§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. James Prior)
The thanks of the House are due to my hon. and learned Friend, the Member for Northwich (Sir J. Foster) and the members of his Select Committee on European Secondary Legislation for the speed with which they have been able to make the interim report. The Government agree broadly with the proposals made by the committee.
The first recommendation relates to proposals for regulations, directives and relevant decisions by the Council of Ministers, and is that the relevant documents should be followed by explanatory memoranda. The Government accept that a memorandum of the kind illustrated in the report should normally be produced for each of these documents by the Department primarily responsible. They may amount to about 300 a year.
1116 The committee also asked for a monthly statement to accompany a forecast of the agenda of the Council of Ministers. Since items are sometimes inscribed on the agenda at short notice, and some are treated as confidential, in the circumstances the Government belive that the most appropriate way of meeting the committee's objective would be for the Government to lodge each month in the Vote Office their estimate of the subject headings likely to come up for discussion in that month. This would, in accordance with the practice of the House, enable Questions to be put down or debates to be arranged.
The committee also recommends that regular statements should be made after each meeting of the Council of Ministers. Taken literally this might give rise to an excess of statements, many of them on matters that do not warrant the time of the House at 3.30 p.m. As in the past, the appropriate Minister will make a statement to the House whenever the substance of the meeting warrants it.
§ Mr. Michael Foot
The Leader of the House will appreciate that in presenting this statement he is dealing with matters which Labour Members argued during the passage of the European Communities Bill should have been dealt with in that legislation and settled before we ever entered the Common Market. Does this not make it all the more regrettable that he and the Government have not been ready to accept completely the unanimous recommendation made by the Select Committee in its interim report? Will he take account of the fact that on the second recommendation there may be all the difference in the world between a statement deposited in the Vote Office and a statement which a Minister is required to make to the House of Commons and on which he can be immediately questioned and which can lead to further investigation?
When the right hon. Gentleman suggests that there may be an excess of statements, will he bear in mind that there has been no excess of statements, for example, on the subject of the dismantling of the agricultural deficiency payments system, with all the consequences for increases in food prices which have been going on for some weeks and which will continue for some weeks ahead?
1117 It is difficult for the House of Commons to discover from the present arrangements whether these increases in food prices are due to unilateral action by the Government, to decisions in Brussels, or to a combination of the two—[Interruption.] The Prime Minister did not have the advantage of serving on that Select Committee and is as ignorant on these matters as he was during the passage of the European Communities Bill. But since I believe that the Leader of the House has applied his mind to these matters, and since the Select Committee recommended that there should be statements, in view of the serious differences which exist over this matter would not the proper way to settle it be by having an early debate on this subject so that we may ascertain the view of the House of Commons?
§ Mr. Prior
If I may answer the hon. Gentleman's last point first, namely whether there should be an early debate, I explained in reply to business questions on Thursday that I did not see an early opportunity for a debate on this matter. I thought that it was for the convenience of the House, and that it was being courteous to the committee—a committee which has worked very quickly—that the Government should make known their views as soon as possible. Those views broadly conform to the Committee's proposals.
We do not agree with the hon. Member that a ministerial statement should be made on every instrument and regulation, because there are at least 300 draft regulations every year. I do not believe that it would be in the interests of hon. Members in all parts of the House for such statements to be made. On the other hand, explanatory memoranda will be available in the Vote Office setting out all the details required in terms of the "dummy" written statement to which reference was made by the Select Committee.
It has never been the wish of the House that we should have too many ministerial statements on matters that are not of great significance to the House, and I would have thought that the arrangements which have operated over the past three months have been satisfactory to hon. Members in all parts of the House. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] When the hon. Gentleman suggests that we should have 1118 statements to see whether it is the effect of our joining the Community which has pushed up food prices or whether it is the effect of our own policies, the answer might prove to be that it was neither of those reasons but due to rising world prices.
