffing is inadequate, and it is essential that the staffing of these Committees should be independent of the Executive. The staff should be responsible to the members of the Committee and to the House rather than to some outside body. In this connection, I endorse what has been said already about the quality of our Clerk, Mr. John Taylor, who did a truly remarkable job in most difficult circumstances at certain times.
Our meetings were held in public. Initially, there were doubts in the minds of some of us as to whether that was wise and might not inhibit some of our witnesses. It should not be forgotten that we were interviewing and questioning senior civil servants who were not accustomed to this over a period of hours. I think that it was a welcome and valuable innovation and that it proved not to be a restriction on any of the witnesses who came before us. It demonstrated to the general public and to the Press who were present the quality of some of the people whom we interviewed.
The supply of documents has been mentioned already. I can only underline the anxiety which has been expressed by hon. Members on both sides of the House, first, at our inability to obtain documents which I feel that the House would wish us to have obtained and, second, at the great delay even in being informed that we were not to attain them.
We first applied for certain documents about the staffing of our delegation in Brussels on 26th April. It dragged on and, eventually, on 26th July, we received our final refusal with an offer of a paper. That paper was given to us on 14th 1154 August, when we were all in Recess and when our Report was complete. We faced the same sort of delay in our attempts to visit Brussels. In the end, we were successful in that five of us got there, which was just sufficient to make up a quorum.
We first wrote to the E.E.C. on 22nd March. Over two months elapsed without a reply. Eventually, a protest was made to the Foreign Office here, and that produced the suggestion of a compromise. Meetings took place. On 21st June, we were told that there were strong objections to our visit and that it would not be permitted to take place. Further discussions eventually produced a compromise, and we were informed that a limited number could go for a short time but that our contacts with officials should be on an unofficial basis. On that understanding, eventually we set off.
We have heard already of the extraordinary experience through which our chairman had to go. Not only had he to be here at 6.15 in the morning to obtain the Motion which enabled us to leave for Brussels three or four hours later that day; but he had to sit here all night on the night before when we had what was probably the most important meeting of the Select Committee. I do not think that is the sort of way in which the House should treat the Chairman of an important Committee such as this.
As the House has heard, our troubles were not over when we left the Central Lobby and climbed into our taxis to go to London Airport. We thought they were over, but we had the extraordinary episode at London Airport to which I must devote a minute or two. We arrived at the airport, went through documentation and into the departure lounge and were about to walk down the ramp to the plane when a call came over the telephone to our Clerk. He was asked by the Minister of State for his views on our intentions when we got to Brussels.
I understand that the Minister of State also expressed his view that we might be disappointed at what we found when we got there. Perhaps more seriously and significantly, he suggested to the Clerk that the Clerk should not tell the Committee of the origin or nature of the telephone call. Our Clerk naturally, as I think any Clerk of this House would 1155 do, refused to give that assurance and he told us of the nature and origin of the call.
It was a serious situation that someone who is not a Member of this House should attempt to instruct a servant of this House, the Clerk to a Specialist Committee, in this way. It was in the traditions of the servants of this House that our Clerk responded as he did. We had to hold what I can only call an informal committee meeting, which is not recorded in our Report, in the tourist compartment of a B.E.A. plane from London to Brussels. That is not the sort of way in which Specialist Committees of this House should have to conduct their affairs.
This Specialist Committee has done a valuable and useful job. It is still an experimental Committee. We have made many mistakes. I think that Government Departments have also made mistakes in their handling of the Committee. We as a Committee have to put our house in order. I hope that Government Departments will do the same when dealing with us and with other Specialist Committees in future. Specialist Committees are a powerful weapon which will retain power in this House which otherwise we may lose. Through back benchers on both sides of the House we can protect democracy in this country at a time when it may be in some danger.
§ 8.58 p.m.
§ Mr. J. E. B. Hill (Norfolk, South)
I endorse the criticisms and suggestions made by the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Dr. John Dunwoody). I add my tribute to the work of our Chairman and our Clerk. It is an astonishing mischance or incompetence that this debate should be held in the absence of the Chairman, who was known to be committed to being a witness in a legal case. I cannot understand why matters should not have been arranged otherwise. He has been not only a competent Chairman but a valiant Chairman in dealing with some very delicate and difficult situations. It was due to his and our Clerk's skill that we avoided what could have been a fairly serious difference between a Select Committee of this House and the Executive.
