HC Deb 31 January 1977 vol 925 cc33-44
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 February. The monthly forecast for February was deposited on 28th January.

At present four meetings of the Council of Ministers are proposed for February. Foreign Ministers will meet on 8th February; Finance Ministers on 14th February; Agriculture Ministers on 14th, 15th and 28th February and 1st March.

Ministers at the Foreign Affairs Council will consider problems in the fisheries sector, preparation for further work in the Conference of International Economic Co-operation, and the Euro-Arab dialogue. They will discuss the Community's relations with Portugal, Japan, Spain and Cyprus and a financial protocol with Turkey. Financial and economic co-operation protocols with Israel will be signed.

The agenda for the Finance Ministers' Council has not yet been settled, but among the subjects Ministers could discuss are the fourth medium-term economic policy programme and export credit policy.

At the Agriculture Council on 14th and 15th February, Ministers are expected to have their first discussion of the Com- mission's proposals for agricultural prices for 1977–78, and they will also consider proposals on potatoes and for increasing financial limits under the farm structure directives. In addition they may discuss proposals on hops, and, depending upon the outcome of the Foreign Affairs Council on 8th February, they are likely to consider fisheries conservation measures. They will resume their consideration of the price proposals at the Agriculture Council on 28th February and 1st March.

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Gentleman has told us that two sets of Ministers, the Foreign Ministers and the Agriculture Ministers, will be discussing fishery matters in the course of the next month. Can he tell us how the line is drawn between them? Who discusses what? This is a rather important question in view of what the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food told the House on 20th January about divergences between the two Departments. Can the right hon. Gentleman give us an assurance that, whatever may have been the case in the past, there is now one policy which is clear, united and robust in defence of this British interest?

There was no reference in the right hon. Gentleman's statement to the preparations for the Belgrade Conference to review the outcome of Helsinki. That may be because it comes under political co-operation. Can the Minister give us an assurance that the Foreign Ministers are setting about preparing for the conference with a view to the Community's once again speaking with a clear and united voice at the conference?

I do not want to embarrass the right hon. Gentleman, but when does he expect the Council of Ministers to review the progress made in each member State in preparing for direct elections in 1978 and fixing a firm date for them?

Dr. Owen

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's first point, let me make it clear that there is no divergence, nor has there been any. In my view, there need be none, because the long-term and short-term interests of the fishing industry are closely intermingled.

I have answered a Question by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) on ministerial responsibility. It is a difficult matter. Broadly, external relations with third countries are dealt with by Foreign Ministers and the internal regime is dealt with by Fisheries Ministers. The problem has been that some member countries' Fisheries Ministers are not the same as their Agriculture Ministers. Some member States have wished to have fisheries discussions inside the Foreign Affairs Council. It is the belief of my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary and myself that the detail of the internal fisheries policy would much better be discussed by those Ministers with a day-to-day relationship with the industry. We proposed that that should happen last month, but that discussion was cancelled because of a decision of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, after representations from, I think, a few other member States and the Commission, that it was best postponed. I very much hope that conservation and details of the interim regime will be discussed in the Agriculture Council.

Follow-up work for the Belgrade Conference is taking place in two main forums. It was discussed in the Council of Europe in Strasbourg at a meeting I attended at the end of last week. I have just come from the first meeting on political co-operation, held in London, which started today. The matter is on the agenda for political co-operation, and it is largely dealt with there rather than in the Council of Foreign Ministers.

As for when the Council of Foreign Ministers will discuss direct elections, I do not think that it is likely to fix a final date in 1978 for direct elections until member States have started to make provision within their own legislative assemblies for direct elections. The hon. Gentleman will, perhaps, be aware that no member State has yet taken any legislative action to implement direct elections in 1978.

Mr. Thorpe

Since we are discussing relations with Turkey and Cyprus, in view of our ongoing discussions with Greece, and while welcoming the talks between Archbishop Makarios and Mr. Denktash, may I ask whether the right hon. Gentleman would agree that there is scope for a major Community initiative in trying to get some form of settlement for Cyprus? Would he further agree that the Foreign Affairs Council has a high responsibility for reaching an agreement on this matter?

Dr. Owen

This topic will be discussed either today or tomorrow by Foreign Ministers discussing political co-operation in London. I very much agree with the right hon. Gentleman that this is of major concern for the Community because of trade relations, because of our wider political need for stability in the Mediterranean and because of the good relations which we wish to maintain between Greek and Turkish Cypriots. There is a rôle for the European Community, but I would not exaggerate that rôle. It is one that is now best played in concert with the new Administration in the United States, which has already made it clear that it wishes to examine the problem in considerable detail.

