HC Deb 28 February 1977 vol 927 cc35-46
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. Frank Judd)

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 March. The monthly forecast for March was deposited on 23rd February.

The Heads of Government of the member States will meet in Rome on 25th and 26th March. It is too soon to forecast what subjects are likely to be discussed. At present seven meetings of the Council of Ministers are proposed for March. Foreign Ministers will meet on 8th March; Finance Ministers on 14th March; Agriculture Ministers on 14th and 15th March and from 25th to 27th March; Development Ministers on 22nd March; Energy Ministers on 29th March; and Research Ministers on a date still to be decided.

At the meeting of the Council on 14th and 15th March, Agriculture Ministers will undertake detailed examination of the Commission's common agriculture policy price proposals for 1977–78. This will be followed by an additional meeting of the Agriculture Council from 25th to 27th March when it is hoped that it will be possible to take decisions on the prices package.

At the Foreign Affairs Council Ministers will discuss preparations for the European Council in Rome on 25th and 26th March. Ministers may also consider fisheries matters, and the Community's relations with Portugal, Japan, Spain and Cyprus. Other matters that may also be considered are the preparations for further work in the Conference on International Economic Co-operation; the Community's position for the Common Fund Conference; and the Belgrade Review meetings of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe.

Ministers at the Finance Council will consider their preparations for the European Council. They will also undertake a quarterly review of the economic situation in the Community and will consider medium-term economic policy, with special reference to its implications for employment. They will discuss international financial questions in preparation for the meeting of the Interim Committee of the International Monetary Fund and will review negotiations with developing and less-developed countries in the context of the Conference on International Economic Co-operation and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development. The Ministers will also consider export policy.

Energy Ministers are likely to discuss some of the topics in the first half of the 1977 programme of work which was agreed at the December Energy Council.

At the Development Council Ministers will consider Community financial and technical aid to non-associated countries, EEC emergency food aid, food aid strategy, co-ordination and harmonisation of member States' aid policies and aid to non-governmental organisations.

Research Ministers will discuss the siting of the Joint European Torus and the multi-annual programme for the Joint Research Council.

Mr. Hurd

I thank the Minister for that statement and I also congratulate him on his appointment. I hope that he will find his post a congenial sphere in which to shine.

At the Energy Ministers' meeting, will the British Minister be maintaining the previous demand for a minimum selling price?

At the Summit meeting, at which the Prime Minister will be in the chair, will the Heads of Governments be putting their weight behind proposals such as those put forward by the Commission to fix farm prices at a level that is likely to rule out the accumulation of future surpluses? Does he accept that unless the matter is tackled at that level the discussions will become bogged down as they have so often before.

Will the Heads of Governments be reviewing the progress made by member States in carrying out the agreement to try to hold direct elections to the European Parliament in May or June next year? Is the Minister aware that it is exactly one year since the Government produced their Green Paper on the subject and during that year no salient fact has changed and that nothing effective has been done in this country? If that represents the Government's best endeavours, what can we expect from their worst endeavours? Why are the Government so determined for us to be the drop-outs of Europe in that context? When can we expect to see the Bill promised by the Lord President in the Queen's Speech for direct elections to the European Parliament?

Mr. Judd

I thank the hon. Member for his introductory friendly remarks. I look forward to this intriguing and exciting challenge.

The items to be taken at the energy meeting will probably include the rational use of energy, a minimum safeguard price for oil, reduced consumption in the event of oil supply difficulties, the coal situation in the Community and the Euratom loan scheme.

The hon. Member questioned me about the Government's attitude towards surpluses. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is at present in Brussels. One of the things that he will be discussing is the current deep concern which exists in all parts of the House and throughout the country about such surpluses. The Government's major concern is to see real restraint on prices while taking into account our aim to increase home food production. The new President of the Commission has pointed out that the interests of consumers must be considered. We support that. Our objective is to contain prices within those sectors where there are expensive and wasteful surpluses. We want a better use of resources so that the CAP provides effective support for efficient producers without imposing excessive burdens either on consumers or on taxpayers.

