HC Deb 24 March 1976 vol 908 cc398-408
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 April. The monthly forecast for April was deposited yesterday.

The Heads of Government of the member States will meet in Luxembourg on 1st and 2nd April. There is no formal agenda for these meetings, but on this occasion the Tindemans Report on European union, direct elections to the European Assembly and unemployment in the Community are among the subjects likely to be discussed.

At present, five meetings of the Council of Ministers are proposed for April. Foreign and Finance Ministers will hold a joint meeting on 5th April; Foreign Ministers will meet on 6th April; Agriculture Ministers on 5th and 6th April; Development Ministers possibly on 8th April; and Social Affairs Ministers possibly on 29th April. There will be an informal meeting of Finance Ministers on 26th April.

Ministers at the joint Foreign and Finance Council will consider the external financial commitments of the Community and will undertake an overall review of Community budgetary questions.

At the Foreign Affairs Council, Ministers are likely to discuss the outcome of the European Council to be held on 1st and 2nd April. They may also consider the problems posed by the creation of a 200-mile fishery limit; passport union; progress of the work in the four Commissions set up following the Conference on International Economic Co-operation; relations with Portugal; the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, Greece and Iran, and tropical products in the context of the multilateral trade negotiations. Ministers will have before them the arrangements for the signature of agreements with the Maghreb and will review progress in the negotiations with Spain.

Agriculture Ministers will discuss amended arrangements for beef imports, provisions for sugar imports from ACP countries during 1976–77, the exclusive use of butterfat and milk proteins in dairy products and a number of proposed measures for improving agricultural structures.

Ministers at the Development Council are likely to consider development co-operation issues arising from the discussions of the Conference on Inter- national Economic Co-operation. They may also discuss the estimated trends for gross Community aid payments to the Third World financed from the Community budget or by member States; the implementation of the resolution on the harmonisation and co-ordination of development co-operation policies within the Community; Community financial and technical aid to non-associated developing countries; possible Community participation in the International Fund for agricultural development, food aid following the World Food Conference and relations between the European Communities and non-governmental organisations specialising in development co-operation.

The informal meeting of Finance Ministers will discuss unemployment.

Social Affairs Ministers will have an exchange of views in preparation for the World Employment Conference and will also consider the employment situation within the Community.

Mr. Hurd

The Minister's statement makes clear the great importance to this country of the matters to be discussed next week at the meeting of Heads of Government. Who is to represent Britain on this occasion? If the second ballot for the leadership of the Labour Party produces a result on 30th March, is it suggested that the new Prime Minister will have kissed hands and be able to go to Luxembourg for this vital meeting on 1st April, perhaps with a new Foreign Secretary? If not, and if the present Prime Minister is still in office, is it the Prime Minister's intention to take with him one or more of the surviving candidates for his office on the analogy of the Potsdam Conference in 1945? The matters to be discussed next week are of far too great importance to the country to be left to the party games of hon. Gentlemen on the Labour Benches.

Will the right hon. Gentleman give an undertaking that at the meeting of Agriculture Ministers on 5th and 6th April, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will give no further commitments about the common agricultural policy, particularly on the skimmed milk powder surplus, without the full and proper debate in the House which we have been promised and have not yet had?

Mr. Hattersley

I assure the hon. Gentleman without qualification that the rules to which we have ascribed to make it possible for the House of Commons to have the appropriate discussion before Community decisions are taken will be fulfilled.

I do not begrudge the hon. Gentleman his first point, but I think he understands that it is not a proper question for today. I assure him that the procedures which are now going on will make absolutely certain that we do not have the sort of hiatus which Mr. Macmillan created in 1963.

Mr. Jay

Is my right hon. Friend aware that some of us take these issues more seriously than do the Conservative Front Bench? Is he also aware that the House did not have the opportunity of a debate on the skimmed milk mountain before decisions were taken, and will he tell us for how much longer a proper debate in the House on the Order will be held up?

Mr. Hattersley

I accept the first point made by my right hon. Friend. I have discovered that fact to my cost on many previous occasions. The skimmed milk powder Order is essentially a matter for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I share my right hon. Friend's view of the importance of the House expressing its opinion on these matters and I shall report his view, which is no doubt the view of many of my right hon. and hon. Friends, to the Leader of the House.

Mr. Grimond

Will the Minister tell us more about the meeting on 1st and 2nd April on the 200-mile fishery limit? Does his statement mean that the Common Market Ministers accept in principle the need for a 200-mile limit for each country, and will the Ministers responsible for fisheries be present at the discussion?

