HC Deb 26 June 1974 vol 875 cc1562-72
The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Roy Hattersley)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about business to be taken in the Council of Ministers of the European Community during July.

For some time written forecasts of Council business have been deposited in the Vote Office towards the end of each month. The forecast for July was deposited this morning. On 2nd May my right hon. Friend the Lord President of the Council told the House that the Government intended to implement the Foster Committee's recommendation that there should be an accompanying oral statement. Today's statement is, therefore, the first of a regular series. These statements will normally be made on the last Wednesday of each month. They will provide the House with a regular opportunity to seek clarification of the programmes and timing of Community work.

At present four meetings of the Council of Ministers are proposed in July. Finance Ministers will meet on 15th July, Agricultural Ministers on 15th and 16th July, Development Ministers on 16th July and Foreign Ministers on 22nd and 23rd July.—[Interruption.]—

Mr. Speaker

Order. The House has pressed strongly for this kind of statement to be made. I think that hon. Members ought to listen to it.

Mr. Hattersley

It is expected that the Finance Ministers will be mainly concerned with the economic situation in the member States of the Community and joint action to be taken against inflation. They are expected to consider Commission proposals for economic and monetary measures. It is the Government's intention that before this meeting the House will have an opportunity to debate these matters, to which the Scrutiny Committee has drawn attention.

The Agriculture Council will continue its examination of the problems which have arisen on Community markets for beef, pigmeat and wine. It is now unlikely to consider in detail the future Community sugar régime since revised proposals are not expected to be available in time.

Development Co-operation Ministers will continue the discussion of a Community contribution to the United Nations emergency measures for those less-developed countries most hit by the oil price rises. On aid to non-associates, Ministers will consider the framework for the Community's overall aid policy including the achievement of a satisfactory balance in the distribution of Community aid. This was called for at our initiative by the Council in April and was discussed for the first time by the Development Council on 13th June.

The Foreign Ministers' Council will have a lengthy agenda. The Council may consider an interim report on the matters raised by my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary on 4th June. Other important items are likely to be improvements to the Community's scheme of generalised preferences for imports from the developing countries and the Community's negotiations with Commonwealth and other developing countries eligible for association with the Community under Protocol 22 of the Treaty of Accession. The Council will be preparing for the proposed joint meeting between Community Ministers and Ministers of the Protocol 22 countries in Jamaica at the end of July.

The Commission document on strategy for an energy policy may also be on the agenda. In addition, the Council may have a further exchange with the European Assembly on the package concerning the Assembly's budgetary powers which the Council provisionally agreed on 4th June.

Mr. Rippon

I thank the Minister of State for his statement, to which I think no one can take exception. May we have an assurance that future statements will be more informative?

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that the House will require more than a preview of the headings of the agenda of a series of meetings about which we all know? Will he confirm that the debate which is to take place before the Finance Ministers' meeting will be wide ranging and general, or does he envisage it being limited to matters of detail which have arisen as a result of various regulations and directives that the Commission is currently considering and that the Council of Ministers is likely to have drawn to its attention?

May we have some further information at some stage about the consultations with Commonwealth countries on the extension of the generalised preference scheme and the implementation of Protocol 22? At Question Time the Minister said that many Commonwealth countries wished us to remain members of the Community. Will he clarify that statement and make it clear that no member of the Commonwealth has suggested that it would be better off if we were outside the Community? On the other hand, will he ensure that the House has full information about the ways in which Commonwealth countries believe that the current negotiations can secure the effective implementation of the terms of the treaty? In particular, will he give us further information on what New Zealand is now seeking?

Mr. Hattersley

It is impossible in this kind of statement to the House—I believe that the Foster Committee envisaged this—to give more information than I have given today. The right hon. and learned Gentleman will find that some of his hon. Friends—as well as some of my hon. Friends—regard today's statement as too long rather than too short. Our intention was to model it as best we could on the Thursday Business statement. That is what we did today and will continue to do.

The economic debate which we promised will be concerned essentially with the guidelines of Community economic policy to which the Scrutiny Committee has drawn attention. It is not for me to say how wide that debate will be allowed to go. The terms of the guidelines are so wide that it is inconceivable that any hon. Member who wants to raise a matter concerning Community or British economic policy will be unable to do so.

I fear that the right hon. and learned Gentleman is early slipping into the habit of asking questions on the substance of negotiations at a time which is supposed to be devoted to the timetable. I assure him that in the Council we shall continue to pursue our renegotiation aims, and the interests of the Commonwealth are part of them.

Mr. David Steel

Will the Minister confirm that Her Majesty's Government support the demand by the European Assembly for increased budgetary powers? If so, may I ask whether the Assembly is expected to carry out those powers without a full British delegation?

