§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Stoddart.]
§ 10.15 p.m.
§ The Lord President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mr. Michael Foot)
A few weeks ago, we had one of the series of debates on EEC matters and, following the difficulties which arose in that debate, the Government promised that time would be provided for a debate on the procedural aspects of these questions. It is to that debate that we now turn.
We also had a request from hon. Members in many parts of the House that we should provide more time for this debate. We have, therefore, extended the period of the debate. I hope that that will be helpful to the House.
I intend to speak very briefly at the beginning of the proceedings, to listen to the remarks made by other hon. Members, and then to offer some comments at the end of the debate.
First, let me recall the circumstances in which this debate was arranged. We are concerned with two Community documents, one relating to a protein deposit scheme designed to promote the incorporation of skimmed milk powder in animal feed and the other a scheme to aid the private storage of protein feeding stuffs. An earlier version of the proposal for disposing of surplus skimmed milk powder stocks had already been debated as part of the price package.
The documents with which we are concerned came forward at a very late stage, and the Scrutiny Committee was asked to clear them urgently since they were part of the price package on which 1562 the Council was likely to reach early decisions. The Scrutiny Committee produced a Special Report at very short notice and with admirable speed. Certainly nothing that I have said was intended in any way as a criticism of the Scrutiny Committee and of the way in which it discharged its duties in that or in any other respect. I believe that the whole House should be grateful to the Scrutiny Committee for the speed of its conduct on that and on other occasions. Although we have not discovered the answers to many of the problems which arise in this procedure, I am sure that the difficulties have arisen in no sense from the conduct of the Scrutiny Committee. Indeed, the very opposite is the case.
The Scrutiny Committee recommended, in this instance, further consideration by the House but said that that need not delay the adoption of the measure if this proved necessary in the course of negotiations for a satisfactory settlement of the CAP price package. As my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture said in the debate on 12th April, this was a helpful recommendation for which he was grateful. In the event, he had found it necessary to accept the measures as part of the price package. But he acquiesced in a resolution expressing this House's disapproval of them.
Questions were then raised, first, about the effect of the resolution on the measures themselves and, secondly, about the implications for procedure. As for the measures themselves, I made it clear that the first measure, on skimmed milk powder, which had already been adopted remained in legal effect, and that the second, on storage aid, had not been adopted and was being reconsidered by the Commission.
Our concern tonight is not with the substance of these measures. Our purpose is to discuss the procedure adopted and to see what conclusions we can draw for the future.
I would like to reserve my comments until I have heard the views of other hon. Members on these general questions. We had a debate on Monday in which some other matters arose and the Minister of Agriculture made a statement on these, too. We have also had a report from the Select Committee on this subject 1563 making recommendations as to how the House should proceed in the future in dealing with these problems. I do not say that they have discovered a complete solution to our problems, but they have made suggestions about the way in which we can proceed better. I am not saying that I shall make a statement about the Government's views tonight, but shall be glad to hear any views put from any part of the House on the subject.
We still have an important problem to solve in the interests of the agricultural questions raised, and also in the interests of the House of Commons and its authority. I do not believe that we have found a solution, but perhaps the debate will contribute to solving our problems. I shall make further comments at the end of the debate.
§ 10.22 p.m.
§ Mr. John Peyton (Yeovil)
The whole House will be grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for arranging this debate. We have a difficult problem to clear up tonight and we all look forward to his second appearance when he will shed a little more light on the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves. We are confronted with this awful pile of skimmed milk and we have to do something about it.
The Leader of the House said he thought that we would have to come back to this matter for a more general debate and seek a solution about the way in which we accommodate European business in the parliamentary programme in an orderly fashion.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for what he said about the Scrutiny Committee, because my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. John Davies) and his colleagues have earned a great debt of gratitude from the whole House for the way in which they have handled this problem in a stopgap fashion and have covered up the total inadequacy of our arrangements here.
One of my difficulties tonight in making this speech is that I find it absolutely impossible to dislike the Minister of Agriculture in any way. On the other hand, I find it impossible to congratulate him on his performance in this matter, so I am in great difficulty from the start. The right hon. Gentleman this afternoon 1564 described himself, or said that he had been described, as "half-kiwi". Until now I had no idea that half of any bird could belong to a migratory species. He has migrated tonight, whether it is because discretion has formed the better part of valour, or he cannot bear to face up to three hours of solemn discussion of his record, I do not know. But we are sincerely sorry that the Minister is not here. It is very sad.
There is no need to go into this problem at length as the House is more or less familiar with it. We all sympathise with the Commission, which finds itself landed with a mountain of skimmed milk powder—something which most people could do without. The Commission came up with the suggestion that in all Member countries, feeding stuffs should contain compulsorily 2 per cent. of this material. One feels very sorry for the consumer—in this case the ultimate animal which has this horrible stuff forced down its throat.
Although it was admitted by everyone concerned that we had no part in creating this surplus, if we were to comply with the requirement to get rid of it we had to buy some from the Continent of Europe. That was a slightly unpalatable duty.
On 13th January this matter came before the Scrutiny Committee. I do not want to weary the House with all the details, but one of the things that were clear was that the Minister did not like it, nor did the Committee. I do not think there was any misunderstanding between them on that occasion. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) said:I was coming to that, that was my preamble!That was a modest preamble. He asked:What are you going to do about it?The Minister replied:As I have said, that is why I have laid emphasis on a voluntary scheme. I agree with you entirely. Why should we be penalised because this has happened, not through our making, but through what we have seen, the growth of surpluses? So we are anxious to explore a voluntary scheme.I was not present in that Committee so I cannot say whether the whole Committee burst into applause at that moment. Nevertheless, a substantial degree of harmony was established between 1565 the Committee and the Minister. I am pleased to see the Minister for Agriculture here now, because I am always prepared to return compliments to the right hon. Gentleman. I was explaining to the House how sorry we were not to see him, because I was labouring under some difficulties.
The first difficulty is that I like him so much that I find it difficult ever to be unpleasant about him, and yet on this occasion I find it equally impossible to congratulate him, and therefore I am in considerable difficulty. I was recalling the fact that this afternoon he described himself as "half-kiwi", and not until this moment did I appreciate that fractions of birds could join a migratory species. [HON. MEMBERS: "Repetition."] I was only attempting to extend to the right hon. Gentleman the courtesy that I know he would have extended to me had I missed part of his speech.
On 12th February the matter was debated in the House of Commons, and the Minister made it clear that he thought that an element of compulsion was an important and controversial feature. He said:An important and controversial feature is its plan for the incorporation of skimmed milk powder in animal feed for a limited period.That put him on common ground with the House.
The right hon. Gentleman had said earlier:We have some reservations whether the Commission has always satisfactorily followed through the logic of its own analysis. Moreover, we need to examine closely whether many proposals would be cost-effective and practical."—[Official Report, 12th February 1976; Vol. 905, cc. 707–10.]The meaning of those last remarks was not exactly clear. Nevertheless, the Minister was recognising that there was approaching an awkward and difficult problem.
Later in the debate the Secretary of State for Wales said:Again, I understand the concern of those who oppose compulsory incorporation. Such compulsion is, in principle, undesirable."—[Official Report, 12th February 1976; Vol. 905, c. 784.]It was clear that that idea was firmly in the mind of the right hon. Gentleman when he went to Brussels. He has made much of the point that the Scrutiny Com- 1566 mittee, helpful as ever, said on 25th February:Of course we do not want to stand in the way of the Minister in his negotiations. He must do his best.In doing so, they were not issuing the Minister with a carte blanche. The Minister has made over-much of this point.
When it was all over, he said:I explained on that occasion that I personally did not like these particular proposals and that I would have preferred that the need for them should not have arisen.At no point was the Minister in any doubt about the merit of the proposals or the view held by the House on them. This is an important issue. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West said on that occasion:It is a little unfair of him now not to admit that he gave a firm promise to us."—[Official Report, 12th April 1976; Vol. 909, cc. 1064–1082.]The Minister did not intervene to withdraw from the position that a firm promise had been given.
A number of important points arise from this situation. First, this was a dud scheme which under no circumstances should have been given the blessing of anybody with commonsense, let alone a British Minister whose own industry had not contributed to the creation of the surplus. There is a censure motion on this subject in the European Parliament which indicates its view on the way in which the Commissioners handled this matter.
I do not think the Minister should go to Brussels under strict orders and be kept at the end of a piece of string or that he should be brought back to indicate whether he has complied to the letter with his instructions. However, it is important that Ministers acquaint themselves of the view of the House, tell hon. Members their view and report back after having attempted a reconciliation between those views in Europe.
The Minister has not stopped talking since he entered the Chamber. If he wishes to intervene, I shall gladly give way. The right hon. Gentleman is not doing himself any credit. He has something for which to apologise.
§ Mr. James Johnson (Kingston upon Hull, West)
The remarks of the right 1567 hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) are, if not dishonest, at least uncalled for. I am the culprit. I was speaking. It is not only harsh but also indecent of the right hon. Gentleman to accuse my right hon. Friend. I take all the blame.
§ Mr. Peyton
The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Johnson) is welcome to any blame he likes to take. I was merely mentioning, in passing, the performance of the Minister.
§ Mr. Peyton
There is plenty of time. I have no intention of accepting instructions from the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Mr. Litterick).
Knowing how the House felt on this matter and that he was faced with a thoroughly unsatisfactory and dud scheme, the Minister did not go to Brussels and there say that it was totally unacceptable. That is our charge against him.
§ Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)
I understood my right hon. Friend to say that the Minister should listen to the views of the House of Commons. I think that this matter needs clearing up. When we have a one-and-a-half-hour debate we have speeches by waves of pro-Marketeers and anti-Marketeers. Does my right hon. Friend mean only speeches made in the House of Commons or, as my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir P. Kirk) said in evidence to the Committee, that not only speeches made in the House but the gossip round the corridors and in the Smoking Room should be taken into account?
§ Mr. Peyton
Far be it from me to tell any Minister, let alone the right hon. Gentleman, what sources of information he should rely upon. On this occasion I am content to say that he had available to him a great deal of knowledge from both the Scrutiny Committee and the House of Commons. I do not doubt that my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten), who pays some attention to these matters, will be good enough to give the right hon. Gentleman the benefit of his advice on this occasion. The point is that the Minister, knowing the views of the House and disliking the 1568 scheme himself, failed in his duty to make sure that it was not adopted.
Secondly, what is the Government's attitude towards the legality of the scheme? Did they at any time satisfy themselves that the Commission's proposal was within the powers conferred by the treaty? Did they question whether any misuse of those powers was involved in putting forward this extraordinary proposal? For example, how does the proposal stand up against the yardsticks of either competition or natural justice? If the Secretary of State for the Environment has anything interesting to say, it will be exceptional, but I hope that he will get up and say it. Are the Government satisfied that this proposal was on all fours with the requirements of the treaty regarding competition? Do they agree that this proposal was considered by lawyers in Brussels as recently as 18th May? Are they aware of the outcome of the discussion?
Lastly, where do we go from here? For a long time now the Government have failed to produce any proposals on how European business should be accommodated in the programme of the House of Commons. The Leader of the House, whenever he is challenged on the point, always washes his hands of it by saying "I did not want to go into Europe in the first place. We would not have been there if I had had my way".
That is not the point now. The right hon. Gentleman is the Leader of the House of Commons and it is his duty, on behalf of the Government, to put forward sensible proposals for accommodating this considerable volume of European business. I hope that we shall hear from him, if not detailed proposals, at least how soon he will be in a position to bring proposals before the House.
