HC Deb 17 June 1971 vol 819 cc643-9
The Prime Minister (Mr. Edward Heath)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, and that of the House, I should like to make a statement on how the Government sees the arrangements for parliamentary consideration of the question of British accession to the European Communities.

It may be helpful if I begin by setting out the stages which must be completed before we can become a member of the Communities. We have first to resolve the major issues outstanding in the negotiations. Second, Parliament should be invited to take a decision of principle on whether the arrangements so negotiated are satisfactory and whether we should proceed to join the Communities. If that be agreed, we have, third, to resolve the remaining issues in the negotiations. Fourth, a treaty of accession has to be prepared and signed. Fifth, legislation to give effect to that treaty has to be drafted, considered by Parliament and enacted. Finally, we and the other parties to the treaty have to deposit instruments of ratification of the treaty.

As to the first of these stages, we hope that it will be possible to resolve the major issues outstanding in the negotiations by the end of this month. As soon as possible thereafter the Government will publish a White Paper setting out in detail the arrangements that have been agreed and the Government's conclusions on whether they constitute a satisfactory basis for joining the Communities.

The timing of subsequent stages depends upon striking a balance between a number of conflicting considerations. On the one hand, uncertainty will persist until Parliament has taken its decision. We owe it to our partners in the negotiations, to our fellow-applicants for membership, whose decisions will to some extent depend on ours, and to ourselves, to resolve this uncertainty as soon as we can. Moreover, the marketing and investment planning of British industry, and future planning in many other sectors of our national life, are vitally dependent on the decision. It is right that all concerned should know as soon as possible where they stand.

On the other hand, the Government have always acknowledged the need for the whole question to be fully considered and discussed by Parliament and by the public before Parliament is asked to take the decision of principle on it. Although it is true that the main arguments for and against our joining the Communities have been before the public since the first application for membership ten years ago, it is right that we should take time to consider them in the light of the outcome of my right hon. and learned Friend's negotiations in Brussels and Luxembourg. The timetable which the Government propose therefore, is as follows.

The House will be invited to debate the White Paper before it rises for the Summer Recess. The detailed arrangements for this debate will be discussed through the usual channels. The Government envisage that it should be an expository and exploratory debate, on a Motion which does not invite the House to take the decision of principle at the end of this debate, though we must of course reserve our freedom of action in the event of any substantive Amendment to such a Motion.

Then, when Parliament meets again after the recess, there will be a second debate, at the conclusion of which the House will be asked to decide in principle whether Britain should join the European Communities.

In the meantime our delegation in Brussels will continue to negotiate on such issues as still remain outstanding. The aim will be to carry forward these negotiations and work on drafting a treaty of accession so that, if Parliament decides in the autumn that Britain should join the Communities, the treaty of accession can be signed by the end of this year.

This would allow the whole of 1972 to complete what would require to be done before our accession. In parliamentary terms, this would mean that Parliament would be invited to consider and to pass the consequential legislation, which would be substantial, by the end of the Session 1971–72. Thereafter the instrument of ratification of the treaty of accession would be deposited, in time for our accession to the Communities to be effective from 1st January, 1973.

Mr. Harold Wilson

Since the real issues before the House relate to the few weeks after the Summer Recess, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that what he just said about the proposed arrangements will be welcomed, certainly by many of my right hon. and hon. Friends on this side of the House, and, I believe, by many right hon. and hon. Gentlemen on the other side? Even if we may for a moment feel that it is a pity the Prime Minister did not respond a fortnight ago and so avoid anxiety, we welcome the announcement. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."] Hon. and right hon. Members have a right to express their views about the Government. I welcome what the right hon. Gentleman has said. Although we may feel it is a pity that he did not respond earlier to the general view of the House on this, we welcome the fact that he has done so now.

Mr. Longden

While thanking my right hon. Friend for his statement, may I ask him if he is aware that there will be general satisfaction that sufficient time will be given for the whole issue to be put thoroughly before the country? It must be acknowledged, of course, that this has been the official policy of the Conservative Party for 10 years, and has been endorsed by innumerable Conservative conferences and by this House. Will my right hon. Friend carefully consider allowing, on this side of the House at any rate, a free vote, both on the first debate on the White Paper and on the last debate on the matter of principle?