1156 Inevitably in a debate such as this one wants to concentrate on points of criticism, but first I wish to emphasise that our basic conclusion was that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food in its general assessment of a very complicated subject did a painstaking and accurate job so far as it went, which was a very long way even if in our judgment in some directions it did not go quite far enough. It was almost certainly a much more detailed and comprehensive survey and preparation than that carried out by any other Government Department in this or, indeed, in any other country.
I want to back up some of the criticisms about the non-production of the documents. Once there was an apparent variance in the evidence given to the Committee by the Permanent Secretary at the Ministry of Agriculture and the leader of our delegation in Brussels, the letter that was written to the Foreign Office by the leader of our delegation became best evidence. Time does not allow me to go into more criticism. I think I can best summarise it by saying that if the Foreign Office was not playing for a draw from the start, I have never seen a cricket match.
We were much concerned in our Report by the general difficulties of staffing both in the Ministry and in our delegations abroad. The argument about extra help required at Brussels must, in fairness to the Permanent Secretary and the Ambassador, be seen against the background of the scarcity of high and, indeed, medium level civil servants, the men with the requisite agricultural knowledge and experience in a most specialised field.
On 1st March the Committee inquired whence the extra staff for any negotiating team would come, and it seemed clear that in the reorganisation of Government the Ministry of Agriculture had lost some good men and was missing them, for the Permanent Secretary said at Question 115:The other thing which would help us most would be if we could pull back quite a number of exceedingly valuable people who have left us to staff some of the new Departments like Technology, and the D.E.A. But they would have to be pulled back. These are the most valuable people; these are trained people. This is the real dilemma: of course, another pair of hands is always better than nothing, but what you really want is a pair of hands that has been broken in.1157 The delegation in Brussels realised the Ministry's general difficulty but pointed out to the Select Committee that it took between three and six months for a newly-posted officer, even with the requisite agricultural knowledge, to be of real use at Brussels, depending on the extent to which he was familiar with the procedures of the Common Market. This inevitable running-in period emphasises the significance of Sir James Marjoribanks's request for the additional member of his staff in October, 1966. The Ministry, in paragraph 22 of their Observations in reply to our Report, baldly stated that Sir James's delegation had coped adequately in the past, that he had said in April that he would need an extra Assistant Principal in the future and that such an officer was made available and took up his duties in Autumn 1967—a year after the first request.
But this paragraph, excluding mention of the earlier request, is, to put it politely, an over-simplification of what actually happened. Throughout the questioning of two important sessions of the delegation, in London in April and in Brussels in July, Sir James Marjoribanks rightly maintained that the delegation had been able to cope adequately with the volume of the inquiries, and the work put to them, but his evidence implied that some further activities might and even ought to have been undertaken had staff been available. The limitation was not so much as to adequacy as in the scope of the delegation's work.
At Question 603, Sir James said:The Assistant Principal would deal mainly, I would think, with technical inquiries regarding the more detailed aspects of the Community's agricultural policy, and as a result of that he would take some of the burden of this from Mr. Ford "—the agricultural counsellor—and give him more time for that particular purpose, also for thinking about the future developments in the common agricultural policy, because what the Community does in agriculture is a very good, in fact the best, indication we have so far of how it really works and is likely to operate in future.To be able to answer inquiries, gather information from the Commission and disseminate information from home was not, in the Select Committee's view, enough. We concluded that more time and effort were needed for what one might describe as creative analysis and 1158 appreciation of present and future trends, especially in places where the common agricultural policy's shoe pinched the member countries, and time for what was aptly described to me as "think pieces". If the Government sufficiently realised this need, it was not met in time to be of value at the early critical phase, the run-up to our application.
In our journeying abroad, although the Foreign Office's procrastination did not, at the last moment, stop the flight of these five Members, it did prevent the Select Committee from looking further abroad into the member countries of the Six. It was clear to us that the agricultural policy which the United Kingdom might negotiate upon was not that proposed by the Commission but whatever was acceptable to the Six, and perhaps the greatest difference between the United Kingdom and the E.E.C. was in agricultural policy.