I have no desire to prolong my remarks in what is inevitably a short debate. But it is right that we should have this discussion. I am glad that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is present, because he may learn at first hand that on this occasion at least not even the most ardent of his admirers can be in wholehearted admiration of his conduct.
§ 10.40 p.m.
§ Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)
The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) has made a characteristically 1569 diverting speech, but I am not sure that he was not rather in danger of diverting us from the full seriousness of the situation that we face. I should have thought that there must be very few hon. Members who are not profoundly dissatisfied with the present lack of parliamentary control over EEC legislation. The skimmed milk fiasco, to which the right hon. Gentleman devoted most of his speech, and in addition the debate on Monday on New Zealand butter, show to my mind that neither the recommendations of the Foster Committee on EEC legislation nor, indeed, even the Government's referendum manifesto are at present being honoured.
It is worth recalling that the Foster Committee, in its Second Report, of October 1973, said that it was "inconceivable"—I quote the Committee's word—that any Government would act contrary to a resolution of the House
forbidding the Government to agree to a proposed change in the law".The Government's referendum manifesto, which they delivered to every household in the land, said this, as hon. Members will remember:The Minister representing Britain can veto any proposals for a new law or a new tax if he considers it to be against British interests.Unquestionably, in the case of skimmed milk an New Zealand butter, the Minister of Agriculture failed to carry out those undertakings.
Let us not forget that the House actually passed a resolution disapproving the skimmed milk proposal. It was not merely a matter of views expressed in the Smoking Room or the Corridors. It was an actual vote in the House. It is ironical that while the British Parliament, in these cases, has been virtually ignored by Ministers, Denmark —to take one instance—has established a far more effective control over this legislation. A recent article in The Times on the Danish system said this:The Folketing has set up a special standing committee whose approval must be obtained before a Danish Minister can cast his vote on any topic in the Council of Ministers.That is what they have succeeded in doing in Denmark.
If we are to repair the damage that has already been caused by the skimmed milk and the New Zealand butter muddles 1570 and re-establish some sort of real preliminary control over this legislation, three difficulties must be overcome. First, we must ensure that parliamentary debates on EEC legislation are held in good time, well before the crucial discussions in Brussels. The Scrutiny Committee, in its First Special Report, which appeared last week, makes a number of suggestions to this end which I wholeheartedly support. Essentially, it demands—I quote one sentence from the report—that
The Government should take steps to ensure that debates are brought on as soon as possible after the Committee have recommended instruments for further consideration.Secondly—because that is not enough —we must also ensure that the Minister does not, despite that, go to Brussels and accept some legislative proposal before the debate here has taken place. That is the situation with which we have been threatened in these last few weeks.
The Government's undertaking—we have had an undertaking that this would not happen—not to jump the gun in this way was first given by my right hon. Friend the Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs as long ago as 11th June 1974, in a reply to a question of mine in an intervention in a speech in the House on that day. I asked for an assurance that the Government would not allow an EEC instrument to proceed in the EEC machinery if the Scrutiny Committee had notified the Government that it thought that it should be examined by the House. That was the exact question asked. The Minister of State replied "Certainly" to that question and he added later:Concerning the legislation, however, I give my right hon. Friend that assurance, willingly and without qualification.—[Official Report, 11th June 1974, Vol. 874, c. 1547.] That is what the Minister of State said on that occasion, and that assurance was repeated in paragraph 138 of the Government's White Paper "Report on Renegotiation" of March 1975. It said the Governmenthave further undertaken to ensure, consistently with the national interest, that final decisions are not taken in the Council of Ministers on proposals recommended for debate in Parliament until the debate has taken place.Those are the Government's words in their own White Paper.
But it is all too apparent that these undertakings are not being fully carried 1571 out. To my mind it is entirely unsatisfactory in many cases that a constitutional principle of this importance should rest simply on the verbal assurance of a Minister in answer to an intervention in his speech. It ought to be enshrined at least in a resolution of this House, if not in a Standing Order.
I would like to clear up one point of confusion. It is sometimes said—I think my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture said it tday—that one must not tie Ministers too closely because they are negotiating and they must not be too rigidly pinned down in advance. However, we are not here concerned with negotiation; we are concerned with legislation. It is the confusion between the two in the EEC system which causes all the trouble.
This skimmed milk regulation is not just something negotiated by a Minister. It is now the law, enforceable in the British courts. We do not allow the Chancellor of the Exchequer to come to this House and say that the Cabinet has decided to raise income tax but, unfortunately, he did not have time to get the approval of the House because there was no time for a wearisome debate. One would not allow that in the case of legislation on taxation. Therefore, where legislation is concerned, there should be no special cases where a Minister can just waive the Parliamentary procedure.
I would suggest that instead of a verbal undertaking, the House should adopt, as soon as possible, some resolution which would enshrine, in proper parliamentary form, the undertaking which the Government are supposed to have given. Naturally, I am not moving it tonight, but I would suggest that such a resolution could read:That where the Select Committee on European Secondary legislation has recommended that any draft legislation or other proposal. published by the Commission of the EEC and submitted to the Council of Ministers should be further considered by the House; no Minister of the Crown shall give agreement to such a proposal in the Council of Ministers until such time as this House has come to a decision on a motion relating to that proposal.I invite my right hon. Friend, the Leader of the House, to assure us tonight, if he can, that he is willing to accept such a resolution or, better still, that he himself will propose a resolution 1572 to the House on these lines. That in itself would be a great advance.
A third problem is to ensure that when the House has given its decision, Ministers do not act contrary to that decision in Brussels. It seems necessary to remind some Ministers that they are just as responsible to the House for what they do in Brussels as for what they do in Whitehall, Birmingham, Manchester or even Workington—a fine constituency which I know almost as well as does my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. I hope that he accepts the principle.
The Foster Committee said that it was inconceivable that Ministers would defy a resolution of the House. The Select Committee on Procedure in its report on EEC legislation of March 1975 said:Your Committee assume … that in any foreseeable circumstances, a Resolution requiring the Minister concerned to take certain action in the Council of Ministers would be complied with.After the skimmed milk affair we evidently need some much firmer safeguard to see that this is carried out. At the very least we should have an explicit ministerial assurance that in future Ministers will not disregard resolutions carried in the House, and, perhaps, a resolution of the House, to that effect, to ensure that nothing like the skimmed milk affair happens again. Failing that, I remind hon. Members that the House has full legal and constitutional power if it wishes to amend the European Communities Act, and that might turn out to be the only satisfactory solution to this problem.
§ The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Fred Peart)
I respect my right hon. Friend's views, but the Scrutiny Committee discussed skimmed milk and laid down that I should not frustrate a package if I thought it basically necessary. That is there in writing. I am not complaining. I attended the Scrutiny Committee, and that was its report.
§ Mr. John Davies (Knutsford)
It is necessary to consider the wording of the Scrutiny Committee's conclusion, which is as follows:While therefore the Committee report that in their opinion the two instruments raise questions of political importance and recommend 1573 that they be further considered by the House, they do not consider that such further consideration need delay their adoption by the Council should such adoption prove necessary in the course of negotiations to achieve a satisfactory settlement on the package as a whole.The difficulty is that the settlement could hardly be called satisfactory if the House disapproved it and the Minister accepted that disapproval.
§ Mr. Jay
I am well aware of what the Scrutiny Committee said, but that is not the point I am making. The House passed a resolution disapproving the Skimmed Milk Regulation and, in addition, my right hon. Friend, the Minister of Agriculture on a previous occasion said that he accepted the Opposition motion disapproving that Regulation before he went to Brussels. He therefore acted contrary to the clear decision and wish of the House.
To prevent anything similar happening in future the old solution may be an amendment of the European Communities Act laying down that no EEC legislative instrument shall have the force of law in this country unless it has been approved by the British Parliament. I do not ask my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House to go as far as that tonight, but, if we are to maintain some parliamentary control over legislation, he may find that he will have to do so before long. Meanwhile, I emphatically ask the Government to accept a resolution such as that which I mentioned earlier.
§ 10.55 p.m.
§ Mr. John Davies (Knutsford)
The right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) has drawn our attention to one of the recommendations made in the First Special Report of the Scrutiny Committee regarding the timely discussion of Community issues in the House. The Scrutiny Committee felt strongly that the system was defective and that many issues were not considered early enough.
That flows from the problem posed by the legislative method of the Community. I do not dispute that method. I have accepted it. I have been in favour of the Community form of action and I do not 1574 withdraw from that. But is poses considerable problems for the House with its totally different methods of handing legislation. We had, therefore, to devise a method by which the House could intervene in the legislative process of the Community—an intervention which was not included in the habitual methods of the House but which could be effective. Such a method should enable the House to express its view to enable Ministers to enter discussions in no doubt about the feelings of hon. Members.
That is the object of the Scrutiny Committee and of devising a method of dealing with special legislation. But the machinery is not entirely effective because it has been used either too late or at a stage when the Minister is incapable of changing the course of events to which he has already, wittingly or unwittingly, lent his hand.
Let us consider the procedures outside the House as they affect our business. The Community has accepted legislation through the Council of Ministers on the basis of proposals made by the Commission. Proposals by the Commission are taken up by the Council of Ministers, which forms the law based on those proposals. The system of the House has been to get its word in edgeways at the proposal stage. But that presupposes that there is a sufficient interval to enable the problem to be considered. It presupposes that what the Council of Ministers' ultimately decides is the same as that which the Commission originally proposed. If there is a mapor change during the course of the Council of Ministers' activities which fundamentally changes the nature of the proposal, the House and the Scrutiny Committee are in no position to exercise pressure on the Minister.
The defect is in the procedures adopted, particularly by the Council of Agriculture Ministers, more than in the method adopted by the House. The agriculture Ministers sit around arguing and negotiating propositions made by the Commission and sometimes they fundamentally change the proposition.
The right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, told us today that a proposal made on New Zealand butter was fundamentally changed by the Council. What we must be assured of, if this is to be an effective 1575 method of trying to impress Ministers with the views of the House, is that that shall not happen, and that before matters go to the Council of Ministers in final and definitive form there is an opportunity for them to be considered here.
I know that the Minister finds that a very awkward straitjacket in which to be. I sympathise with him. The last thing I want to do is to make his negotiating position more difficult. The universal adoption within the Community of the Danish system of scrutiny would totally immobilise him. It is highly undesirable for the House, which lent itself to the purpose of Community membership, to try to establish a permanent obstacle to the conduct of the work. That is not necessary. But it is desirable that the House and the country should be reassured that in relation to those major changes in their lives brought about by Community measures there is some means of expression, and not simply a fiction.
The danger the Minister must face is that it has become more and more undesirable for the House to be in a position where it is just being used to take off a safety catch to allow him to do what he wants. If the House is to get into that frame of mind, the relationships between it and the Minister on these important matters will deteriorate.
Therefore, I strongly urge the Leader of the House in his arrangement of the business of the House and, even more, the Government in their handling of affairs in the Community to seek to ensure that there is no creation of a highly undesirable situation whereby fundamental problems arise without any knowledge being available to the Scrutiny Committee or the House, and, most of all, no opportunity to ventilate views.
Unless that problem can be overcome, it is inevitable that the attitude of the House will become more and more aggravated and, not least, that the position of the Council of Ministers will become unsatisfactory. We have seen in this skimmed milk case that the Council, no doubt in the course of a heavy-headed 3 o'clock in the morning discussion, found a Marvellous method of getting rid of skimmed milk down the mouths of unsuspecting animals. But the proof of the pudding was not in the eating by 1576 the animals. They have not found it digestible, nor have the humans who had to deal with the problem subsequently. The solution had to be rehashed, and even the rehashing has met resistance from the European Parliament, which, acting within its full rights, pointed out the inadmissibility of a system of compensating other protein imports which was wholly unsatisfactory.
