HC Deb 30 January 1986 vol 90 cc1106-14

4.9 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mrs. Lynda Chalker)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement about the meeting of the Foreign Affairs Council which took place in Brussels on 27 January. I and my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Industry represented the United Kingdom. A statement of forthcoming business in the European Community has been deposited in the Vote Office.

Ministers had a further preliminary discussion of the Commission's proposals for a negotiating mandate on renewal of the multi-fibre arrangement. They reviewed progress in negotiations to adapt the European Community agreements to take account of enlargement. In response to the imposition by the United States of quotas on imports of EC semi-finished steel, the Council decided to introduce quotas on United States exports of fertiliser, coated paper and bovine fats. These restrictions will not be introduced until 15 February, allowing time for further efforts to achieve an agreed outcome. The President of the Commission reported on his discussion with the Japanese Government on EC-Japan trade relations during his recent visit to Tokyo. I emphasised the importance that we attach to the achievement of a better balance in trade between the European Community and Japan.

In political co-operation, the Foreign Ministers of the Twelve agreed and issued a statement on international terrorism. They announced further measures to strengthen defences against terrorism within the Community and to discourage support from other Governments for terrorist attacks. They agreed to set up a new group within political co-operation to ensure effective follow-up in the areas covered by the statement. They agreed not to undercut measures taken by others against Governments which support terrorism. The Foreign Ministers reviewed briefly the implementation of the measures vis-à-vis South Africa which were agreed at Luxembourg on 10 September.

In the Intergovernmental Conference member states finalised the text of the amendments to the EC treaties and treaty provisions on European political co-operation. On the question of the working environment, we secured inclusion in the treaty text of provisions protecting the position of small and medium-sized undertakings, as proposed by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister at the European Council in Luxembourg last December. This enabled the only outstanding United Kingdom reserve to be lifted. All member states have accepted the agreed text. The Netherlands Presidency hope that the new Act will be signed by all member states on 17 February. If the Danish Government cannot sign on that date, they will aim to do so after the referendum in Denmark.

Mr. George Robertson (Hamilton)

We all congratulate the hon. Lady on her apparent promotion. I wish her well in her translation from motorway lighting to runaway surpluses and from flyovers to carryovers. She will have a rough time, as she has seen for herself this afternoon from both sides of the House. We wish her well.

The hon. Lady's statement smoothly skates over the shambles to which the European Community has reduced itself in the past few weeks with regard to reform of the treaty of Rome. The Community has spent nine months and more on a futile exercise of institutional change, and it has produced a mouse which, thanks to the Danish Parliament, cannot now even squeak.

Is there not something bizarre about this great Community, now 12 nations strong, squirming around, pretending for the benefit of Danish Members of Parliament that their great efforts were of absolutely no consequence? Today, however, Britain has announced record unemployment, a phenomenon that is mirrored throughout the EC. Falling oil prices, rising interest rates and shaky currencies threaten even more job losses all over Europe.

In July, the Prime Minister told the House that all the institutional reforms agreed at the Luxembourg summit could be implemented without treaty changes, so why has the Danish veto meant so much chaos? The Minister referred to discussions about retaliation against American steel import restrictions. She has our complete support for that reaction to unwarranted protectionism, although I wonder what effect it will have on the airbus project, which only two weeks ago was of such paramount importance. Will the hon. Lady explain the effect that the retaliation will have on British Steel's exports and on the contract between BSC and Tuscaloosa Steel of Alabama?

We welcome the British climbdown on resisting better Europe-wide protection legislation for employees, but does that mean that the Government will now allow majority voting on the directives on part-time working and on employee consultation, which they have blocked for the past two years?

On Tuesday, the Foreign Secretary will be in Lusaka with a team of Community Foreign Ministers meeting the Front Line states. They will reiterate their call to South Africa to recognise the African National Congress.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels (Leicester, East)

Certainly not.

Mr. Robertson

Community Foreign Ministers have already called on South Africa to recognise the ANC. Will the Foreign Secretary meet the ANC when he is in Lusaka? Will he join Community Foreign Ministers if they choose to meet the ANC?

Mrs. Chalker

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his congratulations. I think that I shall need more than his congratulations with such a list of questions, but I shall do my best.

The Intergovernmental Conference's reform is not a mouse but a decision of the 12 to bring matters completely up to date. I am aware that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister thought that changes could be made without a treaty change, as did we. However, not all the other nations were content with that. We therefore worked towards, and reached in December, subject to one reserve, a treaty change that we are now prepared to sign. We have achieved a successful declaration about small and medium-sized enterprises.