Mr. Hattersley

The Assembly submitted proposals for increased budgetary powers a month ago. The Council of Foreign Ministers, including my right hon. Friend, agreed that those proposals should be accepted in modified form, but the British Government made it clear that they could not ratify any treaty that might be involved until the renegotiation issue was solved one way or another. The Assembly is not altogether satisfied with the amendments made by the Council to its proposals. In my statement I have just explained that it may put forward new proposals next month. I do not think that we ought to comment on our attitude to the proposals until we have studied them.

Mr. Jay

Is my hon. Friend aware that the work of the Scrutiny Committee, to which he referred, is made more difficult by the fact that what purports to be the legislative agenda of the Council of Ministers is frequently altered, often as late as within 24 hours of the meeting? As long as we are members of this organisation, may we be assured that he will try to ensure that a more civilised procedure for legislation is followed?

Mr. Hattersley

I have the greatest sympathy with the point made by my right hon. Friend. The work of the Council of Ministers is often complicated by the way in which the agenda is changed almost at the last moment. In the interests of the Council, the Government and the Scrutiny Committee, we do our best to improve the procedure, and we shall continue to do our best to improve it in future.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Are we to have no report on the discussions which took place yesterday on the association of Mediterranean countries? That seems to have been an important debate. In particular—a point which concerns my constituents—may I ask whether the hon. Gentleman has any report to make on the progress of negotiations about the admission of Turkish textiles, a matter that is causing great concern in Lancashire?

Mr. Hattersley

It was my view and that of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary that, after a long period of questions devoted specifically to EEC matters, including some related to the renegotiation of terms, and to yesterday's meeting, the House would not want a statement on future European business to be followed by a statement on European business that took place yesterday. It would be unreasonable to assume that every Council meeting of every category would be followed by a statement in this House. I assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that there was a great temptation to make a statement on the Mediterranean agreement as the British delegation—not me, but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade—acquitted itself with great candour and valour in robustly protecting the interests of the British housewife.

Mr. English

Has my hon. Friend seen yesterday's Press report stating that the Foreign Secretary has agreed to complete a questionnaire on political union which includes such questions as this: should the legislature have two chambers? and, how should it be elected? Is he aware that this questionnaire has never been published? Will he arrange for it to be published?

Mr. Hattersley

I cannot arrange for it to be published, but I can give my hon. Friend some assurances about it. The questionnaire includes every question which every member State thought might be included. It does not comprise simply the decisions of the Council of Ministers on what are appropriate or inappropriate questions but puts together every question in one document.

I can give my hon. Friend two assurances—first, that the questionnaire is about to be received, and, secondly, that in due course it will be answered.

Mr. John Davies

Whilst I much appreciate the Minister of State's reassurance on the subject of the economic debate to take place before the next meeting of the Finance Ministers, may I ask whether it is probable from what he has said that there will be further Commission proposals coming forward in relation to these important economic matters as a result of meetings taking place at official level between now and then?

Can the House be assured that any such proposals will be brought forward in time so that they can be adequately debated in the debate to which I have referred? I fear that otherwise we shall be debating out-of-date papers which had been completely overtaken by the subsequent proposals of the Commission.

Mr. Hattersley

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point exactly. We shall do our best to arrive at that situation.

The right hon. Gentleman mentions the problem referred to by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea. North (Mr. Jay), which involves what I might call the administrative hurry into which the Commission and the Council some times get themselves which may make this task impossible.

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer looks forward to the debate as an opportunity to give him guidance on a variety of Community economic matters. We want to make it as clear as possible.

Dr. J. Dickson Mabon

Is my hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members do not share the view of the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) that the Minister's statement to the House today was inadequate? It was a comprehensive statement, and we welcome the fact that there is to be a debate next week on the matter raised in the first report of the Scrutiny Committee. Other recommendations are yet to come from the Committee.

The question of the budgetary provisions, which was touched on by the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) has not yet come before the Scrutiny Committee. I ask my hon. Friend to agree urgently that this ought to be a separate item for debate in the House before we rise for the recess. It was not a specific recommendation of the Committee, but there is no reason why the Government should not point out items of significance which we have not time fully to consider.

Mr. Hattersley

The crucial decision about some budgetary powers was taken before the Scrutiny Committee was set up, otherwise the Committee might have wanted to consider it. However, the Scrutiny Committee in another place has considered it. I gave evidence to that Committee. The matter raised by my hon. Friend about a debate is one for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Can the hon. Gentleman confirm that environment Ministers will be meeting some time in July to consider anti-pollution measures passed by the European Parliament and proposals, which I gather are new proposals, coming forward concerning regional policy? Can the hon. Gentleman say exactly when in July the Ministers will be meeting?

Mr. Hattersley

The pollution question—the Paris Convention—is being discussed in July. There is no expectation that any Council Ministers will be considering regional matters, regional policy and the regional fund, next month, but these questions will continue to be discussed at official level.