Our experience with the skimmed milk is no doubt important in itself, but more importantly, it illustrates what is not just a defective procedure here but a defective procedure in the conduct of the Council of Agriculture Ministers and the Council of Ministers generally in Brussels. I hope that the Government will put every effort into trying to have that major defect put right.
§ 11.4 p.m.
§ Mr. Bryan Gould (Southampton, Test)
Everyone agrees that the skimmed milk regulation is a nonsense. It is arbitrary, in that it compels British farmers, consumers and taxpayers to act contrary to their interests. It does so irrationally and for no apparent benefit, at least to anybody in this country.
The regulation is unfair nonsense, because it compels British farmers, particularly, to bear a burden, accept a responsibility, even to pay a penalty, for a problem in the formation of which they had no part. It is also an expensive nonsense. The scheme will cost the Community budget 170 million units of account—about £100 million. The British taxpayers' share will be about £16 million, to say nothing of the cost to the individual farmer in this country of having to buy uneconomic foodstuffs which his poultry will not eat.
It is not the substance of this regulation that we are debating. Our question is "How do we protect the British consumer, the British taxpayer and the British farmer against such a nonsense?" I say "How do we protect those people?" because responsibility in the end is ours. It is perfectly clear that the Minister cannot protect these people. I say that with no intention of criticising him personally but, as so many of us forecast before we finally confirmed our membership, the much-vaunted veto cannot be exercised in these circumstances.
The Minister finds himself faced with a package deal. He must yield on some 1577 points to get others. It is futile, therefore, to look to the Minister to try to protect our interests in this way. Therefore, responsibility is ours. What happened when we tried to exercise it? The Minister came back from Brussels and told the House that he did not like the regulation. That was no surprise, because we had told him that in advance and he confirmed it. The House unanimously condemned it, with the support of the Opposition, the Government and the Minister himself, but it remained law.
The question therefore is: can we accept a situation where that sort of decision made by Ministers in Brussels can be directly applicable as law in this country in spite of the express decision, will, and desire of the House of Commons? That is the question.
The question is not so much that the executive is making law, because in a sense that is happening here already, although always within the framework of powers conferred by the House of Commons. I hope that we shall hear nothing of the argument sometimes advanced that our powers over the executive are already weak and that we should not mind their further diminution. That is like saying to a man with a wooden leg that because he finds walking difficult he should get the other leg amputated.
We have to try to extend control over the executive. This is a case not simply the executive making law-making decisions. We are concerned here with a member of the executive making lawmaking decisions for which he denies responsibility, because he has done it not on his own account, but in concert with eight others, because he is one among nine and when they reach a decision against his better judgment he is able to come back and say, "I disclaim responsibility. I could do nothing about it. It is not my decision. This decision was taken by an external body. I had to agree."
If the House accepts that, it is accepting not only a substantial and serious diminution of our democratic control over laws made in this way but a fundamental revision and indeed a negation of a basic principle of our constitution—ministerial responsibility to this House. I do not agree that this is simply a case 1578 where something went wrong with the procedure, that some little mistake was made, that we can cure it next time and that it will be all right.
It was disingenuous of the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) to suggest that in some way the Minister was mistaken or could be criticised for what he said, because he acted within the system for which the Conservative Party voted. It is wrong for them to criticise the Minister for acting thus.
§ Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)
Is my hon. Friend not drifting on to slightly dangerous ground? He is surely not saying that the Minister must accept any negotiated package? Surely if they did something which was manifestly nonsense and against the interests of this country, the Minister has a residual right to veto.
§ Mr. Gould
If it were an issue of crucial national importance, such as national security or North Sea oil, we should, of course, expect the Minister to veto such a proposal. But we have always forecast that the erosion of our powers would come on issues of middling importance, not on those of major importance, that the loss of power would be gradual, step by step, on small issues, and that if we failed to react and to demand further powers to control what Ministers were doing on such issues, our powers would slip away imperceptibly. That is what is happening, and that is what happened over skimmed milk.
I believe that it is very important, nevertheless, that we should try to tighten up the procedures that we have already established, and I entirely agree that it would be beneficial to all of us if we were to embody, in the form of a resolution of the House, the undertakings which the Government have already given in regard to debating important issues. But I believe that that is not enough. In the end what we shall have to do, if we wish to avoid this problem arising again and again—and what we shall come to in the end—is to make some amendment to the European Communities Act which will give the House, in limited cases, perhaps, a power of review over what is decided in Brussels.
In my view, where the issue had been decided to be important, and where the 1579 Minister had substantially departed from the wishes of the House, in those limited cases it should be possible, under our domestic legislation, for the House to have the power to say "Yes" or "No" to whether that measure should have legislative effect.
I know that it will be argued that if we were to amend the European Communities Act in that way it would imply a derogation from our treaty obligations, and that is undeniable. But that is a practical problem which would arise only in those very infrequent cases where the Minister, in the full knowledge that the power existed, nevertheless went ahead and agreed to something which the House subsequently wished to review.
I cannot, therefore, see that there will be any great problem of principle, since the domestic legal situation will be perfectly clear. It will be established by the amended European Communities Act. The only difficulty which could arise is that, where such a conflict broke out between the House of Commons and what the Minister agreed to in the Council of Ministers, there would then be a problem of international law. What better way to resolve this than by negotiation with our European partners? They negotiate away such problems all the time.
If we think that there is any way in which we can avoid such a problem arising under the European Communities Act as it stands at the moment, we are quite mistaken. Without a doubt the day will come, perhaps shortly, when the House will refuse to give legislative effect to a directive of the Council of Ministers, and precisely the same conflict will then arise.
While I agree with and warmly support the draft resolution read out by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), and believe that it is an important resolution which the House ought to adopt, nevertheless I believe that if we are to fulfil our responsibilities to the people who elected us and sent us here to protect our interests, and to make a proper contribution to the Community itself by introducing a true element of democratic control over what is there decided, we must in the end come to an amendment of the European Communities Act.
§ 11.13 p.m.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Rippon (Hexham)
I should like first to express thanks to the Leader of the House for extending the time for the debate tonight, as requested by me on Monday. It is a debate which raises matters of very considerable constitutional importance, and I hope that at the end of the day the Leader of the House will be in no doubt about his responsibilties in the matter, about the responsibilities of the Government, and about the powers that the House already possesses.
The disturbing feature of the decision which was reached on 12th April, on these Community documents on skimmed milk powder and protein storage, was the fact, first of all, that the Government had failed to bring the matter to the House for discussion in good time.
§ Mr. Rippon
Probably it is fair to say that it was discussed during the general discussions on the Agricultural Price Review in a general way. But that is the complaint. The House does not have time to debate these matters and to influence the decisions of the Government.
The second question is by far the most important one, in my view. The real effect of the decision on 12th April was that it showed that the Government had failed to accept their own responsibility for their own actions. The Minister of Agriculture intervened earlier in our proceedings to say that he thought that it was a good package—
§ Mr. Rippon
The business of the Government is to make an agreement and then defend it and to carry the agreement through the House. They cannot as a Government say "We accept a resolution deploring what we have done" and, when the House has accepted that resolution deploring the Government's policy which they have not themselves 1581 defended by a vote, then say "But it does not matter if the House has deplored it because it has now come into effect and this is all a result of the European Communities Act".
In effect, that is what the Leader of the House was saying on 13th April. He said:… under the provisions of the European Communities Act, decisions may be made in Brussels which cannot be upset by some of the decisions made by the House of Commons. That is precisely the dilemma in which we are placed.—[Official Report, 13th April 1976; Vol. 909, c. 1166.] But, in my submission, it is a dilemma of the Government's own making, and, what is more, it is not an accurate statement of the constitutional position.
We discussed these matters at considerable length in the course of our debates on the European Communities Bill. It was then suggested by the present Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Stepney and Poplar (Mr. Shore), that, once a regulation had been made in Brussels, we could not interfere with it, we could not amend it, and we could not reject it.
Under our normal constitutional procedure, if the Government enter into a treaty or agreement in exercise of the prerogative power, there is no reason why this House should have a sight of it in advance. But, thereafter, it can accept or reject it as a whole. What it cannot do is accept or reject bits of it.
That is the difficulty into which we get in the debate on skimmed milk powder. It is impossible for us or for any other member of the Community to look at the package, which has been negotiated with a fair balance of mutual advantage for everyone, and say "We do not want the skimmed milk powder bit, but we want the £15 million or £20 million a month subsidy to the British consumer and the agreement on beef prices". It was a good agreement, and the Minister should have defended it. He should not have allowed the House to pass a resolution deploring it. Once this House passes a resolution deploring the Government's action, very considerable difficulties arise. In the debate on Monday, I quoted what I said on 8th March 1972:One thing should be made clear. Of course, the House of Commons could debate it. There is no doubt about that. As we 1582 have made clear all along, any Government are responsible to the House of Commons. Therefore, if they entered, or allowed the Community to enter, agreements which could not be carried through this House or which were subject to a vote of censure, they would be open to great difficulty.—[Official Report, 8th March 1972; Vol. 832, c. 1581.] I do not think that any Government can say "There has not been a vote of censure on us because we accepted the motion". If they could, they could do it not in relation simply to EEC matters but to anything else. But we have censured the Government, in circumstances which are very unusual. It may be that a motion just deploring an action of a Government is not in a suitable form, but if the Government enter into an agreement in Brussels knowing that it will be contrary to the wishes of the House of Commons, we can censure the Minister, we can censure the Government, or we can require the Minister to go back to Brussels and renegotiate.
I remember that, during our debates on the European Communities Bill, many said "As soon as it is passed, we shall be bound for ever". In the same breath, they said "But if we win the next election we shall renegotiate it". They renegotiated it, although they did not change the treaty or change the Act. But there was a so-called renegotiation. Now it would be possible, if the House objected to any agreement, to instruct the Minister to go back and renegotiate.
Of course, in the last resort the House could pass legislation amending or rejecting the whole of a regulation or agreement. But we always said in the debates on the European Communities Act that one could not envisage a situation in which that could arise, because one could not envisage a situation in which a Government went to Brussels, and then acted contrary to the wishes of the House of Commons and contrary to the constitutional doctrine that the Government are responsible for their own actions and should carry their own business through the House of Commons. This is what our European partners expect of a British Government, and that is what we expect of them.
I do not think that this requires any consideration of suggestions that we should amend the European Communities Act. We had many debates about this. We said then that it would 1583 be wrong to write into an Act of Parliament provisions regulating the procedures of the House of Commons, because it would be very difficult to write into legislation provisions relating to procedures when it is desirable that those procedures should be as flexible as possible. As far as regulations which may be made are concerned, I said this on 26 April, 1972:Parliament is sovereign. lf, contrary to the wishes of the House. the Government were to allow a regulation to be made, they would run the risk that the House would, in effect, order our domestic courts not to give effect to it. That would be a breach of the Treaty obligations. I canot conceive of any circumstances in which that would arise. But that is the position."—[Official Report, 26 April 1972; Vol. 835, c. 1584.]I believe that is so, and we have said it time and time again.
§ Mr. Marten
The position here is that the Minister went to Brussels and agreed with something, came back to this House and accepted an Opposition motion which entirely disagreed with what he had agreed to.