The hon. Gentleman asked about steel support. I thank him for what he said. United Kingdom support for the aggressive EC move, which could threaten the Tuscaloosa agreement, is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry. We fully support the EC retaliation. We have argued that no precipitate action should be taken while Community/United States contracts on semi-finished products are still in progress. That is why the implementation date has been deferred to see whether we can make further progress. I do not see, from my knowledge at present, that the joint venture will be threatened. There is no suggestion of that. We shall go on working to prevent it.

The hon. Gentleman talked about our climbing down and thought that there was no need for the Intergovernmental Conference to make treaty reform. As the Community has enlarged, it is far more sensible to agree reforms and have them clearly established. That is exactly what happened in regard to the work concluded on 17 December, which was finally amended with the reserve on small and medium-sized enterprises on Monday.

The hon. Gentleman asked about employment. It is no bad thing to have realism in the Community. Lowering barriers will provide new opportunities for jobs and for better trade.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned, finally, the question of the European Community Meeting with the Front Line states in Lusaka next week. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs will indeed be in Lusaka next week. He will be having discussions with those who wish to have discussions with him and will try to set out the dialogue as fairly and as clearly as possible, as we have always stated, that we have no part in apartheid and that we intend to do all we can to ensure that peace is brought to South Africa.

Sir Anthony Kershaw (Stroud)

I too congratulate my hon. Friend on her first appearance at the Dispatch Box for the Foreign Office. Will she not be deterred by the scorn that is routinely poured on these statements by both sides of the House with equal vehemence on what the EC has done and on what it has not done? Is she aware that, although the progress might be modest, it adds up to something quite important? It is good for the country that there are negotiations and steady progress.

Mrs. Chalker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. He knows that I am rarely deterred, but I might be a little more tentative when speaking about European matters than when speaking about road lighting. The most important element of the Foreign Affairs Council on Monday was the political co-operation there. A statement against terrorism by all 12 members is a substantial achievement—and it was not a foregone conclusion. It contains a warning to Governments that support terrorism, an agreement not to undercut measures against Governments—which clearly covers United States measures against Libya—and an agreement not to sell arms to Governments that behave like Libya; and it strengthens the Twelve's security against terrorism and contains machinery to ensure follow-up action. We have never before had such a statement from 12 nations. If on no other count, the meeting was a great advance because of that.

Mr. Paddy Ashdown (Yeovil)

I join in congratulating the Minister on her appointment. My hon. Friends and I will miss her courteous and personal response to our questions in her previous capacity, whether on constituency or policy matters. Those qualities will stand her in good stead in her present position, however difficult it may be.

Did any consensus emerge from discussions on the MFA, especially with a view to the question whether this should be the last renegotiation of the MFA? Will she tell the House whether, during the discussions on South Africa, there was a discussion about strengthening the sanctions against South Africa, as the meagre sanctions that currently exist are wholly inadequate to express our disgust at what is happening and our anxiety at the worsening position? Is it not the case that the United Kingdom has dragged its feet? Will she now give some thought to increasing the strength of sanctions?

Mrs. Chalker

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind comments at the start of his remarks. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry was present at the discussion on the MFA. We followed exactly the line set out in the statement of the then Minister for Trade on 9 May. We did not make much progress, but discussions are now clearly seen as part of the further GATT round which is coming. Any renewed MFA will clearly be a transitional measure.

We did not have an extensive discussion about South Africa in the terms in which the hon. Gentleman phrased his question. However, we agreed that no EC partner would export crude oil to South Africa. The United Kingdom has never sold crude oil to South Africa. No further United Kingdom action is necessary and any action will take place within individual countries.

Mr. Ian Lloyd (Havant)

I add my congratulations to my hon. Friend, whose brief now includes one of the most complex and controversial political areas in the world—South Africa. I welcome the universality of the declaration that was made in Brussels against terrorism, but will the declaration not be shown to be the most appalling sham if an exception should be made for the ANC? Before my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State sets off for Lusaka, will my hon. Friend make sure that he has in his handbag—(Interruption.]—the full transcripts of the broadcasts from Addis Ababa by the ANC, which are the most vicious incitement to terrorism that anyone could wish to read?

Mrs. Chalker

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. I shall bring his remarks to the notice of my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State. I am well aware, as my hon. Friend must be, that wherever terrorism occurs it must be condemned, whether it comes from the ANC or terrorists in any other part of the world. Terrorism is terrorism from whomsoever it comes.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the hon. Lady accept that, whatever her attitude to the issues, the attitude to her usual high quality answers will be the reverse of scorn?

My hon. Friend referred to the signing of the draft treaty on 17 February, but not by Denmark. Will she confirm that the treaty will be a draft treaty? Will she outline the timing of the treaty's presentation and the method by which it will be presented for endorsement?