It was obvious to the Committee, therefore, that the quality of our agricultural representation in our embassies overseas was all-important. We were concerned at an early stage with numbers of agricultural representatives and were surprised to learn that there were only four agricultural attachés in service—in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, and one jointly for the Netherland and Denmark. When the Permanent Secretary was asked—this is Question 113—where he would put another attaché abroad if he were given one, he said:It would be a terribly difficult choice. I think I would say France.That much specialised work needed to be done in the member countries as well as at the Commission was confirmed by Sir James Marjoribanks from his vantage point at Brussels. He was, after all, seeing what went on all round. At our meeting in Brussels, he referred to Sir John Winnifrith's statement about attachés, and continued—this is Question 1191—In so far as these experts from the various countries of the Community are concerned, they do come to Brussels, but they are here for a relatively short time, and then they go back to their capitals. It is a continual traffic to and from the national capital to Brussels, and it is not always awfully easy for people who are not actual members of the Community to get hold of them. It is really easier for that work to be done in the national capitals where the Embassy has a real status 1159 to go to the Ministry of Agriculture and see the people concerned.It was clear, too, that the Commission at Brussels, under the whole structure of the Economic Community, would not be the body to decide whether the United Kingdom should be admitted to membership. The decision would come from the Six member countries operating under the club rule that one black ball excludes. Hence, it was perfectly clear that the position of France was of great significance, for a whole variety of reasons with which I shall not trouble the House. But the Select Committee as such had no opportunity to visit France.
However, the hon. Member for Merioneth (Mr. William Edwards) and I, on one of the private visits referred to, together with my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart), had a chance in June of going to several of the Common Market strategic points, including a visit to France to see something of French agriculture. It was certainly quite clear to me on the evidence I could get in two days, in which I was greatly helped by the British Embassy, that the case, certainly the prima facie case, was strongly in favour of having a separate agricultural attaché. I do not think that it is fair to place a heavy burden, much of it technical, on comparatively junior officers with other major responsibilities and no specialist training as agriculturists.
This is in no way intended to be any reflection upon the ability or skill of those officers who looked after us, but merely to state that they were non-specialists expected to do a specialist job. It was abundantly clear that in agriculture British and French thinking was so far apart that a major effort was required to remove various misconceptions.
§ Mr. Peter Mills (Torrington)
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is very important also that countries like France should know what is going on in this country in agriculture? It is a two-way movement of information.
§ Mr. Hill
We strongly believe that. It was not something the then Minister of Agriculture reckoned to be a duty of the attachés, though we put great emphasis on it.
1160 There was a curious disparity between the numbers of Ministry of Agriculture officers visiting Brussels and Paris. The figures are given in the evidence. In the two years January, 1965 to 1967 visits of Ministry of Agriculture officials to Brussels amounted to only 28/29 man-days, of which 10 to 11 excluded the purely technical experts. The figures supplied at a very late moment by the Foreign Office of visits to Paris show, in appendix 27, the astonishing difference, in admittedly 2½ years. There was a total of 856 man-days, of which at least 86 were of key officials from the External Relations and the Economic Policy divisions. The Foreign Office might say that this immense journeying of officials obviated the need for an agricultural attaché. But to me it stresses the need.
Much of this is water under the bridge. But even under the veto the agricultural problem remains. Its treatment needs continuing study, even if at reduced pressure, since, whether we are in or out of the European Economic Community, the common agricultural policy, especially as implemented in France, can have a marked influence on our markets and prices. In this connection, it gives me a certain wry satisfaction that the new British Ambassador-designate in Paris, whatever the Foreign Office has said about the need for more agricultural expertise, is the last Conservative Minister of Agriculture. I am content to leave this matter to Mr. Christopher Soames's further investigation and judgment as the man on the spot in command.
The whole of this debate is akin to a post-mortem examination. The Committee has had some modest success. Ministers and civil servants have given evidence in public without disaster or even noticeable inconvenience. I take the point that it was very difficult for them to avoid moving over in public on to what might have been the ground of negotiations. But that still leaves us in doubt as to whether the Ministry, in fact, had all the appreciations about possibilities to which we refer.
