HC Deb 21 January 1987 vol 108 cc882-6
9. Mr. Cash

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on achievements made during Britian's presidency of the European Community.

11. Dr. Michael Clark

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on achievements secured during Britain's presidency of the European Community.

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

A full account of achievements under the United Kingdom presidency has been placed in the Library of the House. Among the most important, I would emphasise the crucial importance of agreement on common agricultural policy reform; the adoption of more internal market measures than in any previous half year; and the adoption of an action programme for employment growth and agreement on measures to help small businesses.

Mr. Cash

Will my hon. Friend accept the congratulations of the Government side of the House on the very significant achievements made by herself and by the Secretary of State and other Ministers during the extremely important period of our presidency? Will she also accept our congratulations on developing the action programme for small and medium-sized businesses to promote enterprise and employment both in this country and in the Community as a whole? In regard to African affairs, does she agree that the progress on relations with the front-line states has made a significant contribution to stability in that region?

Mrs. Chalker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind remarks to my right hon. and learned Friend, myself and other Ministers who have been in the forefront of activity during the last six months of the British presidency. I am particularly glad that the help for small businesses, which my right hon. and learned Friend the Paymaster General has pushed so hard, has been agreed and that Finance Ministers were able in November to make available new loan facilities worth over £1 billion for small firms to help them get access to the new technology which they so much need. Proposals have also been made for the VAT threshold for small businesses to be increased, making it easier for small firms to establish themselves. The action programme on employment which was adopted in December will also help people starting their businesses and provide assistance with training and counselling for the long-term unemployed.

On South Africa, the United Kingdom presidency led the 12, in their wish to take positive measures, to help the front-line states by co-ordinating our activity. We have, of course, announced additional help of over £15 million over five years for southern Africa and £12 million for black South Africans. I might add that the European Community allocation for 1987 is 15 mecu compared with 10 mecu in 1986.

Dr. Clark

I, too, would like to congratulate my hon. Friend and her colleagues on their achievements during the British presidency, especially on the 48 achievements which are listed in the document which is to be found in the Library. May I ask where there was any achievement to ease the movement of commercial vehicles across internal frontiers and customs posts in the Community?

Mrs. Chalker

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. Achieving 48 measures concerning the internal market was a record that has never been equalled by any other presidency. [Laughter.] As the aim is to help business and employment throughout the Community, I should have thought that this was a serious matter, not a humourous one. Progress has been made with border facilities, in that we shall reduce the number of documents needed from 17 to 1. We hope that further improvements will be made during the next few months under the Belgian presidency.

Sir Russell Johnston

Does the Minister agree that the British presidency would have been greatly enhanced if it had been marked by British entry to the exchange rate mechanism of the European monetary system and by a clear commitment to proportional representation for the next European elections? Has the Minister observed that both those propositions are strongly supported by the President of the European Parliament, Sir Henry Plumb, who I should like to congratulate?

Mrs. Chalker

I am sure that the whole House will join the hon. Gentleman in congratulating Sir Henry Plumb on his election as President of the European Parliament. [Interruption.] As for the exchange rate mechanism, of course the Government recognise the European and national political and economic advantages of joining it, but the Government have made clear their wish to do so when the balance of the argument is in favour of entry. The hon. Gentleman must recognise that one of the difficulties is that sterling, like the German deutschmark, is a widely traded currency. There is at present only one such currency in the exchange rate mechanism, and the introduction of a second could put it under strain. That would be damaging to the whole of the European Community. That is why we need to be sure that the circumstances are right.

I note what the hon. Gentleman said about proportional representation. I have noted carefully the views of the President of the European Parliament, and I shall see him tomorrow to discuss his views further.

Mr. Madden

Does the Minister not believe that Britain's reputation in Europe and elsewhere has been seriously damaged by the Foreign Office spending British taxpayers' money on inviting two South African Nationalist Members of Parliament to visit Britain? They represent a country which has detained hundreds of people, including young children, which has a propaganda regime that would be the envy of Dr. Goebbels, and which has launched aggressive acts against neighbouring, independent and sovereign states.

