HC Deb 27 March 1975 vol 889 cc693-702
The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Roy Hattersley)

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

At present four meetings of the Council of Ministers are proposed for April. Foreign Ministers will meet on 14th-15th, Finance Ministers on 21st, Energy Ministers on 24th, and Agriculture Ministers on 28th-29th April.

At the Foreign Affairs Council, Ministers will have before them a report on the completion of the negotiations of a trade agreement with Israel. They will also have a report on the present state of the negotiations with the Maghreb. In addition, there will be an initial discussion of the draft mandates for negotiation with the Mashraq. Ministers will also consider Commission proposals on raw materials, supplementary budgets Nos. 1 and 2 for 1975, the former principally covering the Regional Development Fund, and the preparations for the conference on consumer-producer relations.

The agenda for the Finance Ministers Council is not yet certain but Ministers expect to discuss, among other things, the economic situation in the Community and gold.

The agenda for the Energy Council has not yet been decided, but it could include consideration of two draft decisions on measures to be taken in the event of oil supply difficulties; a draft regulation on common rules for the import and export of hydrocarbons; a draft regulation concerning support for Community projects in hydrocarbon exploration and further consideration of a draft directive on the maintenance of minimum stocks of fuel at power stations. It is also likely that Ministers will discuss Commission proposals on energy research and development, as well as a draft resolution on the fixing of a short-term objective for energy-saving.

Agriculture Ministers will give further consideration to the Commission's stocktaking of the CAP. They are also likely to deal with various health and hygiene matters concerned with the marketing of milk and poultry, measures for dealing with exotic animal diseases, and the nonmember countries from which fresh meat and livestock may be imported.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

The House is grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for making that statement about forthcoming Community business. I should like to ask him four questions.

First, in regard to the Foreign Affairs Council, I welcome the prospect of its reaching agreement on the improvement of trade with Israel and with the Arab States, and also possibly on raw materials. Will he seek to obtain a common view from the Community Ministers before his right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary discusses the question of raw materials at the forthcoming conference in Kingston, Jamaica, as was announced in the foreign affairs debate earlier this week? Will he agree that in all these matters of trade, budgets and so on, it is much more likely that useful agreements of benefit to this country as well as to the world will be achieved as a result of our being within the Community rather than of our pulling out?

Secondly, I should like to deal with the question of the Finance Ministers' meeting and their important discussions on the economic situation and on gold. Will they discuss the latest OECD figures—figures which many of us saw this morning with some concern? May we be told which Minister will attend that meeting? I hope that we can be assured that the Chancellor of the Exchequer will attend as one Minister who is in favour of Britain remaining within the Community, rather than that Britain should be represented at a meeting of Community Finance Ministers by a junior Treasury Minister who is opposed to our being in the Community.

Thirdly, may we be told who is to attend the important Community Minister's meeting on the subject of energy? I hope we shall not be represented at that meeting by a Secretary of State for Energy who is against our being in the Community. Perhaps we may be told how this matter will be resolved?

Lastly, on the question of agriculture, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will accept our support for the stocktaking exercise which Ministers will be undertaking on the CAP. Why is there no mention in the proposed agenda of the important subject of fish?

Mr. Hattersley

I think the hon. Gentleman will come to learn that the convention on these occasions is to treat them like Business Statements rather than as an opportunity to make rather trite party points. [HON. MEMBERS: "Oh.] I therefore propose, following a ruling by Mr. Speaker on previous occasions, to answer those questions which relate to business rather than to policy. The answers are as follows.

My right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will certainly try to obtain a common view on the raw material position—as is the object of meetings of the Council of Ministers.

The proposed discussions by Finance Ministers on the subject of gold will be related to an IMF proposal which suggests that the fixed price for gold should be removed.

The matter of Ministers' attendance at meetings is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. If the hon. Gentleman seeks information on that score, he must table Questions to him.

The agricultural stocktaking will proceed and a report, having been prepared by the Commission, is now in the hands of the Council of Ministers.

I anticipate that as well as discussion of agricultural stocktaking there will be some consideration of common fisheries policy and its relationship to the Law of the Sea Conference. That is not formally on the agenda, but I have no doubt that some discussions will take place.

Mr. Spearing

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that it will be my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary who will be discussing the subject of raw materials? If that is the case, does it not show that the EEC is developing a foreign policy related to its economic requirements?

On the subject of agriculture, will my right hon. Friend confirm that whoever goes to the Council of Ministers will put forward strongly the views expressed in this House by the hon. Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton) and the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) about the difficulties of implementing the EEC proposals on dairy hygiene? They were points made strongly by the Opposition, and they are matters of great validity.

