HC Deb 31 July 1974 vol 878 cc814-21
The Minister of Overseas Development (Mrs. Judith Hart)

I apologise, Mr. Speaker, for burdening the House with yet another statement, but it would not have been possible to make this one earlier than today.

With permission, I would like to make a statement on the ministerial conference in Kingston, Jamaica, of the EEC and the 19 present associates and 25 new associables of Africa, the Caribbean and the Pacific.

The negotiations were concerned with the Community offer, set out in Protocol 22 of the Brussels Treaty of Accession, to sign a new Convention of Association. The present Yaounde Convention is due to expire on 31st January. The conference covered a number of subjects. A major concern to us was the need to safeguard the interests of the new Commonwealth associables, and I had to have very serious regard to the dependence of a number of them on their exports of primary products, particularly sugar. The Commonwealth Sugar Agreement is due to expire on 31st December next.

In the event, the President of the EEC, M. Sauvagnargues, was able in his second statement to the conference to make quite clear that the British Government have a firm commitment to the import of 1.4 million tons of sugar into the Community. On the other hand, he made clear that the other members of the EEC cannot accept this commitment until the Community sugar régime has been settled.

It was agreed that the Commission of the EEC will seek the views of the ACP countries—the associates and associables—on this question. At the end of the conference, by agreement, Britain issued a unilateral declaration on the subject of our total commitment on this issue. I am placing the relevant documents in the Library.

In the light of the President's statement, the conference was able to proceed to discussion on a number of issues of great importance to the 44—the associates and the associables—and to make the following progress.

It recognised the importance of industrial co-operation. This will be the subject of a separate chapter in the convention.

It exchanged views on the size of the European Development Fund, and on this point discussions are to continue.

It agreed to proceed with further work on access for agricultural products, on non-tariff barriers and on rules of origin. The ACP countries attach considerable importance to these points.

In my view, the most important agreement reached concerned the establishment of a scheme to stabilise export earnings. The exports of developing countries associated with, or planning to be associated with, the Community have been subject to substantial fluctuation of price and quantity, particularly the exports of primary products. It is, of course, extremely difficult for developing countries to formulate or implement development plans when they are deeply uncertain about the future level of their export earnings. The Commission will now immediately begin talks with the relevant producer countries.

The conference gave the opportunity for a full and frank dialogue between the countries of the EEC and the ACP. The Prime Minister of Jamaica, Mr. Michael Manley, and the Foreign Minister of Jamaica, Mr. P. J. Patterson, who was the chairman of the conference, greatly influenced its success. The negotiations will, of course, continue in the coming months.

Mr. Wood

I thank the right hon. Lady for her statement. In relation to sugar, I am reassured to some extent by what she said about the Government's total commitment. However, is she confident that this extremely difficult question can be settled by the end of this year?

Second, will the right hon. Lady put a little flesh on the bare bones of her very important paragraphs about the European Development Fund, and about the scheme to stabilise export earnings? She will agree that, in the present shortage of time, her statement did not impart a wealth of information on these matters, and they are important to us.

Lastly, is the unity of all the associates and associables, which was so evident at meetings last year, still maintained? If so, does the right hon. Lady agree that this was a remarkable achievement in view of the uncertainty of the Government's attitude to Europe at the present time?

Mrs. Hart

I am glad to answer the right hon. Gentleman's three questions. First, export earnings. The right hon. Gentleman will, of course, understand that lying behind my statement, and, indeed, lying behind the published documents arising from the conference, there was a great deal of dialogue and discussion which in the normal way cannot be made fully available publicly. The important fact in respect of export earnings was that there was an agreement in principle on both sides and, in particular, an agreement in principle by the EEC countries to respond to this point, which was regarded as extremely important by the ACP countries. Further work is to be done on that, and I do not think that there is much that I can add to the statements that are being placed in the Library.

Next, the question of the unity of the 44 countries. There was a strong feeling of unity among them. I cannot say, because of the sugar question, that there was equal unity on our side; that is to say, the EEC side. This relates to the right hon. Gentleman's first question about whether I am confident that the negotiations can be completed by the end of the year. I must tell him of the realisation that has come our way since we began our renegotiations that the previous Government's apparently firm commitment that the Community would respect the 1.4 million tons British commitment on sugar is not what was understood. There is still an extremely large gap between the views of the other members of the Community and ourselves which is a great stumbling block to making progress as fast as we should hope. However, I still hope that it will be possible to reach agreement by the end of the year, but this is the major problem that stands in the way.

Mr. Thorpe

Will the right hon. Lady agree that the widest possible access to the markets of the Community and to its development fund is crucial to the Third World? Will she agree also that, although problems remain, these talks represent an advance towards the liberalisation of trade, and that as a member of the Community with Commonwealth links we have a great contribution to make to ensure that the Community is outward-looking, is low-tariffed and has a generous aid programme?

Finally, will the right hon. Lady agree that if all those countries which can do so have either an Arusha-type or a Yaounde-type association, we could be looking forward to the possibility of a free trading area of 90 countries?

Mrs. Hart

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that Britain has a great responsibility in these matters. Our responsibility is to ensure that the consequence of association with the Community does not reduce the advantages that the Commonwealth countries have enjoyed in their association with us. This is the essence of the matter. That means that we are bound—indeed, I played my part, I think, in Kingston—to try to ensure that the Community takes as outward-looking a view as possible on the needs that were being expressed by the Commonwealth associables; and that, of course, raises the question of sugar.