Secondly, the evidence contains a mass of valuable information and I should not like the officials to think that these memoranda will be put aside for all time. Anyone getting our volume of evidence and using the splendid index can find a 1161 mass of useful information. The Committee has also thrown some light on various matters of public interest and, as the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) pointed out, we have assisted in setting out the guide lines on which Select Committees may travel in future.
Originally, I was sceptical about the usefulness of these Committees, but I have come to believe that there is value in a long, continuing look by a few—and I stress, a few—hon. Members specialising in one subject over a period and I do not think that it is possible to keep the inquiry and report necessarily within the confines of a single Session. I hope that the House, in taking note of the Report, will conclude that, as long as there is important subject matter before it, a Select Committee should continue to complete its chosen course in its own time.
§ 9.16 p.m.
§ Mr. Derek Page (King's Lynn)
It was suggested earlier that the right hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) would never be on the Government Front Bench again. I am not so sure. He has proved himself honourable and knowledgable, and his joining the Labour Party is, I think, only a matter of time. Be that as it may, I am glad to have been able to play a part in the pioneering work of the Select Committee.
I congratulate the Government on their great courage in instituting the Committee. Having instituted it, they found themselves in the position of a man who takes his dog for a walk, but finds that the dog takes him instead for a fast gallop. But all credit is due to the Government, and the fact that the Committee has been continued and its Report widely welcomed is genuinely a reflection of credit on the Government themselves. I hope that the rumours we have heard of an early winding up of the Committee are false and that it will be allowed to continue its work.
Agriculture is the most important industry in the country. I found that hon. Members, as they continued their work in the Committee, tended to become more skilled in the art of questioning and probing. Hon. Members, after one or two sittings of the Committee, are vastly more valuable at the finish than at the start of their service.
1162 I add my congratulations to the Chairman of the Committee. He stood up for the rights of hon. Members in a way which showed that he has real guts. A lesser man would have caved in many a time. In time to come, the stand he took for the rights of members of Select Committees will be looked upon as a classic example of determination. I am very sorry indeed that he is not able to be with us tonight.
Hon. Members have dealt at great length with procedural issues, which are of great importance, and I add my voice to those who have condemned the procrastination and obstruction of the Foreign Office. This has been proved beyond doubt. But it would be a mistake to concentrate too long on the details, which are plain to any open mind. The big question is why the Foreign Office was obstructive and why it procrastinated. This demands an answer. In my opinion, its obstruction was because, in this sector, above all, the matters concerning the Common Market, the balance was completely against entry. Because it had already been decided to apply to join the Common Market, certain powers within the Government were determined to do all they could to sabotage the examination of this sector, and it is greatly to the credit of the Committee that it insisted on going ahead with its examination.
Certain points flow from the substance of the Report. First, I ask hon. Members to bear in mind the plain statement of the Ministry of Agriculture and the N.F.U. that the Broad outline of the E.E.C. common agricultural policy is fixed. That was the opinion of every expert who appeared before us. It does not need repeating that the Committee found that the Ministry had done its job and that its opinions were therefore reliable. There is rock solid evidence that the broad lines are fixed, which means that it is impossible for the Government to keep their pledge in the election manifesto not to go over to the system of levies on imported food and at the same time to enter the Common Market.
Secondly, we have had considerable discussion about procedural matters and some mention of the effect on agriculture, but careful consideration should also be given to the part of the Report which deals with the effect on consumer demand.
1163 Thirdly, it is clear from the figures which we were given of the relative performances of British and Continental agriculture that the British system has proved itself infinitely superior. I wonder whether the Board of Trade and the Foreign Office have considered the fact that the 2 per cent. difference in British agriculture's increase in productivity is equivalent to a cumulative sum of £40 million a year on the balance of payments. Can we lightly throw away this tremendous advantage which we have built up by our system of agriculture? I do not believe that it has yet been taken into account at all.
Lastly, remembering the tremendously impressive weight of evidence in the Report, it would be madness for any Government at this juncture not to investigate carefully and in much greater depth the Common Market trading arrangements which exclude free trade in agriculture, and particularly the implications of the international industrial free trade area, or, possibly, the North Atlantic free trade arrangements which are currently attracting increased interest throughout the country.
I hope that the information in the Report will be of value in assessing the value of possible entry into the Common Market, and the disadvantages, and also in showing the deep probing investigation necessary in every sector of the economy in considering whether the Rome Treaty type of organisation, or some more liberal and widespread organisation, would be to our advantage.
