HC Deb 29 November 1976 vol 921 cc474-85
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Dr. David Owen)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement about business to be taken in the Council of Ministers of the European Community during December. At present seven meetings of the Council of Ministers are proposed for December.

At the Social Affairs Council on 9th December Ministers will consider Commission proposals on vocational preparation for young people and revised proposals on the education of migrant workers' children. They are also likely to consider measures to increase safety at work, a Commission communication on the humanisation of working conditions, the draft directive on acquired rights, a common system for payment of family benefits and the fourth report on the activities of the new European Social Fund.

Ministers at the Environment Council on 9th December will consider the Second Environment Action Programme. They may also discuss directives on biological standards and screening the population for lead and pollution from the titanium dioxide and paper pulp industtries, draft decisions on Community participation in the Rhine and Barcelona Conventions and a draft directive on the quality of drinking water.

At the Foreign Affairs Council on 13th and 14th December Ministers will discuss the follow-up to the European Council on 29th and 30th November. They are also likely to consider relations with Iran and Portugal, and preparations for accession negotiations with Greece, the Community's relations with Turkey, and passport union. Both the Foreign Affairs Council on 13th and 14th December and the joint meeting with Agriculture Ministers on 14th December are likely to discuss the external and internal aspects of the common fisheries policy.

Agriculture Ministers on 14th, 20th and 21st December will consider the Commission's proposals for revised green rate and MCA arrangements, proposed hops and interim sheepmeat régimes, beef import arrangements and measures for improving agricultural structures and marketing. They will also resume consideration of proposals for achieving a better balance between supply and demand in the milk sector.

At the Fiscal Council Ministers on 16th December will discuss the draft sixth directive on the harmonisation of value added tax.

Ministers at the Transport Council on 16th December may consider roadworthiness tests and a progress report on the draft Third Social Regulation. The Commission may introduce new proposals on lorry weights and dimensions.

Finance Ministers on 20th December will consider a report from the Monetary Committee on Dr. Duisenberg's proposals for co-ordination and co-operation by member States in their exchange rate policies.

They are also expected to discuss export credit policy. The fourth medium-term economic policy programme will also be on their agenda.

At the meeting of the Standing Employment Committee on 13th December Ministers will consider the problems of youth unemployment.

Mr. Hurd

I thank the Minister for that statement. It would not be fair to press the right hon. Gentleman too hard since he has given a procedural statement. However, there are a number of questions, particularly on fisheries, which are of vital importance and which I must put to him.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we are disappointed that it has not been possible to secure an extension in December of the agreement whichs allows some British trawlers to fish in Icelandic waters? Will the Council of Ministers in the next month be examining Mr. Gundelach's mandate, because it is not his fault that the British agreement expires on 1st December and that the German agreement will run on? But will the Foreign Secretary have an opportunity to make clear the fact that this situation, if prolonged, will damage the interests of deep-sea fishermen?

What is the position of Soviet and East European fleets in regard to the 200-mile limit? Will the Council of Ministers discuss this matter at its joint meeting on 14th December, or, in view of the Soviet attitude towards the Community, is this a matter to be handled individually by member countries?

The Minister has not mentioned among the Community meetings for December the line to be taken by the Community in the North-South negotiations in Paris. If the OPEC countries have linked their position about the future price of oil with the progress of the North-South talks, surely this is a matter that is more important than most of the contents of the Gracious Speech. What is the procedure within the Community in deciding the line to be taken by the Community countries? Is this a matter now being discussed by the Prime Minister at the summit, or will there be some special meeting to decide our line?

Dr. Owen

I share the hon. Gentleman's disappointment in regard to Iceland, although it is noteworthy that Commissioner Gundelach felt confident, when opening the formal negotiations, that both parties would be in a position to make statements about the fishing régimes to be operated by the two sides from 1st January. I share the hope that that confidence is not misplaced. The situation would be grave if it were not to materialise.

On the topic of Soviet fishing, third-party mandates have been issued to, among others, the Soviet Government. Negotiations have started with some other States, but not yet with the Soviet Union.