§ Mr. Rippon
I am prepared to accept that eveyone got in a muddle on this occasion. But at no time in the future should the Government enter an agreement, and then refuse to defend it on the Floor of the House of Commons. It is not good enough to accept a motion of censure and then say that, because there was no vote, it does not count. It was a motion of censure, which normally would have required the resignation of the Minister, the resignation of the Government, or a renegotiation of the proposals. It was an abdication of the Government's responsibilities.
§ Mr. Peart
The right hon. Gentleman is quite right to pursue this point as he sees it. We were dealing with a major package affecting the agricultural industry, including our own agricultural review as well. I believe that the package was good for the farming community. No other Ministers in the Community opposed it, even though we all had our doubts about skimmed milk. Take our 1584 hill farmers, for example; would any hon. Member have stopped the deal and its benefits to hill farmers because of the skimmed milk?
§ Mr. Rippon
This is the whole point. The Government enter into treaties and agreements believing them to be in the national interest. I accept that this was a good agreement, and that the skimmed milk part could not be separated from the rest of the package. The Government could have opposed the motion, or put down an amendment dealing with the real substance of the matter and asking the House to approve the package as a whole. I, for one, certainly would have voted with the Government on that.
The difficulty is not on the merits of the wretched skimmed milk powder. It is a major constitutional issue as to how the Government should behave in these circumstances, and what the powers of the House are to ensure that no Government should do anything ultimately that the House would not accept. Ultimately Parliament is sovereign. If the Government enter an agreement which the House does not like, it can defeat the Government, or tell them to renegotiate, or, in the last resort—which I could not recommend—pass domestic legislation directly contrary to the international obligations, and that would be enforced in our courts.
We should be reluctant to do that, and I cannot see myself voting for such legislation in relation to skimmed milk powder, but the power is there. Meanwhile, I think we all agree with what was said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) and by the Scrutiny Committee about the need to improve our procedures to ensure that matters come before us as quickly as possible, and if necessary to provide the Standing Order which the Scrutiny Committee suggests.
I think that we sometimes make an error in approaching these matters in too legalistic a way and, as my right hon. Friend said, tracking these proposals down while they are changing all the time. That is not the responsibility of the Scrutiny Committee. It is the responsibility of the Government and the Leader of the House to see that a statement is made on, for example, New Zealand butter at the proper time so that the House can debate it if it wants to do so.
1585 It is also important that the terms of reference of the Committee should be extended in the way suggested so that it can bring forward matters of major importance. It is absurd that it cannot bring to the House proposals in regard to the Tindemans Report or the accession of Greece to the Community. It is absurd that its terms of reference should be more limited than those of the House of Lords.
I think that within the powers of this House as they now exist, without any need for further legislation, we can so order the procedures as to ensure that we have proper time to consider these matters; that we can so order the procedures as to ensure that we discuss those matters that we want to discuss, and in suitable circumstances. We can deal with the Government, but I hope that we shall have an assurance from the Leader of the House that a situation will never again arise when the Government tamely accept a motion deploring their conduct and then say that the motion is of no effect.
§ 11.27 p.m.
§ Mr. John Mendelson (Penistone)
The temptation is considerable to follow the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) into some of the statements that he made during the debate on the European Communities Bill, but as I do not believe that that would take us much further forward in what must be the main purpose of the debate, which is to provide machinery for the future control of European Community business, I intend to resist that temptation. But the right hon. and learned Gentleman must not think that what he said would have remained unchallenged if there had been plenty of time for a debate on the history of the matter.
I find intolerable the anxiety of so many right hon. and hon. Friends on the Conservative Benches to accuse my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture of not having used the veto, when they know very well that when they concluded the negotiations they did not intend that the British Government, from whichever party was in power, should, after we had joined the Community spend all their time every Monday and Friday using the veto.
There was, of course, a reference to the veto in the propaganda that was sent out when the appeal was made to the 1586 people of this country to confirm our remaining a member of the Common Market, but only a political child could have thought that the veto was something that any member of the Nine would use on a normal occasion and that it would be the normal procedure of a member of the Community to use the veto procedure whenever anything turned up. That is obvious nonsense, and it was always clear throughout those long debates that only in the most extreme circumstances would any British Government be justified in even considering the use of the veto. To place the entire responsibility for not having immediately used this extreme method of proceeding upon my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture who happens to be involved tonight because his Department is concerned with this issue is completely unfair and politically misleading.
That is not the centre of this debate. The right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) made life far too easy for himself, because although he said that he found it difficult to be beastly to my right hon. Friend, by trying to be so kind to him he made it appear that we were dealing with a problem which could easily have been solved if the Minister concerned had adopted a somewhat tougher attitude. That is not the problem. Nor will the problem be solved by the attitude adopted by the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham, who suggests that when there is a situation in which the House of Commons is profoundly opposed to one part of an international agreement but when the Government feel that there are certain other aspects of the agreement that may be useful, and the Government are engaged in protracted negotiations, the House of Commons should be completely and permanently helpless, and should be forced to accept every part of the agreement without being able to do anything about it.
That is the real problem. What was the advice given by the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham? He said "All right; you knew that the House of Commons did not want the skimmed milk agreement; it regarded it both as absurd and immoral. But you wanted the other part of the agreement, so you have to tell the House of Commons 'We demand that you accept the part of the agreement that you do not like, as 1587 well'". That is what the right hon. and learned Gentleman advised.
§ Mr. Rippon
It is not my advice;it has always been the constitutional position, on entering into an international treaty or agreement, that the House of Commons can accept or reject it; it cannot amend it.
§ Mr. Mendelson
That is what I suspected. I am glad that the right hon. and learned Gentleman used the term "international treaty or agreement". That is the whole trouble. We are carrying on the tradition of the Foreign Office, which is used to concluding international treaties and agreements and telling the House of Commons as late as possible, keeping everything secret until then. But here we are dealing with the Council of Ministers, which is not a collection of diplomats but is the only legislative body of the Common Market, and the duty of that body is to tell the House of Commons as early as possible, so that the representatives of the people of the United Kingdom have an early opportunity of making their voices heard. There we have the parallel of taxation; otherwise it is taxation without representation, and skimmed milk without being asked about it.
As the right hon. and learned Gentleman said, we have to accept it, although we are not responsible for it. That is what has led to the difficulty tonight. This fundamental difficulty can be cured in a completely different way. The parallel with an international treaty does not hold. The right hon. and learned Gentleman who negotiated on behalf of this country—and who ought to be the first to realise it—is confusing the House by drawing this easy parallel tonight. I am unable to agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould), although I agree almost entirely with the tenor of his speech. I cannot agree with him on his proposal about a possible amendment of the treaty. It would take too long. I do not think that we would be able to find a solution quickly enough to deal with the constitutional and procedural problem facing this country. However desirable such an amendment might be, it is not practical politics to think in those terms.
1588 I am much more drawn to the proposal made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay) —the proposal for a revised text, which I commend to the Leader of the House for his consideration, because the situation is urgent. I happened to have been a member of the Select Committee on Procedure, which, under the previous Administration was asked by the House to take a first look at the problem, at the time when the Scrutiny Committee was also holding its first parallel meeting. The right hon. Member for Knutsword (Mr. Davies) was Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee then, as he is now. We found the problem intractable and very difficult, and we were no wiser than any who have tried since.
The problem was urgent then, and it is even more urgent tonight. The peculiar difficulty that we faced then, and will face now, in trying to produce a solution, is that whether we admit it or not—there are many hon. Members absent tonight who voted for this country's entry into the Common Market who do not bother to take part in debates when these difficulties face us, but who refused to see our case when we put it to them at the time—is that there is a federal element in the organisation of the Common Market. This element is at work all the time and any British Minister who takes part in negotiations must face it.
The right hon. Member for Knutsford has suggested that a change should take place not in this House but in the Council of Ministers. That is unrealistic and I do not believe that it is possible—as the right hon. Gentleman would discover if he were still a Minister—to prescribe to the Council how it should conduct its business.
Ministers have to arrive at a solution after what may have been protracted negotiations involving third countries across the world and various other interests. We cannot prescribe in advance the precise method the Council should use to reach agreement.
§ Mr. John Davies
The Treaty of Rome lays down the method by which the Council shall arrive at its conclusions. It does so on the basis of proposals made by the Commission. That is the basis of the law-making capability of 1589 the Community. In the course of its deliberations, the Council may vary its views. I was saying that it is perfectly practicable that if a totally new issue is introduced into the proposal under consideration, there should be an opportunity for that new element to receive more mature consideration.
It is impossible to claim that the Treaty of Rome is being respected if a Commission proposal is so fundamentally changed in the course of the Council's deliberations that it ceases to be a real reflection of the original document.
§ Mr. Mendelson
No one would quarrel with the last part of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. But, on the first part, he will have heard members of the Council saying that if they are to succeed, they must be free to look at proposals with fresh minds. They must be free to work out a solution as they see fit. That is common sense and should be common ground among us.
§ Mr. Hooley
Surely my hon. Friend will accept that in the course of negotiations Ministers can say to their colleagues "My Parliament will not take that"—whatever the "that" may be? It is absurd to suggest that in order to get "a", "b", "c" and "d", a Minister has to accept "g" which he knows to be repugnant to his Parliament.
§ Mr. Mendelson
I shall be coming to that point almost immediately.
If it is common ground that the Council should be allowed this freedom and leeway if it is to do its work efficiently, the change cannot be left to Ministers. They often say that, under the Treaty, the Commission makes proposals. But we cannot limit the Council to what comes from the Commission. Anyone who has heard Signor Ortoli speaking about his experiences will know that a lot happens between the Commission and the Council which is not according to the book. Anyone who knows the real life of politics will not be surprised at that.
I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) that the views of the House must be respected, but change cannot be brought about by prescribing to the Council a different method of working and burdening the Minister of Agriculture with 1590 everything that has gone wrong. It is only by seeking radical changes on this side of the Channel that we shall bring about an improvement in the procedures.
What would these changes mean? I hope to fill in a little of the proposal made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North. We need not be afraid of running foul of opinion in other countries. We all knew that once we entered the Common Market, whether we were for or against it, the British constitution could not continue as it was before. I think that everyone is agreed about that. Therefore, those who advocated our entry should agree that certain amendments to our procedure are urgently required to safeguard as much as possible of the normal representative character of democracy within the United Kingdom. After all, every political party in the land has made a pledge to the electorate that that should be brought about, even if it includes fairly radical changes in our attitude to the Common Market and its procedures.
My hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley was right in what he said. It is for this House, not for my right hon. Friend, as a Minister, when he meets the other eight Ministers to lay down certain conditions. First, we must hear early—in contrast to the normal practice of the Foreign Office which informs the House after an agreement has been concluded, but before it has been ratified—what is in the offing.
Secondly, when there is a report, after early notification by the Scrutiny Committee, time must be provided for a debate. Sometimes it will have to be at the cost of time provided for domestic legislation. Common Market legislation will grow in importance, whether we like it or not. Therefore, the Leader of the House and the other business managers will have to consider putting other business in second place. Some of the Common Market business will have to come on at 3.30 in the afternoon and occupy the main part of the day, instead of being conducted at 10 o'clock, midnight, or even later.
Thirdly, when decisions have been taken, there should be a clear mandate to negotiating Ministers not to commit this country against the expressed opinion of this House. I should like to add a caveat. That will not happen every Monday and Friday. We know that on most 1591 subjects the Government do not leave matters to chance. Once the system is established, the Government will obviously see to it that their machinery, majority and interest in this House will come into play. As long as no decisions were to be taken, there was considerable latitude on the part of the Government as to how matters were or were not organised. But once we establish a system where such decisions begin to matter, the Government will start to organise their business. That is part of our system and it must be accepted. Then we shall see whether there is such strong feeling on the Government side and on other sides about a clearly expressed opinion of the House of Commons on subjects which matter. If they said "No", the question of confidence in the Government would arise. But there must be a clear mandate against which no Minister can act. I repeat, that would not happen every Monday and Friday.
