HC Deb 18 November 1969 vol 791 cc1106-12
Q1. Mr. Marten

asked the Prime Minister if he will make an official visit to the European Economic Community Commission in Brussels.

Q2. Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

asked the Prime Minister whether he will seek a meeting with the Heads of Government of the European Community between their summit meeting and the end of this year in order to ensure that no decisions are taken which would destroy the prospect of successful negotiation between the United Kingdom and the European Economic Community in the New Year.

Q5. Mr. Shinwell

asked the Prime Minister what progress has been made in the preparation of statistics and relevant facts relating to the proposed British entry into the European Economic Community; and if he will make a statement.

The Prime Minister (Mr. Harold Wilson)

On Questions Nos. Q1 and Q2, I would refer to what I said in reply to a similar Question by the hon. Member for South Angus (Mr. Bruce Gardyne) on 6th November.

On Question No. Q5, I have at this stage nothing to add to what I told the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition and other hon. Members on 16th October.—[Vol. 790, c. 1180–1; Vol. 788, c. 601–5.]

Mr. Marten

Does the Prime Minister recall that part of his Guildhall speech last week when he referred to the influx of tourists to this country who come to fill their shopping bags in London at prices far below anything that they can get in any of the European capitals? Would he kindly inform his friends at Brussels that the British would rather keep it that way?

The Prime Minister

The question of price levels so far as food, which I think the hon. Gentleman has in mind, is concerned, must be a matter for the negotiations. It is a fact, however—and many tourists returning from this country this summer would confirm this—that the prices of consumer goods in many of our big stores is highly competitive. I am more optimistic than the hon. Gentleman about our ability to compete effectively, and with great benefit to employment, in the Common Market.

Mr. Bruce-Gardyne

The Prime Minister referred to his Answer to me on 6th November. On that occasion he said that he saw no reason to warn the Six against the dangers of an extravagant agricultural settlement. Therefore, can he tell the House why, on 14th November, the Foreign Secretary, in Bonn, gave precisely this warning publicly? How did the Government come to change their mind?

The Prime Minister

The reasons I said what I did to the hon. Gentleman on 6th November was that the Six are fully aware of the problems for themselves concerning the agricultural policy in respect of price levels, budgetary contributions and surpluses. My right hon. Friend, who had important talks in Bonn the other day, naturally discussed all matters with them. But I do not think that he told them anything new that they did not know.

Mr. Shinwell

Will the statement be confined exclusively to the facts and exclude irrelevant opinion by civil servants and others concerned? Will my right hon. Friend say whether the report will be submitted to the House before the next General Election, and, when it is introduced, will he welcome a debate on the subject?

The Prime Minister

The question of a debate is for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, but I should think it inconceivable that, when the figures are available, the House would not want to have a debate.

Mr. Roebuck

And a vote.

The Prime Minister

It depends on the motion before the House. It might even be discussed on the Adjournment; I do not know.

Sir G. Nabarro

We voted once before.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman will no doubt wish to study the White Paper concerned before deciding how to vote.

The content will be mainly factual and statistical. Any textual matters as opposed to figures will be the responsibility of Her Majesty's Ministers.

With regard to the time, I have been doing all I can to get this out before the House adjourns for Christmas. But one difficulty is that as the summit meeting of the Six to consider development of Community policies has been postponed until December, and as our studies naturally will have to take account of the effect on the United Kingdom of adopting various alternative Community policies, I doubt whether it will be possible to complete the studies in time to publish them before the Christmas holidays. But I hope that we shall have them early in the New Year.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

In view of the urgency which the Prime Minister attaches to this problem, is not it curious that he has been beaten to it by both The Times and the Daily Telegraph which have published a series of highly informative articles on the costs to Britain?

The Prime Minister

The articles naturally did not involve the same degree of inquiry and consideration of the facts that the Government are giving to this. If it comes to that, there was a story in The Guardian during the summer which incorporated The Guardian's statistics in this matter. I think that the hon. Gentleman, with his great knowledge of these subjects, will understand the great difficulties and the large number of alternative assumptions which it will be necessary to make so that the House can be given as full information as possible.

Mr. Heffer

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the central question is agriculture—[HON. MEMBERS "Speak up."] I am sorry, but I am trying to raise my voice against a background of what would appear to be opposition. Would not my right hon. Friend agree that the central issue is agriculture, and that the problems are becoming increasingly difficult because of the French attitude towards the agricultural question? Should not my right hon. Friend explain to the House the Government's views on agriculture and say whether it will be more difficult for us to enter the Common Market if the Six make an early agricultural agreement?