There have been frequent discussions among members of the European Community on this issue. There is a wide degree of agreement. The right hon. Gentleman has drawn attention to the important meeting between Archbishop Makarios and Mr. Denktash. This is a welcome development. In the last analysis, whatever initiatives are taken from outside, a permanent settlement which will heal the problems of Cyprus and bring the two communities together will be determined only by the two communities.

Mr. Spearing

I thank my right hon. Friend for making arrangements for the publication of EEC document titles in the London Gazette. Can he give details of this arrangement to the House? Can he further explain why agricultural prices in the Community need to be discussed when there is a current levy of 65p per lb on butter and 54p per lb on cheese? Is my right hon. Friend aware that, for butter, this is well over double the world price? Why, then, is there a need to discuss prices?

Dr. Owen

I am glad that I have been able to meet my hon. Friend's suggestions about the EEC documents. The best way of making the details available to the House might be for him to table a Question, when I will gladly make the information available. This is an attempt to produce a more open discussion. As my hon. Friend knows, I am in favour of such open discussion for the European Community.

The Government's attitude towards price increases on products in surplus is well known. They believe that the case has to be made out—and we do not think it has been made out so far—for any substantial price increases on surplus commodities. We recognise that this policy may take some time to develop, but it is a basic point in our approach to the whole agricultural policy. We believe that price increases should not take place—certainly not substantial price increases—in respect of surplus commodities.

Sir G. Sinclair

Will the right hon. Gentleman accept that it is a great encouragement to many people on both sides of the House that the two communities in Cyprus are once again conducting a dialogue? Will he also accept that this problem can in no way be settled entirely locally? I do not want to draw any analogies from further afield, but this is a matter of great international concern. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that Britain, having exercised authority for so many years over Cyprus, should make quite sure that she is briefed on both sides of the argument about what has happened during the past 12 years in both communities? We should use that knowledge not to look back and engage in recrimination but to avoid future suffering being imposed on one community by the other.

Dr. Owen

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It was for that reason that before Christmas I visited Cyprus. I was the first Foreign and Commonwealth Minister to visit Cyprus since the tragic events of 1974. I talked to all shades of opinion on all sides. Further, there is a fairly continuous dialogue between the Foreign Ministers of some of the other major countries most closely concerned and there is discussion inside the European Community's political framework. There may come a time, and that time may soon be upon us, when an initiative from outside will help the two communities to reach a solution. I still believe that we should not play down the necessity for this issue to be settled between Greek and Turkish Cypriots.

Mr. John Ellis

Will my right hon. Friend make quite clear in the talks to be held concerning direct elections that the date 1978 is a pipe dream? Will he be the first representative to say that this is so? Since we have not discussed in the House issues such as the size of the electorate, how Members will be elected, and whether they will sit in the House of Lords, is it not completely unrealistic to adhere to this date? Will my right hon. Friend be the first Minister to say that this is so? Is he aware that some of us feel that if the date for direct elections never came that would be too soon?

Dr. Owen

It is necessary for the House to discuss this matter. There is before the House a report from the Select Committee dealing with some of the points of detail which my hon. Friend has raised. There is no doubt that the House will want to take a view on the suggested distribution of seats, the form of election and a whole variety of issues. On the question of principle, on which my hon. Friend clearly has different views from those held by myself and the Government, I must make it clear that we are committed to use our best endeavours to introduce direct elections by May or June 1978.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

Reverting to the question of fishing, can the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he is doing everything he can to see that it is the Agriculture Ministers who take a final decision on the internal regime within the 200-mile limit? Further, can he give any indication to the House as to how the negotiations are going with Iceland and whether there will be any chance of the results of Mr. Gundelach's negotiations being discussed in the Council of Ministers before the end of February? Can the right hon. Gentleman say what action is being taken concerning the many Russian, East German and Polish vessels—among those of other countries—which have been over-fishing within the 200-mile European zone?

Dr. Owen

I am glad to confirm that a message has been sent to the countries the hon. Member has mentioned, and will eventually be sent to all third countries, enforcing the imposition of a quota system for January, February and March by means of a licensing system. This is a considerable step which the British Government have been able to achieve. We have always argued that we need to reinforce quotas with a licensing system. We hope soon to convince the Com- munity of the necessity for a regime of coastal belts.

