§ 42. Mr. Spearing
asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he is satisfied with the arrangements made for public access to EEC documents, including those originating from the European Assembly.
§ Mr. Spearing
That reply merely said that my right hon. Friend was continuing to investigate this matter. I know that he has been doing so carefully for three months. Will he say whether the public have a list which is equivalent to that provided by the demand form for EEC papers which is available to hon. Members? Does he agree that, if they do not already have access to it, when a system is permanently brought into operation they should have equivalent access to an equivalent list?
§ Dr. Owen
My hon. Friend well knows that I am dissatisfied with the arrangements. When I look into the matter—I am still doing so—one of the problems that I meet is cost. That is not a mile away from the issue of public expenditure. It is perfectly possible to produce a system that will give access to the public, but it will be costly. We must bear in mind that a system already exists in the European Communities Information Office in London.
§ Dr. Owen
I have arranged for people to go to that office and ask for certain documents, so I have had some "consumer investigation" of the situation. I am not totally satisfied, but I am afraid that any ambitious scheme which would resolve this problem would not be justified on the ground of cost. I am looking at ways in which matters might be improved, and we are discussing it with Her Majesty's Stationery Office.
§ Mr. Powell
Will the Minister of State assist in ensuring that EEC documents, when placed before the House for debate, are in the latest form of such documents and not in a form which is already obsolete?
§ Dr. Owen
The Scrutiny Committee has drawn attention to that fair and valid criticism. We have slipped up on a number of occasions. We shall do our best in this matter. The problem is that many of the documents go through three or four revises before coming before the House. There has also been a problem over numbering in order to ensure that dates on the documents are clear. We 670 shall do our best in the matter and, if necessary, issue explanatory memoranda covering changes that have occurred in the documents. This is a difficult problem, which is not easy to circumvent.
§ Sir G. de Freitas
On the whole question of public access, will the right hon. Gentleman discuss with other Foreign Ministers the strange way in which the legislative functions of the Council of Ministers are performed? Is he aware of the strength of the criticism that he will meet in the European Parliament and elsewhere, and that this is the only case in the whole democratic world where Ministers legislate in secret?
§ Dr. Owen
Over the last few months I have looked into this question. It was raised by the right hon. and learned Member for Hertfordshire, East (Sir D. Walker-Smith) earlier. It is true to say that there is a considerable resistance to doing this, but one of the problems is that there is no immediate parallel to Community decision-making. In some senses the Council of Ministers is a Cabinet. In some senses it is a legislature. The two functions frequently fuse together, as my right hon. Friend, with his experience in these things, knows well. There are great difficulties in trying to achieve a compromise between nine nations and in exposing that compromise procedure to public gaze. There are arguments on both sides, and I think that we should be perfectly prepared, open-minded, to keep the matter under review.