§ 9.24 p.m.
§ Mr. Alick Buchanan-Smith (North Angus and Mearns)
The hon. Member for King's Lynn (Mr. Derek Page) began his speech by likening the work of the Committee to a man taking his dog for a walk and ending with the dog taking him for a walk. I have a rather different simile. It is that this Committee was an egg laid by the then Leader of the House and the then Minister of Agriculture who found that it hatched not the bird they expected, but a cuckoo. Certainly it has been something of an embarrassment to the Government Front Bench and to the Opposition Front Bench, to judge from the concluding words of my right hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber). Back benchers 1164 have been able to produce something of value, a reform which is a milestone on the journey towards making the House more respected in the country.
One of the factors which have made a success of this venture has been the tremendous breadth of agreement between Members on both sides of the House. I have found this one of the most satisfying features of the work—the way in which the different parties have worked together as Members of the House, rather than as Members of particular parties. It is to the credit of the Committee that at no time during its deliberations last year was a vote ever taken. I know that there were times when some of us disagreed with some of the decisions, but on every occasion the minority bowed to the majority without forcing a Division. This is a most significant factor for the future, and I hope that it will be carried forward by our Committee and others. It has raised respect outside the House for our work and for us as Members.
Speaking personally, the other advantage is that it has given those who sat on the Committee a much greater respect for the civil servant members of the Department whom we were examining. It has brought us into contact with them, and we have got to know them as personalities and people. This contact with the work we are doing helps us to understand the problems which are faced by people who carry out the policies which we decide upon. Speaking as a back bencher, it has certainly given me a much greater appreciation of what the work of a civil servant entails.
The Committee's greatest value has been the assessment of the Common Market, carried out in detail by the Ministry of Agriculture, which would never have been carried out but for the existence of this Committee. The agricultural community at large, and consumers too, owe a great deal to the Committee for having managed to wring this assessment from the Ministry. Its value to the industry is undoubted, and there is value for us in the House, because the Department and the Minister have had to justify their actions and policies far more closely than they would have had to do by debate or Question and Answer.
It has given us a greater opportunity to check up, to keep a watch on the 1165 activities of the Minister than we have ever had before. To that extent it has made the work of the back benchers, and their power, much more real than previously. I found it much more satisfying than just sitting through a debate, sometimes being able to contribute, or being able to ask a very small supplementary to a Question. The Committee has given far more scope to back benchers to do proper work in influencing policy than anything else. A third advantage is that it has given back benchers access to information, statistics and other material which until now has only been available to the Minister and his Under-Secretaries. This is very important, because until now, when decisions have been brought to the House by a Minister, as back benchers we have had to accept them at their face value. We have been able to check them against information provided by outside organisations such as the N.F.U., but for the first time we have been able to look at the decisions taken by Ministers in the light of the same information provided to them. Therefore, it has given us much more scope and opportunity to judge the Minister's decisions and to discover whether the information on which decisions were made was wrong. This gives back bench Members much more control over the formation of policy and makes us much more informed when judging these decisions.
In general, these are the benefits of a Select Committee of this sort. I have found them of great use during the time that I have served on the Committee.
I do not intend to deal in detail with the procedural questions because they have been dealt with already particularly by the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh). In this Committee, we stood by our principles. At no stage in our deliberations did we allow ourselves to be dictated to by Ministers. This has cleared the way and set definite principles which I hope will guide other Committees.
I should like to know whether the Government have found our Report embarrassing. I have been given that impression. Do the Government want these Committees to work? If they do, and in the light of our Report, why was there such a delay in re-establishing the Committee to do its work this year? The Committee 1166 drew attention to the delay in establishing it last year. Secondly, why has not the question of staffing these Committees been fully resolved? Like others, I pay tribute to the quality of staff which we had last year, but we need much more expert advice and help.
Why has the size of the Committee been enlarged? Small committees get things done much more quickly and effectively. Last year, because the Committee was small, we found that we shared the work better. We realised that we all had to work. If the Committee gets bigger, there will be a temptation to think that somebody else will do the work. A committee is much stronger and more effective if it is small; people feel their responsibilities more. Last year, the average attendance was 12, which, in a committee of 16, is a high proportion. From my observations of what has happened in the Committee so far, we shall not attain that average this year. By enlarging the Committee, the Government run the danger of weakening it and making its work less effective.
