HC Deb 27 October 1976 vol 918 cc469-82
The Minister of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Dr. David Owen)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about business to be taken in the Council of the European Community during November. The monthly forecast for November was deposited yesterday.

The Heads of Government of the member States will meet in The Hague on 29th and 30th November. There is no formal agenda for these meetings, but I would fully expect that fisheries will be discussed. We shall also ensure that EEC relations with Japan are discussed. We expect Heads of Government to consider the Tindemans Report and the terms of reference for a review of the Commission which its new President is to be asked to undertake.

At present seven meetings of the Council of Ministers are proposed for November. Transport Ministers will meet on the 4th, Finance Ministers on the 8th and 22nd, Development Ministers on the 8th, Foreign Ministers on the 15th and 16th, Agriculture Ministers on the 22nd and 23rd, and Budget Ministers on the 23rd. There will also be a meeting of Education Ministers on 29th November.

At the Transport Council, Ministers will be exchanging views on issues relating to maritime transport. They may also consider roadworthiness tests; a minimum level of training for road transport drivers; adjustments of national taxation systems in relation to commercial vehicles; and a progress report on the draft third social regulation.

Finance Ministers at the 8th November Council will have their usual monthly discussions of the economic situation in the Community. They will also consider the Duisenberg proposals on exchange rate co-ordination and economic convergence.

At the Finance Council on 22nd November, Ministers will consider the adoption of the annual report on the economic situation in the Community and of the fourth medium term economic policy programme.

At the Development Council, Ministers will discuss financial and technical aid by the Community to non-associated developing countries. They will also consider the harmonisation of development polices within the Community.

Ministers at the Foreign Affairs Council will continue their study of the Tindemans Report, and will consider progress of the work in the four Commissions and the overall negotiating objectives for the final phase of the Conference on International Economic Co-operation. Minissters will also discuss the internal and external aspects of the common fisheries policy, the generalised preference scheme for 1977, the uniform passport, and relations between the Community and the COMECON countries—Iran, Greece, Yugoslavia, Turkey and Israel. They will have before them a report on negotiations between the Community and the Mashraq countries.

Agriculture Ministers will consider the Commission's proposal for reducing surpluses in the dairy sector. They are also expected to discuss proposals for a potatoes régime, measures for improving agricultural structure and marketing, the water content of frozen chickens, and Community animal health legislation.

At the Budget Council, Ministers will consider amendments and notifications proposed by the European Assembly to the draft 1977 Community Budget.

Education Ministers will consider the Education Committee's Report on the transition from school to working life.

Mr. Hurd

It is certainly an exciting programme of work.

The Foreign Ministers who are to meet on 15th and 16th of next month seem to have no fewer than 13 subjects on their agenda. Is not that an absurdly overloaded agenda, particularly when the vital question of fisheries policy, both internal and external, is to be discussed? May we have an assurance that there will be proper time to settle it, if it has not already been settled, and that, if necessary, the right hon. Gentleman's right hon. Friend will keep himself and his colleagues up all night to reach agreement on a Community basis?

Secondly, where on earth is the Minister of Agriculture? Surely we deserve a statement by him on what he has been up to in the last few days—he has been very free with statements in other places—particularly as a year ago he was campaigning for Britain to come out of the Community and to stand on its own feet. Now he is hailing as a triumph the fact that we are pensioners of the Community to the extent of more than £1 million a day. When will the Minister of Agriculture be making a statement?

Dr. Owen

Concerning the hon. Gentleman's comments about an overloaded agenda, the fisheries policy will be discussed on Friday and, if necessary, on Saturday of this week. Many of the items on the agenda are formal and there is no major disagreement on them. Some of the items, which have already been dealt with at official level, come up for endorsement at the Council.

I should have thought that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture was deserving of the congratulations of both sides of the House. No decisions were taken on the green pound or on the Commission's ideas on longer-term measures regarding monetary compensatory amounts. There was a full debate on Friday, and my right hon. Friend maintained the position of Her Majesty's Government.

Mr. Thorpe

May I ask whether the Heads of Government or the Finance Ministers will be discussing the continued role of sterling as a reserve currency to which the Prime Minister made an important allusion?