§ Mr. Foot
The question of world prices can be debated at any time but what the House has the right to discover concerns the unanimous recommendation of the Select Committee. The Leader of the House has apparently misconstrued what the Select Committee recommended about the monthly statement. It is not suggested that there should be a statement on every regulation. The committee says nothing of the sort. The right hon. Gentleman should have studied that aspect of the matter before committing himself.
Surely the right hon. Gentleman understands that we are considering a matter which concerns the power that this House can still retain over decisions made by legislative bodies outside this country—a very important question on which the committee has made a unanimous recommendation. When the Government differ from such a Select Committee on such a matter, while I do not suggest that the Government or the House must accept the recommendation of any Select Committee, at least the House has a right to debate the issue. Surely the right hon. Gentleman is asking for a great deal of trouble if he says that he will not allow a debate on a matter of this importance.
§ Sir J. Foster
I thank my right hon. Friend for his thanks to the committee. I am sure that he realises that this is only an interim report. I am sure that the Select Committee will wish to see how the procedure proposed by the Government works. It is a useful addition to the debate which is going on between the two Front Benches about the nature and number of statements which there should be. Considerable time will be taken up as yet in taking evidence before the committee can make 1119 any final report, but I do not think that the result of our report is to require a statement on every regulation. The statements concern purely the agenda of the Council of Ministers. I suggest to the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot) that it might be that a lesser number of statements would comply with the requirements of business. Before the hon. Member makes his criticism I suggest that he sees how it works. It might be a successful procedure.
§ Mr. Prior
I am grateful for the comments by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Northwich and I am also extremely grateful for the work that he put into the report. Of course, I confirm what he said—that this is an interim report—and I have no doubt that, in the light of the recommendations which the Government have accepted and in the light of the further consideration of the matter by the Select Committee, we shall have to return to the subject and have a debate. We had better wait and have a further report from the Select Committee. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."]
My reply to the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale dealt with ministerial responsibility for statements. There are approximately 300 regulations in the course of a year. The Minister and the Department responsible for each of these regulations will place in the Vote Office an explanatory memorandum along the lines of the "dummy" written statement. That will give the House a great deal of the information it requires. In addition, there will be a monthly agenda in the Vote Office of those items which it is considered are likely to be raised during the following month either by the Commission or in the Council of Ministers. Again, that will provide the House with an opportunity of seeing those items which are coming forward and will give an opportunity to debate them or to ask Questions in the usual way.
§ Mr. Milne
If, as the right hon. Gentleman suggests, there is to be an excess of statements, what control will the House have over what these statements will be about? Shall we be able to press a Minister to give us a statement on a particular matter? Will the Leader of the House give us a guarantee that these 1120 statements will not be slipped through under the guise of Written Answers, as was done recently by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food?
§ Mr. Prior
We are considering two types of statements. We are considering statements which are made by a Minister and his Department on a particular regulation which will be placed in the Vote Office. We are also considering oral statements which are, if necessary, made to the House consequent upon a meeting of the Council of Ministers in Brussels.
On the latter point, we have to consider how much time of the House should be taken up by this sort of statement. We felt that the Select Committee went too far in suggesting that after all meetings of the Council of Ministers there should be statements. I do not believe that that was the desire of the Select Committee, nor would it meet the convenience of the House. In the interests of the House, we have to consider what statements should he made.
§ Mr. Maude
Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Select Committee never envisaged that there should be statements on every conceivable regulation? Is he also aware that the recommendations of the Select Committee in its interim report are quite circumscribed? They are, first, that the Chancellor of the Duchy should make a monthly statement in which he gives a kind of agenda for what is about to arise so that the House may know what is happening; secondly, that the Chancellor of the Duchy or a particular Minister should make a regular report to the House on the progress of negotiations, and that need only be, I suggest, once a month, as the Secretary of State for the Environment did during his negotiations; finally, that the Minister who is engaged in negotiations on Community institutions should report regularly to the House of Commons if the negotiations are of sufficient importance. Surely this rules out any possibility that the practice could he abused by innumerable statements on minor questions. Will my right hon. Friend say quite clearly that he accepts these limited recommendations?
