HC Deb 10 January 1977 vol 923 cc1052-8
The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Dr. David Owen)

With your permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about business to be taken in the Council of Ministers of the European Community during January. The monthly forecast for January was deposited on 22nd December.

As the House knows, the United Kingdom assumed the presidency of the Council of Ministers on 1st January for six months. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, in his capacity as Chairman of the Council of Ministers, will go to Luxembourg on 12th January for the ministerial question day at which he will be answering questions put to the Council by the European Assembly.

As is traditional for an incoming Chairman of the Council, he will make a statement about the United Kingdom's general approach to the presidency and the text of the statement will be made available that day in the Vote Office.

At present two meetings of the Council of Ministers are proposed for January. Foreign Ministers will meet on 18th and Agriculture Ministers on 24th and 25th January. A final decision on whether to hold a Finance Council in January has yet to be taken. At the Foreign Affairs Council Ministers will discuss the common fisheries policy, the first annual report of the Regional Development Fund, relations with Iran and the Community's position with regard to issues involved in the North-South dialogue. It may be necessary to have a further meeting on fish later in the month.

Agriculture Ministers will consider proposals for potato and interim sheep-meat régimes, and for increased financial limits under the farm structure directives. They will also resume discussion on measures for achieving a better balance between supply and demand in the milk sector.

Mr. Hurd

I thank the Minister for that statement. Will he look ahead a little and give the probable dates for summit meetings of the European Council in London during the rest of the year?

He mentioned a number of forthcoming meetings this month. We are very anxious about the common fisheries policy and the internal position in the Community. As we understand it, it was agreed before Christmas that for one month only—January—there would be no new conservation measures by any member States, and that the British and other EEC fishing fleets would be held in theory to last year's catches. Will the Minister give an assurance that there will be no extension beyond 31st January of that highly unsatisfactory and uncertain interim arrangement?

The Minister has not said anything today about the JET project. In view of the rather alarming remarks attributed to Dr. Brunner before Christmas about the future of this project, what is being done to break the deadlock?

Dr. Owen

It is not yet possible to give any definite dates for the summit meetings. I shall let the House know as soon as any dates are firmly and finally fixed.

It is not possible to give the hon. Gentleman a categoric assurance that the interim arrangement for fisheries will not be extended beyond 31st January. Clearly, it is in our interests to reach an agreement, but one factor is whether it is possible to take unilateral conservation measures. We have preserved the right to do so, but we should have to go through certain processes and we might not be able to complete them prior to 31st January if there is no agreement. I bear in mind the point that the hon. Member makes, and I do not claim that the situation is totally satisfactory.

On the question of the JET project, no meeting has been fixed for the Research Council. There is a difference of opinion at the moment and there needs to be some bilateral diplomacy and general discussion before this matter is once more brought before the Council of Ministers. This is a very serious situation.

Mr. Powell

I intend no disrespect to the Foreign Secretary, but is it not unsatisfactory that crucial negotiations on the common fisheries policy should be conducted on behalf of the Foreign Office in the Foreign Ministers' Council rather than by the right hon. Gentleman who is primarily and in detail responsible to this House on the subject? Would it not be possible at any rate for him to be closely associated with the important meetings in January?

Dr. Owen

The right hon. Gentleman has a point of substance. There is a difficulty here in that one can make a distinction between external and internal régimes. There is no doubt that the external factor in relation to third countries, such as the Soviet Union, and for East-West relations is important with a very high Foreign Office content. My right hon. Friend is deeply involved in this.

There are aspects of the internal régime which are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend. In the detailed negotiations in December my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture and myself were together during all the main negotiations. There is extremely close contact on the whole issue. Even my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland is involved. So these are complex issues which cross ministerial responsibilities.

Mr. John Ellis

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in his statement he made no reference to any negotiations, outstanding or in prospect, about direct elections? These are supposed to come about by 1978, but the constituencies, their size and the method to be used, like everything else, are as yet undecided. Can my right hon. Friend deny that there is any prospect of our completing the necessary work for all this to happen by 1978? Does he not agree that on the whole that would be a thoroughly good thing.

Dr. Owen

I cannot make the denial that my hon. Friend seeks. We face a difficult problem over timing. In order to achieve the date of May or June 1978 a whole range of procedures will have to be gone through, quite apart from the legislation which must be passed by the House. Timing is a major factor. We face the problem of timing over devolution and the constitutional issues associated with it. We shall be discussing these shortly. We made a clear statement in the Queen's Speech about our intentions on direct elections and we intend to follow that through.

Mr. Blaker

What is the position regarding the request by COMECON for an agreement with the Community? Does the Minister expect this subject to be discussed again in the near future by the Council of Ministers?

Dr. Owen

Yes, I am sure that it will come up. The Community has replied to the COMECON countries and we await with interest their response to the Community's reply.