On most other matters the normal process of negotiation would proceed. Under such a procedure, absurd decisions, such as that on skimmed milk, which many of us regard as bad policy, immoral and not acceptable to the overwhelming majority of the British people, would not be proceeded with.
That should be the massage to go out from this debate. The Leader of the House would be well advised to report to and persuade his colleagues in the Cabinet that the advice given to him by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North is sound advice on which the Government should act.
§ 11.45 p.m.
§ Mr. J. Enoch Powell (Down, South)
It seems that in this debate, as in many of these debates on European Economic Community matters and procedure, there is the danger of a gulf between the form and the reality which we are deliberately ignoring. It seemed to me that in this particular debate it was perhaps only the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) who sought to direct the attention of the House to that gulf.
I can perhaps best illustrate what I mean by referring to one of the subjects that we have for debate this evening, and that is the First Special Report of the Scrutiny Committee. On the surface, as 1592 one reads this First Special Report, all is bland. It is the assumption that there is an acceptance on all sides of the general principle that the Government and Ministers will not assent in the Council of Ministers to proposals which have, if recommended by the Scrutiny Committee, not previously been debated by the House of Commons. The report in form is devoting itself to the question how that principle, generally accepted, can be rendered more effective. I think that that is a phrase which has been several times used already in the debate.
Let us look at some of the suggestions that the report makes. It suggests in paragraph 28, for example, that since the object is to take into account the views of the House of Commons, we have made progress in the form of motionunder which the Government tables a 'take-note' motion … and Mr. Speaker takes a liberal view when considering whether or not to select any amendments tabled.The report designates that as being "in the main satisfactory."
There is a fundamental difference between views expressed in the s House—which can, of course, be useful, and can influence the behaviour of the Government—and the view of the House. There is only one way of ascertaining the view of the House, and that is by a resolution or a motion which is either not opposed or which is carried by our normal means. But we know, in fact, that this is avoided in the majority of cases, and that in the majority of cases the House is not invited to approve or disapprove the proposals, and even when amendments to a motion have been debated, they have fastened upon one aspect, in general terms, of a general approval or disapproval of a set of proposals.
The reason why this happens is not any mulishness on the part of the Government or any lack of keeness on the part of other hon. Members. It is because of a recognition of what the right hon. Member for Yeovil (Mr. Peyton) stated—that we do not wish or think it practicable to tie the Minister in the Council of Ministers hand and foot to every particular, and we do not even consider it practicable for the House of Commons to approve or disapprove the particulars in a proposal. Indeed, the proposals themselves are often in a considerable degree of generality such as not to admit of the kind of debate and 1593 decision which in our domestic matters we are accustomed to. So we are confronted straight away, in this part of what the report is saying, with the incompatibility of the expression of the view of this House with the reality of what happens in the Council of Ministers within the Community.
Then I take a second proposition. In paragraph 25, it is suggested thatIf necessary, the Government should consider accepting the descipline of a Standing Order under which there would be a maximum period laid down within which debates would have to be held after the Committee had made their recommendation.If the House will forgive my saying so, that is entirely unrealistic. It is unrealistic to suppose that the Scrutiny Committee puts forward 10, 15 or 20 proposals of the Commission which it thinks require the attention of the House and they have to be debated within 10 days, 15 days or 30 days. In some circumstances that period will be absurdly short. In other cases it will be absurdly long. For the business of this House cannot possibly be so co-ordinated with the business of the EEC that we can have an orderly progression from the recommendation of the Select Committee that a matter deserves the attention of this House to a consideration of those proposals, and then to procedures in the EEC.
On the contrary, what we shall be faced with, in the nature of things, is that there will be, from time to time, as we have experienced in these cases, a sudden realisation that a matter is to be dealt with by Ministers in the Council of Ministers which has been recommended for the attention of this House by the Select Committee and which therefore, somehow, if possible, has to be brought before this House.
May I mention that we have had a very bad experience in the House of Commons over fixing maximum periods for consideration by the House. We suffer disgrace when we enact in statutes that a Statutory Instrument can be prayed against within 40 days and deliberately do not do it. If we were to have such a Standing Order as this we should find ourselves promptly devising methods whereby we did not observe the Standing Order.
However, there is a third way in which, more drastically and more recently, the 1594 gulf between the form and the reality has been brought to the attention of the House. When we first knew that we would have this debate we thought that it would be a skimmed milk powder debate. It has turned out to be much more a New Zealand butter debate, for it was in the course of examining what happened in that context that the House became aware of another aspect of the incompatibility between the nature of the Government and legislation of the Community and the control, which we all talk about as if it were an accepted principle, of that Government and legislation by this Chamber.
We found that under Protocol 18 of the Treaty of Accession decisions in regard to New Zealand butter were to be taken in the Council "acting on a proposal from the Commission". But there was no such proposal. We had a debate on Monday night and Tuesday morning, but there was no proposal by the Commission to the Council before the Council, let alone before this House. It was fairly doubtful what in fact we had before this House, but what was quite clear was that the purported proposal from a Commission was a blank cheque for the all-important items to be filled in by the Council.
Then we were told, during the debate, that in the course of that meeting of the Council an entirely new set of proposals was produced by the Commission, although upon that the Council did not act. The hon. Member for Farnworth (Mr. Roper), in the course of exchanges this afternoon, pointed out that the reality of the behaviour of the Council was not in accordance with the constitutional procedure which, as the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) has several times emphasised, is laid down in the treaty. Of course if the treaty procedure were followed in its natural sense, and the Council did not do anything except in terms of a proposal previously made, published, and, therefore, available to the Scrutiny Committee and to this House, then, no doubt, we could devise some procedure whereby we could get hold of it in time. But the right hon. Member for Knutsford says, "If during the sitting of the Council Commissioner Lardinois suddenly pops up with another set of proposals, these must be hauled bck so that they can be considered by the Scrutiny Committee, the Scrutiny Com- 1595 mittee can take evidence from the Minister and we can have a debate in this House."
What has happened is that the realities of power, the realities of what the Community is like and is bound to be like, have prevailed, are prevailing and will prevail over the letter of its constitution. The letter of the constitution is giving way to reality. The reality is that the nature of the legislation of the Community and the nature of the power of the Council of Ministers are incompatible with the proposed control, proposal by proposal, by this House of what is assented to by Ministers in the Council of Ministers.
§ Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)
The right hon. Gentleman suggested that I had said that the Council was acting illegally.
§ Mr. Roper
When the right hon. Gentleman reads Hansard he will see that he referred to the illegality of the Commission's action. The Commission is interpreting the Treaty of Rome as allowing the resubmission of alternative proposals during a meeting. There is nothing in the Treaty of Rome which says that the Commission must previously submit proposals to the Council of Ministers and publicise them.
§ Mr. Powell
I did not attribute the view to the hon. Gentleman that the Council would in those circumstances be behaving illegally. The only context in which I referred to illegality was in the context of what would have happened if the Council had acted on the non-proposal which we were seized of on Monday night, namely, a proposal which was no proposal because it did not have in it the crucial data. I would be prepared to argue that in those circumstances the Council was not even formally acting in accordance with the treaty. The spirit of the treaty—the natural understanding of it which many of us have—is being transmuted by the realities of power and by what the Community is about.
That came out in the debate about bargaining in which the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) took part. When we legislate there is no question of a bargain. When 1596 the House of Commons throws out Clause 32 of a Bill the Government do not put it back again before presenting the Bill to Her Majesty for the Royal Assent—unless they can carry a vote. They do not put it back silently on the ground that it is a good Bill generally and we gave it our blessing on Second Reading.
Yet that is exactly the argument which comes from the Council of Ministers, and it is the argument which was common to the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Agriculture and the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham. They said that this was a different process altogether from the legislative process. They said that these were decisions taken by plenipotentiaries, collective decisions, much more resembling the decisions of the Cabinet than the decisions of the legislature. Therefore, said they, and rightly, it was impossible to unpick what was done so that the House could consider each of the separate items, say "Yea" or "Nay" to them and either send the Minister back to Brussels to do the best he could or endeavour to censure him when he came back because items (a) and (b) were disagreeable to them as they were disagreeable to him.
I say to the House, even more emphatically than did the hon. Member for Southampton, Test, by all means let us pass a resolution—it will sharpen our minds if it does nothing else—which in terms requires that assent shall not be given in the Council of Ministers to proposals of the Commission until they have been submitted to the opinion of this House. I would be very happy to see such a resolution so that we could, by attempting to operate it, understand how incompatible with the control of the House over the laws under which the people of this country are to live and the policies by which their lives are increasingly to be affected is membership of the Community.
Sooner or later, as was always intended and as the advocates of British membership for the most part honourably have never concealed, the authority of the House is intended to diminish and intended to be ceded to other authorities which derive their responsibility from different sources altogether. We shall not alter that by improvements in procedure or by passing procedural resolutions. By 1597 all means, if it helps us to get that clear, let us have a procedural resolution. In that I shall make common cause with the right hon. Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay).
§ 12.2 a.m.
§ Mr. John Roper (Farnworth)
I totally agree with the last words of the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). Clearly, in joining the Community we were moving into a situation where power would move by stages to different organisations. One of those is the Council of Ministers and another will be a directly elected European Parliament. There is no difference between us, although we may differ about the value of such institutions.
I defend the view of the Select Committee on take-note motions with the power for the House to table amendments. That procedure is right because proposals that come before the House are only proposals of the Commission, particularly if we receive them at an early pre-legislative stage. Those proposals can be changed. At that stage the Government do not necessarily want to hear support for their view. They want to hear the views of the House. The take-note debate, with the power for the House to express its view and to amend, is the right form of motion.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)
Will my hon. Friend concede that the power to amend depends upon whether the Chair selects a particular amendment? Does he recall that on the first set of documents on energy policy an amendment disapproving the documents was tabled because they removed the power of the House over our energy resources, but the Chair did not accept that amendment?
§ Mr. Roper
I do not wish to be drawn into explicit or implicit criticism of the Chair. I commend the more liberal attitude of the Chair towards amendments and hope that it will continue.
The right hon. Member for Down, South also criticised the timing. A fixed limit requires much thought. There is a considerable range in the period between a proposal being made and its adoption by the Council of Ministers although agricultural proposals are the most difficult.
1598 The most serious problem is that which was mentioned on Monday and which I raised with the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food today—the power of the Council of Ministers, with the compliance of the Commission, substantially to modify proposals during a meeting of the Council of Ministers. I say "with the compliance of the Commission" because I understand that, to keep in line with the treaty, when the chairman of the Council of Ministers has the sense that there is a change he suggests to the members of the Commission that they withdraw and submit an amended proposal. I have never been there, but I am glad to see that my right hon. Friend agrees with that description.
This means that at the end of the day the proposal which Ministers may be under considerable pressure to agree, because it is part of a package or because of the sort of solidarity which builds up between the Ministers of different countries on such occasions, may be rather different from that debated in the House. I do not believe that we shall be able to lay down a very firm rule about this. To a certain extent we must accept it, because of our belief in the good faith of the Minister, the belief that if the amendment goes beyond what he senses to be the wishes of the House, or what he feels he will be able to get accepted by the House, he will say "I am unable to agree this until there have been further discussions in my country."