I agree that the North-South dialogue is crucial. It is on the agenda for discussion today and tomorrow. It will be possible to return to this topic at various Council meetings, if necessary, before December.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

May I ask the House for co-operation? I have a long list of hon. Members who wish to speak in the debate on the Gracious Speech. If hon. Members who are now called to ask questions on the EEC statement will make their contributions as brief as possible, I should be much obliged—and perhaps the Minister will also note this appeal.

Mr. Skinner

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. What is this list?

Mr. Speaker

If the hon. Gentleman does not know, he is the only person in the House who finds himself in that position.

Mr. Skinner

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker—

Mr. Speaker

Is the hon. Gentleman asking me whether Members write in to ask to speak?

Mr. Skinner

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I have been under the impression that Members "caught your eye", and that there are some Members who do not submit names on a list. I hope that they will not be excluded from any chance of catching your eye on the appropriate occasion.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I call Mr. Spearing.

Mr. Spearing

Will my right hon. Friend explain the status of the meeting of the Council of Ministers on education, which he mentioned as the first item of business? Surely that is not a straightforward meeting of the Council. We were told at the time of the arguments on the Common Market that it would not affect education. Could he explain this situation?

Dr. Owen

My hon. Friend may be under some misapprehension. It is the Social Affairs Council that is meeting on 9th December, and it will consider proposals on vocational preparation for young people and revised proposals on the education of migrant workers' children. Migrant workers have been an important subject for consideration by the Social Fund, and it is right that the Commission should pay attention to that social problem.

Mr. Henderson

Will the right hon. Gentleman convey to the Council of Ministers in Brussels the fact that Scottish fishermen are fizzing with anger at the arrogant and intransigent attitude of the EEC to the idea of an exclusive zone of 50 miles—coming as it does at the time of the Government's mishandling of the haddock quota, which will jeopardise the livelihoods of thousands of people on shore as well as those at sea? Will he make it clear to the EEC that Her Majesty's Government expect it to co-operate in meeting our legitimate interests on this issue? If not, we should stop co-operating on a number of issues on which it wants our co-operation.

Dr. Owen

The best way to go about this matter is to enter into negotiations toughly and vigorously, expanding one's national case but ready to persuade others on one's case. We have consistently put forward our view on the need for coastal belts. That has been well understood by the Commission. We intend to pursue these matters with vigour.

Sir D. Walker-Smith

Will the British Ministers at the Council take the opportunity to expedite the action of finalising and promulgating the proposed common declaration in the Community in respect of fundamental rights?

Dr. Owen

That matter is important, and I shall look into it.

Mr. James Johnson

I thank my right hon. Friend for his remarks about the Icelandic situation. Does he not agree that far too many people inside and outside the House are selling the nation short on this issue? Does he not think that we may well obtain a settlement in the new year that is not as black as the position now seems?

Dr. Owen

I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who pays close attention to these matters. We all regret that there will be no fishing during December, but I am confident that, as Commissioner Gundelach said, the measures will avoid an abrupt reduction in fishing by either side in each other's waters. I do not take a black view—far from it. The honest. fact is that we were not achieving a great deal in bilateral negotiations between the United Kingdom and Iceland. I hope that the Commission, arguing as a whole, will achieve something.

Mr. Fletcher-Cooke

Will the right hon. Gentleman tell us something about the draft directive on the quality of drinking water? Is this an occasion on which the whole problem of fluoridation can be raised? Is the right hon. Gentleman prepared to say whether a little more of the democratic process might be introduced in the European context as it should be in the national context?

Dr. Owen

As the directive deals with our drinking water standards and the procedure for sampling and testing, an opportunity may be taken to discuss those matters, but they are not related to fluoridation, which is a separate issue. I rather share the hon. and learned Gentleman's views, and it may be possible to have a more democratic debate—perhaps a debate in the House—about the advantages of fluoridation.