I turn to the detailed assessment of the Common Market which the Ministry made. As was said in the Report, I do not think that its assessment was flexible enough. I hope that this point will be taken into account when we approach the Common Market next time and that a much more flexible approach will be adopted. Secondly, on the question of our representation in foreign capitals, it is most important that this should be watched as a continuing matter, particularly in relation to dumping and other problems which we face.
I turn to the relationship of the Committee to the Department of Agriculture for Scotland. It is anomalous that the Committee should deal with agricultural policy but be unable to deal with Scottish questions, many of which are identical to those which arise in England. If the Committee's work is to be more effective on a national basis, its remit should be extended to Scotland.
§ 9.35 p.m.
§ Mr. Anthony Stodart (Edinburgh, West)
I should like to join in the compliments which have been paid to the members of the Committee and to its Chairman and to express my regret that he has been unable to be present tonight.
1167 It is perfectly clear that circumstances have weighed heavily against the Committee. My right hon. Friend the Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) referred to the time that was made available to it and to its staffing difficulties. These points have virtually dominated the debate.
The hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) followed my right hon. Friend on these points. His speech was very much in line with many others which we have heard from him. He spoke of the Government's failure to react to the pressure which he said that the Government had urged the Committee to exert upon the Government. I feel that he misses something by being unable to see the expressions on the faces of Members of his Front Bench as his barbs of criticism of them grow ever sharper and more penetrating. Indeed, the Minister of State, Foreign Office, looked rather more like a professional mute at the funeral of the Committee than one who was supposed to be welcoming the Report that it had made.
When I heard the hon. Gentleman talk about the shortage of time and the prospect of possibly having to sit in the Summer Recess, it recalled to me the famous line that I declaimed once when I played the Fairy Queen in Iolanthe, when she imperiously said to Private Willis:You shall sit, if we see reason, Through the grouse and salmon season.The task given to the Select Committee was to investigate the activities in England and Wales of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Looking at it I find it rather extraordinary description of the duties imposed on it, designed almost to put the Scots off the scent, because the only activities of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food outside England and Wales lie in animal health: for instance, the control of foot-and-mouth disease in Scotland. Therefore, it looked as though hon. Gentlemen from Scotland were not going to be asked to spend time on what looked like an investigation of Departmental operations within the Ministry of Agriculture.
But the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian clearly knew more about the workings of the mind of the Lord 1168 President of the Council, because I think it is fair to say he smelled a rat in this direction. It is quite clear that if the Committee were to inquire into things like the European Economic Community and matters of import-saving potential, hon. Gentlemen from Scotland should be in on it. It is fair to say that they have been extremely useful members of the Committee.
I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine), and I agree with the hon. Member for Falmouth and Camborne (Dr. John Dunwoody) and my hon. Friend the Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) that the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for Scotland should have been included. The Under-Secretary of State for Scotland knows of the close contacts which are kept with the Ministry. He also knows of the problems which face Scottish agriculture. The Department of Agriculture is very much more knowledgeable—and I claim no particular credit for this other than the geographic circumstances of Scotland—about the hill areas and their problems than the Ministry of England, and it could probably have given the Committee some very good advice. I hope that when the future of the Committee is mapped out the Department will be included within its sphere of operations.
The Minister spoke of the importance of the work done by the Committee, and I agree with him, but much of the Report has been overshadowed by discussions of a procedural nature. I think that for a considerable time the Report will be of use to those who study and do research into agriculture, provided—and this is perhaps a criticism which I have of nearly all reports of this kind—that someone can find what he is looking for.
The Report is quite well indexed, but I often feel that I have to go by memory, and that when I have to look up something the index shows everything but the reference that I want. The Report will be like another document which I have found invaluable, and that is the report of the great conference on agriculture held by I.C.I. about 12 or 13 years ago. It contains a mass of information which is of constant value to me.
For most of us much of the subject matter of the Report has been forced 1169 into the further recesses of our minds by the pressure of recent events, and it has been very useful, to me at any rate, to read and re-read the Report and to realise how much and how quickly what we knew about the E.E.C. and its conditions had departed from our minds.
