'A shortened version of Command Paper No. 6003 "Membership of the European Community Report on Renegotiation" shall be delivered to every household in the United Kingdom in which electors reside after that shortened version has been approved by both Houses of Parliament'.—[Sir M. Havers.]
§ Brought up, and read the First time.
The Temporary Chairman
With this we can also discuss Amendment No. 126: Clause 1, page 2, line 12, at end insert—'(7) Only information supplied by the Britain in Europe and the National Referendum Campaign shall be officially delivered to every household in the United Kingdom in which electors reside'.
§ Sir M. Havers
This is a clause which by reason of its clarity and its breathtaking simplicity will, I am sure, be attractive to every member of the Committee, except, perhaps those who manage the Government's business. What is suggested is that the House should have a say about the form of the mini White Paper which it is proposed should be sent to every household. This White Paper would be a digest of Command Paper 6003, published before the Bill.
We all know that a digest can be inaccurate. If all hon. Members were invited to make a digest of the White 1691 Paper, the results would all be different and no one would agree with anyone else's version. The emphasis can be shifted quite unintentionally. Accordingly, it seems that the House should have the chance to consider the version put forward by the Government. The Government could then take into consideration the views expressed, and it is much more likely that the final version would be one which not only met with the approval of the House but had the further advantage of being fair to both sides.
§ Mr. Ron Thomas
There are many Labour Members who feel a sense of injustice because they are unable to move Amendment No. 126, which would give us an opportunity to make a clear-cut judgment on whether the White Paper of the kind the Government have already produced, or any White Paper, should be distributed in the way set out in the Bill. The issue of a "Comic Cuts" version of this White Paper is in many ways more fundamental than the whole question of the information unit or of the amount of funds available to both sides.
I remind my hon. Friends of what we said in our manifesto. We said:But whatever the outcome in Brussels, the decision will be taken here by the British people." Many of our supporters took that to mean that the Government would take a neutral stance. They thought it meant that the Government would do their best in the negotiations but would not come down so heavily on one side of the argument as they have done.
Of course we welcome the referendum. One of the main reasons why I welcome it has to do with the issue of sovereignty which, I believe, belongs not here but to the British people. A number of Conservative Members have referred to Burke and other political theorists. I remember the Leader of the Opposition almost stating that the democratic processes of Britain had been won by the stroke of a pen by Dicey. My history of the winning of the democratic franchise from 1832 onwards is rather different.
The British people are being called upon to give up their sovereignty, and 1692 only they can make a decision as to whether or not they should give it up. In arriving at that decision, I hope that the party of which I am a member will ensure to the utmost that the British people can make a considered judgment without all the many pressures which have been highlighted during this debate, and that the Government will not add to them.
In my judgment, the White Paper is full of blatant distortions. We went through them when we debated the White Paper. An important Community document was distorted when it was reproduced in this White Paper. We can go on asking questions which we asked during that debate, but on that occasion we received no satisfactory answers from our Front Bench.
If the White Paper is full of distortions, Heaven help us when we see the "Comic Cuts" version, because a smaller document is bound to be much more full of these distortions. If the British people decide that they wish to stay in the Common Market on the basis of the White Paper and then realise within a few months that what the Government have said in the White Paper is untrue, it will do the Government, this party and the House no good whatever.
The issue of the White Paper as a "Comic Cuts" version is also likely to lead to distortion in communications, because I am told that the media, and certainly one programme, are already asking questions about the Market and giving answers from the White Paper, saying that they do not come down on one side or another but that they are in the middle of the spectrum because the White Paper carries with it the aura of responsibility and respectability. I am pretty certain that many in this Committee consider that it is a distortion of what happened in the negotiations.
I suggest to the Front Bench that the majority on this side who voted against the White Paper were voting against what we felt was the failure to achieve renegotiation objectives, but also felt that what was achieved was given a completely distorted slant in the White Paper. I appeal to the Government to think seriously about this matter. I hope they will come to a decision not to issue a "Comic Cuts" version of the White Paper.
§ Mr. Goodhart
I find myself in broad agreement with at least part of what the hon. Member for Bristol, North-West (Mr. Thomas) said.
The Parliamentary Secretary earlier suggested that there were recent successful precedents for the Government to distribute to every household information of the sort contained in the White Paper. I am not sure that I entirely agree that the precedents have been entirely successful or that they are in any way exact.