Mr. Hattersley

My statement certainly does not mean what the right hon. Gentleman suggested at the beginning of his supplementary question. The Common Market accepted the necessity for the creation of a common fisheries policy within days of Britain joining the Community, some would say rather suddenly and others would say in anticipation of Britain's membership. That common fisheries policy was decided before the 200-mile limit was envisaged, let alone on the agenda of the Law of the Sea Conference. What has to happen now at the Heads of Government meeting and at other levels is to reconcile the common fisheries policy with the new possible 200-mile provisions. That will be done initially by the Foreign Ministers, and much of the detailed work has to be done in the Agriculture Council. I am sure the right hon. Gentleman is the first to recognise that substantial political points are involved and that it is necessary for the Foreign Ministers, and particularly the Foreign Minister of Great Britain, to speak about this subject very strongly.

Mr. Donald Stewart

In view of the representations made in recent weeks on both sides of the House about fisheries policies, does not the Minister consider that the subject should have the highest priority at the European meetings?

Mr. Hattersley

No doubt the most important issue to be discussed in the Community from Britain's point of view during the next three months is the common fisheries policy and the necessity to make changes in it as it stands. The hon. Gentleman and I do not disagree about that.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, despite what the House thinks, the Commissioner for Agriculture takes the view that the scheme for milk deposits, particularly for feed manufacturers, is already operating? He repeated in Brussels on Monday that that was so, and that we should now be responsible for a series of deposits.

Mr. Hattersley

I was careful to say in answer to a previous question that the Government would observe the rules they set themselves as a result of the Foster Committee. One of those rules is an obligation to understand that sometimes Commission decisions as a result of negotiations have to be taken quickly and have to be implemented according to the rules and regulations governing the Community. That is what I said earlier and, whether my hon. Friend likes it or not, I fear I have to confirm it now.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Does not the Minister agree that it would be better to postpone the meeting to be held on 1st and 2nd April until the leadership question has been decided and a new Prime Minister has been elected? Will he suggest that to his colleagues in the European Council? Will it not be necessary for the Minister to take a decision on the storage of protein at the Agriculture Ministers' meeting on 5th and 6th April? Will he give us an assurance that the House will be able to debate that subject before the decision is taken? The House has not yet had a debate on the deposit scheme which came into operation on 16th March and which is causing grievous difficulties throughout the Unted Kingdom. The subject was not debated properly either in the House or in Europe.

Mr. Hattersley

I must continue to remind the House that questions concerning specific debates must be addressed not to me but to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. If such a question is addressed to my right hon. Friend, he might want to consider how much was discussed during the general debate on agriculture on 12th February, when, some of us would argue, all the issues now under review were at least mentioned and an opportunity was given to air them.

The hon. Gentleman makes a number of assumptions about procedures now going on to elect a new Leader of the Labour Party. Whether or not they are completed by the time of the European Council, I have no doubt, looking at the wealth of talent at the top of the Labour Party, that we shall be adequately represented.

Mr. Powell

Will Her Majesty's Government co-operate with the French Government at the European Council to secure the deferment of the question of direct elections, if necessary indefinitely?

Mr. Hattersley

The right hon. Gentleman has information about the attitude of the French Government which is denied not only to me but, as I understand it, to the President of France.

Mr. Spearing

Whatever the outcome of the debate at the Council on direct elections, will my right hon. Friend agree that it is being debated on a document and that, according to the reply he gave me on 10th March, that draft document, although available in summary form, will not be available to the House on Monday? Will my right hon. Friend explain, in view of the dried milk fiasco, why this House will not have the document on direct elections which is to be discussed at the Heads of Government meeting?

Mr. Hattersley

My hon. Friend always remembers my answers to him a great deal more precisely than I do. I assure him that we are anxious that the House should have as much information on this subject as is possible. That is why, quite unusually, we have produced a précis of the document at a very early date, in order that my hon. Friend and others should know exactly what are the contents of the document.

Mr. Spearing

Not exactly.

Mr. Hattersley

My hon. Friend, by the nature of the question, has not had the opportunity that I have had to read both the précis and the actual document. Let me assure him that when he reads them he will discover that the information provided for the House is exactly a replica of that in the document, although the document may expand the point in a number of particulars. But the document—[Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker


Mr. Hattersley

Although the document is not one which it is possible to present to the House at this stage, we are most anxious that the House should have the fullest information, and the House has received it.

Mr. John Davies

In view of the somewhat unhappy experience that the Government have had with skimmed milk powder, and in view of the Government's somewhat precipitate withdrawal from the metric noose tomorrow, may we be assured that no further action will be taken in the Council of Ministers on this vexed subject until there has been the opportunity to ventilate the matter in the House?

Mr. Hattersley

Yes, Sir.

Mr. Raphael Tuck

Concerning direct elections to the European Assembly, will my right hon. Friend always keep in mind that direct elections are a prelude to a federal system in Europe, to which the Prime Minister has on more than one occasion expressed opposition?

Mr. Hattersley

That is not a view which I hold, but if my hon. Friend is able to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, on Monday, when I understand that this subject is to be debated, no doubt the speakers who follow him will be able to convince him how wrong that point of view is.