As for the hon. Member's question about the Agriculture Ministers, I hope that this issue will be discussed.

Turning to Iceland, there will be a report from the Commission to the 8th February Council dealing with the progress that has been achieved. We have made it clear to the Community on, for instance, the quota it has put forward on cod that we could not possibly agree to that without any knowledge of what is happening in Iceland. This is one of the reasons why many of us are beginning to feel that the chances of reaching an interim fishing agreement are growing slimmer every day. We may well not be able to have an interim agreement.

Mrs. Millie Miller

Bearing in mind the remarks of my right hon. Friend concerning the discussions at Belgrade, may I ask him to remember that there are certain aspects of the Helsinki Agreement on which the Government might be a good deal more forceful, in particular the request from a group of professors from this country to be allowed to visit the Soviet Union to attend a symposium there? Is my right hon. Friend also aware that there should be no playing down of our views on the Helsinki Agreement because the Belgrade meetings are coming along?

Dr. Owen

I can assure my hon. Friend that there will be no playing down of these issues. Human rights are of great concern to everyone in this House. We ought to be prepared to put our point of view firmly and resolutely. On the other hand we must recognise that progress will not be as rapid as many of us would wish. This is a dialogue which will have to take place over some years, and we shall find that it is best conducted without recrimination. Unless that is so, we shall not make progress. We have to be firm and clear and to be prepared to champion individual cases as well as the general case. We must act in that spirit and try to make progress. That is the fundamental point.

Mr. Peter Mills

When the Ministers of Agriculture meet on 14th and 15th February, will they discuss the whole business of co-responsibility for milk products? Many of us realise that this is the only way forward in that sector. Secondly, will they discuss a reduction in the intervention price of skimmed milk powder, since otherwise farmers will go on producing it purely for intervention?

Dr. Owen

The Commission's proposals on the price review have not yet been received, but we expect them shortly. As soon as they are received, the United Kingdom delegates will have to decide their policy. Although we already have a clear idea of them, I prefer to await the Commission's proposals, which will be directed to both the issues raised by the hon. Gentleman.

Mrs. Bain

May we have an assurance that the British Ministers representing the Ministry of Agriculture or the Foreign Office in the fishery talks will be adequately briefed on the needs of the Scottish inshore fishing industry? May we have the right hon. Gentleman's personal assurance that everything possible will be done to reach agreement on conservation measures in view of what has already happened to the herring industry?

Dr. Owen

I recognise the interest of the Secretary of State for Scotland. I have never agreed to any issue in Brussels on fisheries questions without consulting not only my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food but my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland, and on occasion the Scottish Office has been represented at the meetings, particularly where Scottish interests were bound to arise.

Mr. Heffer

The Government are constantly reminding me and others of my hon. Friends of Labour Party Conference decisions on the devolution Bill and other issues. May I remind my right hon. Friend of the decision of the Labour Party Conference on the question of direct elections? The Labour Party has made it clear that it is opposed to direct elections. Will my right hon. Friend therefore say that, while he and the Government may be in favour of direct elections, the Labour Party is not, and that next year's elections are an absolute nonstarter?

Dr. Owen

I agree that there is no doubt that that was the decision of the Labour Party Conference. I have always been among those who believe that one should take conference decisions seriously. They are not binding on a Labour Government, but they are not to be lightly turned aside. Many of us would hope to be able to convince other members of the party and those who vote at the conference of the validity of fighting an election along with other democratic Socialists in Europe.

Mr. Blaker

I agree a good deal with what the right hon. Gentleman said on the subject of human rights in answer to the hon. Member for Ilford, North (Mrs. Miller), but does not the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Foreign Ministers ought to be taking a common position on this matter now, bearing in mind that violations of human rights in the Soviet Union and other Eastern European countries have become more frequent and serious recently? Is there any good reason for waiting for the Belgrade Conference, which is months away? Why not speak out now as a Community?

Dr. Owen

We do discuss this matter on an on-going basis, and I should not be surprised if some of the recent events figured in the discussions on political co-operation. But we need a wider forum of debate in the country as a whole if we are to change the atmosphere. I do not know whether there have been more violations, but one of the advantages of the Helsinki Agreement is that it has provided a silent force inside many countries where human rights have not existed to the fullest extent. It has focused debate and has, if one likes, given legitimacy to those who wish to argue for improved human rights. It is noticeable that those Western democracies in Europe with the closest relationship with Eastern European countries believe that the agreement has had some success in this regard.