The Government intend to publish a White Paper in response to the reports of the Select Committee on Direct Elections. This will set out the issues with which we are faced. It will be a White Paper with green edges. We want to hear people's views, and an early debate on the White Paper will have to be arranged. Meanwhile, I confirm that the Government remain completely committed to use their best endeavours to meet the target date for direct elections to the European Parliament in May or June 1978.

Mr. Geraint Howells

On behalf of my colleagues I wish the Minister well in his new appointment and in his deliberations.

Is the Minister aware that many producers and consumers in this country are worried about the lateness of the price review proposals being made public? Can he give an assurance that the proposals will be made public in March or April? Will the Minister make a statement on the European butter mountain?

Mr. Judd

I have just said that my right hon. Friend is in Brussels and I have indicated our general approach to surpluses. I am sure the hon. Member will want to table a Question to my right hon. Friend on that issue and he is free to do so. It is unlikely that prices will be determined before the meeting on 25th–27th March.

Mr. William Hamilton

Is my hon. Friend aware that, on whatever side of the argument on the Common Market one may be, the whole country is outraged by the selling off of this butter to the Soviet Union? As far as I know, the Soviet Union does not belong to the Third World. If it did, it still should not get the butter that our consumers should have. Surely the time is now opportune for this House to have a full-dress debate on the application of the wretched CAP to consumers in this country to let our colleagues on the Continent understand that we cannot put up with it much longer?

Mr. Judd

In view of my hon. Friend's deep commitment to European matters, we listen very attentively to all that he says on that score. We recognise full well that there is deep concern on both sides of the House and, indeed, throughout the country over this matter. I repeat what I said in answer to a previous question: we want a better use of resources so that the CAP will provide effective support for efficient producers without imposing excessive burdens on either consumers or taxpayers.

Mr. Donald Stewart

Is the Minister aware that the reference in his statement that Ministers may also consider fisheries matters sounds appallingly weak and confirms rumours that the Government have thrown in their hand about pressing for a 50-mile exclusive limit? Will he confirm that the Ministers will press for discussion of a 50-mile exclusive zone at the meeting in Rome?

Mr. Judd

The hon. Gentleman should know that we constantly have fisheries policy under review. We are well aware that a satisfactory conclusion has not yet been reached. We are determined to keep the need for a common fisheries policy which meets Britain's special needs right at the top of our priorities.

Mr. Spearing

Does my hon. Friend realise that, whatever their views, Labour Members wish him well in his exacting task? Will he tell us whether on 25th and 26th March the Foreign Secretary will be representing this country with the Prime Minister in the chair? On 8th March, when he meets Foreign Ministers in preparation for that Summit, will he make clear to them that the origin of the powers of this House lay partly in consultation before legislation and that any consultation on EEC matters which was taken away from this House by direct elections to the European Assembly could only damage the historic and fundamental powers of this House? Will he also tell them that that was not in the literature at the time of the referendum so that they may understand the Government's position at the Summit meeting?

Mr. Judd

There is no more committed guardian of the interests of this House and of British democracy, as he sees it, than my hon. Friend. I am sure that, whatever the views of people on the issue of Europe and European institutions, everyone respects him for the consistent commitment that he has brought to debates on the subject. Certainly we shall bear in mind everything that he said.

I understand that the Foreign Secretary will be accompanying the Prime Minister to the meeting at the end of March.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Referring to direct elections, will the Minister tell us when we shall get the White Paper tinged with green or some such colour? Is there any reason why it should not be within the next week? The Government have had over six months to contemplate the matter. Surely they should have come to a conclusion, even on the basis of this White Paper, by now? Are they still going to drag their feet and be labelled as such throughout Europe?

Mr. Judd

As long as there are no problems about the supply of green ink, I imagine that we shall have it just as soon as possible.

Mrs. Dunwoody

Is my hon. Friend aware that the new President of the Commission has said that the common agricultural policy has been vindicated? Therefore, when the Minister of Agriculture goes to the Council of Ministers, will he make it plain that, if this country is to meet two more accession price rises before the end of the year and a considerable revaluation of the green pound, consumers in this country will be paying a rate for dairy produce which will be totally unacceptable and will lead to even greater surpluses which will have to be disposed of elsewhere?