In view of the difficulties of next Monday's business, arising from the present powers of the European Assembly, do the Government intend to show further appreciation of the enhanced powers that will be contained in the treaty? Will these powers cause even more difficulties?

Mrs. Chalker

I will answer the hon. Gentleman as well as I can. If I am in error, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman, but I shall tell him what I believe he was asking for. The treaty is the precursor to a Bill that will come before the House at the earliest practicable opportunity. I am not in a position to say when that will be, but it will be at the earliest possible date. As usual, legislation is required in this country to enforce the agreement. That will be entirely in accordance with normal practice. The House will have a full opportunity to debate the legislation during Second Reading and all its stages.

The debate on Monday takes place following a procedure recommended by the Treasury and Civil Service Select Committee in 1982. That is the reason for the procedure in advance of any further debate.

Mr. Michael Latham (Rutland and Melton)

Is my hon. Friend aware that some hon. Members representing textile areas will be worried that she took with her only the statement of the Minister of State for Trade last May on the subject of the multi-fibre arrangement? Is she aware that some of us hope for a much stronger attitude from the British Government and that we are concerned about rumours about the British negotiating committee?

Mrs. Chalker

As a Member from the north-west, I am well aware of the sensitivities surrounding the multi-fibre arrangement. Today, I read an article in the Financial Times about the matter that must worry some of my hon. Friends. It was only about a week ago that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry told the House that we believed that the long-term future of the MFA must be decided in the context of the proposed GATT round of international trading talks. The debates and the discussions that we are to have in Europe and in Britain will help us to thrash out a difficult problem, but we must achieve a balance between the home countries and the Third world countries.

Mr. Max Madden (Bradford, West)

When does the Minister expect the negotiating mandate for the renewal of the multi-fibre arrangement to be decided? Will she give a firm assurance that there is no question of controls on the dominant suppliers being relaxed to give preference to low-cost suppliers?

Does she agree that there is an urgent need for a full debate on the industry, which is the fourth largest manufacturing industry in Britain, employing tens of thousands of people in high unemployment areas? Will she add her support to the calls to which the Leader of the House is responding favourably for an urgent debate so that the Government can be advised by hon. Members who have a key concern about the future of that important industry?

Mrs. Chalker

I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about the matter. I know that the Leader of the House heard all that the hon. Gentleman said during business questions and I shall draw his comments to my right hon. Friend's attention.

I ask the hon. Gentleman to excuse me from answering his questions in detail, because I was not present for the multi-fibre arrangement discussion. I shall write to the hon. Gentleman and I shall place a copy in the Library so that he receives a full and accurate response.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

Does my hon. Friend accept that a major part of her statement was directed to the MFA and to trade arrangements with Japan? Does she accept that the current huge imbalance of trade with Japan is unacceptable? The MFA, which is so critical to Britain, is already too liberal. Liberalising it further, as will happen unless the Government take a stand, will mean tens of thousands more unemployed people in sensitive areas with already high unemployment. Will she press the Leader of the House for a debate, not only on the MFA, but on the broader principles of trade and the United Kingdom national interest so that the House, rather than Europe, can express a view as to the best interests of the people of our country?

Mrs. Chalker

I hear what my hon. Friend says. Of course we are worried about the mounting trade surplus with Japan, which still imposes a serious strain on an open trading system. My hon. Friend knows that we are at the beginning of a further round of MFA negotiations I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry.

Mr. Eric S. Heffer (Liverpool, Walton)

During the lengthy discussions that took place on a series of subjects, could not sufficient time be found to discuss the most important matter of peace in Europe and the proposals that have been made by Mr. Gorbachev on nuclear disarmament? Is that subject likely to be discussed in the future? If not, why not?

Mrs. Chalker

The hon. Gentleman knows that the EC spends much time discussing not only peace, but how we can best work together to prevent terrorism. The wider issues are not a matter for the Foreign Affairs Council or, indeed, for political co-operation. Although Ministers have those matters at the back of their minds and sometimes discuss them privately, they are more a matter for summit discussions. I assure the hon. Gentleman that every offer and every move to create peace in the world will be taken up by the Government and pursued relentlessly.

Mr. Jeremy Hanley (Richmond and Barnes)

In congratulating my hon. Friend on impressively and successfully representing the United Kingdom at the Foreign Affairs Council, and welcoming her statement that international co-operation is the only way forward to combat terrorism by individual groups and terrorism sponsored and fostered by Governments, may I ask whether in future Foreign Affairs Councils she will bring a similar spirit to international co-operation in trying to counter other evils, such as the growing distribution of hard drugs?