The Prime Minister

On the general question, a large number of different points of view have been expressed to me by right hon. and hon. Members of the House since I returned from Paris. Many have emphasised the importance of ending the uncertainty and the importance of industry being able to take decisions in a reasonable time. On the other hand, I have always been anxious that this great matter should be discussed on the merits of the substance, and I hope that the programme I have announced has removed any possible argument about procedural matters in the course of settling this great debate. On the second question raised by my hon. Friend, the Government in the White Paper will set out clearly their views about the arrangements negotiated by my right hon. and learned Friend, and the Government will then ask for support for their views and their policy.

Mr. Jay

Does the Prime Minister understand that if, as appears, he does not at any stage propose to ask for the approval of the electorate, in the opinion of many people any resulting decisions will not be binding either on future Governments or on the country?

The Prime Minister

I cannot accept the right hon. Gentleman's constitutional views.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Does my right hon. Friend appreciate that, while I shall want to study in detail the terms of the Motion to be put down, I and many of those who think like me on this matter who will not be catching your eye, Mr. Speaker, at the moment, welcome the programme which my right hon. Friend has put forward as providing the best means of ascertaining whether or not there is a wholehearted approval of Parliament and the people for joining? In expressing that measure of agreement and appreciation of the timetable, I hope my right hon. Friend will accept that I do not find it necessary to qualify it by any observation as to what he might have said a fortnight ago.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for his remarks, including his partial quotation from one of my speeches.

Mr. Thorpe

Is the Prime Minister aware that, whether one is a supporter or an opponent of entry to the Common Market, it is obviously right that adequate time should be given for this matter to be discussed before informed opinion both in the country and in Parliament emerges? Will the Prime Minister accept that it is also very much better that a decision should be reached in this House by the free vote of free men rather than by whipped Lobby-fodder voting as they are told? Will he accept the validity of that view if we then have the picture of the Chief Opposition Whip being prepared to vote as he is told by himself and not necessarily according to his conscience? Is the Prime Minister aware that, although some of us are a little disappointed that the Government have not yet canvassed the case for entry with the zeal one would expect of converts—and this is even more true of the Opposition Front Bench—we welcome the opportunity of having plenty of time to convince the electorate of how right the Opposition were to apply for membership and how correct the Government are to carry on with that application?

The Prime Minister

I think that this programme will give sufficient time for consideration by the right hon. Gentleman of all these matters.

Mr. Gorst

When the Prime Minister said that a decision would be made in the autumn, did he mean in this Session of Parliament or in the next Session?

The Prime Minister

The Leader of the House has not yet announced any date or arrangements for the end of the Session after the recess, or about the opening of Parliament. It is our intention, if this Session continues after the recess, that we should then have the debate.

Mr. Barnett

If the Prime Minister seeks the maximum possible national unity for his great cause, will he also recognise that he is doing the maximum possible harm to that cause, and to those who support the cause, both inside and outside the House, by his economic divisive policies? When dealing with the question of a referendum, will the Prime Minister recognise that it is difficult to argue the case for the Burkean philosophy if the Whips are on, and that the best answer would be to allow a free vote of the whole House?

The Prime Minister

I have outlined the Government's attitude in this matter. The attitude of his own party is a question which the hon. Gentleman must discuss with his party Leader.

Mr. Selwyn Gummer

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to make the best use of the period which he has given us to discuss this matter throughout the country we need as much information as possible, and that those bits of information which are hidden under post office counters should come out so that people can read them?

The Prime Minister

The White Paper which the Government will publish will give all the information that is available to us. The White Paper will, therefore, be a substantial document, and we believe it is right that the House should have this information. We shall also consider what other means can be used to make the information as widely known as possible to the public. Several million leaflets have now been printed. There have been complaints that they have not been readily available in post offices and my right hon. and learned Friend has taken action to try to ensure that they are brought to the notice of the public.

Mr. Bidwell

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that on his timetable he cannot get past stage 2 after the publication of the White Paper if the special conference or the autumn conference of the Labour Party rejects the terms so far negotiated, as we think might happen? Taking into account the views of his hon. Friends, it will not be worth going on with this procedure.

The Prime Minister

The hon. Gentleman can, of course, speak for himself, and it may be that he can speak for his party, but he cannot speak for the whole House.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

As a middle-aged Conservative, may I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his statement today, thank him for it and say that, as usual, he has shown great sensitivity to the feelings of the House.

The Prime Minister

I am grateful to my hon. Friend.

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