Secondly, will Foreign Ministers be discussing the current negotiations about Rhodesia and the progress of the talks at Geneva?

Thirdly, when will the second United Kingdom Commissioner be appointed and announced?

Dr. Owen

The last question should be directed to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. I have nothing to add to the assertions I made when foreign policy questions were last raised at Question Time.

The question of sterling may be discussed by the Heads of Government at any time. It does not have to be raised formally on the agenda. There will be a meeting of the Finance Ministers to discuss the Duiserburg proposals, one of which relates to medium- and short-term policy.

Rhodesia was discussed at the last Council of Foreign Ministers. The Community of the Nine issued a statement endorsing Her Majesty's Government's policies on Rhodesia, and they have generally helped and been consulted at all stages.

Mr. Roper

Will my right hon. Friend tell us whether the discussions in the Council of Development Ministers on aid to non-associates are likely to reach an agreement on this important matter?

Dr. Owen

The Commission has produced a proposal for the expenditure of 20 million units of account voted by the Assembly in 1976. The Foreign Affairs Council recently agreed, by a qualified majority, to insert 30 million units of account into the budget in 1977 for this purpose, although this will be frozen until the Council takes a formal decision on detailed proposals by the Commission under Article 235. I am not sure when that will come up next.

Mr. John Davies

Will the discussions on the COMECON arrangements relate to a draft reply from the Community to the COMECON countries? The Minister of State will be aware that a reply has been awaited for a considerable time. It would be extremely interesting to the House to know whether that reply is shortly to be forthcoming.

Secondly, in view of the deteriorating future prospects for the assurance of energy needs in the Community from its own resources, will the right hon. Gentleman indicate when and in what conditions an Energy Council meeting will be taking place, as he has not mentioned one in this agenda?

Dr. Owen

An important discussion took place at the Energy Council meeting last month and I am glad to report that some progress was made. But there are still problems relating to the MSP which have been pursued. No formal meeting has been arranged for next month.

The COMECON countries took 16 months to produce a response to the Community's initiative of November 1974. I agree that these are important discussions, but they are complex. It is difficult to know whether we shall reach final agreement at the meetings next month. We hope to produce a reply to the COMECON countries as soon as possible.

Mr. Watt

May we have an assurance that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Minister of Agriculture will give top priority in the forthcoming negotiations to the problems of the fishing industry so that we shall be in a position to declare a 200-mile limit at the end of the year with an exclusive 50-mile limit for our own fishermen within that 200-mile limit?

Dr. Owen

I can give a positive assurance that that matter will be given the utmost priority. We have made our position clear on external arrangements. We hope to introduce legislation to enable us to introduce the 200-mile limit by 1st January. The House knows that the internal regime is still being discussed, but the Government's position is clear.

Mr. Spearing

Is my right hon. Friend aware that, although he may have deposited the business notice, I have been to the Vote Office twice today and it is not there?

Does my right hon. Friend recall that, in the discussions leading up to our membership of the EEC, it was specifically stated that education would not be covered? Is he aware that the Education Ministers are meeting not as a Council but as a curious meeting within the Council? Is my right hon. Friend further aware that this House declined to approve the education regulation which will probably be discussed at the next meeting?

Dr. Owen

I apologise to the House if the business notice is not in the Vote Office. It was deposited yesterday. I will look into that matter. Clearly it is to the benefit of hon. Members that it should be in the Vote Office.

The Education Ministers' meeting will be a meeting of the Nine. They will be meeting as a council within the Council. My hon. Friend was right to point that out.

I am aware of the decision that has been taken by the House, but the problem of school leavers starting work is important and should be discussed. I see no disadvantage in the meeting of the Nine Education Ministers.

Mr. Wigley

Does the Minister agree that it is a chronically congested programme ahead of Ministers in the coming weeks, and that in view of this it is important for the Government to stress to the EEC the total irrelevance of bringing in harmonisation on things such as eviscerated chicken and the proposals for margarine, and that the EEC would do itself and everyone else more good by looking at broader problems rather than at such trivial details?

