HC Deb 18 November 1981 vol 13 cc283-90
The Lord Privy Seal (Mr. Humphrey Atkins)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the Foreign Affairs Council which took place in Brussels on 16 and 17 November. My right hon. and noble Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs took the chair. I represented the United Kingdom with my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade and my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

The Foreign Affairs Council discussed all aspects of the 30 May mandate, in preparation for the European Council in London on 26 and 27 November. In addition to the formal Council sessions, my right hon. and noble Friend and the President of the Commission held bilateral contacts with each Foreign Minister. Discussion was wide-ranging, but progress was only limited. There was general agreement that we should aim for progress on all three chapters of the negotiations—development of Community policies, the common agricultural policy and the budget—and that the European Council should be asked to decide operational guidelines on all three. But considerable differences of view remain and there will be a further meeting of the Council tomorrow.

The Foreign Ministers of the Ten meeting in political co-operation discussed the German-Italian proposals on European Union, the Middle East and Chad. As Presidency, we have welcomed efforts by the Federal Republic of Germany and Italy to give greater impetus to the Community. The Ministers agreed that the proposals would be presented to the European Council. The Council would decide on the follow-up procedure.

On the Middle East, they discussed the question of participation in the Sinai force. As the House will know, Governments of the Ten have been engaged for some weeks in consultations on participation in the multinational force and observers to be established in Sinai under the terms of the agreement between Israel and Egypt. We are seeking a basis which will be in accordance with the requirements of those Governments and of the United States, and which is in conformity with the well-known and fundamental position which the Ten have taken on the Middle East question, notably in the Venice declaration. Consultations are still continuing.

The Ministers welcomed the Libyan withdrawal from Chad, and the moves to establish an OAU peacekeeping force. I have arranged for copies of the text of their statement to be placed in the Library of the House.

I chaired a parallel session of the Council which discussed the future arrangements to apply to the Community's imports of low-cost textiles. My hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade represented the United Kingdom. Early this morning the Council reached agreement that, in the negotiations on the extension of the multi-fibre arrangement which resume today in Geneva, the Community would seek a number of improvements, including arrangements to deal with the problems both of recession and of sudden surges in actual trade. The Commission undertook to report back to the next meeting of the Council on 7 and 8 December, which will consider the further decisions that will be required.

Mr. Denis Healey (Leeds, East)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that he has had the House on tenterhooks for the last half hour? We have been waiting with breathless and unbearable excitement for him to answer a series of questions by hon. Members from both sides of the House. He promised to answer them in his statement, but he has had absolutely nothing to say.

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the British Presidency so far has been a total fiasco? Does he agree also that no progress has been made on the issues defined as central by the Government, such as the Community budget and the common agricultural policy? Even on the question of the German-Italian initiative the right hon. Gentleman said: "As Presidency, we have welcomed efforts". Can he assure the House that he will resist the proposals?

Mr. Atkins

I had no idea that the right hon. Gentleman was so easily excited. I knew that he became excited fairly easily, but now I know just how easily.

The right hon. Gentleman is wrong to say that under the British Presidency no progress has been made. Member States of the Community have been seriously addressing themselves to the mandate given them by their Heads of Government earlier this year. The fact that we have not yet arrived at a signed and sealed agreement about how to proceed does not entitle the right hon. Gentleman to say that the process has been a complete failure. Discussions are still taking place. There are differences of view; there is no disguising that, and I would not attempt to do so. The European Council, on 26 and 27 November—only a short time off—will make decisions in accordance with the mandate that the Council gave on 30 June.

I cannot tell yet precisely what those decisions will be. I hope that the decisions will be made. I believe that they will. We shall see. We have been seeking, as Presidency, to convince people—and I think that we have succeeded—that, unless alterations are made to the way in which the Community works its future cannot be as vigorous and exciting as it should be and we shall not be able to make the progress that we should make. The Council has that on board. I hope that in the discussions at the meeting next week between the Heads of Government we shall be able to take decisions which will revitalise the Community.