§ Mr. Prior
Of course I accept those limited proposals, which have been the practice up to now and from which there is no intention to depart. Whenever there is an important meeting of the Council of 1121 Ministers attended by the Chancellor of the Duchy, the Minister of Agriculture, the Foreign Secretary or, as sometimes happens, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, a statement should be made. All I am concerned with, as I think is the House, is that it should not become the general rule that statements are made on minor issues, but I accept what my hon. Friend said.
§ Mr. Shore
The Leader of the House appears to be misunderstanding the issue, perhaps deliberately, although I hope not. What the Select Committee asked for was that there should be a regular procedure whereby we could question Ministers about what goes on in Europe both before the Council of Ministers meets and afterwards. The matter should not be left as it has been in the past, most unsatisfactorily in respect of individual wishes and, at times, the not altogether understandable decisions of Ministers whether they wished to make a statement. That is the least the House can do to begin to take a grip on what is happening in its name in Brussels.
§ Mr. Prior
The other point I wanted to make was that each month, if possible at least a week in advance of the beginning of the month, an agenda should he placed in the Vote Office showing what is then expected to happen in the various meetings of the Council of Ministers during the following month. Of course, there is absolutely no reason why a Minister—the Chancellor of the Duchy, for example—should not make a statement each month setting out what is to happen. But it may be for the convenience of the House if other Ministers also make statements.
§ Mr. Marten
Is my right hon. Friend aware that it will probably be about three or four months before the final report of this committee comes before the House and that in the meantime much very important draft legislation is sculling around in Brussels? What we want is to have debates on those matters in this House—and anywhere else where decisions can be taken in this House—as to the attitude which our Ministers should take towards those draft directives or regulations. Can my right hon. Friend address himself to this important matter? Time is going by and nothing is being done.
§ Mr. Prior
The sooner the ad hoc committee comes to a decision on this, the better it will be for the House as a whole. But in the meanwhile we should find an opportunity for debating draft regulations and draft instruments and I am prepared to consult my hon. Friends and others to see how best that can be achieved.
§ Mr. Fry
Is the Leader of the House aware that an important point arises here concerning decisions arrived at by the Council of Ministers in relation to the way in which these matters will be presented to the House? Will he say, if the House discusses these matters in decision making, what powers reside in the House to halt the operation of, or completely to rescind, decisions arrived at by the Council of Ministers?
§ Mr. Prior
The hon. Gentleman will be aware of the European Communities Act which we passed in the last Session. The purpose of the Select Committee's discussion and proposals is to give an opportunity to the House to discuss regulations and directives in draft before the decisions are taken. The House also wanted to have notice of the regulations or directives in draft and to consider what were the policy implications in which we were involved. This is the purpose of the statement which I have made today. The document will be made available in the Vote Office.
§ Miss Quennell
Would my right hon. Friend define to the House what the minor matters would be on which he would consider it not worth while for the House to hear a statement from the Government?
§ Mr. Prior
As there have never been any directives or regulations on beef prices, I do not think that that point would arise. One has to take a judgment every day of the week on which matters are of sufficient importance for the House to have a statement on them and which should not be the subject of a statement. A day does not pass when Ministers fail to put forward proposals for statements to the House, and it is up to the Leader of the House and other Ministers to decide whether a statement should be 1123 given the time of the House on any afternoon.
§ Mr. Jay
After the Minister's statement, apparently referring only to decisions on regulations and directives of the Council of Ministers, are we at least to have similar machinery for decisions and regulations of the Commission, which are much more numerous and have equal legislative force in this country?