Dr. Owen

The Community operates at many different levels. There is no doubt that this House is often more interested in the broader political issues, but experience shows that when the Ministers meet they order their priorities and they concentrate on those items which are of greatest importance. For example, fisheries took up a very large proportion of the Council of Ministers' meeting last month, and may well do so in future. Other business was laid aside to take account of priorities. These are meetings of politicians.

Mr. Pym

Is the Minister aware of the great disappointment in the House about the fact that the Minister of Agriculture has not come here today to make a statement? We had a debate last Friday, as a result of which and in the light of which the Minister of Agriculture has been negotiating for two days. I understand that he is back in London. We feel that the whole point of these visits is that the House should have a statement thereafter.

In the absence of that statement, will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the adjustment of the calculation of monetary compensatory amounts for the pig industry was discussed, and if no conclusion was reached, will that be included in the agenda for the next meeting? Does the right hon. Gentleman's reference to marketing refer to marketing boards, and what progress has been made in those discussions?

Dr. Owen

I take account of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman feels that a statement should be made. I shall draw that to my right hon. Friend's attention. However, the main reason why no statement has been made is that no substantial changes have occurred.

The main burden of the need was to discuss a proposal which would have incurred a considerable change for this country. My right hon. Friend maintained throughout that that change could not take place.

Discussion on marketing boards will take place. I think that it is unlikely that a decision will be reached next month.

Mr. Pym

On Friday we debated eight documents, not just one in relation to the green pound. There are others, in relation to the dairy sector and other aspects. What progress has been made on them?

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr Speaker

I shall be calling all those who have already stood up, but they will help me if they ask a brief question. I take very seriously my responsibilities with regard to the rights of this House in the Common Market. That is one reason why I intend to call everyone who has already stood up.

Mr. Robinson

Is the Minister aware that when the issue of fisheries is being discussed we shall be expecting a common fisheries policy as advantageous to the United Kingdom as the common agricultural policy is advantageous to France?

Dr. Owen

I am well aware of the need to make changes in the present common fisheries policy. It would have been easier if those changes had been made before we acceded to the Community.

Mr. Mills

Does the Minister realise that by the Government's failure to make even a small start on the adjustment of the green pound, they have thrown away every goodwill card that they had as regards the Community, and that at some time in the future it will be necessary for the British Government to ask for some help from the Community? The Government have lost every bit of good will.

Dr. Owen

I do not accept what the hon. Gentleman has said. My right hon. Friend made it clear in the Council that the whole question of the green rate changes raises very wide issues and it would be very difficult to deal with this by an automatic mechanism of adjust- ment. No doubt the hon. Gentleman has spoken in the interests of the farming community—

Mr. Mills


Dr. Owen

—which he has helped in the House throughout, but Ministers must take into account the effect that this would have on prices, on the whole of the social contract and, indeed, on the whole of the Government's economic policy at the present difficult time.

Mr. Leadbitter

During the discussions next month will some attention be paid to the very serious visible trade imbalance between the United Kingdom and the rest of the Community partners? Secondly, is any progress being made on the JET prototype site proposals in connection with fusion experiments in nuclear energy, which have now been going on for a period of more than a year without an answer being given to this House?

Dr. Owen

The JET was discussed at the last meeting. Some progress was made on the technical details of costing and other aspects but no decision has been made on the site. Although I agree with my hon. Friend that it is urgent that a decision should be taken on this matter, I cannot see that that is likely to be made next month.

On the overall question of the balance of trade, this arises in discussions in many of the Councils, not least in the Council of Finance Ministers, and it will be raised again.

Mr. Welsh

On the proposed potato regime, is the Minister aware of the prime importance to my constituency and to Scotland in general of the ware and seed potato trade? Will he, therefore, ensure particular Scottish representation whenever these discussions are taken to protect legitimate Scottish interests in these matters?

Dr. Owen

I assure the hon. Gentleman that Scotland's interests will be borne in mind at any meeting of the Council of Agriculture Ministers, as the interests of Scotland have been borne in mind at all meetings on fishing.

Mr. Skinner

Will my right hon. Friend ensure that when the Energy Ministers meet they will have a look at a question that I have raised with his predecessor on occasions such as this, namely, the large stocks of coal in Britain and the fact that many of our so-called partners in the Common Market are buying their coal from third countries, which I should have thought was not in accordance with the spirit of the Common Market? [HON. MEMBERS: "It is cheaper."] The coal that they are buying is not cheaper. In fact, with the pound's exchange rate as it is at present, our coal costs are way below that of third countries and it looks as though the cost will get lower.