Mr. Hooley

Can any steps be taken to hasten the contribution by the Community to the United Nations fund for compensating developing countries for the problems resulting from the rising oil prices? Is there to be a further discussion next month on the general scheme of preferences, which has been widely criticised as inadequate?

Mr. Hattersley

Both these matters are to be discussed next month and were indeed mentioned in my statement. However, I fear that I may have delivered the statement at such a speed that it is understandable if my hon. Friend did not become aware of this point.

Mr. Body

Can the Minister say whether any member of the Commonwealth, or any country in the third world, has to date expressed any regret regarding the renegotiation stand so far taken by Her Majesty's Government?

Mr. Hattersley

The hon. Gentleman tempts me to answer questions of substance. If I could think of an alternative to the phrase "Not next week", that is the answer I would give him.

Rear-Admiral Morgan-Giles

The Minister has said that the Foreign Ministers will not be meeting until 22nd and 23rd July. Would the Government consult urgently with other Governments concerned about a matter of mutual concern, namely, action to be taken about the activities of Soviet spy ships in relation to oil rigs in the North Sea? This is a matter of great importance to us.

Mr. Hattersley

That is a classic business question and is not a point which would necessarily or appropriately be discussed by any of the bodies to which I have referred.

Mr. Marten

Is the Minister aware that one of the anxieties, regardless of whether one is a pro-marketeer or an anti-marketeer, is that regulations might get slipped through at the Council meetings? Would it therefore be possible to append to the list of meetings a list of draft regulations or directives which might be coming up for decision so as to enable the House to consider these before they arise?

Mr. Hattersley

We are doing our best on all these matters and are doing something which is by any standards a constitutional innovation in the House. We are publishing a written statement in the Vote Office, which hon. Members may obtain, consider and discuss, and are making statements virtually every month. We have set up a complicated system of committees which enable the House to scrutinise all these matters. I am not sure how much further we can go on all these fronts.

Mr. Brewis

Will the Law of the Sea Conference be discussed at the next Foreign Ministers meeting? Is it the case that British reservations have prevented a common position being debated by the EEC? What are these reservations? Are not the British Government treating the conference in a cavalier fashion?

Mr. Hattersley

There have been no such reservations during my attendance at the Council of Foreign Ministers. Those attendances amount to every Council of Foreign Ministers during the life of the present Government. The Law of the Sea Conference will not be considered at the next Foreign Ministers' Council meeting. I am open to correction, but I believe that the Caracas meeting is before the Council of Ministers meets at the end of July. Therefore the timing would not be appropriate. In any case, there is a derogation from Community policy regarding fishing and other matters which puts Great Britain in a special position until 1982.

Mr. Blaker

The Minister said that he did not expect the regional policy question to come before the Council in the next month. Will he confirm that the Government are not putting any block on proposals for new action by the Council? In particular, will he see whether we can make speed on the proposals for a regional development fund, which, when adopted, will he of great benefit to this country?

Mr. Hattersley

I am happy to do that. There has been a great deal of Press comment suggesting that vetoes in the Council are possible or have taken place, but neither suggestion is true. The regional fund and policy constitute a complicated matter and are inevitably involved in renegotiation because they are connected with the budget.

Complicated discussions are taking place at official level in the Community. British Ministers are not stopping them from coming to an early conclusion.

Mr. Moate

Will the next Council of Ministers meeting consider further the question of the Mediterranean agreement mentioned by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cook)? I think particularly of the report of an agreement to impose tariffs on citrus fruit coming into this country, which appears to run counter to the categorical pledge by the Government not to impose new food taxes while renegotiations proceed?

Mr. Hattersley

The negotiations on Mediterranean policy were virtually completed yesterday, but not absolutely completed. The President of the Council said that he hoped that this matter would not return to the Council of Foreign Ministers but that any outstanding details could be finalised by the committee of permanent representatives.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade has protected the British housewife in literally every commodity and has substantially protected her in most. That is a cause to congratulate him, rather than for criticism.

Mr. Biffen

When considering future arrangements for reporting to the House on the outcome of meetings of the Council of Ministers, will the Minister resist the temptation to put much faith in Question Time as an alternative to a ministerial statement? What passed for Question Time today did not enable any such examination to take place upon the important point of the Mediterranean trade arrangement raised by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Darwen (Mr. Fletcher-Cooke) and my hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Mr. Moate).

Will the Minister bear in mind that, irrespective of one's views of Community membership, the kind of discussion that took place yesterday ought properly to be the subject of a statement in the House?

Mr. Hattersley

The Government, and in particular my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary, are anxious to meet the wishes of the House on these matters. However, the hon. Gentleman will know that there is a tendency, particularly among seconds in Departments when the head is away, to incline to make statements rather than not make statements. We consider that a third statement to the House today would not be appropriate. However, if the House believes it to be right that more statements should be made, we shall of course consider such wishes.