The first example to which I think the Minister was referring was the distribution of a pamphlet about decimal coinage. That went to about half of the households throughout the country. There was then a postal strike. I gather that the distribution of that pamphlet has been abandoned. I am told that at present there is the distribution of a booklet about fire precautions. This again has reached about half of the households, and distribution has been suspended for the duration of the referendum campaign.
§ Mr. William Price
The hon. Gentleman is quite correct. The first one was about fire precautions. He is wrong about the other one, which was "How to Catch a Thief." All that I was arguing was that from a practical point of view the Post Office says that this can be done, it has been done and the Home Office is satisfied.
§ Mr. Goodhart
It can be and has been done. In 1948 I managed to initiate the distribution of a pamphlet on national insurance to every household, and after a while people knew how to choose a doctor under the National Health Service. I accept that it has been done and can be done. In every case in the past, however, this has been done on factual, non-controversial, non-political material. As far as I know, this is the first time in our history that it has been suggested that the Government should distribute to every household in the country a document which is of a substantially political nature.
One ought to ask a few questions about the preparation of the document. Who is drawing it up? I have seen reference to the possibility that the main author of this popular version of the White Paper is the man who dreamed up the "Whose finger on the trigger" stunt that marred 1694 the end of the 1950 General Election campaign. Who is drawing up this mini White Paper, and who will have a look at it when the draft is prepared? Presumably the Cabinet will have a look at it—although these days one cannot be sure that it will be shown to all members of the Cabinet. Will a draft be shown to the Leader of the Opposition, the Leader of the Liberal Party or the leaders of the other political parties in Parliament? On an issue of extreme political sensitivity, with a document going to every household, surely it ought to be looked at with extreme care.
I hope that it is planned to show the document to the leaders of all Opposition parties in Parliament. But above all, before we send out a document that can play an important part in the whole referendum campaign, it should be scrutinised by Parliament itelf. It should be approved by Parliament before we take this wholly unprecedented step of sending, with the Government's seal of approval, what is frankly a political document to every household in the country.
§ Mr. English
As I have said before, I am frankly dismayed by the spread of authoritarian means of government into our own Government. But the amendment is not much of an improvement. It suggests that the House of Commons, which was not elected for the purpose, should decide the format of this version of the White Paper. I shudder to think of the House of Commons commenting on a multi-page, multi-coloured document of this character.
However, no one in the House of Commons, on either side—and not the 16 little men who are frightened because there should be only 11 of them in the Cabinet; 11 out of 16, to give them their due-proportion of their own party—none of those men nor anyone on the Opposition Front Bench has ever suggested being as fair as the Australians are.
In the Australian Referendum Acts the suggestion is perfectly simple. The "Yes" case, which is usually the Government's case, is decided by those Members of Parliament who vote "Yes" in the debate on the subsequent referendum. The "No" case, which is usually that of the Opposition, is decided by the Members of the Australian House of Commons who voted "No" in the debate on the referendum. 1695 On that basis, if we had done that there would have been no Government White Paper separate from the "Yes" vote. The "Yes" and the "No" publications would have been decided by the respective factions in the House of Commons.
That is how fairly it is done in the British Commonwealth, which follows our ancient ideals of fairness. That is the difference between the fair way and the grossly unfair, potentially based way in which the Government and the authors of the amendment approach this question.
§ Sir Michael Havers
I have done my best to follow the reasoning of the hon. Member for Nottingham, West (Mr. English), although that was not easy. The hon. Gentleman says that in Australia each side decides how its paper should be written. I do not see how that contradicts my suggestion that Parliament should have the right to comment so that the Government could finally adjust the White Paper upon an overall consideration of what has been said.
§ Mr. English
I concede that the hon. and learned Gentleman's method is marginally better than that of the Government. The Government's case was decided by only 16 people. The hon. and learned Gentleman is at least offering us some more. Both are examples of biased authoritarian methods.
§ Mr. Hoyle
If the Government intend to persist with the idea of sending out the White Paper, they should bear in mind that when the Tories sent out their information about the Common Market through the Post Office the matter was discussed by the Labour Party, which roundly condemned the proposal. The members of the Labour Party were disturbed. Having condemned the Tories for doing that, why should the Government persist in sending out to every household their version of the White Paper? It is unfair. I appeal to the Parliamentary Secretary to take that matter into consideration. When he replies, perhaps he will be able to say whether the Government will reconsider their decision.