Secondly, why do we not have regulations on the question of getting rid of stocks of this kind, and regulations or directives about early retirement for coal miners, so that this could be consistent with the average retirement age of coal miners in the other Common Market countries?

Dr. Owen

I look forward to the day when my hon. Friend supports a directive on that matter. He has taken a great interest in this particular issue, which is currently being discussed. The question of coal was raised by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy at the meeting. I think that there is a much greater recognition that countries such as the United Kingdom which has substantial coal deposits and a rich supply of coal for many decades to come have a considerable contribution to make to Community energy policy. It is not just oil in which we are rich.

Mr. Costain

Does the Minister appreciate that this method of giving the catalogue of meetings in the Common Market creates difficulties for Back Benchers in making a worthwhile contribution? Will he discuss with his right hon. Friend the Leader of the House the possibility of these matters being printed on the Order Paper so that we know what is coming up? This House could not run without forward information. Why should we not have this in relation to the Common Market?

Dr. Owen

That is an interesting suggestion. I am well aware of the dissatisfaction that is felt on both sides of the House about the procedures. Over the last two years my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House has tried to make many changes for improving communication for Back Benchers. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's suggestion to his attention.

Mr. Ioan Evans

Is my right hon. Friend aware that we on the Labour Benches would also welcome a statement from the Minister of Agriculture, if only to give us the chance to congratulate him on the stand that he has taken, which has kept down food prices?

As regards the discussions with Japan, will the Government be making formal proposals for selective controls of imports generally, but particularly into Britain?

Dr. Owen

I am grateful for the congratulations given to my right hon. Friend, who has upheld at the recent meeting the interests that have been pressed upon him by hon. Members on both sides of the House. We hope that the Council will look at the wider problem of the EEC's trade relations with Japan and the need for these to be conducted on the basis of a more balanced flow of trade. This matter was raised bilaterally recently by the Prime Minister with visitors from Japan.

Mr. Marten

My hon. Friend the Member for Devon, West (Mr. Mills) said that the Government have lost the good will of our European partners over the green pound. Did not the Germans support the British stand yesterday on the green pound? Will the Minister consider the difficulty of hon. Members in understanding what is going on if statements are not made in the House after European meetings? Will the Government assess the value of the meetings? Should not Ministers be in this country looking after the shop here?

Dr. Owen

As to the meeting of the Council of the Agriculture Ministers, it is publicly known that the German Government and other European members have shown great understanding of Britain's problems. This applies to Chancellor Schmidt and right down through the German Government. We are grateful to them for understanding our problems. I shall look at the question of overloading, but the fact of life is that we live in an inter-dependent world. Most issues relating to trade and economics cannot be decided by any individual national Government. The United Kingdom is a member of many trading organisations, not just the EEC. It helps greatly in the Community if the Nine co-ordinate their approach to all international negotiations. That often means that Britain's voice is very much stronger because it expresses the view of nine major trading countries instead of one country in these negotiations.

Mr. Lee

Does not the presence of the milk surplus on the remarkably varied agenda of the agriculture meeting indicate a dawning consciousness of the asinine nature of the common agricultural policy? Is there likely to be an opportunity to discuss the absurdities of the poultry slaughter regulations so that relief can be given to the veterinary services in this country?

Dr. Owen

The Government's policy on the dairy surplus—and on the whole question of surpluses—has been clear all along. We believe that a combination of price disincentives and structural incentives is the best way of dealing with it. To reduce the surpluses and eventually eradicate them would be in the interests of consumers throughout the Community. We are not pursuing only a national objective here. There are consumer interests throughout the Community, and we are following a policy which will benefit the whole Community. It will take time to do that. I do not think that the veterinary regulations will have the consequences foreseen by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Forman

With regard to the meetings of EEC Finance Ministers, has it been made clear to the right hon. Gentleman that one reason why the West German Government are so reluctant to look sympathetically upon the Prime Minister's idea of funding sterling balances is that so much of the public sector borrowing—the so-called overhang—is the result of the Government's irresponsible borrowing policies ever since February 1974?