Mr. Prescott

Will my right hon. Friend note that I hope that this is not the only statement arising out of the Iceland Agreement and that the debate on Friday will cover the measures that the Government intend to introduce so that the harshness of the agreement does not fall upon the fishermen during December when there is to be no fishing? I hope that in discussions with the Foreign Ministers my right hon. Friend will recognise that it will be extremely difficult for us, having had Gundelach negotiate a third-party agreement with Iceland, to say that we want to declare Iceland within the Community and to maintain a limit of exactly 50 miles. Will my right hon. Friend consider the compromise solution I gave him, which was an exclusive conservation zone?

Dr. Owen

My hon. Friend has always attached a great deal of importance to conservation and appropriate methods of enforcement. In that sense he has had some experience of the quota system as it has operated under the Iceland agreement. I will readily look at that, but it means that the two issues are still separate—namely, the external arrangements for fishing and the internal arrangements. I agree that we have a long way to go to persuade other members of the Community, although the Irish and ourselves adopt a similar position on coastal belts. We must look at all the alternative schemes rationally. What is important is the quantity of fish caught as that affects the livelihood of fishermen. There will be a full debate on Friday.

Sir Anthony Royle

The right hon. Gentleman said that there will be a meeting next month to discuss lorry weights. There is grave anxiety in this country about the possibility that if any agreement is reached it will increase lorry weights on the roads throughout the nation. Will the right hon. Gentleman comment on this matter?

Dr. Owen

I am well aware, as is my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, of the growing anxiety about heavy lorries. This is one of the issues that can be discussed. The British view is well known.

Mr. Christopher Price

On the discussions about Greek accession and relations with Turkey. is my right hon. Friend aware that there cannot be very much progress as long as the Cyprus dispute dogs the whole issue? Will my right hon. Friend put forward to the EEC a new initiative so that a full European initiative can be brought forward to try to solve this difficult problem?

Dr. Owen

Cyprus is a matter that has often been discussed by the Nine in the form of political co-operation. There is broad agreement at present on what steps are necessary to reach a settlement. I do not hide from my hon. Friend that it is a difficult issue. It is high on our agenda and it will be one of the subjects that the new administration in the United States will be examining closely when it comes to power.

Mr. Alexander Fletcher

In view of the great concern that exists in the fishing industry in Scotland and elsewhere, what new and fresh initiative do the Government propose to take in December to try to renegotiate the common fisheries policy?

Dr. Owen

The first and most important step is to try to enter into negotiations with all the third-party countries that are currently taking a large amount of fish out of the extended 200-mile zone. That is the first priority. We are hoping that we shall be in negotiations before 1st January with all the major countries. We shall take all the steps we can to ensure that the Commission and the Community enter into negotiations. At present we are dealing with the problems of an external and internal fisheries régime.

Mr. Ioan Evans

As the Council of Ministers is to consider Japanese imports into Europe, shall we have a statement in due course about the Government's representations to the Council of Ministers and the conclusions reached? Will my right hon. Friend express dissatisfaction about the statement made by the Japanese in recent days, bearing in mind the imports that are already flooding into the country?

Dr. Owen

The whole question of Japan is likely to be discussed at the European Council. The European Council has sometimes made a broad declaration which it has asked the Council of Ministers to look into. Whether it does so on this occasion is a matter for the Council. However, I have no doubt that the issue of Japan will continue to be on the agenda of the Council of Ministers.

Mr. Blaker

As the European institutions can find time to discuss methods of sampling drinking water, not to mention paper pulp, is it not rather extraordinary that they can never seem to find the time to discuss the Tindemans Report on European Union? Should we not at least be discussing his proposal about the concerting of foreign policy?

Dr. Owen

I have spent many hours discussing the Tindemans proposals. They are usually discussed in private session of the Council of Ministers, or sometimes at special meetings. A great deal of time has been spent on the Tindemans proposals, and a document dealing with the discussions of the Council of Ministers on this subject will be before the European Council at its meetings today and tomorrow.

Mr. Dykes

Can the right hon. Gentleman say with complete confidence that the sixth directive on VAT, to be discussed on 16th December, is the definitive and final draft and that the Government intend to retain all their options on zero rating?