Mrs. Chalker

I am not sure that that is a matter for the Foreign Affairs Council, but whenever the subject is placed on the agenda for a Council meeting, I and my right hon. Friends will do all we can to ensure that the EC makes every move, individually and collectively, to combat the trading in drugs.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Did the Minister hear business questions earlier today, when many senior Tory Back-Bench Members said that the Common Market was operating on an illegal budget? If that is the case, did she have any pangs of conscience as she and her officials were gallivanting round the Continent spending money which the Common Market legally does not possess? Does she accept that, although she was one of those in the Government who were active in encouraging the surcharging of 80 Lambeth and Liverpool councillors for producing deficit budgets of about £250,000, the Common Market needs £6 million on Monday night and, according to Tory Members, is acting illegally?

Mrs. Chalker

I should have expected that question. To answer the hon. Gentleman's first question, 1 heard some of business questions. The European Parliament has voted on a budget that is illegal. When that happens, there is a procedure for dealing with it. In the case of Liverpool, there is similarly a procedure for dealing with an illegal budget, and that procedure has been carried out. We shall follow through the legal procedures to deal with the EC matter as we would with any other.

Mr. Tony Marlow (Northampton, North)

As an honest and objective Minister in an honest and objective Government, would my hon. Friend help the House by laying down the ground rules as to what is and what is not terrorism and what is and what is not state terrorism? Does she agree with me that the raid on Tunis was an act of terrorism carried out by a state, whereas the raids on the airports in Vienna and Rome were definitely acts of terrorism, but that there is as yet no direct connection with any state?

Secondly, will my hon. Friend confirm that there will still be a veto available to the United Kingdom on such things as the fifth directive, Vredeling and the draft directive on parental leave?

Mrs. Chalker

I am sure that the answer to my hon. Friend's last question is yes, but if I am wrong I will write to him.

My hon. Friend asked for a definition of terrorism. In today's world, we would also classify as terrorism the means to deliver terrorism. This is not the time to answer his question, but I shall send him a note later.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I shall call the four hon. Members who have been standing, but I ask them to make their questions brief.

Mr. Eric Forth (Mid-Worcestershire)

In joining others in welcoming my hon. Friend to her new responsibilities, may I assure her that she will find the Europe enthusiasists here a tight-lipped and supportive bunch of people when she comes to the Chamber? Did she take the opportunity in the Council to explore the differences of opinion that became apparent among our fellow members of the Community between their enthusiasm for sanctions against South Africa and their reluctance to join calls for sanctions against Libya? Did she get to the bottom of that difference?

Mrs. Chalker

The simple answer is that we did not have time to probe in the way suggested by my hon. Friend. I am sure that many people will not shift from the ground that they presently hold.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Will my hon. Friend note that in article 6 of the text that has been presented to the House the expression "European Assembly" will be changed, by treaty, to "European Parliament" for the first time, and that the words in co-operation with the European Parliament are used rather than the present words after consulting the European Assembly". What will the words in co-operation with the European Parliament mean in practice?

Mr. Nicholas Winterton

Nothing, just like the European Parliament.

Mrs. Chalker

The change in title happened as a result of normal usage in the Community and the practice of successive Governments to use the term "European Parliament", except in legal texts. The texts which were agreed at Luxembourg reflect that exectly. When the agreed changes have been ratified, "European Parliament" will become the correct legal description, too. Unless we are prepared to work in co-operation with the European Parliament and with other European Governments, the whole business of Europe will become nonsense. Cooperation must be a key word in any of the documents that we discuss.

Mr. Peter Bruinvels

In the quest to stop international terrorism, what decisions were taken to stop the Libyans pursuing attacks at airports not just in Britain but throughout Europe? Those attacks were extremely offensive, and we must prevent terrorists from entering the country. Will she advise the Foreign Secretary that the African National Congress has announced that two of its representatives plan to come to Leicester to rededicate Nelson Mandela park? Should not all terrorists —especially Libyans—be stopped from entering Britain—or, indeed, Europe?

Mrs. Chalker

In reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Stroud (Sir A. Kershaw), I set out the five main points of the action that will be taken by the 12 members of the EC against terrorism. I assure my hon. Friend that we are extremely anxious to ensure that the machinery to follow up the decisions that were made at the Foreign Affairs Council is set up. Although Libya was not mentioned directly in the text, it was clear at which country the comments were directed. But since Libya is not the only country that has purveyed terrorism, it was as well to produce a statement that encompassed other countries. Wherever terrorism and violence occur, they must be deterred, and that is what the Twelve are determined to do.

Mr. Jerry Hayes (Harlow)

I wish my hon. Friend success in her new job. Does she agree that decisions taken in Brussels will help to create jobs in Britain, not least because of the recognition of the underlying need for a free internal market?

Mrs. Chalker

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Until we can achieve a free internal market and we can break down the quota system, we shall prevent jobs from being created. Therefore, we shall do our best to ensure that jobs and businesses are created by the Common Market.