I am certain that the Committee was right in its comments about the staffing position in Brussels. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) that we are short of agricultural representation in Paris, and I am sure that our position there should be strengthened. I hope that the Minister will comment on the Ministry's Observations in paragraph 22 on page 6, where it says:Sir James also said that he did not think the representation on the agricultural side would be adequate in the future, and that he was therefore anxious to acquire the services of an Assistant Principal. The Department offered in April to make an Assistant Principal available; an officer was selected and has now taken up his duties in Brussels.When did he take up those duties?
I would have found it intriguing, to say the least, to be told of the Committee's views on a number of points. After all, it consisted of an extremely talented body of people with knowledgeable agriculturists among them. I agree with the hon. Member for Berwick and East Lothian that it was not their job to argue among themselves whether we ought to go into Europe. On the other hand, there is the point about the possible effect of higher cereal prices. The N.F.U. in its evidence thought that the extra acres needed to grow cereals would come from grass, and that the balance of the agriculture industry might be badly upset. The Ministry, in its submissions, thought that, if cattle and sheep breeders were edged out of the low ground, hill farmers would benefit because they would supply most of the stock needed to fill the reservoir. There is a conflict there and I should have been intrigued to know what the Members of the Committee thought on that matter and one or two others.
This Report will be of great value to those interested in agriculture and I sincerely compliment those who worked so hard to produce it
§ 9.45 p.m.
§ The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Hoy)
We have had a most interesting debate. I start with a great deal of sympathy for those who serve on Committees. I realise the limitations of Committees because I have served on the Public Accounts Committee for, I think, longer than any other hon. Member, without a break. I know that such work involves a good deal of reading. If one is to play a sensible part in any Committee one has to read the papers with which the Committee must deal. I found this onerous even on the Public Accounts Committee, but I found the work so interesting that I stuck at it for 16 or 17 years and I hope that hon. Members may stay on this Committee as long, particularly if they offer a party political opinion which I would support.
The right hon. Member for Grantham (Mr. Godber) was a little unkind in his reference to the consultations before this debate was held. He did not ask us, or I would have been delighted to tell him that the Chairman of the Select Committee was consulted and wrote to my right hon. Friend the present Lord Privy Seal on the 10th of this month to say:May I thank you for your kindness in allowing a debate on last Session's Specialist Committee on Agriculture.It happens that on the same day I have to give evidence at the T.U.C.C. hearing at Llandrindod Wells to consider objections to the closure of the Central Wales line.I want to do so as M.P., as well as chairman of the Co-ordinating Committee of all the local authorities.The Select Committee agreed on Wednesday that Mr. John Mackintosh should chair next week's session and I have asked him to speak to the Report in my stead.Kind regards,I hope that that clears up the matter. If the right hon. Gentleman had asked me, I should have been delighted to give him the information in private rather than in public.
There has been reference to the great increase in the number of members on the Committee from 16 to 25. To get the matter in order, we should pay some token of tribute to the Lord President of the Council. This was an innovation which no other Government had attempted. It was something completely 1171 new to the House of Commons. When the Committee was set up, it was to inquire into the Agricultural Department of England and Wales. That was its specific function. As a result of a year's work, it may be thought that it needs to be extended, but there was immediately a protest by my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh).
He and my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) wanted to serve on the Committee. They were not on the Committee in the beginning because the Committee was designed specifically to deal with England and Wales. Eventually the number was increased from 14 to 16. My hon. Friend the Member for Caithness and Sutherland used extravagant language about people being coerced and dragooned onto the Committee.
§ Mr. Hoy
Whatever they said, I am referring to what my hon. Friend said and I assure him that it was sheer nonsense. [Interruption.] I am giving my side of the story. This is my understanding of the position. It is that they wanted the Committee enlarged, and this is the best information I have. Indeed, we enlarged it because certain hon. Members representing horticultural areas wanted to be represented on the Committee.
The Committee has been subdivided into Sub-Committees dealing with horticulture, fisheries and, of course, the general Committee on agriculture. It has, therefore, been divided into three sections, which I regard as a sensible way of working. But, it was not at the request of the Government that the Committee was enlarged, and the Government did not want to coerce hon. Members on to it. The Government acted at the request of hon. Members who wanted to be on it.
