HC Deb 17 May 1976 vol 911 cc974-9
The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a short Business Statement.

As the House will have seen, there is a motion on the Order Paper today to allow a debate on New Zealand butter. This follows a recommendation made last week by the Select Committee on European Secondary Legislation.

The issue has been brought before the House immediately because the matter is to be discussed by the Council of Agriculture Ministers meeting today and tomorrow in Brussels, and I thought it right to make this opportunity for a debate at the earliest possible time.

Mr. Peyton

Not for the first time, I very much wish that the right hon. Gentleman was on this side of the House so that he could react to what he has just said. The Scrutiny Committee received an indication of this matter at a very late stage—on 10th May to be precise. It considered the matter on the same day, so it is in the clear.

Now the matter is brought before the House at the very last minute when the Minister is in Brussels and is unlikely to hear any reactions that there may be. The fact that the proposal appears to be acceptable and well-intentioned on the surface is neither here not there. This thing is being thrown, like other matters before it, at the House of Commons at the very last minute. A dollop of papers is slung into the Vote Office at lunchtime, and that is it.

I want to ask the right hon. Gentleman whether he is aware that the way in which we are handling this business really is unsatisfactory. Moreover, to have a debate such as we are to have on Wednesday night—a short debate late at night—is inadequate the matter will merely be swept under the carpet. It must be dealt with sensibly.

Mr. Foot

I assure the right hon. Gentleman and the House that I am not in favour of sweeping this matter under the carpet in any sense. That is why I made provision, after the previous debate that we had on skimmed milk, for a further debate on the procedure question, and a further debate will take place on these matters very soon afterwards. I am therefore fully in favour of the House seeking to get a solution to the problem.

However, I am not the creator of the problem. The problem arises from the fact that decisions are being taken under the European Communities legislation which are not in accord with the arrangements of this House. The Scrutiny Committee does its best to assist. I am not making any criticism of that Committee.

The decision that the Government and I had to take was whether we were to provide time for this matter to be debated, despite the short time. I believe that the proper course was for us to provide the time for debate and for me to come to the House and tell the House what the situation has been.

Mr. Powell

Without imputing to the right hon. Gentleman, of all people, the slightest responsibility for the difficulty of principle that we are in, surely the proposition which must be accepted is that the House should have the opportunity not merely of debating but of coming to a decision upon these matters. Therefore, why are we to debate the matter on the motion for the Adjournment?

Mr. Foot

I fully accept what the right hon. Gentleman says about the extreme inconvenience for the House in all these procedures. However, I believe that the only way by which we could have had the debate immediately was by arranging the debate on the Adjournment, as I have done. That debate will enable the House to express its view on the matter. Any view that the House expresses on the matter will be conveyed to my right hon. Friend who is negotiating in Brussels.

Once again, I am fully in agreement that this is not a satisfactory way of dealing with these matters. We are seeking to discover how we can get a better method of dealing with these matters. All I am saying is that the most honest course for me, when confronted with this problem on Thursday afternoon, was to arrange a debate as speedily as possible. Had I done anything else, I think that the reprimand which would have been delivered in this House would have been justified.

Mr. Jay

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) might more appropriately have said some of these things when we were debating the European Communities Bill three years ago? Is he also aware that what the Government should have done in these circumstances was to inform the authorities in Brussels that the British Minister representing this country was not prepared to discuss this issue until the House of Commons had had time to debate it?

Mr. Foot

I fully appreciate the sentiment behind what my right hon. Friend says. However, one of the difficulties is that, had the Government taken that course, we might have put in jeopardy an agreement affecting New Zealand which the British Government and the New Zealand Government believe will be highly advantageous to New Zealand.

I fully agree with what my right hon. Friend said, that the way in which we deal with these matters is extremely unsatisfactory. We are trying to discover methods of improving it. Some suggestions to that end have been made by the Scrutiny Committee, although I fully acknowledge in advance that I do not think that those proposals go sufficiently far yet to deal with this problem. All I am saying about this matter is that I believe that we behaved as fairly as we could to the House in the extremely urgent circumstances. An opportunity is being provided to the House to express its view, despite the very short time available.

