HC Deb 30 April 1975 vol 891 cc470-6

3.37 p.m.

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 May. The monthly forecast for May was deposited yesterday.

At present three meetings of the Council of Ministers are proposed for May. Foreign Ministers will meet on 5th May, Finance Ministers on 20th May, and Agriculture Ministers on 26th and 27th May. Dates for Council meetings of Energy and Research and Development Ministers are still under consideration. It is not yet known whether they will take place in May.

At the Foreign Affairs Council, Ministers will resume their consideration of a Commission report on negotiations with the Maghreb, and on raw materials in relation to developing countries. They are also likely to review prospects for an international conference on energy, and to have a first discussion on preparations for the next meeting of EEC Heads of Government. The President of the Council may report on his contacts with the Assembly over the classification of the supplementary budget for the Regional Development Fund.

The agenda for the Finance Ministers Council has not been finalised; but Ministers are expected to discuss, among other things, the economic situation in the Community and prepartions for the June meeting of the IMF Interim Committee in Paris.

Agriculture Ministers are likely to deal with sugar imports from ACP countries, the proposed revision of the basic wine regulations and various veterinary matters.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for that statement about an important series of meetings. Since the House is to go into Recess on 23rd May and a number of those meetings will take place either immediately before or during the Recess at a time when the referendum campaign will be reaching its culmination, what arrangements are to be made by the Government to make objective statements about what is achieved, especially at the Agriculture Ministers' meeting and, of course, at the Finance Ministers' meeting because of their obvious repercussions on the very large question which will then be in debate across the country?

May I put one specific matter to the right hon. Gentleman? In view of the fact that the Foreign Ministers are to consider raw materials—a subject which is already under discussion among the Commonwealth Heads of Government in Kingston—will the right hon. Gentleman make some arrangement to keep the House rather better informed on this important topic, which affects commodity agreements on raw materials all round the world?

Mr. Hattersley

As regards raw materials, I think that there is already the opportunity for the House to be better informed and, indeed, to express its opinion, since the Scrutiny Committee examined this issue on 8th April and thought it a proper subject for debate. I have no doubt that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House will be announcing when that debate will take place.

On the more general issue of keeping the House notified, I think that we must behave in the next five weeks as we do in any parliamentary period, including those covering Recesses. There will be the usual processes for scrutiny. Where appropriate, papers will go to the Scrutiny Committee. Statements will be made when it is thought right. At the end of each Council meeting—and the relevant one is the Agriculture Ministers' meeting on 26th and 27th May—the Minister in charge will hold some sort of Press conference at the conclusion of the meeting. The hon. Gentleman asked me to ensure a continuation of objective measures. We shall behave as always by being scrupulous to the needs of objectivity.

Mr. Spearing

Will my right hon. Friend ask the Ministers to discuss regulation 836/1 of 1975, which is a regulation from the Commission requesting member States not to sign the United Nations Convention on a code of conduct for liner conferences? As this deals, among other things, with the carriage of goods from the Third World and as, according to my right hon. Friend, the EEC is so concerned, will he find out why this is and report to the House?

Mr. Hattersley

My hon. Friend will recall, partly because of his assiduity in these matters, that it is never my policy to comment on documents, whose numbers are so obscure that I am not sure of their contents before being required to reply. I will look at document 836/1 of 1975 and give my hon. Friend an answer later.

Mr. Grimond

How do we stand over fishing limits and quotas, which were to be discussed in April? Are those matters to be discussed in May, particularly with the Danes?

Mr. Hattersley

My information is that fishing limits and quotas and all those matters which relate to EEC fishing policy, in conjunction with the Law of the Sea Conference, will not be discussed on 26th and 27th May. They were discussed at the last Agriculture Ministers' meeting on the initiative of the British Government, as I told the right hon. Gentleman. Discussions at other official levels are now continuing. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that we are conscious of the need to solve the problem in a way which is acceptable to the British fishing industry. I promise him that we shall continue to try to do that.

Mr. Biffen

Regarding the veterinary items which will be on the agenda of the proposed meeting of Agriculture Ministers, may I ask whether it is the right hon. Gentleman's hope and expectation that at that meeting his right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will be able to resolve the present difficulties whereby the French are effectively preventing any exports of British cattle and sheep livestock?

Mr. Hattersley

This is the sort of matter which will be discussed under that heading. The Community has a number of health regulations governing the exportation and importation of livestock which we hope to resolve at that meeting. It is impossible within the rules on my statement and wrong in terms of order for me to describe our hopes and prospects for the meeting. However, the hon. Gentleman is right to say that a resolution of the problem of health circumstances on the importation and exportation of livestock is what will then be discussed.