§ Mr. Hoy
I cannot say offhand who was consulted. My argument is that hon. Members like my hon. Friends—and they had every reason to make this request—said that the Committee should be en- 1172 larged, and action was taken to meet their request. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] It is no good hon. Gentlemen opposite dissenting. These are the facts.
§ Mr. Maclennan
The initial objection to the absence of a Scottish hon. Member on the Committee arose because it was felt that the point which my hon. Friend is making should not go unchallenged; the point that the Committee was designed to deal with one or two parts of England and hon. Members of the United Kingdom Parliament felt that, whatever regions they represented, they had every right to participate in the Committee's deliberations. This was not an argument for expanding the Committee but of membership of it being open to all hon. Members.
§ Mr. Hoy
I am not demurring from that. I am recounting how the enlargement came about. I have always argued that any hon. Member elected to Parliament should have the right to serve on any Committee, without consideration of nationality. I was hoping that by giving this explanation hon. Members would appreciate that there was no plot by the Government to keep hon. Members off the Committee; and it becomes a little hard to take when my hon. Friend tries to convince me that we were trying to force hon. Members onto it.
§ Mr. Hoy
I will not give way. I have only a few minutes in which to answer the many questions that have been asked. You made an appeal for hon. Members to curtail their speeches, Mr. Speaker, so that many hon. Members could speak. My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian spoke for 35 minutes and little time remains for my reply.
I was asked when the Assistant Principal took up his duties in Brussels. In fact, he took them up on 18th November of last year. It was suggested that some of the papers supplied by the Ministry arrived late. We supplied 33 papers to the Committee and five of them were rather late in arriving. I will come to that. The suggestion was made that information was forced out of the Department by the Committee. The Committee did nothing of the kind.
1173 We regret that the papers were late, but at that time my Department was studying intensively what requirements there should be in any negotiations for entry into Europe. The Ministry of Agriculture had a double task in turning up the facts and figures on what entry into Europe might mean and, at the same time, providing papers for the Select Committee. If papers were delayed, they were delayed for this reason. The Committee should not lose its sense of balance about it, since out of 33 papers 28 were well up to time.
Some papers dealt with relatively peripheral subjects, and in one case at least the paper was delayed, as the Committee knew, only so as to take into account developments in the Community at that time. Until those developments were known my Department could not supply the paper. I hope that we shall be acquitted of any intention to hold up valuable information.
I was grateful to the hon. Member for Norfolk, South (Mr. J. E. B. Hill) who made some kindly remarks about the Department. He is the only hon. Member I can think of who had anything to say about the agricultural content of the Report until We heard from the hon. Member for North Angus and Mearns (Mr. Buchanan-Smith) and the hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Mr. Stodart).
I will just say a word or two about the flight of the five members of the Committee, which apparently was the main topic of the afternoon. It is true that there was some delay in dealing with the application for sending the members to Brussels. The application was one of many. I do not need to go over it all from the beginning until the telephone call that was so aptly reported by my hon. Friend. The telephone call from Lord Chalfont to Heathrow Airport was of outstanding importance. It may now seem funny, but it did not help the work of the Committee.
1174 We hope that in future such things will be smoothed out. The House will remember that this is the first Committee of this kind that has been appointed, and it is the first experience we have had of the working of such a Committee. Obviously, certain mistakes did occur, and certain weaknesses were revealed in the working of the Committee. I hope that we shall correct these mistakes in the days that lie ahead. The hon. Gentleman asked to be assured that the Committee would be kept going. I cannot give a specific answer tonight, any more than my hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian could extract an answer from the right hon. Member for Grantham as to how he looked at Committees of this kind. He said that he was not altogether convinced of their usefulness, and wondered whether they were worth the cost. He said that as an innovation it was paying dividends. I was grateful to the hon. Gentleman for saying that.
The hon. Member for Norfolk, South said that if the Committee had done no more, it had provided him with dossiers on agriculture that would otherwise never have come into his possession. We shall pay attention to what has been said in the debate and, as a result of one year's experience, we hope to be more perfect in the work of the Committee in the days that lie ahead.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That this House takes note of the Report from the Select Committee on Agriculture in the last Session of Parliament, and of the Departmental Observations thereon (Command Paper No. 3479).