Mr. Marten

As a member of the Scrutiny Committee, and as my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) is not present in the Chamber at the moment, may I support what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton)? This is a highly political matter stemming from Protocol 18 to the Treaty of Accession. The right hon. Gentleman says that it will be highly advantageous to debate the matter. I am not so sure that it will, because in the draft regulation which is before the House all the quantities are left blank, so we do not know before we start the debate what we are talking about. We have had no time to seek the views of the New Zealand authorities or the trade or anybody else about it. This is very unfair. It is the quota which is the crux of the whole matter.

I believe that this is a classic case in which a deal might be done over in Brussels tonight or tomorrow without the House of Commons being able to debate the details of that deal. I therefore propose that the Leader of the House should have another think about this and should let the Minister go ahead and negotiate in Brussels and get a figure. Then, when the Minister in Brussels has got a figure, without actually finally agreeing it by signing a regulation which would become the law, he should come back to the House with that figure and the House of Commons should debate it, so that the House may express an opinion upon it.

Mr. Foot

Thanks to the arrangement that the Government have made for dealing with this matter, the hon. Gentleman and others who hold that view will be able to express it in the debate. That is why we have provided time for the debate, so that such views can be expressed.

I repeat that I do not believe that this is a satisfactory way of dealing with matters as important as this and that we must find a better solution. All I am saying is that so far neither the Scrutiny Committee—I emphasise that I am not criticising that Committee—nor my hon. Friends, or even the hon. Gentleman, have come forward with a fully satisfactory way of dealing with it. What I am suggesting here and now is that the House will have an opportunity of discussing this matter, thanks to the arrangement we have made. I think that it was absolutely imperative that we should have provided such an opportunity.

Mr. Roper

I congratulate my hon. Friend on having found time for this debate. May I say as a member of the Scrutiny Committee that it was our wish that a debate should be held before the discussion takes place tomorrow in Brussels? Will my right hon. Friend tell the House whether it is not also the view of the New Zealand Government that a decision should be reached as soon as possible? Will he ensure that in future when he puts down subjects like this for debate he gives on the Order Paper the references of the Community documents concerned?

Mr. Foot

The relevant sections of the latest report of the Scrutiny Committee and the related documents are in the Vote Office. I take note of what my hon. Friend said about the need for further details.

As for the views of the New Zealand Government on this matter, they are as I think he has described them, but that is a matter that can arise in the debate this evening. It may be that the debate tonight will be at a late hour, but it is better to have the debate then than to have no debate at all. After whatever may happen in Brussels, it will be open to the House to decide whether to return to the matter afresh. I am in full agreement that we must discover some better way to deal with this whole problem, which was not created by this Government, and least of all by myself.

Mr. Rippon

Will the right hon. Gentleman make provision for a longer debate on Wednesday? Does he agree that the subject matter is of such importance that it cannot be dealt with in an hour and a half? If he arranges a longer debate, that might meet the wishes of the House.

Mr. Foot

I am prepared to see whether we can extend the hour and a half on Wednesday, but I have said to the House before that I have never thought that the procedure debate of the kind that we are to have on Wednesday can deal exhaustively with this subject, and we shall have to return to it at a fairly early stage in the House. I promised a special debate resulting from our difficulties over a previous Order, and the debate on Wednesday is, in particular, in execution of that promise.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I am grateful to him for showing this degree of flexibility? When he is looking at these arrangements, will he spare a thought for us poor benighted members of the Agriculture Committee who have a vested interest in this? Whisper it not, but had it not been for the fact that I am mildly playing truant from Brussels I should not have been here and would not have been aware of the change in the business of the House.

Mr. Foot

I am aware of that. That is one of the difficulties of having debates called at short notice, but there was no other way out of this difficulty. For other occasions, we must try to learn from what has happened this time.