If we accepted a Standing Order of the House along the lines suggested by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay), the Minister would be seriously handicapped in the negotiations. If there were any change, if the Commission during the course of a Council of Ministers meeting produced an amended proposal—even a minor amendment, even an amendment to take account of criticism made in this House during a debate—as far as I can see the Minister would not be able to agree to it. He would have to say "This is a different proposal from that discussed by the House. I shall have to have another debate. It will have to go to the Scrutiny Committee before the Council of Ministers can agree it." Therefore, such 1599 a Standing Order would have considerable drawbacks, and should be carefully considered.
I should like to say a few words about the skimmed milk. Nobody would try to defend what seems to almost everybody to have been an indefensible policy, taken by itself. It was unsatisfactory, even at Community level, as a way of dealing with the problems of the dairy sector. Although I can understand why it was arrived at as a possible compromise, because people were reluctant to take the more radical measures needed to deal with the dairy industry, it does not seem to be defensible. But I cannot agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test (Mr. Gould) that we should not accept it because it was not particularly to the advantage of this country.
Within the Community there may well be times when particular items in a package, such as a price review package, are not particularly to the advantage of this country. There may be items which are neutral or slightly disadvantageous but which we have to accept. In the same way, it is not particularly to the advantage of the German taxpayer to have a larger regional fund, yet we are not terribly happy when the Germans veto increases in it on the ground that it is not to their advantage.
In a community we must take matters overall, the rough with the smooth, on the assumption that we shall be in balance. Therefore, the criticism of the skimmed milk policy is that it is a bad policy at Community level as well as the narrower argument of the advantage or disadvantage to the United Kingdom.
We should consider whether we can find, both within the Scrutiny Committee and within a rather more satisfactory form of Standing Committee procedure than has operated so far, a way to make sure that Ministers are more aware when they go to Brussels of the range of views which the House has. We should not tie ourselves to the totality of the Danish solution. The fact that there is a committee in the Danish Parliament able to discuss with a Minister before goes to the Council of Ministers the general range of policies, and that he can get a sense of what measures would be acceptable to the Danish Parliament and 1600 what would not, has some advantages. It would mean considerable changes in the procedure of this House.
My hon. Friend the Member for Berwick and East Lothian (Mr. Mackintosh) sees it as a series of specialist committees covering each area. That may be elaborate, but here I should like to come to the question of skimmed milk, New Zealand butter and agriculture to which the report of the Scrutiny Committee referred, areas in which things change at an hour's notice—it would be to the advantage of the Minister and of the House if there were a permanent Committee of the House able to discuss, not in the way the Scrutiny Committee does, but to discuss with the Minister the merits of issues coming up at Brussels, and on occasions able to make sure there is a full debate in the House. This is a relatively small change in our procedure, but, realising that the whole agricultural scene is different in procedures from most of the other Councils of Ministers, we could make progress here and make sure that the interests of this House are better represented.
I conclude as I began, in a sense. I do not think that this will be dealt with in the long run only by changes in this House, by amendment of the European Communities Act or by changes in the Treaty of Rome. We shall see demoratic control develop by ensuring that we have directly elected European Parliament which has powers of co-decision with the Council of Ministers.
§ 12.12 a.m.
§ Mr. Peter Mills (Devon, West)
I have the privilege of being a member of the Scrutiny Committee and not only is it a privilege, but we seem to be able to reach an agreement on most matters without a vote. Even though some of us are pro-Market and others anti-Market, we seem to reach agreement.
The House has a difficult problem before it tonight which should be solved. The House must realise, too, that members of the Scrutiny Committee feel that they have been let down over what has happened over this skimmed milk business.
If I may take the House behind the scenes of the Scrutiny Committee on the issue of skimmed milk, without boasting I think that I played a leading role in 1601 persuading my colleagues to allow the Minister to go forward without a debate in the House of Commons. I did so because I know the problems that the Minister was experiencing. I know, too, that through various channels he had pleaded with us to allow this to go through without debate. There was another reason why I tried to persuade my colleagues to allow that to happen—the situation in the whole of the agriculture scene. We were waiting for a price review. The spring was upon us and farmers wanted to know how they were going to plan and to deal with the future. The price review had been delayed certainly much longer than other price reviews when we were not in the Community.
§ Mr. Marten
What sort of farmer plans in April for his summer? Could he not wait another week or so?
§ Mr. Mills
No, I do not think so. As I was trying to explain to the House, we had already been delayed for many weeks. The price review had been put off. I believe that the price review should be announced just after Christmas so that farmers can understand the situation and plan for the future. [Interruption.] Will my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Marten) stop muttering? He can make his speech later, Mr. Deputy Speaker, if he catches your eye.
I sought to put forward to my colleagues this important point about the delay. That was another reason for my wanting the Minister to get on with his task and to come to some settlement in Brussels. The Minister made it quite clear to us in the Scrutiny Committee that he was opposed to a compulsory method. There was no doubt of that at all. He wanted a voluntary method. In many ways we trusted what he said. I believe that he accepted the fact that we did not make or contribute to this mountain of skimmed milk powder. Every one of us understood that he would go forward and seek to obtain agreement on a voluntary method.
I say honestly to the Minister, with respect, that I do not think that it was such a good deal in the long run, especially if we make out a balance sheet of what he obtained and what he lost. True, he moved forward in regard to beef and 1602 the deficiency payments, but in the long term it was a fundamental mistake to accept the proposals of the Community on skimmed milk, because they did not go to the root of the problem and insist that those who were creating the mountain of skimmed milk should bear the consequence of their actions. That did not happen. Indeed, we have seen nothing coming out of the Community to deal with farmers who simply produce milk for intervention.
In the long term, if we strike a balance sheet, this is not a very good deal. The advantages that the Minister gained on beef are outweighed by what has happened with skimmed milk. The cost to the consumer and the farmer will rise.
Another point not made so far in the debate is that unless we deal with those who go on producing milk for intervention and creating the skimmed milk problem, we shall have to go on with a system of incorporation of skimmed milk powder in the feed rations. If it is successful this year, the Community will want the system to continue. That is what is so wrong. I do not believe, on balance, that the Minister's package deal was as good—
§ Mr. Peart
I know the hon. Member's views and I respect him—he was a departmental Minister concerned with agriculture—but would he veto the package? Would he wish to take away the award to the dairy farmers, the beef premium, the advantages gained for the hill farmers, and so on? Let him say so straight away.
§ Mr. Mills
With respect, if the Minister will listen for a moment I shall try to make my point clear. Although the veto is the final method of dealing with the problem, I believe that the Minister could have taken a much tougher attitude in getting the package deal. If the boot had been on another foot and if, say, this had been the French Government, I am certain that they would have taken a much tougher line and been insistent.
§ Mr. Mills
I may be wrong, but that is what I feel,
I believe that the Scrutiny Committee trusted the Minister. I think that I made a mistake in persuading my colleagues to take the course that they took. The Scrutiny Committee is now very wary of granting its permission. We have not given it in respect of butter. That is why we had the problem that we experienced the other day.
When the Minister comes to the Scrutiny Committee, it is important that he is perfectly frank if he feels that he may have to do a package deal and that his own views may be overridden. I believe that we have to get these procedures right. This House must take the Scrutiny Committee far more seriously, because this will happen again. There are bound to be occasions on which the Minister comes to the Scrutiny Committee and says "For heaven's sake, give me permission. I have to do a deal". I believe that, once bitten, we are twice shy.
The House must realise that the Scrutiny Committee bears a very heavy burden. The House is trusting us every week to make decisions. We bring before the House only those matters which we feel need debating. Therefore, when we bring them before the House, I hope that the House will take them far more seriously than it does at present. I hope, too, that the Minister will take the Committee more seriously.
Perhaps I might comment on the Danish system. When I was an Under-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, I was responsible for agricultural matters in the Province. I had the privilege of accompanying various Ministers to Brussels, where I learned the ropes. The Danish Minister of Agriculture is absolutely controlled by his own Scrutiny Committee, and there were occasions when he telephoned during the night to ask permission to do this or that. That is quite intolerable in my view—
§ Mr. Mills
I would never support such a procedure. At the end of the day, for all his telephoning, he arrived home only to be sacked. The problem was about pig meat prices. But he might just as well have taken the course which he knew he should take, without all the 1604 telephoning. I am opposed to the Danish method of proceeding.
The Minister must be given latitude. He has to bear the responsibility and he has to come back to this House and, if necessary, to carry the can. Then, if we feel strongly enough, we have to take action and to debate the matter. That must be the way.
I want finally to suggest one or two courses which must be adopted. First, if the Minister comes to the Scrutiny Committee and asks us for what might be described as a concession, he must be far more frank than perhaps he was over skimmed milk. Secondly, we must be informed—[Interruption.] The Minister is sitting chittering. I do not say that in an unfair way at all. I believe that he must take us into his confidence when a package deal is about to be made. He must be much more frank than he was over skimmed milk.
Secondly, the Scrutiny Committee must be given more time to consider these matters. In other words, the means of communication between Brussels and the Scrutiny Committee and between the Ministry of Agriculture and the Committee must be improved. There seems to be a long delay sometimes.
Thirdly, the House must take these matters far more seriously if it wants a Scrutiny Committee and if it wants us to continue in the Scrutiny Committee. The House must take us far more seriously.
§ Mr. Mills
The Minister has missed the point again. I believe that more time must be given to debate the matters that we suggest should be debated on the Floor of the House. Otherwise it is a waste of time. To go on having these debates late at night for one and a half hours is not good enough. I do not mean to be rude to the House, but every single debate we have had so far has 1605 been a shambles. It is not in the interests of the House for this to continue.
I am certainly not skilled enough to advise or suggest a way of getting over these problems, but I believe that the Leader of the House and others must put their heads down, take this far more seriously, and devise a system which will accommodate the problems brought forward from the Scrutiny Committee.
I do not feel that there is much point in my going on in the Scrutiny Committee unless there are some major changes. Having said that, I believe that the Committee can and must play a very important role. But somehow, the shambles has to be stopped.
§ 12.27 a.m.
§ Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham South)
The House will congratulate the hon. Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) on being so frank.
We are debating the relations between this House and the executive, and the executive we now have is not just the one in Whitehall;it is a double-deck executive. It is a strange, and very powerful vehicle indeed. We are trying to adapt the procedures, which we have developed historically over the years and which have been the safeguard of British freedom and democracy, to a new form of executive. That is the heart of our trouble.
As I understand it, and trying to be objective, surely there are three broad solutions put forward by hon. Members about the way in which the EEC executive should work. There are the avowed federalists who believe in a directly-elected Assembly, replacing this House. There are those who support the present situation—a reasonably strong legislative function with regulations, with the Council and Commission making laws, sending them to the Scrutiny Committee, and having some of them debated in this House. Then there are those of us who back the Community as a strong international organisation in which strong cooperation can grow.
With the first two alternatives there are, and must be conflict between the executive in Brussels and the procedures of this House. Only with the third solution is long-term compatibility reached.
We are stuck with the second solution —and we have a curious and dangerous 1606 vehicle here. It is a hybrid machine, because the basis on which the Council and the Commission produce documents —whether they are fast moving or slow moving—means that we have a legislative engine of which we have no knowledge of the verba. I am not complaining about that, but we have no record of its act-out—not even one communally agreed statement, or minutes, as one would have at a local council meeting, or with a journal of the House. This very strong legislative machine is part legislative and part a dealing arena where package deals are constitutionally made. As far as I can make out, particularly as a result of recent events, it can change suddenly from a quasi-legislative function to a package-dealing function in the twinkling of an eye, and back again.
§ Mr. Julius Silverman (Birmingham, Erdington)
Does my hon. Friend agree that it is legislation by horse-trading?