§ Mr. Emery
The Government surely cannot object to Parliament debating the document which is to be produced.
1696 I was concerned at the criticisms of the Conservative Government when the document which they issued was not considered by Parliament. I was not thinking that a referendum on EEC matters would be reintroduced. However, I recommended that if documents containing Government ideas were to be issued they should first be debated in the House.
The Minister will say that the time scale is different. The Government have got themselves into this silly position. They have settled the date. They said that the referendum would be held on 5th June. If the date is put back to the 19th most of the Government's arguments about the difficulties of the time scale will pale into insignificance.
I do not accept the argument from the Treasury Bench that this proposal must he opposed because of the time scale. If there are other arguments, I shall be delighted to hear them. If no others are produced, I hope that all hon. Members will unite to ensure that a debate on the document takes place. I am sure that sufficient hon. Members agree with me to ensure that we shall win our case if we put it to a Division.
§ 2.30 a.m.
§ Mr. William Price
The hon. Member for Honiton (Mr. Emery) was right about this being basically a time scale argument. The point of the new clause is whether Parliament should approve the text of the popular version of the White Paper. We see a number of objections to that proposition. The clause does not say whether the document would be subject to a vote as it stood or whether it might be envisaged that there would, as I suspect, be a procedure for amendment. If that were the case, the task of securing approval would be likely to be very substantial and take up a great deal of parliamentary time.
Even if the document were to be subject to a "take it or leave it" arrangement—I think that would be unacceptable to the House of Commons—securing approval of it could still give rise to extensive parliamentary debate, in addition to the full debate on the renegotiated terms to which the original version of the White Paper was relevant and to which overwhelming approval was given.
1697 I suspect that the hon. and learned Member for Wimbledon (Sir M. Havers) doubts the ability of the Government to produce a fair and objective popular version of the White Paper. Time alone will tell whether that has been done. I believe that it is possible, and that in that respect at least we shall meet the satisfaction of the Committee.
The conclusive objection to the clause, however, is the practical one. We mentioned earlier that plans for the printing of the document are well advanced, subject—I stress this point—to parliamentary approval. Even then it will only just be possible to achieve complete distribution a week or 10 days before polling day if all goes well with the printers.
§ Sir Michael Havers
Is the Committee to understand that the printing—I do not mean the physical printing—is already advanced in that the draft has been prepared and agreed?
§ Mr. Price
As I explained earlier, there are real printing difficulties these days. That is why so many firms are involved. There is a shortage of printing material. There is an absolute shortage of envelopes too. That was one of the main reasons why we came to the view that acceptance of the new clause was impossible. Plans are advanced and, if Parliament gives the go-ahead the printing will be put in hand very quickly. However, the proposed clause would make life impossible.
§ Sir Michael Havers
I am grateful for the assistance that I have been given. I understand, however, that the order to roll the printing presses cannot be given until Royal Assent has been achieved. In those circumstances, if the draft has been agreed, why cannot it be debated next Monday? That would give an opportunity for any amendment that the Government might think, represented the view of the House. It could still be done without affecting the time scale.
§ Mr. Goodhart
Before the Minister replies to my hon. and learned Friend, may I ask whether he could give an answer to the question I put to him 1698 earlier? In view of the importance of there being general acceptance of this document, may I ask whether any attempt has been made within the Cabinet to clear it with the Opposition parties? Surely there would be no technical problems about that.
§ Mr. Price
If the Committee were to decide that there should not be a popular version, we should be in some difficulty. It is not my fault. I did not select the clauses for debate, but there clearly is a problem from that point of view. I assure my right hon. Friend that we are not bold enough to assume that he and his hon. Friends would do anything, one way or the other.
§ The Chairman
Order. I do not know how many times the Minister has to sit down before he finally resumes his seat. Did the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) want to ask a question?
§ The Chairman
I know that we are in Committee. I need no advice on that. Is the hon. Gentleman seeking to make a speech or to ask a question?
§ Mr. Gow
I am seeking to make a speech. I think that it would be for the convenience of the Committee, and indeed for a wider audience, to invite the Minister to answer one simple question. It is within the recollection of the Committee 1699 that a few moments ago the hon. Gentle-man said that the document to which he referred had been approved by Ministers. Which Ministers have approved it and which have not?
§ Question accordingly negatived.