On the right hon. Gentleman's second question, it is always useful when people make proposals for forwarding the objectives to which we all subscribe. I do not say that we necessarily agree with all the proposals. We—the British, not the Presidency—are studying the proposals and we shall give our detailed reaction to them as soon as it is appropriate.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I know that a larger number of right hon. and hon. Members than it is possible to accommodate wish to participate in the Supply day debate on higher education. Therefore, I hope that questions will be brief so that we may reach that subject as soon as possible.

Mr. Julian Amery (Brighton, Pavilion)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is widespread support for the idea that we should make a contribution to the multinational force in Sinai under the Camp David agreements? Is he further aware that there would be widespread regret in Cairo as much as in Jerusalem if conditions were attached that led the Israelis to veto our contribution? Will he therefore remember that it is important that we should not be accused of having in any way sabotaged or prevented the final implementation of the Israeli withdrawal from Sinai?

Mr. Atkins

I take my right hon. Friend's point, but I reassure him that it is not a question of attaching conditions. We are not trying to do that. We stated our position in 1980 at the Venice summit. That is the position that we still hold: we have not departed from it in any way.

Mr. Russell Johnston (Inverness)

Can the Lord Privy Seal tell the House what proposals the Government have made on new Community policies and whether they envisage an enlarged budget? Does he agree that we cannot have a significant development of policies unless there is an enlarged budget?

Mr. Atkins

There may be two views about that. I should be happy to argue the point with the hon. Gentleman at rather greater length than we can today. Our main effort during our Presidency has been on restructuring the Community.

Mr. David Stoddart (Swindon)

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that I am appalled at his statement welcoming the Bonn-Rome axis proposals for further integration in Europe, which we believe will lead only to federalism? Is he also aware that he does not have the consent of the House or of the electorate for such treachery——

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman knows that the word "treachery" must not be applied to either side of the House. I know that the hon. Gentleman will withdraw it and continue with his question.

Mr. Stoddart

I am very keen on the subject. [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw."] I shall withdraw, but I feel strongly about the attitude of some Conservative Members to the matter. I believe that such a proposal would be inimical to the best and long-term interests of Britain. The people of Britain understand that also.

Mr. Atkins

The House is grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the expression of his views. If he had listened carefully to my statement, he would have heard me say that we welcomed the efforts of the Federal Republic of Germany and Italy in our capacity as Presidency. I did not say that we welcomed them in our capacity as the United Kingdom.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that some hon. Members are not clear about why the European participation in the Sinai force should contribute to further progress built upon Camp David? Will my right hon. Friend and his colleagues discuss the matter when the Foreign Ministers meet mext week?

Mr. Atkins

Any efforts that will enable peace to be kept in Sinai after the Israelis have withdrawn, as they have undertaken to do, must be in the interests of everyone in the Middle East.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I propose to call those hon. Members who have been rising in their places. I hope that they will co-operate.

Mr. Douglas Jay (Battersea, North)

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the Government have no mandate from the House or the electorate to extend the powers of the EEC institutions beyond those of the Treaty of Rome and those approved by the House? Will he give a clearer assurance than he has yet given that the Government will not accept such proposals until they have been fully explained and debated in the House?

Mr. Atkins

There is no question of adopting any proposal immediately. People are entitled to make proposals as to what they believe should happen in the European Community. It is right and proper that Governments should study those proposals and, if they wish, act upon them. It is right that they should come to their respective Parliaments and say so. We are not in that position now and I do not know whether we ever shall be in this case. We do not contemplate moving beyond the powers given to us by the House.

Sir Anthony Meyer (Flint, West)

Which does my right hon. Friend consider to be the more unattractive spectacle—the right hon. Member for Leeds, East (Mr. Healey) pretending that he has never been aware of the importance of Britain's role in Europe, or Opposition Back-Bench Members who detest the EEC demanding that the EEC should take stronger measures to shut out imports of low-cost textiles from the Third world which, in another breath, they claim they wish to aid?

Mr. Atkins

During my political life I have sought to avoid being a judge of beauty or attraction. I shall continue to do that.