Mrs. Chalker

The hon. Gentleman and the House will know that I hold no brief for the South African Government. I have to say, however, that the Central Office of Information has a number of sponsored visits, which are to exchange information. They are made available widely to a large number of people with whom the Government would not necessarily agree. Following the policy that, to extend dialogue and to try to influence cannot be a bad thing, I think that the exchanges which those two people have obviously had with people in the United Kingdom will have been nothing but a force for good to help impress on the South African Government the views of the British Government and people about that Government's actions at present.

Mr. Temple-Morris

Were any steps taken during our presidency to achieve a common European view towards encouraging some sort of compromise between the United States and the Soviet Union over the strategic defence initiative, bearing in mind that, in the end, strategic arms control and disarmament depend on such a compromise?

Mrs. Chalker

As my right hon. and learned Friend said this afternoon, this matter does not fall within the competence of European political co-operation or the European Community. Obviously, Ministers have had discussions in Western European Union and other forums. We work closely together on issues of such major importance to every country concerned. We shall continue to do so, but within the European Community this aspect does not arise.

Mr. Pike

How can the Minister claim that reforms of the common agricultural policy are an achievement when the majority still view the common agricultural policy as a disaster, damaging to the economy, and a lead weight around the neck of the Common Market, dragging it down to bankruptcy? When will the Government take positive steps to reform that policy?

Mrs. Chalker

I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman has been recently, but my right hon. and learned Friend and I and many other Ministers have repeatedly said that reform of the common agricultural policy was not only urgent but vital for the future of the Community. That is why, at the December meeting of Agriculture Ministers, we agreed on an 8.5 per cent. cut in milk quotas over the next 15 months, plus a further 1 per cent. to be taken out of production through the increase in the super levy and the tighter application of quota arrangements. We will make a total cut of 9.5 per cent. in the milk quota.

Further, we have agreed that, with that reduction in milk production, there will be a major stock disposal scheme for 1 million tonnes of butter, and we shall cut back by about 165,000 tonnes the amount of beef being brought into intervention. These measures will save £1.3 billion over the next three years. That was done under the British presidency. We are determined to reform the common agricultural policy, and we had agreement in the Community, under our presidency, to do so.

Sir Anthony Kershaw

Is my hon. Friend aware that if the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) had cared to attend the Foreign Affairs Select Committee session this morning he would have heard a fruitful and honest discussion with one of the South African Members of Parliament to whom he referred, which might lead towards a peaceful and amicable solution to the South African problem in due course?

Mrs. Chalker

I am delighted to hear from my hon. Friend that such a discussion took place during the Foreign Affairs Select Committee meeting this morning. It entirely bears out my answer to the hon. Member for Bradford, West (Mr. Madden) that discussion should take place and that we can influence matters if we lift our eyes above the low parapet at which he sets his.

Mr. George Robertson

Is not the legacy of the British presidency of the European Community a financial shambles, which means that the European Community still has no agreed budget for 1987? A trade war with the United States of America is looming and it threatens to cause long-term damage to European and United States relations. [Interruption.] When Conservative Members do not want to hear certain points, the heckling starts. The superficial deal on agriculture prices has still not spared us the spectacle of huge stocks of cauliflowers being destroyed simply to hoist their price to the consumer. Is that not the real, poor record to set against the 48 propaganda points that have been circulated among Conservative Members?

Mrs. Chalker

There is no time when the hon. Gentleman is less convincing than when he tries to pull holes in a real and certain achievement. Indeed, there have been achievements. It is right that there is no Community budget for 1987 at present. The Council of Ministers has refused to agree a budget that exceeds the minimun rate of increase laid down in the budgetary procedure. A budget cannot be adopted in the absence of Council agreement. We can proceed on the basis of one twelfth, which allows the Community at least to get on with some of its business. The Community has taken a firm stand over United States trade relations. The Commission has our full support in the present negotiations. We shall do our level best to reach a negotiated agreement that will make retaliatory measures unnecessary.

Sir Anthony Grant

Now that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State has finished a most distinguished period in the presidency of the Community, will the Foreign and Commonwealth Office apply its mind to the broader Europe of the 21 countries of the Council of Europe, which are very much concerned with the problem of human rights—in fact, much more so than the Community? Will my right hon. and learned Friend persuade his colleagues in the Council of Ministers to be much less stingy with the amount of money that they make available to that important organisation?

Mrs. Chalker

We are extremely appreciative of the excellent work that the Council of Europe has done, not only on human rights, but on the drugs issue. I shall carefully bear my hon. Friend's comments in mind.