HC Deb 15 February 1993 vol 219 cc27-38 3.53 pm
The Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Douglas Hurd)

With permission, I should like to make a statement on the process of ratification of the Maastricht treaty.

As the House knows, the purpose of the Bill before the House is to ensure that United Kingdom law, where necessary, conforms with the provisions of the Maastricht treaty.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of State said in this House on 20 January that if amendment No. 27 were carried, United Kingdom law would not conform to the provisions of the treaty and that the United Kingdom would therefore be unable to ratify the treaty.

Those remarks were, of course, based on legal advice. However, in the light of discussion in this House and elsewhere, further careful and detailed consideration was given to the matter, and the Attorney-General and the Lord Advocate were asked for their advice. I think it right, with the agreement and on the authority of the Law Officers, to inform the House of that advice, at the earliest practicable opportunity, and to explain the Government's position in the light of that advice.

In accordance with our usual practice when legislating, clause 1 of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill has been drafted to incorporate in our domestic law all amendments and protocols to the treaty of Rome which were included in the treaty on European union—the treaty of Maastricht.

The House will recall that the protocol on social policy authorises the other 11 member states of the Community to have recourse to the institutions, procedures and mechanisms of the treaty of Rome for the purposes of implementing their agreement on co-operation in the social area—the so-called social chapter. Most significantly, it specifies that acts adopted by the Council under the terms of the protocol shall not be applicable to the United Kingdom.

Amendment No. 27 would exclude from the scope of clause 1 of the Bill the protocol on social policy. That is all that amendment No. 27 would do. The amendment would not have any effect on the treaty itself. It would not change the agreement among 11 into an agreement among 12. It would not bring the social chapter into effect in this country. The amendment would simply exclude the protocol from incorporation in domestic law under the European Communities Act. The legal question is therefore whether the United Kingdom could ratify the treaty even if the protocol were not incorporated into domestic law.

The Law Officers advise that, if the amendment were carried, acts adopted under the protocol would still not apply to the United Kingdom. That is because it is of the very nature of the protocol that acts adopted under it should not be applicable to the United Kingdom. It follows that no rights and obligations arise from those acts which need to be given effect in our domestic law.

In summary, the Law Officers consider that, while incorporation of the protocol in domestic law is desirable, it is not necessary for ratification or implementation of the Maastricht treaty. In other words, there would be no impediment to ratification if the amendment were carried because acts adopted under the protocol would still not apply to the United Kingdom.

I must make it clear that there can be no question of the United Kingdom ratifying the treaty except through the normal parliamentary procedures. The House will have the opportunity on Third Reading, after detailed consideration of all aspects of the Bill, to decide whether the Bill should pass into law. The United Kingdom will not ratify the treaty unlesss the Bill is approved by Parliament. But amendment No. 27 is not a proposal to adhere to the social chapter and its passage would not be a decision that this country should do so. The Government will continue to oppose the amendment because, as I have said, incorporation of the protocol in domestic law would be desirable. But, in the light of the Law Officers' advice, if the amendment were carried it would have no effect on our ability to ratify the treaty. [Interruption.]

Madam Speaker

Order. This is an important statement which the House has been waiting to hear. The House must come to order to hear the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Hurd

It constitutes a different siituation from that implied by the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) when he moved the amendment and the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Minister of State in the House on 20 and 27 January. I regret that the legal advice then given to the House was not correct.

The Government's position on the substance of the matter remains unchanged. We continue to believe that the social chapter will harm growth and jobs in this country. We intend to press forward with the Bill so that we can ratify the treaty which I, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer negotiated at Maastricht, and which won an overwhelming majority on Second Reading in this House.

Madam Speaker

It may assist the House if I say a few words about the Foreign Secretary's statement. I felt it right to allow the Government to correct a mistake that had been made as soon as it came to light. Some questions will no doubt arise seeking clarification of what has been said. Page 500 of "Erskine May" states: The House is not formally aware of the detailed proceedings of any committee until the bill has been reported; and attempts to refer in the House to proceedings on a bill during its consideration in committee are consequently irregular. Therefore—[Interruption.] Order. The House must come to order and listen to this important announcement.

Therefore, any consideration of further proceedings in Committee on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill cannot be pursued in detail with either the Foreign Secretary or myself. The House cannot legislate in two places at once. I trust that hon. Members will appreciate that when I judge it time to move on.

Dr. John Cunningham (Copeland)

I am grateful to the Foreign Secretary for agreeing to make a statement today in response to my request. I am sure that he welcomed the opportunity to try to remove at least some of the confusion and disarray in Government circles resulting from the mess that the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and others have got into over their fanatical determination to deny the benefits of the social chapter to the people of our country. I wish that the right hon. Gentleman had been able to remove the confusion and disarray set in train by the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones), on 20 January in this Chamber when he said that he was speaking on legal advice.

As today's statement is about the fourth different interpretation that we have had of the Government's position in the past five days, why should the House or the country have any more confidence in today's opinion than they were able to have in any of the others, including that of the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Watford, which has been so summarily dismissed by the Foreign Secretary in the Chamber today? I am surprised that the Minister of State has not accelerated the process of his already tendered resignation.

Does the Foreign Secretary recall that, from the outset, starting with the statement made by the Prime Minister, the House has been promised that common consent in this country is exercised through a parliamentary democracy and through the voices and words of Members of Parliament in this House."—[Official Report, 3 June 1992; Vol. 208, c. 832.] If that has any meaning, why are we being told that the Government intend to ride roughshod over decisions made in the Chamber of the House of Commons? Does it not make a charade of the proceedings when we are told that —as the Foreign Secretary said in a radio interview—regardless of the decisions of the House, the Government will verify or ratify the Maastricht treaty only as it was when the Government agreed to it? What is the purpose of the weeks and weeks of deliberations in the Chamber and elsewhere if no effective change can be made?