Dr. Owen

We have always made it quite clear that any agreement on the harmonisation of VAT must include a provision for zero rating. That remains our firm position, and that has been accepted by other member States.

Sir B. Rhys-Williams

Will our representative at the Finance Ministers' conference give an especially warm welcome to Mr. Duisenberg's initiative in seeking a new European monetary constitution that is practical and workable instead of the snake, which plainly is not?

Dr. Owen

I agree. I think that Dr. Duisenberg's proposals are worthy of serious study. They have already been studied, and they continue to he studied. I believe that they represent a most hopeful sign of practical and realistic steps towards trying to achieve some greater convergence of the European economies. No one denies that it will be difficult to achieve.

Mr. Marten

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that on the many meetings of the Council of Ministers this year we have had only seven oral statements? Is it not an absolute scandal that the House is not being informed of what is being done in our name in Brussels? Will he ask each Minister, where he has achieved anything at all, to tell us about it in the House of Commons? I note that passport union is on the agenda. May we have an assurance that nothing will be done until the House has agreed on passport union and that the Royal Prerogative will not be used without the House discussing it?

Dr. Owen

I cannot give that assurance. Passports have always been dealt with by the Royal Prerogative. I have tried to keep the Scrutiny Committee fully aware of the changes being discussed. This subject will come up again at the next meeting.

Ministers collectively have made statements to the House on many occasions. For example, we have recently had a statement on agriculture. I shall consider any individual complaints that the hon. Gentleman may have, but I think that they will probably have been amply covered by oral statements to the House.

Mr. Costain

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that rumours are circulating that Ministers are privately discussing the reincarnation of the Channel Tunnel project? This is causing a great deal of uncertainty in my constituency. Will he give the House an assurance that the rumours are ill-founded? If he has no information, will he write to me about the matter?

Dr. Owen

I am glad to say that I am not responsible for rumours. At a time when public expenditure is under careful scrutiny, the high public expenditure costs of any such project would have to be taken into account.

Mr. Michael Stewart

Does it sometimes occur to my right hon. Friend that the institutions of the Community are trying to deal with too many subjects at once and that this results in huge proliferations of paper that cannot bear fruit for a long time? Surely some sort of order should be introduced.

Dr. Owen

I agree with my right hon. Friend. On these occasions, when I have to answer for all the various Councils' activities, I am struck by the large amount of work that is taking place. This is one of the matters that many people hope the Commission will consider in choosing some central areas on which we can make progress, perhaps reducing activity on some of the rather more peripheral fringe issues, especially some of those dealing with harmonisation.

Mr. Forman

As regards meetings of the Council of Ministers and discussions on relations between the Community and Iran, will the right hon. Gentleman press his right hon. Friend to try to exert pressure on the Foreign Ministers to persuade West Germany to co-ordinate its policy on nuclear exports in the context of Iran?

Dr. Owen

I shall look at any individual points on the co-ordinating of exports to Iran. However, I am not aware of any aspect of peculiar concern. If the hon. Gentleman cares to write to me, I shall look into the matter.

Mr. Jay

Since my right hon. Friend has spent so much time discussing the Tindemans Report, can he tell us what is the British Government's view of it?

Dr. Owen

The Tindemans Report, as my right hon. Friend well knows, is a long document. There are parts of the report of which we are enthusiastic supporters and there are other parts of which we are critical.

Mr. Rost

Which parts?

Dr. Owen

What is important is that the Community as a whole should develop a view on the Tindemans Report and make progress. Some of the recommendations in the report have already been implemented; for example, certain aspects relating to the Commission and the choosing of Commissioners. Progress is best made by trying to reach agreement among the Nine.

Mr. Watt

Will the right hon. Gentleman urge on the Agricultural Ministers of the Nine the need for urgency in settling the sheepmeat regime arrangements? Does he realise that this constant opening and closing of the French market and the iniquitous levy of 37p upon sheepmeat is causing a great deal of harm to the sheep industry in this country?

Dr. Owen

I shall make sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture knows of these representations. This was among the issues he discussed previously and it will be on the agenda again. My right hon. Friend is well aware of the urgency here.