Mr. Hattersley

The entire object of the scrutiny procedure is to make sure that whoever represents the Government at these Council meetings is aware of the opinions of both sides, and an attempt is made to build them, if possible, into the Government's position at the Council of Ministers.

I gladly give my hon. Friend the assurance that points made in agricultural debates will be taken into account by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture.

In regard to meetings at which various subjects are discussed, I should explain that Councils of Ministers preserve the fiction that there is only one Council, although it may be attended on one occasion by a Finance Minister and on another by a Foreign Minister, but they speak for the Community as a whole. It is surely important that all sorts of matters should be discussed at the Foreign Ministers' Council. The fact that the items I have listed today are on the agenda shows no special significance in terms of future policy changes.

Mr. Grimond

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his reassurance that the topic of fish will be on the agenda. May I press him further on this matter. Although we are aware that the Minister of Agriculture has promised to raise certain matters within the EEC, we appreciate that there are extremely important matters concerned with fish prices, conservation and limits which affect not only the internal policy of the EEC but also external countries, such as Norway and countries in Eastern Europe. Will he urge that the British Government's views on these matters should be placed on the agenda at the earliest possible moment?

Mr. Hattersley

I give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance without reservation or hesitation. Substantial difficulties arise from the processes of the common fisheries policy and the United Nations Law of the Sea Conference. The fact that those two matters come together means that there is a problem that must be solved on behalf of British fishermen. We shall do our best to solve it.

Mr. Blaker

Although I appreciate that it is for the Prime Minister to decide which Minister attends what meeting, will the right hon. Gentleman make the point to the Prime Minister that if the energy meeting is attended by the Secretary of State for Energy it will result in a rather extraordinary position? Will the Secretary of State for Energy be putting forward his own personal view or the view of the Government?

Mr. Hattersley

The hon. Gentleman heard my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister some minutes ago say that Ministers who speak from this Dispatch Box put forward the Government's view. I have no doubt that in the sense in which we are now talking "Dispatch Box" is used in other spheres in a metaphorical sense. I assure the hon. Gentleman that members of the Government representing Her Majesty's Government abroad will clearly advance the Government's position and governmental opinion. There can be no two ways about it.

Mr. Molloy

Does my right hon. Friend agree that his statement this morning, for which we are grateful, nevertheless shows an increasing dimension of political activity in this House and throughout the country and that the various British Ministers who attend the meeings which he has outlined may not be able to achieve many of the things that they feel should happen in regard to the economic health of this nation? Bearing in mind that this matter is not the entire responsibility of my right hon. Friend, will he add his voice to those of us who ask that these issues, when they are included, should be the subject of full discussion, as far as possible, with regard to the business of the House of Commons?

Mr. Hattersley

I agree very strongly with the point made by my hon. Friend. We now have a complicated and difficult to-manage procedure, which at least endeavours to give the House of Commons the opportunity to monitor and to comment upon what Ministers do in Brussels and Luxembourg. We shall continue that process. We shall extend and improve it where we can, but, in principle, my hon. Friend and I are in absolute agreement. The House must be able to exercise its proper rights and to express its opinions, and we must go on doing that.

Mr. Dykes

Is the Minister of State aware that the answers he gave on the points about anti-EEC Ministers attending these meetings were even more casual than those he normally gives on these occasions? Will he give us an assurance that in respect of important policies such as energy, and other matters, the Foreign Secretary or other pro-EEC Ministers will replace anti-EEC Ministers at vital meetings?

Mr. Hattersley

I am sorry if I sounded casual to the hon. Gentleman. He must not expect all Ministers to perform with frenzy on these subjects. Some of us will want to continue to express our opinions as calmly as we can.

I can only reiterate what I said a few minutes ago. Ministers speaking on behalf of the Government at the Dispatch Box, as my right hon. Friend made absolutely clear, will obviously advocate the corporate Government position. Clearly, Ministers going abroad on behalf of the Government will do the same thing. I do not think that there is any problem about that. Nor do I think that there is any reason why the hon. Gentleman should be concerned. I have no doubt that my colleagues will behave with dignity and honour in representing Government policy.

Mr. Lawrence

Will the right hon. Gentleman make sure at the meeting which I think he said will take place at the end of the month concerning the import of animals that the European countries are aware of the deep concern now felt in the country at the slow implementation of the agreed procedures to mitigate the cruelty involved in the import and export of live animals? Bearing in mind that last week's "Midweek" programme showed that there had been no reduction in the level of cruelty, some hon. Members may feel that they have been misled by the assurances given by the Minister during the debate on the O'Brien Report.

