HC Deb 11 February 1969 vol 777 cc1118-9
Q4. Mr. Marten

asked the Prime Minister what plans he has following the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference for altering the structure of the Government to give greater attention to Commonwealth affairs.

The Prime Minister

My right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and his colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office will continue to give the fullest attention to Commonwealth affairs and no further alterations in the structure of government are required for this purpose.

Mr. Marten

In view of the growing importance of the Commonwealth, would the right hon. Gentleman not arrange for one Minister of State in the Foreign Office to oversee Commonwealth affairs generally and to be responsible for answering Commonwealth Questions, in principle, in this House?

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman, if he thinks hard about this, will probably feel that our present arrangement is better, in the interests of the Commonwealth as well as in the interests of this House. Certainly this was the view very strongly put to me by Commonwealth representatives at the recent Conference. They liked to have one Department to deal with, whether they are talking about direct bilateral matters, or of course foreign matters affecting third countries. It is far better, and I think that my right hon. Friend's decision to divide responsibilities on a geographical basis means that we no longer have some of the anomalies of having two Ministers dealing with contiguous areas because one happens to be Commonwealth and the other foreign.

Mr. Cant

Would my right hon. Friend accept that there is a considerable realignment of economic forces taking place in the world? Would he agree that there might be some wisdom in setting up a Committee to look into the implications of Commonwealth trade as a whole, with the possible inference that we are paying a very heavy price for it?

The Prime Minister

I am not sure if my hon. Friend is saying that we are paying a heavy price for Commonwealth trade. I would certainly not agree with that. The question of Commonwealth trade—as well as questions of Commonwealth development—is discussed regularly at Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conferences and also at the regular meetings of Commonwealth Finance Ministers. Following the 1965 Conference, I proposed, and it was accepted, that there should be a specific meeting of Commonwealth Trade Ministers to review all these questions. I certainly cannot agree, either that Commonwealth trade is too high, or that we are paying an excessive price for the Commonwealth trade which we enjoy.

Mr. Heath

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is some anxiety about the position of dependencies under the new arrangement? Could he give an assurance that representatives of dependencies would have direct access to the Foreign Secretary on major matters concerning them?

The Prime Minister

This is exactly the position. Just as they had direct access on appropriate occasions to the Commonwealth Secretary, they will certainly have direct access to the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and, of course, on appropriate occasions, to myself as well.

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