On the question of aid—I apologise to the right hon. Member for Bridlington (Mr. Wood) for not answering this part of his question, but perhaps I can do so now—and the size of the European Development Fund, there is clearly a gap between the thinking of the 44 and the thinking of the Nine. I have to bear in mind the related aspects of our renegotiation on the question of aid; that is to say, that the ultimate size of the European Development Fund within the Community must be related to the extent to which the Community agrees that its aid policy should be broadly on a 50–50 balance as between associates and non-associates. This is undoubtedly a problem that will have to be resolved in the course of the next two or three months.

Mr. Hooley

Will my right hon. Friend accept my congratulations and, I hope, the congratulations of all of us on this side for her firm stand on the sugar issue? Is not the attitude of the eight other members of the Common Market on this a cynical repudiation of what were so-called guarantees given when we went into the Common Market, that the EEC countries would pay serious attention to the interests of the sugar-producing countries?

May we be assured that the other members of the Common Market are not still thinking in terms of the old Yauondè neo-colonial arrangements, under which the other countries are simply suppliers of raw materials to a vast industrial European grouping? There is no evidence, from what I have heard, that they are thinking basically any differently from the old arrangement.

Mrs. Hart

I thank my hon. Friend. One of the interesting experiences at Kingston was the clearer understanding which emerged on the part of the countries of the Nine—I do not include Britain, but the other countries of the Nine—of the insistence of the 44 that neocolonialism would no longer do. It was an extremely interesting experience. I mentioned the full and frank dialogue. The nature of this dialogue was the 44 saying "We are not interested in neocolonialism; we are interested in real steps forward being made on practical issues of concern to us"—which will mean that the Community has to give to meet those needs. This, I think, was the most valuable aspect of the conference.

Mr. Michael Marshall

Will the Secretary of State accept that we welcome her statement, particularly in so far as it relates to the stability of export earnings, and will she further accept that one of the things which we are all anxious to see is something that Britain could do, perhaps immediately under its own steam, for the liberalisation of trade? Many of us feel that the "trade not aid" approach is one which we should usefully follow now, particularly for those countries most affected by the oil crisis; namely, India. Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.

Mrs. Hart

I fully agree with the hon. Gentleman's concern for India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. This raises a whole number of questions on another issue on which I have been very much involved during the past few weeks. I do not think that I can go into that today, although I shall gladly write to the hon. Gentleman if he would wish me to do so.

On the liberalisation of trade, we have to recognise that it is not, within the framework of the Community, open to us to take initiatives that we might otherwise have taken. In the present state of play, we might have to consider this matter in the context of the Community. Our own concern is for maximum liberalisation. We should like to persuade the Community to take the same approach as we should have taken unilaterally. This is the essence of the matter.

Mr. Spearing

Has my right hon. Friend seen page 3 of last Sunday's Sunday Times, which showed—erroneously apparently—that agreement had been reached by the EEC on 1.4 million tons? Might that not have been possible if the Leader of the Liberal Party and his hon. Friends had voted for the then Opposition's amendment to the European Communities Bill, which would have safeguarded the position, instead of being taken in by the blandishments of the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon)? Now the bankable assurances have bounced.

Has my right hon. Friend seen the one-page advertisements by "Mr. Cube"—from my constituency—apologising for interruptions in supplies which, he says, are beyond his control? Does she agree that the Commonwealth countries are no longer prepared to supply the usual amounts of sugar, due to the termination of the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement at the end of this year, that that termination has come about through our entry into the EEC, and that otherwise our supplies at the moment would be assured?

Mrs. Hart

I have seen the report in the Sunday Times. It was absolutely wrong, and I cannot think where that impression came from. Far from there being agreement on the 1.4 million tons, the situation was that we established our different views on this.

I entirely agree on the second point. Our great problem now is that, whereas there had been an assumption that the right hon. and learned Member for Hex-ham had got the bankable assurances that he talked so much about, in fact that proved to be so far from the case that we are really still at square one on sugar. That is the essence of the matter.

As I said in my statement, the Commission will now explore the question of supplies and price with all the sugar-producing developing countries of the ACP. My firm impression is that the answer the Commission is likely to get is that those countries would certainly like to commit themselves to the supply of 1.4 million tons, which, of course, has a great bearing on the present sugar situation.

Mr. Jopling

I welcome the right hon. Lady's determination to import 1.4 million tons of sugar from the Commonwealth, but will she give an assessment of the shortfall in the supplies of sugar which we have experienced and may experience in the future, particularly from the Caribbean region? Is she aware that there is grave concern that this shortfall is leading to shortages in the shops here?

Is the right hon. Lady aware also that there is serious danger that, on top of that shortfall, we may well see in the course of next year serious shortages of supplies of home-grown sugar? Will she explain to the Minister of Agriculture that, in view of the problems of supply from the Caribbean region, the urgent need is for him to take action quickly to make sure that supplies of home-grown sugar do not decline during next year?

Mrs. Hart

While I can hardly speak for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, I should have thought it patently obvious that the present level of sugar production, whatever it may be, is a consequence of decisions made before we came to power. We do not exactly grow a sugar crop in five months. Of course, one is deeply concerned about continuing supplies of sugar for Britain and Europe. It is surely more relevant, therefore, that we should seek to maximise imports from the Commonwealth countries, and the more surprising that the previous Government had not made certain within the Community context, that that would be so.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Oscar Murton)

Order. The House will realise that we have a long way to go and that considerable time has been consumed.