§ Mr. Spearing
My hon. Friend is right, and that is inherent in the constitutional structure of the Commission and the Council as established now and the way in which they operate. Package dealing always has its limitations and its disadvantages for a democratic State. We all know that, because if one makes decisions not on the merits of the matter but on the strategic political picture of the time—which may be related to quite different issues—one is likely to get the wrong decisions. If we do that time and again, this House will react like a body rejecting a transplant. It may reject it, but sometimes the body dies, and that is the dilemma facing us.
The additional fact is that the package dealing gets wider and wider because those who wish to empower the executive with greater strength would much prefer to include it in a package deal than in a regular legislative programme which we approve and find more congenial.
§ Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that there is some special differentiation between the way in which this House scrutinises matters arising from, say, agricultural packages and agricultural deals, and the way in which it deals with other EEC legislative instruments, particularly directives, where there is plenty of time for consideration? And does not this mean 1607 that there is a lot wrong with the CAP as structured?
§ Mr. Spearing
Yes. The hon. Gentleman is approaching a point that I was going to make. Unfortunately, the regulations comprise all varieties. That is another problem in this strange legislative animal that we have accepted through the referendum. Anything from a White Paper or a statutory instrument to a Bill or a treaty can be in what is called a regulation. There is no distinction one from the other. If what we heard on Monday night is to be believed, one can start with a legislative instrument and it is suddenly turned overnight into a Bill—in effect into something that is horse trading. The hon. Gentleman may be on to something. It would be a good thing for the Commission to change the classification of regulations—I do not know whether the treaty would allow it —so that there is some regularising of these strange documents that pour forth in such great numbers and change their nature more or less overnight. That would enable us to deal with them in a more systematic and more satisfactory way.
We are entangled in something else, too. Instead of facing a series of one-off treaties described by the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon), any Minister is surrounded by a barbed wire entanglement of treaties. We have taken on this situation, and the Minister finds that at every turn. Unless we in this House and the Commission and the Council come to terms with the facts and try to regularise these matters in a more satisfactory way, we shall always get the trouble that we have had during the last fortnight.
I now turn to what we can do in this House, what has been done, what has not been done, and what might be done. There is always a tendency on the part of the executive to try to limit the power of the legislature. There is a proper balance and thus a creative tension in a parliamentary democracy. It is something that my right hon. Friend would wish to encourage, particularly the part played by this House. For the past six or eight months the Government have always said "Have patience. We have difficulties, but we are trying to find a means by which 1608 we can resolve all these difficult matters". I cannot find these repetitive claims valid. My right hon. Friend tried to do it again on Monday night. I do not think that the Government have been at all helpful to Westminster.
I wish to consider particularly some matters concerning procedure, because it seems to me that the wheel of democracy runs on the bearings of procedure. However wonderful a wheel we might have, if the bearings become jammed because they have not had sufficient lubrication, not only do squeaks occur and the box get hot; in time the shaking up and the vibration on the road destroys the wheel. The Government have not been very good in this regard in the last year; indeed, they have been very bad.
§ The Minister of State for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. E. S. Bishop)
My hon. Friend mentioned Monday night's debate, with which my right hon. Friend was concerned. Does he not admit that the fact that we are having this debate tonight—with all the sincere comments that have been made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, indicating the almost impossible position in which Ministers have been put—indicates that the need is for a change in procedure? That is what is being debated tonight. Surely my hon. Friend would be more fair to all the Ministers who had to negotiate in Brussels if he appreciated that by the procedure we followed we have put Ministers in an impossible position, which must be changed as soon as possible.
§ Mr. Spearing
I am sorry, but I cannot agree with my hon. Friend. I agree that Ministers are placed in an impossible position, but I do not think that this House has placed them in that position. The situation was inevitable, as a result of this House having taken upon itself the Treaty of Rome and having passed the European Communities Act. Many of us were opposed to the Act, not for chauvinistic reasons or anything of that kind but because we saw the fundamental constitutional difficulties that would arise and particularly the effect upon this House and the freedoms of British subjects. We have an unwritten constitution, based upon this House taking power from the executive and keeping it. That is a fundamental fact. 1609 I shall return to my point about procedure. Before the referendum, in connection with discussion of this document the Government arbitrarily said "We can discuss these matters only for 1½ hours", founding that statement purely on the analogy between the EEC regulations and our domestic Statutory Instruments. But there is no comparison between supranational legislation and secondary legislation in this country.
After the referendum was complete—in fact, even before it was over—the Select Committee on Procedure proposed a series of fairly complex recommendations about the way in which we should proceed. My hon. Friend the Member for Penistone (Mr. Mendelson) and I were members of that Committee. We published our recommendations a year ago—last May— but it was not until last November that the House was allowed to debate them. On the Thursday before the debate my right hon. Friend the then Leader of the House said—this was on 30th October—thatthis debate will be based on a number of motions to amend the standing orders in accordance with the recommendations of the Select Committee of which the hon Member is a member.—[Official Report, 30th October 1975; Vol. 898, col. 1765.] He notified his hon. Friends in the usual way that he expected their support on the following Monday, but on the following Monday-3rd November—we found that the Government were not putting down motions to implement the recommendations of the Select Committee, in two vital particulars; they were not allowing the Committees to whom the regulations were committed power over their own motion, or power over their own time. The Committees were specifically cut out from the Government amendments. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House, no doubt believing what his predecessor said, went gaily into the Lobby and voted away those powers.
So, from the time the new procedure was introduced last November the recommendations of the Select Committee have been thwarted. Worst still; there was no new set of Standing Orders specifically tailored to the precise needs of the regulation. We proceeded under Standing Order 73A, relating to the Statutory Instruments of this House—an almost unbelievable situation. Worse 1610 still; at the end of the debate, winding up for the Government, the then spokesman said:we undertake, if the House will pass it—referring to the amendment—to lay a further amendment in the near future to give effect to the general wish of those who have spoken in the debate.—[Official Report, 3rd November 1975; Vol. 899, c. 102.] He was referring to the allowing of more time. He was saying, in effect, "Only pass this and we will give you more time to discuss this matter, even if you have not power over your own motion upstairs."
That pledge was given by the Government six months ago, but the "near future" of 3rd November has not yet arrived. We have still not had the changes in Standing Orders. Hon. Members debating European regulations find that the guillotine comes down after one and a half hours, when the debate has not been exhausted. Is it any wonder that some of us are suspicious of right hon. Friends in the Government who give pledges of this sort but do not redeem them? It is almost a nightmare situation.
The situation became so bad that the Scrutiny Committee put down, en masse, Early-Day Motion No. 158:That this House deplores the inadequacy of consideration of important EEC measures, both in Standing Committee and on the Floor of the House; and calls on the Government, as a matter of urgency, to improve the timing, form and nature of such debates.The names on that motion were headed by that of the Chairman of the Committee. Yet still nothing has been done.
This is the sort of charge I put to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. It does not give us confidence.
Whatever the problems in Brussels because of the nature of the legislature, not much has been done here to ensure that we receive documents and give them the consideration they are due.
Because of the time factor, I refrain from commenting on the hopeless procedure for the ratification of treaties. On 5th December last year, we ratified seven treaties and some amendments to the Treaty of Rome. Only the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) and I spoke on that occasion. Why was nobody else here? Because the words 1611 "Treaty of Rome" or "amendments" did not appear on the Order Paper. They did not even appear on the front of the Statutory Instrument itself. Only in the last paragraph did it mention the treaties included in the schedule, and one had to turn over the page to discover the treaties involved. It is time the Government took another look at this procedure, particularly as the Speaker who has just retired drew attention to our disgraceful Statutory Instruments procedure.
The present situation with Standing Orders is very unsatisfactory, and the House was treated in a shameful way on 3rd November. An indication was given that the recommendations of the Select Committee would be accepted and they were, in fact, rejected. There have been many complaints, but nothing has been done. It is only when we get an explosion over milk or New Zealand butter that we have the opportunity to air the complaints.
I know that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has a great deal of concern for the democratic process. The Government must look at this matter and the nature of proposed regulations.
We can have an understanding on categorisation. I understand that in the quick-moving situation of agriculture it may be appropriate to have package dealing—though not on other matters. If the House is prepared to permit package dealing, it should be within limits that are well understood.
It is incumbent on Ministers to ensure that we put up democratic defences against what might be arbitrary legislation. The majority of Governments in EEC countries are not awfully antagonistic to the aims of our Government—but that attitude could change. For the sake of our democratic institutions and the good name of the Community in this country, the Government should consider these matters soon and change the Standing Orders so that we have a group of Standing Orders specifically dealing with the needs and requirements of the legislative machine in Brussels.
§ 12.45 a.m.
§ Mr. Neil Marten (Banbury)
It is getting late, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I do not know when the debate is due to end.
§ Mr. Marten
I think that my subtraction is all right. It is a pity that these debates should take place at such a late hour. One snag is that they do not get in the Press the next day. My hon. Friend the Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) seems to think that is very funny. The point is that the public do not know what the issues are. I know that my hon. Friend feels that is hilariously funny, but it is not. It is rather serious.
§ Mr. Marten
It did not catch my eye. I did not notice any headline. I noticed a tiny piece tucked away at the bottom of a page in The Times. I am grateful that The Times, with its massive attendance in the Press Gallery at this time of night, should remember to do that. But these important subjects are kept in the dark. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will recognise that straight away.
I am glad that the debate has not dealt specifically with the subject on the Order Paper—skimmed milk. Very few hon. Members have mentioned that matter. The debate is really nothing to do with skimmed milk. That was the cause of the debate, but it is just as much to do with New Zealand butter. This is a constitutional matter.
I believe that one hon. Member asked "To what extent can we do what is proposed?" My personal Scrutiny Committee-I am the only member of it—gets all the papers from the Vote Office. I go through them, throwing away quite a lot as being irrelevant. However, I read the Questions and the answers in the European Assembly. The hon. Member for Moray and Nairn (Mrs. Ewing) tabled a Question about harmonising scrutiny in the various countries. The answer by the Council of the European Communities was:How far the member States scrutinise proposals for EEC legislation at national level 1613 and what methods they operate for this purpose is their own responsibility. The Council does not think that it should examine or express views on this question.Therefore, what we do is entirely up to us.
What worries me is that when we have a debate—perhaps for an hour and a half—to take note or on the Adjournment, the Minister always says "I shall take note of what is said in the House and bear that in mind when it comes to negotiation."
The question that I put to my hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Sir P. Kirk) was what he took note of. I asked whether he took note of speeches made only in the House, or also in other places. My hon. Friend, in evidence, said that he took note of views expressed in the corridors of the House. If so, it gives enormous latitude to the Minister who is going to Brussels to say "I heard the speeches in the House, but when I padded round the corridors I got an entirely different view." It reminds me of the way Members used to elect Tory Party leaders in the old days.
§ Sir Peter Kirk (Saffron Walden)
This is the second time that my hon. Friend has referred to what I said before the Scrutiny Committee. I said that we needed decisions of the House but that there were many occasions when we did not get them. I regard it as my job—I am not a Minister, thank God—to try to get the informed views of my right hon. and hon. Friends for the guidance of those of my hon. Friends who work with me in the European Parliament. I used the word "corridors" in that evidence—I did not use the word "gossip"; that was my hon. Friend's word—to indicate that I carry out, as I think my hon. Friends carry out, fairly full discussions with my hon. Friends, as members of the same party, which seems to me to be totally reasonable. I imagine that the same thing is done by Labour Members. I cannot understand why my hon. Friend is obsessed with the idea that I spend my entire time prowling the Corridors of this House like a prostitute looking for clients.