The Prime Minister

I have always felt, and I think that right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House who have studied this fully have always felt, that it is the problem of the common agricultural policy that presents the biggest difficulties for Britain. But there is now widespread recognition within Europe that the common agricultural policy has run into difficulties, as I said a few moments ago. The Six are intending to make progress in dealing with some of the problems about the C.A.P. in the next few weeks, and I understand that the French have asked that this be dealt with before the end of the year. For that reason, we may be able to make slightly better estimates—and they cannot be all that certain—if we wait to see what progress is made on the agricultural policy between now and then.

Mr. Turton

Will the Prime Minister review this matter, as yesterday the Chairman of the Economic Committee of the C.B.I. estimated that the cost of entry would be at least £500 million, although many people in this country have made the sum a good deal more than that? There is therefore urgent need for the Prime Minister to give some official figures without further delay.

The Prime Minister

I have very high respect for Sir Hugh Weeks and for the calculation he makes, but he was not—and he was the first to say this—making this calculation in his capacity as Chairman of the Economic Committee of the C.B.I.; he was doing it, as I remember, in an article in the Journal of the merchant bank of which he is the chairman. It is because I take these questions so seriously that, when the right hon. Gentleman asks for an authoritative estimate, I have had to explain what are the problems in making chat estimate, or rather the series of estimates, based on a wide spectrum of assumptions to make it as authoritative as possible, and that is why more time is needed.

Mr. Jay

As to the figures which the Government are working out, is it their intention to press on with their application whatever those figures?

The Prime Minister

As I have said many times in the House, our application is in, and we are ready to start negotiations. In the debate on the south coast in which my right hon. Friend played a part, no one was pressing that we should withdraw our application. If they were, they did not press it to a division—I am speaking of our conference, and I think the experience of right hon. Gentlemen opposite is broadly the same. It was felt in our conference and in other conferences that what matters at the end of the day is the terms we get in negotiations, and we shall not find 'hat out by withdrawing the application.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that no White Paper on the level of prices for food or for agriculture will be of any validity unless and until we know the outcome of the summit negotiations, which may well lead to a reduction in farm prices in Europe? Is he further aware that there is considerable evidence that the more extreme representatives of Gaullism are now being brought under control in Europe, and may we wish him the same success in dealing with their opposite numbers in this country?

The Prime Minister

"Bringing them under control" seems to be a singularly illiberal phrase. The tact that some of them may be seeing the light in the real interests of France is, perhaps, the phrase which I would choose to substitute for what the right hon. Gentleman has said.

Of course, the right hon. Gentleman has made my point tor me, that we should see the results of the summit conference, if there are any clear results from it, before we can decide some of the more relevant assumptions in making our calculations. On agricultural prices, we shall not be making assumptions about Common Market prices but about world prices. Right hon. Gentlemen will have seen that some significant changes are taking place in world affairs, mainly because, with improved agricultural technology in Asia and elsewhere, there has been a revolutionary increase in grain production in countries like India, which, in a matter of two years, will be a potential food export country. At the end of the day, people who try to rig the market in the way that was done by the C.A.P. may find that world forces will considerably affect their intentions.

Mr. Heath

When the Government produce their analysis, will the Prime Minister ensure that the distinction between the common agricultural policy as a system and the prices which are used within that system is clearly set out? Will he point out that the summit conference will be largely dealing with the financial regulation and not with changes in the system to ensure that sufficient money goes into the pool? Will the review also point out that, if we were to use our present support price system, with present prices in the Common Market, the cost would be equally great, but it would be borne in a different form, in the form of taxation which we require to supply those funds, and the movement across the exchanges would be just as great?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. Gentleman has made a totally valid distinction between the system and the way it is operated in terms of prices. We have accepted in principle the system, as any applicant for membership of the Treaty of Rome must accept it, but the Treaty of Rome countries themselves are now getting worried about the way in which it is being administered. We shall, naturally, watch with interest to see what changes they may want to make even before negotiations begin.

As to the distinction between the C.A.P. and the agricultural price support system, many hon. Members feel that our own system of deficiency payments, based on Conservative legislation deriving from the 1947 Act, is probably the best system so far devised. It is interesting that many people in Europe are now beginning to say that the Common Market might run better on a deficiency payments system. I do not know what will come out of that. I was interested to see in the Daily Telegraph on Saturday that the Conservative Party is to change its rather extraordinary policy about agricultural levies and that we are to expect a statement this week, which we shall look forward to with great interest.