HC Deb 27 November 1974 vol 882 cc441-50
The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Roy Hattersley)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about business to be taken in the Council of Ministers of the European Community during December. The monthly forecast for December was deposited yesterday.

At present seven meetings of the Councils of Ministers are proposed for December. Foreign Ministers will meet on the 2nd and 3rd December, Agriculture Ministers on the 9th and 10th, Transport Ministers on the 11th, Energy Ministers on the 17th, Finance Ministers on the 19th, and Social Affairs and Development Ministers on dates yet to be set. There may also be a ministerial meeting on the 19th to consider preparations for the multilateral trade negotiations.

At the Foreign Ministers' Council we expect discussion of the British case on the budget to be resumed on the basis of the Commission's stocktaking report. Foreign Ministers may also discuss preparations for the summit meeting which is expected to take place on 9th and 10th December, though much of the preparatory work is taking place outside the Council. They will also consider relations with Greece, the Protocol 22 negotiations and, possibly, relations with Portugal, as well as Commission proposals for the use of the first tranche of the Community contribution to the United Nations emergency measures. They may also review the progress of negotiations with certain Mediterranean countries.

Agriculture Ministers will give preliminary consideration to Community farm prices for 1975–76, and are also expected to consider the new beef régime. It will also be necessary to complete the detailed arrangements for sugar, following the general agreement reached on this subject at the November Council.

Finance Ministers, in addition to their usual monthly discussions on the economic situation in the Community and the convergence of national economic policies, will have a preliminary exchange of views on the draft sixth directive on value added tax and draft directives on the harmonisation of excise duties, and also a report on the French Presidency's September proposals for new monetary measures.

The Energy Council will review progress towards a Community energy policy and consider draft directives on the maintenance of minimum fuel stocks at power stations, limiting the use of natural gas and petroleum products in power stations and a draft Council decision adopting a Euratom research and training programme on plutonium recycling in light water reactors.

Transport Ministers are expected to discuss a draft Council decision on government/railway relations and two draft regulations to extend respectively the system of bracket tariffs and the Community quota affecting the carriage of goods by road between member States.

Development Ministers will discuss two Commission papers on food aid policy and a new aid framework for the Community. Social Ministers are likely to discuss the draft directives on equal pay and mass dismissals and draft regulations concerned with the establishment of a European vocational training centre and a European foundation for the improvement of working and living conditions.

Mr. Rippon

I thank the Minister for his statement. I have one question for him. Will he say a little more about the preparations for the summit? There have been Press reports in which it is indicated that he has made certain observations. In particular, will he confirm that among the subjects to be discussed will be the regional aid fund?

Mr. Hattersley

Let me assure the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it is the wish of Her Majesty's Government and my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that the summit should be held on the proposed dates and should be a success, and all that Her Majesty's Government did and said on Monday was intended to contribute to that end. It was our view then, as it is my view now, that the success of that summit would be best achieved not by Prime Ministers going paragraph by paragraph over a long document but by them concentrating their minds on a number of issues of importance from which decisions ought to flow but on which they should take general decisions, leaving detailed decisions to other Ministers.

Our certain hope is that the summit will take place and that it will consider five, six or seven major issues. I think that regional policy and the regional development fund must be one of those issues.

Mr. Spearing

In replying to Questions my hon. Friend the Minister suggested that the de jure sovereignty of this House would be sustained by continuing the de facto situation under the Luxembourg agreement. Will he say whether this agreement and the requests which may have been made for the writing in of that agreement in a de jure sense will be discussed at this summit, and if not, when will they be discussed?

Mr. Hattersley

I must tell my hon. Friend frankly that at this summit there will be proposals—on what I describe as minor matters, issues which do not affect the direct interests and major issues of sovereign States—that the Luxembourg compromise should be abandoned. But it is not the belief of Her Majesty's Government that that is the correct policy, and we shall resist and, if possible, prevent the abandonment of the Luxembourg compromise.

Mr. John Davies

The Minister mentioned that the new beef régime would be discussed by the Agriculture Ministers. Will a proposal to that effect be before the House before that discussion takes place, and will the House have the opportunity of looking at the explanatory memorandum on that subject before the Ministers meet? Secondly, will the Minister say whether the Commission paper on the present economic situation in the Community will be a matter for discussion both by the Foreign Ministers and by the Finance Ministers during December?

Mr. Hattersley

It is unlikely that the economic condition of the Community will be discussed by the Foreign Ministers, unless there is some oblique discussion of it in preparation for the summit, as the Heads of Government will want to consider a number of general economic matters.

As to the beef régime, the intention of the Agriculture Ministers is to consider, as they are obliged to do by resolution, a new régime to operate at the beginning of the next marketing year. As I think the right hon. Gentleman knows, our intention is to press for an end to intervention as the principal measure of support and for its replacement by what we regard as a more realistic and more acceptable means of ensuring a successful beef market.