Mr. Hooley

On the North-South dialogue, is my right hon. Friend aware that Saudi Arabia's decision to raise oil prices by only 5 per cent. was clearly in anticipation of some quid pro quo in respect of the attitude of the Western nations on overseas aid and development? Does he agree that the recent decision on this subject by my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer was disastrous and will he press for a more liberal attitude by the Community as a whole on this?

Dr. Owen

We shall have discussions on the CIEC conference. The whole question of the Ministerial meeting and when it will take place is to be decided. The two co-chairmen are to meet and to have consultations with the participating countries. I certainly share the feelings of importance that my hon. Friend attaches to these issues.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

When the Agriculture Ministers meet at the end of the month will they consider the European price review? If not, when will these considerations take place and when is it expected that a result will be announced to the House? An early decision is important in view of the conditions which have prevailed.

The Minister said that the Research Council was not meeting. Is it not urgent that it should meet at the earliest possible moment to consider JET because of the risk that the existing team will be dispersed and if there is delay it will be too late to do anything about that?

Dr. Owen

It is a question of judgment. There is no point in having another meeting at which no decisions are taken. We have to see whether we can forge a better consensus than already exists.

We await proposals from the Commission on agricultural prices. The whole price review has to be settled by a statutory date. I do not expect this subject to be a major feature of the agriculture decisions taken in January.

Mr. Christopher Price

Does the fact that my right hon. Friend has not mentioned Greek-Turkish relations and Cyprus mean that this subject has taken a lower place in his list of priorities? Does he agree that in the next six months, when we as a guarantor Power hold the chairmanship of the Council, we shall have a unique opportunity to take an initiative to solve this problem?

Dr. Owen

The fact that I have not mentioned the subject does not mean that I have changed its priority. I look forward to our discussions this month and we shall continue to look wherever we can for a settlement of this difficult issue.

Mr. Michael Marshall

What do the Government propose to do to ensure that the agreements that they have reached on anti-dumping, particularly in the matter of special steels, will in no sense be watered down and be ground lost when harmonisation becomes a fact of life towards the end of the year?

Dr. Owen

These are important factors and I shall draw the attention of the relevant Ministers to them.

Mr. Spearing

Since the cost of New Zealand cheese and butter in New Zealand is about one-third or a half of what it is in this country, the discussions about the sheep-meat regime are important in terms of the prices of mutton and lamb in this country. Will my right hon. Friend assure us that it is the Government's intention to resist the imposition of levies on imports of mutton and lamb?

Dr. Owen

It is the Government's intention to continue to safeguard producers' returns and to prevent rapid and unnecessary rises in prices for consumers. We intend also to ensure continued access for frozen imported supplies from third countries, and that includes New Zealand.

Mr. Rees-Davies

Further to the Minister's replies on Cyprus, does he not agree that the Government have a unique opportunity of raising this issue now with the new regime in the United States and also, together with our partners in the EEC, to apply the sort of gentle pressure which is necessary to effect some sort of real solution not only in Cyprus but in the Aegean countries? Is he aware of the benefit which would flow from an initiative by the Government on this matter at present?

Dr. Owen

I agree with everything that the hon. and learned Gentleman said except perhaps the emphasis he placed on the last part of the question. It is not a question of an initiative from the British Government, but in the context of holding the presidency of the Council we can influence debate there. I welcome the hon. and learned Gentleman's acceptance of the fact that this needs to be done in co-operation and full consultation with the United States.

Mr. James Johnson

In the forthcoming fisheries discussions in Luxembourg and elsewhere will the Minister never forget the deep-seated malaise which is affecting the Humberside distant-water fleet? Will he impress upon Mr. Gundelach that, whatever happens in the EEC in regard to the North Sea and elsewhere, we must have distant-water agreements, for example with Norway, with a minimum of 95,000 tons, with the Soviet Union and with Denmark in terms of the Greenland waters that it administers inside the EEC?

Dr. Owen

I share and well understand my hon. Friend's concern. I intend, if I catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, to talk a little about fishing and fishery policy generally in the forthcoming debate. There can be no misunderstanding, in Brussels or throughout the Community, that failure to reach a settlement in the Community's discussions with Iceland aimed at helping British fishermen will be serious for this country.

Mr. Marten

Is the Minister aware that in 1976 there were 54 meetings of the Council of Ministers in the Community but that there were only 11 oral statements made to this House thereafter? I do not know whether that was because there were disagreements or no results arising from the other 43 meetings, but may I ask him and his colleagues to make a New Year Resolution to keep this House much better informed about what they are doing on behalf of this House in the Community? Is the Minister aware that we are being kept in the dark?

Dr. Owen

I recognise that there is a legitimate concern that this House should be kept as fully informed as possible on all of these matters—particularly meetings of the Council of Ministers—that take place in a European context. We have tried to come forward with something whenever there has been a relevant issue. There are problems over parliamentary time. We shall bear in mind the figures which the hon. Member put before the House.