Mr. MacFarquhar

Will my right hon. Friend confirm reports that at the next meeting Ministers concerned with development will discuss the possible allocation over the next five years of £380 million to India and other Commonwealth countries? Will he also deny allegations that the next meeting is being held up by Her Majesty's Government?

Mr. Hattersley

I can confirm the first of my hon. Friend's questions with the greatest ease and pleasure. That is the subject which is next to be discussed. If it is discussed successfully, substantial Community funds will go to the Asian Third World.

I can be equally categoric about the second question. There is no suggestion, and no Community capital suggests, that this meeting is being held up by Her Majesty's Government. Suggestions that I read in the newspapers at the weekend that the meeting was being specifically held up by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Overseas Development are wrong. I very much regret that that suggestion has been put about.

Mr. John Davies

When the Minister looks at the instrument on liner conferences, will he particularly look at that part which has such a beneficial effect on employment in our own shipping industry? Will he also tell the House at what time the Agriculture Ministers will be resuming their discussions on the stocktaking paper prepared by the Commission?

Mr. Hattersley

I take note of the right hon. Gentleman's point on liner conferences, which was perhaps a point not so much of business as of clarification.

It was thought that Ministers might resume their examination of the stocktaking paper in May. But it now seems appropriate, if we are to have a successful pursuit of the objective of that policy, that it should be examined for a little longer by experts of one kind and another. That will continue in May, and it is possible, though not certain, that the Ministers will return to it the following month.

Mr. Crawford

Regarding regional development, will the Minister inform the House when the Common Market will honour the commitment to establish a regional fund of £1,500 million?

Mr. Hattersley

It will establish that commitment, as was always intended, at the end of the year. The last problem, which was how the fund should be designated in Community law between obligatory and non-obligatory expenditure, has, I understand, been resolved, and the decisions taken at the Paris summit before Christmas can be implemented. I agree that the Community has been a long time implementing its Regional fund. I hope that it can be implemented quickly, that it will expand, and that Britain will continue to benefit from it for many years to come.

Mr. Hooley

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I welcome his assurance that the United Kingdom Government are not holding up the discussions on aid and trade with India and other countries? Will he explain what is delaying the discussions? I understand that they were supposed to begin on 20th March.

Mr. Hattersley

I think it is the normal processes of requiring nine, if I may use the word non-contentiously, sovereign Governments to come together to make an agreement which involves some of those countries paying substantial sums to a mutually agreed goal. A great deal of preparation and consultation are necessary if the Community is not to ride roughshod over individual member States. The normal processes are now going on.

Sir John Gilmour

If the Agriculture Ministers are not to discuss fishing at the meeting in May, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that an early date is fixed so that the matter can be discussed with the results of what the officials are now talking about, because delay in coming to a conclusion on the fishing interests is of supreme danger to us?

Mr. Hattersley

I understand the point very well. In practical terms I could argue, though I do not, that we could delay the solution of the problem until the end of the decade since Britain has a derogation from the Community fishing policy until 1980. I do not make that point, because the hon. Gentleman is right to point out that the fishing industry is entitled to a good deal more security than it feels at the moment. That requires us to solve the problem appreciably before the end of the derogation. We shall do that as quickly as we can.

Mr. Fernyhough

On the regional fund, to which my right hon. Friend referred, I was under the impression that the figure had been fixed at £150 million for the next three years. My right hon. Friend referred to £1,500 million. Will the figure of £1,500 million apply, or am I right in assuming that for the time being the figure is £150 million over the next three years, of which Britain will probably get £20 million a year?

Mr. Hattersley

I hope that I did not refer to the higher figure. I did not intend to do so. Reassuring voices behind me tell me that I did not. If I am wrong and I did refer to that figure, then it was a mistake. The smaller figure will apply.

Mr. Costain

Does the right hon. Gentleman appreciate how much we agree with the statement, which gives this House the greater degree of sovereignty that we all expect? During the referendum campaign, if any wild rumours are established which are incorrect, will he take the opportunity of correcting them in the Press if the House is not in session?

Mr. Hattersley

I promise the hon. Gentleman that I shall do my best to correct wild rumours. But he must understand that objectivity is not indivisible in these matters. Some of my hon. Friends and others outside this House may believe that my corrections are wilder than the rumours that I am trying to correct.