Mr. Body

Is it not likely that when the Ministers of Agriculture meet we shall be told again that our pig subsidy system is illegal? Are the Government satisfied that it is illegal? If it is, will the right hon. Gentleman give an assurance that the Government will nevertheless pursue this course of illegality and not abandon the interests of our own pig producers?

Dr. Owen

Following consideration of the Government's decision to implement a temporary pig subsidy, the Commission has opened formal proceedings under Article 93 of the Rome Treaty. The Government are considering their response, and I have nothing to add at this stage.

Mr. Marten

As Britain is the current Chairman of the Council of Ministers, will the Government use their influence to have some of these Council meetings, if not in whole certainly in part, held in public? Secondly, when Ministers are talking about co-operation, will the Government raise the question of lack of co-operation over the case of Abu Daoud?

Dr. Owen

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that, when one looks at any convention or agreement on terrorism, it is a question not just of words but of the spirit and philosophy underlying it. Clearly, there are lessons for us all to draw on the full implementation of that convention.

The question of meetings of the Council of Ministers being held in public is difficult. As I have told the House before, and as my right hon. Friend has told the European Parliament, there are some senses in which the Council of Foreign Ministers is a Cabinet and some senses in which it is a legislature. That aspect of its work which is Cabinet would be hard to open to the public. All that would happen, as happens in many cases in the United Nations, is that discussion would go on in corridors and elsewhere and not on the floor. But there are some arguments for having the legislative function more public.

My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Energy has opened this subject up with some of his colleagues in the Council of Energy Ministers, and we are studying the responses. If there were such agreement, I dare say that it would help the working of the Council in this respect and also increase public knowledge of that working. We are prepared to consider it very seriously and are studying it. But there are great difficulties.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

I propose to call the four hon. Members who have been rising to ask questions throughout. I hope that they will be brief.

Sir B. Rhys Williams

At the meeting of Finance Ministers on 14th February, will the British representatives be in a position to make specific representations about implementation of the Duisenberg Report, particularly on ways in which Britain could collaborate in setting up a multi-currency system for Europe on civilised lines?

Dr. Owen

It is too early to firm up our response to those proposals, but we are interested in them. We think that they need further and more detailed study.

Mr. Rees-Davies

May I revert to the question of the violation of human rights? Will the Government ensure that the Foreign Ministers at their meeting on 15th February consider the report on breaches and violations of human rights in Cyprus? Secondly, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the report of the Dalibard Committee, dealing extensively, in over 100 pages, with pillaging and other acts in churches and other historic monuments in Cyprus, has not been published at all? Will the Government ensure that this report is also available to the Council of Foreign Ministers when it considers the overall picture? Finally, what is being done about the continuing removal of people from their homes in Cyprus, right up to the present time?

Dr. Owen

Whatever study of these reports takes place, it is essential not to lose sight of the necessity for preventing such situations from occurring at this moment in time, and we should do all we can to prevent them, or at least to find out whether the allegations that are made have any foundation in fact.

I am not sure of the procedure as far as the Dalibard Report is concerned. I will look into it. There are well-known procedures in the Council of Ministers, and they will be gone through.

Mr. Rost

May we expect some progress on the disputed siting of the joint European Nuclear Fusion Research Project? Does the Minister not accept that the delay in reaching agreement could be prejudicial to long-term energy resources?

Dr. Owen

The delay is regrettable but what is important is a firm decision. I have made it quite clear that I do not think that we shall make progress simply by putting the issue on the agenda. A great deal of work is going on as well as a lot of discussion. I am hopeful that when the matter does go on the agenda it will enable a firm decision to be made.

Mr. Channon

Does the Minister realise that there is now widespread scepticism in Europe whether the Government are intending to meet the date at present proposed for direct elections? Does the Minister recognise that unless the Government come forward with a Bill in the near future that scepticism will be justified? Will the Minister please impress this upon his right hon. Friend?

Dr. Owen

I am well aware that probably meeting the deadline presents more problems for this country than for other countries. It would be foolish to ignore that. A major piece of constitutional legislation is at present on the Floor of the House, and that is bound to have an impact on our ability to carry another important piece of constitutional legislation this Session. But we have made it clear that we shall use our best endeavours to bring forward that legislation at the earliest possible time, and we intend to meet the 1978 deadline.