Mr. Marten

As the balance of trade deficit with the Common Market, according to what I was told earlier this week, is now £2,354 million, compared with a surplus of £47 million in 1970, when will the Council of Ministers look at the so-called benefits of the wider home market which we were told about and do something about it, so that we at least get a slightly better chance in this market?

Mr. Hattersley

I have the good fortune to make the same point almost every month, which is perhaps an acceptance that the deficit has grown in the way the hon. Gentleman has described. I remind him, however, that all authorities on these matters suggest that our overall deficit on the balance of trade would be a great deal worse were we not members of the Community.

Mr. Hardy

Does my right hon. Friend agree that these rather disadvantageous agricultural arrangements might be just a trifle more acceptable if we did not have evidence that some of our Community partners were purchasing large quantities of Eastern European coal sold to them at below cost price? Will whichever representative of the Treasury Bench takes part in the international negotiations seek to encourage our partners to buy some British coal?

Mr. Hattersley

I am sure that if by any freak of chance that comes up next month my right hon. Friend will take it into account when he discusses it in the Community.

Mr. Fairgrieve

The Minister's statement that the Finance Ministers will discuss unemployment is most welcome. Will they also possibly again touch on and remind people of the question of monetary union, for the simple reason that, had we had this, we might not have had snakes wiggling one way, only downwards, and the pound going only one way, namely, out of sight?

Mr. Hattersley

My difficulty is that I am always squeezed on the one side by those who are more enthusiastic than some of us and on the other side by those who are not at all enthusiastic. The hon. Gentleman is in the first category. I do not subscribe to his judgment about the advantages for the United Kingdom of membership of the snake.

Mr. Skinner

Will my right hon. Friend convey to Mr. Lardinois, who stated yesterday that if we do not observe the rules with regard to economic and monetary union the Common Market will break up within five years, that some of us on these Benches would like it to do precisely that? We shall not conform to the sort of gobbledegook that my right hon. Friend has poured out from the Despatch Box today, and we shall reject all those measures which we feel are not in this country's best interests. Mr. Lardinois ought to know from the outset what we are about. Does my right hon. Friend also accept that an increasing number of British workers are urging us to take this stand?

Mr. Hattersley

That is a statement of my hon. Friend's position. My own is to rely on the wisdom of the British people and follow the lead they gave in the referendum.

Mr. Jim Spicer

In his outline of the agenda for the Foreign Ministers, the Minister, made no mention of the problems of Southern Africa. Will he accept that we within the European Community have a particular relationship with the countries which are signatories of the Lomé Convention, and therefore accept that it is for us in the United Kingdom to press in particular the problems of Zambia and Zaire, which at the moment are virtually in a state of siege and blockade?

Mr. Hattersley

These matters are discussed in the political co-operation machinery of the Community, and it is not the convention—developed in this House during the history of business statements—for statements to be given about the political co-operation issues. I have no doubt at all that Community Foreign Ministers, formally or informally, will consider these matters, but it is not an appropriate subject for me today.

Mr. Spriggs

Can my right hon. Friend inform the House whether the use of skimmed milk in farm feeding stuffs will affect the farmers' costs and eventually increase the cost of living?

Mr. Hattersley

I cannot answer that question without notice.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Reverting to the question asked from the Opposition Front Bench, will the right hon. Gentleman accept that proper concern that this important summit meeting should be a success and that Britain's views should be fully and completely heard at it is not a matter for party games, and that there is no such suggestion from this side of the House?

Does not the right hon. Gentleman know that the German Government have indicated that it would be convenient if the summit were to be postponed a little so that Britain could be properly represented? Would not the right hon. Gentleman agree that, in view of the Italian political congress now under way, it would be an advantage for Italy as well?

Will the right hon. Gentleman think again and consider whether it would not be wisest in the national interest that there should be a short postponement, in order that the very proper procedures on either side may be completed?

Mr. Hattersley

Of course, were we to believe a postponement to be in the national interest, or in the wider Community interest, we should wish to defer the meeting, but at this moment I am not convinced that that is the situation.

Mr. Torney

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the Commissioner for Agriculture, speaking in London yesterday, enumerated the terrible mess that the common agricultural policy is in and indicated its likely break-up, and that, in saying that, apparently he is now agreeing with a great many hon. Members of this House? Therefore, will my right hon. Friend take steps at the meetings which are to take place to press for a completely new agricultural policy for the Community which will take cognisance of the needs of Britain, especially those of the British consumer?

Mr. Hattersley

That is exactly what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture has been doing for the past two years.

Mr. Torney

My right hon. Friend is joking.

Mr. Fernyhough

Is my right hon. Friend aware, taking up the matter raised by the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten), that in the three years that we have been in the Common Market the visible trade deficit has totalled £5,547 million? Can he say how much of our overseas borrowings has been necessary to cover that deficit?

Mr. Hattersley

I cannot answer the precise question without notice, but the answer to the principle of the question is the one that I gave to the hon. Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten). No one has really any doubts that our economic situation overall would not have infinitely deteriorated had we left the Community on 5th June.