§ Mr. Prior
There are about 3,000 commission regulations in the course of a year. The average length of time for which they are in operation is nine days. They are very similar to the enormous number of statutory instruments which pass through this House, such as changes in minimum price for grain and so on. Over 95 per cent. of these particular regulations refer to matters arising out of the Common Agricultural Policy. Again, the House must take a decision on how it would like these to be dealt with, but I would have thought that the House would become incredibly bored at having to deal with all 3,000 of these very mundane matters each year.
§ Mr. Kenneth Lewis
Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us, while hoping, of course, that he will get a balance on this, do not wish that the House should spend its time constantly listening to statements from Europe and having constant discussions on these, which have to take their turn within the business of the House? Secondly, is he aware that some of us find it quite extraordinary that the Labour Party should be pressing for constant discussion on Europe when it will not even send Members of Parliament to the European Parliament?
§ Mr. Prior
Certainly, if the Labour Party sent Members to the European Parliament it would at least have a better opportunity of knowing what was coming forward in the way of draft instruments and draft directives. What my hon. Friend said in the first part of his question is true. Over a period of time, we have to try to find which matters are of great interest to Members of Parliament and should be discussed in this House and which should be taken perhaps by some other form of parliamentary committee which can meet and sift 1124 these instruments. This is something to which the committee, I hope and suspect, is turning its attention and, the sooner it gives advice to the House, the better.
§ Mr. Foot
Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that we on this side of the House, and I believe many in other parts of the House as well, now believe that the only way we can clear up the confusion, to which his statement has added, is by having a debate? That is the only proper way to do it. For example, in his last reply he said, I am sure inadvertently, that those who attend the European Assembly might be able to find out what are the draft proposals earlier than those who happen to be Members elected to the British House of Commons. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman did not mean that, because the whole point of his Select Committee is to ensure that the British House of Commons has the information at least as soon as anybody else. I am sure he would wish to withdraw that statement.
May I ask him a further question? Pending the debate, to which I am sure he will be eager to agree now that representations have been made on so many sides, will he give an undertaking that the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, who is the Minister responsible, will make no statement of policy on any of these matters to the unelected European Assembly which is withheld from the elected British House of Commons?
§ Mr. Prior
That last matter does not arise and I see no earthly reason why it should. As to the hon. Gentleman's earlier remarks, of course one of the ways in which it is easy to find out which regulations and directives of the Commission are controversial is for Members to attend the European Parliament and to see exactly what is going on. It seems to me quite extraordinary that certain hon. Members opposite can waste the time of this House in the way they are at the moment without having any regard at all to the opportunities that are open at Strasbourg for a proper discussion of some of these matters. I must say to the hon. Gentleman that I feel that the statement I made this afternoon goes a very long way indeed to meet the views of the Select Committee. I would have thought that it was greatly to the convenience of the House to have an early statement on 1125 this matter so that we can get on straight away in having these procedures put into operation. Then, of course, we can have a debate.
§ Mr. Prior
The hon. Gentleman keeps shouting "Have a debate", but I have pointed out time and time again that the opportunities for debate over the next few weeks are very limited. The hon. Gentleman knows that only too well. That is one of the reasons why, for the convenience of the House, I have brought forward this statement at the earliest possible moment.
§ Mr. Fernyhough
Does the right hon. Gentleman think that it is reasonable and fair that the 36 Members who went to the European Parliament—if 36 went—should have a right to more information than any other hon. Member? When he replied to his hon. Friend the Member for Petersfield (Miss Quennell), the Leader of the House said that we had had no instructions about meat, but we have had instructions about butter. It will go up by £86 a ton next month. Shall we be allowed to discuss the increase in the House? Can the right hon. Gentleman say what the £86 a ton increase in the wholesale price will mean on the retail price?
§ Mr. Prior
Opportunities are already available to discuss a matter such as an increase in the price of butter, either by Question or by debate in the House. To that extent there is no difference between the situation before we joined the Common Market and the situation now. The Opposition find plenty of opportunities to raise all those problems.