Mr. Judd

I note what my hon. Friend said. We recognised the grave misgivings in this House. I repeat that we are determined to protect the interests of British consumers within the context of the future of the CAP. The kind of points made by my hon. Friend will be borne in mind.

Mr. Dykes

How many weeks will be needed after publication of the White Paper for the introduction of a Bill on direct elections?

Mr. Judd

That is a question for my right hon. Friend, as I am sure the hon. Gentleman recognises.

Mr. Skinner

Will my hon. Friend convey to Ministers across there that large sections of the British public will never accept Britain's membership of the Common Market and that that is increasingly being shown on these Benches, if not on the Opposition Benches? Will he, in answer to the hon. Member for Mid-Oxon (Mr. Hurd), who spoke on behalf of the Opposition, point out that, as for being drop-outs, the sooner we drop out of this ramshackle organisation the better? This latest business about the butter only goes to prove what a ramshackle outfit it is.

Mr. Judd

I fully recognise the strength of my hon. Friend's views and the vehemence with which he characteristically expresses them. We are concerned with trying to work with our colleagues in the Community in making the best of the opportunities which present themselves.

Mr. Channon

Does the Minister agree that, whatever one's views about the desirability or otherwise of direct elec- tions, it is wholly unsatisfactory that the British Government have not yet made their position clear? Will he undertake this afternoon that the White Paper will be published at the earliest possible opportunity, that there will be a debate at the very earliest opportunity, and that we shall see the Bill before Easter?

Mr. Skinner

The hon. Gentleman wants a job as well.

Mr. Judd

I have said that we shall publish the White Paper just as soon as possible. I should also say, in the best possible spirit, that one thing which the Government have in common with the Opposition is a deep commitment to the principles of democracy. Therefore, we feel that, on a crucial issue of this kind, a White Paper is highly appropriate.

Mr. Bidwell

I wish my hon. Friend the best of luck in his new post. I think that he will certainly need it.

Who, other than the British representatives at the next Council of Agriculture Ministers' meeting, will be representing the consumers of Europe?

Mr. Judd

At the Council of Agriculture Ministers' meeting and elsewhere we shall be working with our colleagues to get the best possible solution in the interests of the Community as a whole, having very much at heart the fact that the British population is very much a part of that Community.

Mr. Rost

Should not the Secretary of State for Energy be instructed to drop his totally irrelevant pursuit of the minimum support price for oil since the price demanded is about half the current price and is unlikely to drop anywhere within that range? Instead, should he not concentrate on getting an agreement on the siting of the Joint European Torus project, which is far more relevant and important?

Mr. Judd

On the first point, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will have a word with his right hon. and hon. Friends, because they do not seem to have the same view on this matter. I should be interested to know the uniform view, if there is one, of the Opposition on this matter.

On JET, I assure the hon. Gentleman that our position and understanding of the view of the House is that this should, if possible, be at Culham.

Mr. McNamara

Is my hon. Friend aware that many hon. Members respect the care and consideration which the Government will have to put into the preparation of the White Paper, but eagerly look forward to debating it after the Summer Recess? What is the Government's attitude to the Common Fund?

Mr. Judd

I am sure that the House will keenly look forward to debating the White Paper at the first possible opportunity.

The Government's view on the Common Fund has frequently been expressed. We are not convinced that that is the right approach to the international management of commodities. We shall go to the preparatory conference with an open mind in the best possible spirit to probe the idea in more detail so that we can consider whether in some form it has a part to play.

Mr. Marten

Will the hon. Gentleman ask the Minister of Agriculture when he meets his colleagues on 14th March to express to them the now commonly held view that it is waste of time to fiddle around with the reform of the common agricultural policy and that people want its abandonment followed by a national agricultural policy as the only real way to get down to brass tacks?