I give the right hon. Gentleman the absolute promise that if the Council is provided with the sort of public papers which we are obliged to send to the Scrutiny Committee, those papers will be sent to him. On the other hand, he will recall that agricultural business sometimes moves very quickly and that in the national interest my right hon. Friend has to respond to that movement with the utmost speed. I know that my right hon. Friend sympathises with the concern expressed about that difficulty.

Mr. Skinner

Will my hon. Friend ask the Council of Ministers or some other body—not the Assembly, which has no powers—to look at the way in which the European Movement has been financed by United States secret funds, some of which have come from the CIA, as was disclosed in the article that the Sunday Times commissioned and then suppressed. Will my hon. Friend see to it that this expensive form of brainwashing does not play any part in the referendum campaign in 1975?

Mr. Hattersley

I do not think that I am prepared to ask the Council of Ministers that question. If I did, they would regard me as ridiculous.

Mr. Russell Johnston

May I follow up the remarks made by the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon)? Is not the fact that the hon. Gentleman's statement contains no reference to regional development more than regrettable? Is the Minister aware that it is being nationally alleged that the British Government are dragging their feet over regional development in the renegotiations on the argument that Britain will gain from a regional development fund and that that will detract from the force of renegotiation? Will the Minister take this opportunity to deny that allegation?

Mr. Hattersley

I am happy to tell the hon. Gentleman that I took the opportunity on Monday to deny exactly that suggestion. It is absolutely untrue to say that the British Government are dragging their feet over the regional fund. What the Government have said, and must continue to say, is that an increased regional fund will not meet the budgetary aspects of renegotiation. It would not enable us to say that our budgetary contribution, although excessive, was no longer a problem. A large regional development fund would not meet that need. I made it as clear as I could to my colleagues in the Council of Ministers last Monday that I believe that the Council and the Community cannot succeed unless the more prosperous areas within the Community help the least prosperous areas, and that is certainly the Government's policy.

Mr. Gordon Wilson

Will the hon. Gentleman note that there will be concern on both sides of the House about progress which may be made towards a common energy policy within the EEC? Will he give an undertaking that in the reviews that are taking place there will be no concession or surrender of Scotland's natural gas or oil resources either to such a policy or in furtherance of any other purpose within the Common Market?

Mr. Hattersley

We are very conscious, as were the previous Conservative Government, of the obligation and necessity to preserve the rights over British oil and the energy resources within Britain which are rightly ours. I promise the hon. Gentleman and the House that we shall not deviate from that policy.

Mr. Kirk

Will the Minister accept that, while the Opposition would like to see the summit take place, it would be better not to have the summit if it is not properly prepared?

Secondly, may I ask the hon. Gentleman about the United Nations Emergency Fund? Is it the Government's view that the first tranche should not be released until other States have contributed to the fund, and that the second tranche should not be voted until we have heard from the other States about the first tranche?

Mr. Hattersley

I need notice of the second part of the hon. Gentleman's second question. We have put pressure on other Governments to give a release at the same time as we do. We understand the obligation, which is to provide help where help is most needed, and the Government will not hesitate in bringing that forward at the right time.

I accept and share the hon. Gentleman's view about the importance of making the summit a success. I do not remotely criticise other parties in other days, but previous summits have not been a success. It is not in the interests either of this country or of the Community as a whole to hold another summit that is adjudged a failure. It was with the intention of making the summit a success that I made the recommendations I did to my colleagues on Monday.

Mr. Hordern

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that British beef farmers have no form of guarantee support after the end of January? Whatever may happen in discussions among Agriculture Ministers about the form of support, is there likely to be an early conclusion to the discussions, and is the Minister able to give us an idea when to expect the results of the negotiations to be announced?

Mr. Hattersley

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture is very conscious of the problems which in previous years resulted from the time taken to get a general structure for agriculture confirmed in the Community. In a previous statement the Minister of Agriculture explained that it was the Community's intention to get a general pricing system agreed this year at an earlier date than in previous years to avoid over a wide range of subjects the difficulty to which the hon. Gentleman refers, and that remains our intention.

Mr. Powell

Apart from the matter on which the Minister replied to the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies), will the Council of Ministers have before it for decision any proposals which have either been recommended for debate in this House by the Scrutiny Committee or have not yet been processed by the Scrutiny Committee? If it is inconvenient for the hon. Gentleman to answer that question viva voce, will he put the reply in the OFFICIAL REPORT?

Mr. Hattersley

I understand on the position today that the answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question is, "No, it will not". He will understand, as I know the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) does, that business moves quickly within the Community and there is always at the beginning of the month the prospect that we shall have a decision to take in the national interest by the end of the month which it is physically impossible for the Scrutiny Committee to examine. The Scrutiny Committee on previous occasions has expressed understanding of such problems.