Mr. K. J. Woolmer (Batley and Morley)

Will the Lord Privy Seal be more specific about the recession clause, the sudden surges clause and the growth rate inequalities in the multi-fibre arrangement? Does the sudden surges clause relate to existing quotes—which are hopelessly unrealistically high—or the existing level of trade? If it relates to the existing quotas, sudden surges will still be capable of destroying hundreds of thousands of jobs in the Community, and certainly 100,000 in Britain.

Mr. Atkins

I do not believe that it would be in anyone's interests if I went into the precise details of the mandate given to the Commission. [HON. MEMBERS: "Why not?"] The Commission is, on behalf of the 10 member States, engaging in a highly complicated and difficult negotiation with many other countries.

I draw the hon. Gentleman's attention to two points that I made in my statement. I ask him to note the words. I said that the Council reached agreement that … the Community would seek a number of improvements"— in the multi-fibre arrangement— including arrangements to deal with … sudden surges in actual trade. I went on to say: The Commission undertook to report back to the next meeting of the Council on 7 and 8 December. I shall leave the Commission's mandate where it is on the clear understanding—about which the right hon. Gentlemen who are laughing on the Opposition Front Bench know—that if the Council of Ministers approves anything done by the Commission the House will also have an opportunity to do that.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

My right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal has accepted that progress on fundamental reforms has been disappointing and slow. What will be the Government's position about net contributions and fishing if no agreement is reached by the end of 1981?

Mr. Atkins

I hope that agreement is possible, but, if it is not, the arrangements negotiated in 1980 will apply to 1982. However, I am not prepared to say that no agreement will be possible.

Mr. Leslie Spriggs (St. Helens)

Will the right hon. Gentleman note that all Back-Bench Members who are in touch with the British textile and fibre manufacturing industry are distressed about the danger that the new multi-fibre arrangement will not allow fair trading between Common Market countries and the United Kingdom? Unless there is a fairly balanced agreement, I am informed by representatives of the textile industry that they will be forced to import many more textiles into the United Kingdom, which will result in a greater number of people being unemployed.

Mr. Atkins

I do not know what the hon. Gentleman means by "unfair". If he means counterfeiting, I assure him that all hon. Members are determined to ensure that that does not continue. It is useful that the Community will be represented at the negotiations with the remainder of the world by the Commission, which has instructions on how to proceed.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

I thank my right hon. Friend the Lord Privy Seal for referring to textiles, clothing and MFA3 in his statement. I also thank my hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Trade for the robust fashion in which he is advancing the British point of view in Europe. Does the Government intend, as far as is humanly possible—even if it means a veto at the end of the day—to stand by the assurances that were given to the House by the Secretary of State for Trade? We are talking about the future of 630,000 people. All hon. Members must be concerned about that.

Mr. Atkins

Without referring directly to the speech mentioned by my hon. Friend, I can say that he need have no fears. The position of the Community is harnessed to obtaining a tough successor to the present MFA. That has been the long-standing objective of Britain. It was agreed this morning by the Foreign Ministers to the Community. They have the right instructions and will negotiate in that spirit. It is impossible to say what will come out of the negotiations. The Ministers will have to report to the Council of Ministers, and our Ministers are, as always, answerable to the House.

Mr. Jack Straw (Blackburn)

Why is the Lord Privy Seal refusing to give details of the EEC's mandate, when those details were given to the newspapers this morning? Is it because the right hon. Gentleman does not have the slightest idea of what was discussed and decided at the textile discussions? Does not that emphasise the importance of having statements on complicated subjects from the Ministers concerned, such as the Minister of Trade, who understand the issues?

Will the right hon. Gentleman say whether the base level set in the mandate is the level of imports for 1980—which would be a satisfactory start—or the quotas, which would be wholly unsatisfactory and would result in terrifying unemployment throughout the textile industries of Europe?

Mr. Atkins

The hon. Gentleman raised three points. I have reported to the House, at the first possible opportunity, on the meeting that I chaired yesterday. He may claim that I know nothing about the matter, but having sat in the Chair from 2.30 pm to 1.15 am I think that I know something about it by now. I do not intend to tell the hon. Gentleman every detail of the mandate given to the Commission. It will negotiate on our behalf and report the result. It cannot negotiate if every detail of its instructions is made public.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Keighley)

Does the Lord Privy Seal accept that it is grossly inadequate—indeed, scandalous—that no separate statement has been made on a subject as important as the renegotiation of the MFA? Only the barest details have been given to the House. In addition to the recession and sudden surges clauses, what about the import level base that will be chosen, the social clause and the outward processing? Those are matters of great importance. Is it not true that we are slowly being bound to a position where pressure of time will be so great that the Government will not dare to use any veto and will be forced to accept a weaker mandate?