Mr. Hattersley

I cannot comment on what the hon. Gentleman has said. However, I assure him that no Minister of Agriculture can be unaware of the strength of feeling on these matters in the House and in the country. I know that my right hon. Friend shares many of those feelings. If an opportunity arises to make that point clear in Brussels and Luxembourg, I am sure that my right hon. Friend will do so.

Mr. Warren

Whilst welcoming the double commitment made this morning that the Secretary of State for Energy will be following the Government line when he represents this country at European Community discussions, may I also press the Minister of State to assure us that the Secretary of State for Energy will look very carefully in the Energy Council at the need for much improved co-ordination between the work on energy conservation done by this country and the progress made in the other countries of Europe? I feel that we are lagging behind and that we should press further and faster ahead in this matter.

Mr. Hattersley

The House debated exactly these points on 11th February last and on 3rd December 1974. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy made two comments. The first was his willingness to consider any plans for co-operation and co-ordination. The second was his insistence on preserving vital British interests. I am sure that it is the wish of the House that he operates according to those criteria, and I am sure that he will do that.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

I am sorry to return to the original point made by the right hon. Gentleman, but he was slightly and unnecessarily rude about the question which I put to him. [HON. MEMBERS: "Humbug."] He will know very well that the last two business statements on Europe were postponed or not made. He will also know that he is making this important statement on the day that the House rises, in which case many of our colleagues on all sides will have had no opportunity of questioning him. I hope that he will not say that this is a trite party point if the Opposition wish to know who, within a divided Government, will speak for Britain abroad. This is an important point.

The right hon. Gentleman has made a ruling as to the constitutional position of Ministers who disagree publicly with the policy of the Government. When they go abroad they will agree with that policy. To put it mildly, Ministers from other countries who are dealing with Ministers from the United Kingdom will feel somewhat confused. Therefore, I again put this matter to the Minister. Will he not, as Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, bear in mind that the Foreign Office has a prime responsibility to make sure that those who speak to other countries in the name of Britain do so with complete responsibility and authority? Will he, as a Foreign Office Minister, represent strongly to the Prime Minister that hon. Members must know that those who are sent to ministerial meetings abroad will speak with the full-hearted consent of their colleagues in the Cabinet and will not presume to put forward their own reservations about the general policies of the Government, against which they will simultaneously be campaigning in the United Kingdom?

Mr. Hattersley

If the opinions of the Opposition are accurate this morning I have managed to be both casual and aggressively rude at the same time—which some of us would think was a substantial achievement.

The Government gave no oral business statement last month. It is not true to say that we have missed it twice. We missed it one month but made a written forecast of the business. The intention of making written forecasts of business and oral statements is that the House should be made aware of what is about to be discussed. The House should then have other opportunities in debates, in the Scrutiny Committee, in Questions and in other procedures to enable hon. Members to probe the substance of subjects discussed in Europe. That was the intention of the Foster Report and of the Select Committee which implemented the report.

On a number of occasions Mr. Speaker has said that occasions such as today should be regarded as being parallel to the Thursday Business Statement when the merits of subjects are not discussed—only the business of the House and the business likely to come before the Council of Ministers. In that spirit we all tried, until the arrival of the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds (Mr. Griffiths), to avoid making points of that degree of contention. He has made the points and his hon. Friends have repeated them.

I repeat what I said to the previous questioner. I have not the slightest doubt that all my colleagues in the Government will represent Great Britain's policy abroad with dignity, honour and clarity. That satisfies me, and it ought to satisfy the hon. Member.

Mr. Rost

While I appreciate the answers given by the Minister of State, does he not understand that there is a genuine problem here with regard to the Energy Minister's meeting in Europe? It is well known and accepted that Britain has dragged its feet on cooperation, particularly on energy. This is obviously not just Government policy—it is the Minister's policy. How will that be changed, so that we can give a lead and co-operate in Europe?

Mr. Hattersley

I fear that I cannot resist the temptation to remind the hon. Gentleman that in a real sense he has answered the point made by the hon. Member for Bury St. Edmunds in the way in which I tried to answer it.

The energy policy which we have advanced in the Community during the last year is the policy of the Secretary of State for Energy towards the Government. He will continue to do that. That places no consequential difficulties on him. That is his policy, and the Government accept whatever measures of co-ordination are consistent with our national interests. That seems to me to be wholly reasonable.