Our intention remains, wherever possible, whenever British national interests can be so preserved—and that is almost invariably—that there will be no progress made in the Council until the Scrutiny Committee and, if necessary, the House have made recommendations. I empha- sise that there are occasions when the national interest requires that that rule should not be observed.

Mr. Small

My hon. Friend addresses the House in polysyllables. I do not know whether he used the word "platinum" or "plutonium". I should like to have an interpretation of what they are talking about in Europe in "plutonium" terms.

Mr. Hattersley

So would I. I hope that my hon. Friend will put down a Question about that.

Mr. Fairgrieve

Further to the question asked by the hon. Member for Inverness (Mr. Johnston), does the hon. Gentleman accept that there is genuine worry in countries on the periphery of the EEC, such as Italy and Scotland, that the speedy setting up of a large regional fund could be currently in danger on the altar of the Westminster negotiations?

Mr. Hattersley

I hope that that is not so. I do not regard either Scotland or Italy as being on the periphery of the EEC. I regard them as being central to it and central to its long-term success. I understand that those countries and parts of countries that might receive grants from the regional development fund are naturally enthusiastic for its speedy conclusion and speedy implementation. That is also our view, but implementation has to be matched against other legitimate needs. The wishes of the Federal German Republic, which have been reported in British newspapers, are strong on this issue. The belief of the British Government that over the general area of regional policy our renegotiation aims are important is strong. I share the hon. Gentleman's view that it is in the interests of parts of the United Kingdom, Italy and the Republic of Ireland where there is severe unemployment that the regional development fund should make as much progress as possible.

Mr. Moate

The Minister said that the sixth directive on the harmonisation of VAT would be discussed at the forthcoming meeting of Finance Ministers. May we be informed of the view of Her Majesty's Government on that directive, and will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that no commitment, even in principle, will be entered into until there has been a full debate in this House?

Mr. Hattersley

I can confirm, as I always can, that we shall observe the rules laid down if it is a legislative proposal in a published paper. We have our rules of conduct, and we shall abide by them. As for the directive on VAT, one proposal concerns the incidence and coverage of VAT, and, therefore, it deeply involves the British Government's view on zero rating. I give an absolute assurance that we shall not change that view and will continue to apply it.

Mr. Ronald Bell

On the beef régime, does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the situation to which he referred, in which it is in agriculture more than anything else that the speed of progress in Brussels defeats our scrutiny procedure, is a situation that we cannot allow to continue indefinitely when it touches important matters such as the beef régime? Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that the two drafts relating to plutonium and railways will not be finally agreed to in the December meetings because this House will not have had time to assess the possible implications of those two drafts, which may be considerable?

Mr. Hattersley

On those drafts, I can only repeat my earlier assurances. It is not within my competence or ability to remember on each occasion whether a draft comes in a legislative published form, which is part of the rules governing the performance of the Scrutiny Committee. If it does, we will apply those rules. As for the beef régime, this House must face realities. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has had spectacular success in a number of areas in improving agricultural régimes and meeting obligations which this House wished him to meet, the most successful of which was the 1.4 million tons of sugar coming in from the Commonwealth Sugar Agreement. To enable him to do that there must be occasions when in the Council of Agricultural Ministers, which meets very often and whose meetings go on very late dealing with issues which arise from day to day, my right hon. Friend must be given the opportunity to use his judgment on behalf of British agricultural interests. I can see no way of avoiding that.

Mrs. Winifred Ewing

Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on the omission from his statement of any reference to fishing? Are we to take it that it is not a subject which will be on the agenda for these discussions? Does he accept the concern of the inshore fishing fleet about waters being over-fished and about the uncertainty of the EEC policy which is due to start in 1984?

Mr. Hattersley

I am glad that the hon. Lady now understands that there is a derogation until the mid-1980s for the Community fishing policy. Her conclusion from my written statement and from what I have said orally is correct. There is no intention to discuss fishing policy in the next month, and, therefore, it would be out of order for me to comment on it.

Mr. John Davies

I apologise for rising a second time. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman realises that the question of the beef régime is one of quite singular importance to British farming. It is a matter to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred previously, as have his right hon. and hon. Friends, as a topic discussed in Brussels. In this really vital matter, is it not possible to give the House an opportunity to discuss it before the Minister takes what may be irrevocable decisions in Brussels about matters of a critical nature for our farmers?

Mr. Hattersley

That question is essentially one for tomorrow and for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. What the right hon. Gentleman understands, and what I must ask other right hon. and hon. Members to understand, is that the Scrutiny Committee is not an organ by means of which there is a general monitoring of what goes on in the EEC. It enables this House—a similar committee exists in the other place—to be sure and confident that those matters proper for legislative concern and interest are not bypassed in some way. To ask for an important matter to be discussed simply because it is important is a legitimate request. But it is for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House and not me. It is not a matter for the Scrutiny Committee. It is one for a general House of Commons decision.