Mr. Judd

We are well aware of the hon. Gentleman's strong views on these matters. I do not believe that he shares absolute unanimity with his hon. Friends, but his views are to be considered in the context of our approach to the CAP. One of our objectives—as I have already said in answer to a previous question—is to encourage the maximum home production of food.

Mr. R. C. Mitchell

Does my hon. Friend expect the Research Ministers at their March meeting to take a final decision about the siting of JET? Is he aware of its fundamental importance in that the whole project may be lost if there is any further delay on the question of where it is to be sited?

Mr. Judd

I can understand my hon. Friend's anxiety about the delay, but I hope that there will not be any unnecessary further delay because I want the decision to be as soon as possible.

Sir John Rodgers

Could the Minister tell us whether, either direct through the Government or through our representatives at Brussels, any attempt has been made to use the surpluses to the benefit of the housewives of the nine countries instead of selling them, as is being done at present, to the Soviet Union at a great discount?

Mr. Judd

I am grateful that the hon. Gentleman has raised this question. It is indeed our objective to see that surpluses are used for the benefit of members of the Community, including our people, rather than for people outside the Community.

Mr. James Johnson

I wish the Minister a fair wind in his new post. Does he not think he was a little Delphic when he said that he could say nothing about the business at the forthcoming conference? Could he not say a bit more about what he intends to do about fishing limits? A delegation of the chairmen of the Back-Bench Fishery Committees discovered little or nothing when we visited Brussels in the middle of last week.

Mr. Judd

There has been a good deal of progress; for example, negotiations have begun with the Soviet Union and with Poland and will shortly begin with East Germany. There are other third country negotiations going on. An agreement has been signed with the United States of America, but primarily we are concerned to get the right common fisheries policy overall and that must take into account the special needs of the extensive communities in Britain depending on the fishing industry.

Mr. Tim Renton

Concerning direct elections, we are promised a White Paper with green edges, which is highly unsatisfactory, but what have the Government been doing since they published the Green Paper with white edges 12 months ago?

Mr. Judd

They have been considering a complex issue with great seriousness. I am certain that the hon. Gentleman would be the first to agree that when one is considering a constitutional change of such significance it should not be impetuously rushed.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call in turn the three hon. Members who are on their feet. We shall then move on to the Standing Order No. 9 application.

Mr. Christopher Price

Is my hon. Friend aware that most people this side of the Chamber think that he has the pace of direct elections just about right but that he must be careful not to rush it? May I ask him to bring his attention towards the problem of Cyprus and the talks which will at last be taking place? Is he further aware that these talks ought to have taken place two years ago? Therefore, it is quite unjustified for the Government to refuse to negotiate on economic matters with Cyprus. Is my hon. Friend aware that Cyprus will have no economic relationships with the Community if some agreement is not reached by 30th June? Will he do the best he can to make up for lost ground by ensuring that an agreement is reached quickly?

Mr. Judd

My hon. Friend will be relieved to know that we expect the Council of Ministers at its meeting on 8th March to consider the possibility of further developments on the EEC association with Cyprus.

Mr. Ioan Evans

At the meeting on 22nd March on overseas aid Ministers will, I understand, consider harmonisation of member States' aid policies. How will these proposals affect existing British policies in that regard?

Mr. Judd

The British key priority in development policy is to see an extension of the Community's commitment to the non-associates. One would hope that in the context of discussions about harmonisation this will be looked at, but we are also hoping that in the talks on harmonisation it will be possible to look at more effective coordination in the developing countries on the part of various EEC member countries and also to see a more closely co-ordinated approach within world-wide international agencies such as the United Nations system.

Mr. Heffer

As just about everyone in the House accepts that the butter mountain is an absolute scandal and as no one is defending the CAP, is it not time that the Government went to the talks and said categorically that unless there is an immediate beginning of renegotiating the whole question of the CAP, Britain will refuse to continue to participate in the present madness?

Mr. Judd

My hon. Friend is putting the case very forcefully. My hon. Friend knows the Minister of Agriculture well, and I imagine that he need have no hesitation about the strength with which our case will be deployed.