Dr. Owen

The hon. Gentleman is confusing two problems. One is the public sector borrowing requirement and the other is the rôle of sterling as a reserve currency—a separate problem. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister made clear his view on "Panorama". That view is held by many hon. Members. I myself have held it for more than 10 years. The view is that the sterling liability has forced Britain to take internal measures for its economy which it otherwise would not have had to take. If we could persuade other nations to give international help with sterling balances, that would help us to deal with our internal situation and would be welcomed by both sides of the House.

Mr. James Johnson

I accept all the Minister said about the Government's attitude towards the common fisheries policy. Is he aware that an all-party meeting with the fishing industry held in the House decided to send a letter to Mr. Ortoli to be circulated to the Nine Ministers pointing out that we were unanimous in asking the Government to stand firm on a 50-mile fishing zone?

Dr. Owen

As my hon. Friend knows better than almost any other hon. Member, this subject has occupied the attention of Ministers for a considerable period, and any steps taken to make clear to the other Community countries the importance which the United Kingdom attaches to this issue are welcomed. There is no doubt that we face considerable difficulty in convincing the other members of the Community of our case. We should be deluding ourselves if we pretended otherwise. The Government's policy remains as stated to the Community in May by my predecessor. I assure hon. Members that we shall continue to try to negotiate a common fisheries policy which more adequately reflects the long-term interests of the fishermen in this country than does the present policy.

Mr. Rost

Why are the Government so proud of their veto of the revaluation of the green pound? Should not they be afraid of this further damaging humiliation and the admission that our European partners are expected to subsidise the mismanagement of our country?

Dr. Owen

That is a gross travesty of what is at issue. We all realise that this is a complex issue, but a factor that has to be faced is that the common agricultural policy involves considerable cost for the United Kingdom. That was recognised when the debate took place on our entry into the EEC. Many people were very frank about it and explained that the common agricultural policy raised problems for this country. At the moment we happen to be benefiting from one of the legitimate structural arrangements of the CAP. We recognise that the CAP raises complex issues, and we have received considerable understanding of our difficulties from other members of the Community. Opposition Members would do better to support the Government in their stand over this policy.

Mr. Spriggs

Is my right hon. Friend aware that the clothing and footwear industry in the North-West is facing severe difficulties because of the import of finished clothing and footwear? Will he arrange for an item to be placed on the EEC agenda to deal with the re-exporting of clothing and footwear from Common Market countries to the United Kingdom? If my right hon. Friend can deal with this matter he will greatly assist the unemployment problem.

Dr. Owen

I know of my hon. Friend's concern, which is shared by many hon. Members, particularly those with industries in their constituencies which are heavily dependent on the cotton industry. I shall draw this matter to the attention of the Secretary of State for Trade. Some of these issues will be raised on the Community generalised preference scheme. Much has been done to protect these industries, but I know that people feel that more could be done. We shall certainly put this subject on the agenda for future discussion.

Mr. Hal Miller

In the discussions on relations with the COMECON countries, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us whether the question will be raised of the basis on which their commercial trade with this country is conducted? Will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that Her Majesty's representative will raise the issue of subsidised trading in motor vehicles?

Dr. Owen

The important aspect is to achieve a Community response to the main proposals put by the COMECON countries. The details will come when we decide which sectors to discuss. I shall bear in mind the sector to which the hon. Gentleman referred. The basis on which trade is conducted is one of the aspects that will come up in the discussions.

Mr. Jay

Is my right hon. Friend aware that Norway faces none of the fishery policy difficulties he mentioned because she stayed outside the EEC?

Dr. Owen

Yes, I am well aware of that. I went to Norway at the time that country was considering entry into the Community. A factor in the decision made by the Norwegian people at the time of the referendum was the great importance of Norway's fishing industry. This issue was well known to the British people at the time of our referendum. It was raised and discussed in my part of the country—in the South-West—and we knew about the anxieties of the fishermen. The referendum decision in the United Kingdom was taken in the full knowledge that adequate preparations to safeguard the fishing industry had not been made at the time of accession.