§ Mr. Marten
The word "prostitute" was my hon. Friend's own word. I never said that. He put those words into his own mouth, and he used them.
§ Mr. Marten
Plural. I shall not weary the House with this matter further, because anyone in. the House can read it on page 44 of the Minutes of Evidence given before the Scrutiny Committee on 16th March. It is all there.
I recall that in the debates in 1972, when we raised this question—then from the Government side of the House—we were always told, and so often, that if a Minister went off and agreed something that the House did not like, we were perfectly all right, because we could always sack him when he returned, and that sort of thing. That was the firm impression that was given. On this occasion, the Minister did just that, and the Opposition, whose duty it would be to move a motion of censure on the Minister, failed to move a motion of censure. The Minister failed to resign. Therefore, all that safeguard that we were told was ours has broken down.
§ Mr. Marten
I have only a short time. Perhaps we could have a drink on the point. If the safeguard has not broken down, it is not working. Perhaps there is a slight difference between the two. However, certainly it is not working.
Will the Leader of the House look into a further question? During the 1972 debates we were given various assurances by the then Conservative Ministers. In fact, on the evisceration of chicken I made a speech at about midnight on 26th April on the question of New York-dressed chicken, evisceration, plucked fowls, and so on. Bringing it back to mind, I find it quite extraordinary how much I seemed to know about it then.
Then, as reported at column 1719 of Hansard, the Minister of Agriculture—
§ Mr. Marten
Column 1711. I stand corrected. The Conservative Minister of Agriculture said:I certainly give the undertaking to the Committee now that we have no intention of allowing a situation to arise where this trade—that is, the trade in non-eviscerated chicken, and so on—cannot continue if by 1976 it is still important for us.—[Official Report, 26th April 1072: Vol. 835, c. 1711.1] 1615 We know that it is important to us. What I want to know is whether the assurance given by a Conservative Minister, that we need not have this evisceration if we do not want it, carries over into a new Government?
These are the sorts of problem that are thrown up in this debate. The right solution is the one proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies) in the letter in which he said,The best way forward will be for you—that is, the Minister of Agriculture—to go forward with the negotiations next week but not to give final agreement to the instrument until you have made a report to the House and the debate has been held. Presumably this can be done quite quickly.I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford is quite right and that the House ought to support him in that general idea. That is one solution that is broadly the answer.
Then we come to the famous fast-moving documents, about which we hear so much. The Community must get used to the fact that there are nine national Parliaments with which it has to deal. We are a party of Europe de patrie people, and we are essentially nationalists. The Community must recognise that and amend its procedure.
There are two types of document. One is the draft—there is a great amount of mirth on the Opposition Front Bench.
§ Mr. Marten
And all around. I feel that we are touching on some rather raw spots, and that the only defence of some hon. Members is mirth from a sitting position—which is quite a good position from which to laugh.
What we have is a draft regulation, which the House of Commons debates and either approves or disapproves. If the motion on the Order Paper is the right one it can take note or amend it. If there is any significant difference in that regulation when it comes to the Council of Ministers—and I used the word "significant" rather than "enormously substantial", or whatever—the Minister should bring it back to the House
1616 We have already dealt with the second category—the question of negotiations. I believe that the Community must accept that we can delay things. We were told during the New Zealand butter debate that there was great urgency about it because if it were not concluded it would be disastrous for New Zealand. What has happened? Nothing at all was concluded, and it will be taken next month. All this "fast-moving document" stuff is really a cover for fixing things up without the consent of the national Parliament. My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) referred to the speed needed for the farmers to plan for the summer. I would love to know what farmers are planning in mid-April that cannot wait another week. All their sowing and planning has been done. Therefore, we must look carefully at this question of "fast-moving documents".
It is vital to keep parliamentary control over Community documents. The only way to do it is to keep Ministers on a very loose chain so that whenever they do something wrong we can nudge the chain a bit and drag them back here and ask them what they are doing. The EEC will have to learn that patience is a virtue.
I believe that the best solution is the one proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Knutsford. That was agreed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire (Mr. Pym), who, when I asked whether he agreed with it, said he did. Therefore, we have the Chairman of the Scrutiny Committee and the Conservative Front Bench spokesman on agriculture agreeing with it. The Leader of the Opposition said, in a speech on 28th February this year:This Parliament, and no other body, is elected to run the affairs of this country in the best interests of all the people".I totally agree with the Leader of my party.
§ 12.58 a.m.
§ Mr. Foot
I apologise to other hon. Members who wished to participate in the debate, but I would like to try to reply as best I can to the general debate. I am not being patronising in any way when I say that I think the debate has been extremely helpful in our objective of finding a solution to the problem, if a solution is available.
1617 I want first of all to turn to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton Test (Mr. Gould), because, although not putting an extreme point of view, he put in the fullest clarity, the view that it was the passage of the European Communities Act which had changed the relationship between this House and Ministers in various different ways. He argued that Ministers appeared before the House in a somewhat different guise now than they did prior to the passage of that Act, that Ministers could not be held so directly responsible in many of their actions as they were before the passing of the Act and that there was a different manner and form of debate on these matters. I do not dissent from one word he said. I have said as much in many debates, and I do not propose to eat my words on the subject, although that sometimes seems to be the sole item on the menu at the Dispatch Box.
I agree that the passage of the European Communities Act has altered this relationship. That was confirmed by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell). Those who honestly face these problems cannot dodge that fact, and that applies to the right hon. and learned Member for Hexham (Mr. Rippon) more than to any other Member of the House.
Despite that, we have to see how we can conduct a rescue and provide safeguards. The abolition or alteration of the Act is the fundamental remedy for the disease, but I cannot promise that in the near future we shall be able to achieve that method of solving the problem. The Government and the House, over quite a long period, have been seeking remedies to ease the problem and the House owes a debt to the Scrutiny Committee and its Chairman for the way in which they have sought to assist us in this purpose.
In some respects the situation has been alleviated. I do not accept the whole picture presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing). His view does not accord with paragraph 21 of the First Special Report from the Scrutiny Committee, which I shall read:It might appear from the figures quoted in the preceding paragraph— which referred to the number of debates that had been provided— 1618for debates not so far held that the Government had not complied with in the terms of the undertaking first given on 2 May 1974, to the effect that debates should take place before a final decision on Commission proposals is taken in the Council of Ministers. Save in one instance, this is not the position. The Government have kept to the strict terms of the undertaking given when the first Select Committee was appointed—a fact which the present Committee are pleased to acknowledge.That is confirmed by the Written Answer that I gave in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South, reported in the Official Report of 14th April 1976. Details are there set out of Community legislation and Community resolutions which have been brought before the House, not solely in the form of a take-note motion. Many more detailed motions have been presented to the House. The House has had a considerable surveillance over what has occurred, although I acknowledge that it is an imperfect surveillance.
The imperfection of that surveillance is also indicated by the representations for improvements that have been made by the right hon. Member for Knutsford (Mr. Davies), the Scrutiny Committee and others. Some of those suggested improvements were set out in the debate on 3rd November. I have read every word of that debate and I agree that there are still matters presented in the debate which have to be pursued if we are to carry out the Government's undertaking.
I hope that we shall soon be able to deal with the question of the timing of debates, and provide assistance on other questions that were raised. At an early stage we shall respond to the matters left over from the 3rd November debate and the suggestions made by the Scrutiny Committee in its latest report. We shall do our best to provide assistance in that way to enable the House to carry out its duties.
Despite the muddle and the shambles described by some hon. Members, it has been a good debate. It cannot be described as a shambles. Hon. Members should not talk in those terms about debates that try to solve these problems. I know that there have been difficulties over skimmed milk and New Zealand. Only in these two cases and an earlier case mentioned by the Committee does the system appear to have broken down. 1619 That is not a large number of breakdowns. We can learn from them and avoid them in the future.
I am not trying to minimise the difficulties. Some of them were raised by the right hon. Member for Down, South on Monday and in tonight's debate. He referred to the way in which our opportunities for intervening, to give the House a say on these issues, are affected by the way in which the Community conducts its business, which appears to be altering. Those alterations have taken place over a number of years.
The right hon. Member for Down, South suggested on Monday that the Council could not approve a regulation without a proposal from the Commission, and that that must involve a two-stage procedure to allow for discussion by Parliament. He said that those two stages have been dove-tailed. It is true that some time is needed before a regulation is published, but the commitment is made by the Government at the time of the Council of Ministers' procedure.
The right hon. Member for Down, South said that that was not illegal but that any alteration made it more difficult for intervention by the House at a time that would enable it to express its view. Anyone who looks at the subject fairly must acknowledge that the Committee has succeeded in helping the House out of some of its difficulties, but that does not alter the fact that other difficulties remain. People can see how difficult it is for the House to intervene at the proper time, even if the Government do all they can—which they do—to ensure that we get the right information and debates at the earliest possible time.
It is difficult to give indications about debates at 3.30 p.m. All European Community legislation has to be piled on top of the normal business of the House. Until the House makes an alteration in its procedures to deal with that, we are faced with the problem of providing time. I have been in my present office only for a short time, but we have had a series of debates on the subject. We shall have to provide more time earlier, and see if we can follow up all the proposals made by the right hon. 1620 Member for Knutsford. But even then we shall still be faced with the inherent dilemma presented by my hon. Friend the Member for Southampton, Test and the right hon. Member for Down, South.
That inherent difficulty, according to the right hon. Member for Down, South, would not even be solved by the resolution proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for Battersea, North (Mr. Jay). The right hon. Gentleman said that he would support the resolution in order to illustrate the difficulties of the situation and to assist the education of the House, the country and the universe at large. But that is not necessarily a reason that would commend itself to the Government for immediately accepting the resolution proposed by my right hon. Friend. I cannot give him the easy answer that he would like.
I undertake to report to my colleagues in the Government what has been proposed and what has been said in the debate. I shall report faithfully that there is a general will among hon. Members who have different views about the wisdom of our entry into the Market to see whether we can solve this problem. If I were a faithful reporter, I should have to report to them that the right hon. Member for Down, South does not believe that the remedies so far offered are likely to be successful. How that will weigh with them only a better mind-reader than I could divulge.
§ Mr. Foot
I shall not go into the question of the undertakings given by my right hon. Friends because I have only three minutes left, but those undertakings cover the general situation, and it is the Government's desire that there should be debates on the matter in time to affect the situation. A resolution of the nature proposed by my right hon. Friend would be much more exact, precise and far-reaching.
§ Mr. Foot
I appreciate that that is why my right hon. Friend proposed it.
Such a resolution would also conflict with the proposition put, with complete candour, by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food when replying to Questions today. He said that he would not give undertakings in advance because he must protect his negotiating position. I am sure that he has said that to the Scrutiny Committee on other occasions. That might conflict with a precisely-worded resolution. That is the dilemma. It is no good thinking that the dilemma can be made not to exist merely by passing the resolution suggested by my right hon. Friend. That would create further difficulties.
§ Mr. Peyton
I think the right hon. Gentleman's approach to the matter very agreeable, but I hope that, having discussed the matter with his colleagues, he will undertake to put some proposals before the House before the Summer Recess.
§ Mr. Foot
I have only half a minute left. Some may think that that is advantageous. I might talk myself out in reply, but if I did the right hon. Gentleman might be flattered that his question was too difficult for me, and I do not think that it is. Of course I believe that we must make further progress with the matter before the Summer Recess. A response must be made to the right hon. Gentleman—
§ It being three hours after the motion had been entered upon, the motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.