Mr. Atkins

The answer is "No". I have made the statement that the House expects me to make after each meeting of the European Council. If the hon. Gentleman wants statements by other Ministers, he must ask for them. He must not ask me, because it is not my business.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I know that the Lord Privy Seal has had a little difficulty in answering some of the more difficult questions. I realise that he is a new boy in the job, which is very different from being Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Will he answer a simple question requiring a "Yes" or "No" answer? As West Germany has complained that it is paying too much to the Community budget, is he in favour of an enlarged budget in accordance with the wishes of those countries that want to increase their expenditure, or a reduced budget based on West Germany's application to pay less?

Mr. Atkins

It is well known that the Government are not in favour of increasing the overall size of the Community budget. If the hon. Gentleman had been listening at all during the many hours and days that he has sat in his place, he would know that it has been the Government's objective to reduce Britain's net contribution. We have held to that proposition throughout the time that we have been in office. We have succeeded very much better than did the Labour Government who are supported by the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

I revert to the Bonn-Rome proposals for further political union. On what documents is that proposal based? Will they be sent to the Scrutiny Committee in the usual way? If they do not fall within that category, will the right hon. Gentleman ensure that the proposals are published in good time for the House to study them before they are debated?

Mr. Atkins

Yes, Sir. Without going into the precise form, I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he requested in the latter part of his question.

Mr. Healey

From the exchanges that have taken place the Lord Privy Seal will be aware that there is deep concern in the House—especially among hon. Members whose constituencies' livelihoods depend upon the outcome of the MFA negotiations—that we should have more reliable information on the negotiating position. We have all read the report in the Financial Times today. The Minister has not confirmed or denied the details. Will he find some other opportunity precisely to explain the position to the House? Unless he does so, the already widespread concern in textile and fibre constituencies will increase.

Mr. Atkins

We shall consider the right hon. Gentleman's remarks. I am not prepared to go any further, for the reasons that I have given. He may not agree, but I am not prepared to go further. Of course, we shall consider his suggestions.

Mr. Cryer

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. Can you confirm that it would be in order for additional statements to be made? The Lord Privy Seal suggested that he was working within the narrow framework of the Orders of the House. I am sure that if the Minister for Trade asked you whether he could make a detailed statement, it could be made within the Orders of the House. It would be welcomed by Opposition Members. I am sure that you would welcome the opportunity for Back Benchers to gain information that is vital to many constituencies.

Mr. Spearing

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. Speaker

Order. I have been tolerant. However, if the hon. Gentleman wishes to add to something that was supposed to be a point of order, I shall give him a few seconds to do so

Mr. Spearing

In our terms of reference for Departments of State there is a clear distinction between matters related to trade and those related to the Foreign Office. Because of the way in which constitutional matters are dealt with in the EEC, it appears that the Foreign Secretary—but as he is not in the House it is the Lord Privy Seal—is responsible for reporting to the House on matters of detail relating to textiles, which is a trade matter, and also on other matters for which the Foreign Office now appears to have some responsibility. Is it not right and proper for Back Benchers to request statements from the Ministers responsible for such technical and important subjects?

Mr. Speaker

Both hon. Members will have the satisfaction of knowing that the usual channels have heard what has been said.

Mr. Robin Maxwell-Hyslop (Tiverton)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am sure that you will have noticed, as I have, that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food regularly comes to the Dispatch Box and makes statements about negotiations with the EEC, as does his right hon. Friend the Minister responsible for Fisheries. Therefore, it is in no way an unreasonable proposition that the statement on the MFA should he made by the Secretary of State for Trade. There is no outrage to our habits in that, is there?

Mr. Speaker

I do not think so. However, it is not my business and I shall not express an opinion.