If the right hon. Gentleman takes the view that he apparently does of amendment No. 27, which I tabled on behalf of the Labour party and which we shall certainly continue to press to a vote, why has he reiterated this afternoon the Government's determination to oppose it? What is the purpose of opposing it if, as he says, it makes no difference to the final outcome of events?

The truth is—and the right hon. Gentleman knows it —that our European partners would be pleased to see this country endorsing the social chapter of the Maastricht treaty, as they have done themselves. Today's statement reiterates the briefing heavily given on Friday to the effect that the Government would use the royal prerogative to ignore Parliament. The statement has the same message and the same impact as that briefing. The BBC said today that a Foreign Office official was now describing that briefing as mischievous nonsense. If it was, why did the Government indulge in the briefing in the first place—as they clearly did just a few days ago?

Amendment No. 27 was tabled on 30 May 1992, almost a year ago. The Government have wriggled, produced one explanation after another, and finally come to today's further explanation of why it is necessary to oppose the amendment and of what the legal consequences will be if it is not opposed or defeated. We had no confidence in the first Government position; we had no confidence in the position as explained by the right hon. Member for Watford; and we have no confidence in the statement by the Foreign Secretary this afternoon.

Mr. Hurd

I shall take the hon. Gentleman's points in sequence. I had intended to make a statement today, having received the advice of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General last Thursday—I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that.

There is no question of riding roughshod over the will of the House. If the House, against the Government's advice, carried amendment No. 27, that would be the decision of the House, and it would mean, perforce, that the protocol that we are discussing would not be incorporated in the domestic law of this country. That would be a pity, because it is desirable that it should be, for the sake of completeness and tidiness. But for the reasons that I have given, on the advice of the Law Officers, it is not essential.

This leads to a crucial point. The House will be aware that the purpose of the Bill which, as you rightly said, Madam Speaker, is before a Committee of the House is to make United Kingdom law compatible with the union treaty. Two types of amendment can be and are being moved to it. Any amendment that would render United Kingdom law incompatible with the treaty would have the effect of making it impossible for the treaty to be ratified. Thus, from the Government's point of view, it is necessary for such amendments to be defeated.

Other amendments, while we may oppose them as undesirable, do not render United Kingdom law incompatible with the terms of the treaty. Another amendment that can be cited in this respect is the one about membership of the Committee of the Regions. We can argue about that and reach a decision on it; we can in either event ratify the treaty. Although the Government would seek to oppose that class of amendment, it would not, if carried, have any implications for ratification. The advice of the Law Officers is that amendment No. 27 falls into this latter category.

Now that he has said his piece, I think that the hon. Member for Copeland would probably accept the background as follows. The aim of his amendment, which, as he says, has been around for a long time, was to make it impossible for the Government to ratify the treaty in its present form and so, as the hon. Gentleman has just said, to bring about an intergovernmental conference at which we, the Government, would have to choose between accepting the social chapter and abandoning the treaty —that was the hon. Gentleman's declared aim. That, to use the hon. Gentleman's phrase of 20 January, was the predicament in which he prides himself on seeking to place us. But his amendment does not achieve that aim, for the reasons that I have just given; it does not have that effect. We made that clear at the earliest practical opportunity after my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General made it clear to me.

May I say something about the hon. Gentleman's main point, which must have been drafted before he heard what I had to say? There is no question of the decision about the Bill, and therefore about ratification, being made anywhere except in this House or in the other place. After thorough discussion, this House will decide whether to pass the Bill. If there is no Bill, there is no ratification of the treaty; and that is what parliamentary sovereignty means.

Mr. David Howell (Guildford)

Is not the position that Parliament makes laws and the Executive have the authority to make treaties? Is not the position that, as long as this Parliament enacts all the legal provisions that flow from the Maastricht treaty, and as long as Parliament approves the treaty in principle, as the House did on Second Reading, the Government are free to ratify the treaty? What steps will my right hon. Friend take to get that simple point into the mind of the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham)?

Mr. Hurd

As my right hon. Friend says, ratification of the treaty is a matter for the Executive, but it is our practice, and must be our practice, not to ratify a treaty until Parliament has approved such changes in our domestic law as flow from the obligations of the treaty. That is why the Bill has been introduced before we ratify and why the Bill needs to be passed before we ratify.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Is not the simple point that where there is a political will there is a legal way? Will the Foreign Secretary now tell us, quite directly, whether, if he had not received this new and convenient legal advice, he and the Government would have been prepared to jeopardise the treaty, irrespective of the damage that would be done in Europe, rather than accept the social chapter, irrespective of what Parliament said?

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman knows, because he and I have discussed this across the Floor on several occasions and personally, of the very strong objections in terms of jobs and economic growth that every Conservative Member feels to the social chapter and its consequences for this country. The question in the form that he puts it does not arise.

Mr. William Cash (Stafford)

Does my right hon. Friend accept that the real reason for all this confusion, chaos and mess is that the Maastricht treaty is riddled with contradictions and, furthermore, that the arrangements that he has just described will not alter that position? Does he agree that the time has come to ensure that this treaty goes in the dustbin of history?

Mr. Hurd

I give a general answer to my hon. Friend's general point. The world is in substantial turmoil, both economic and political. The destruction of the treaty of Maastricht would add substantially to that turmoil. It would frustrate much of what we are trying to do, and if we were held responsible it would substantially reduce our say on matters of vital concern to us in Europe and the world.

Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield)

Is the Foreign Secretary aware that, far from reassuring the House about the Government's use of the royal prerogative, he has confirmed it? The treaty was signed by the royal prerogative. The royal prerogative—the right to control a Bill—allowed the Bill to be drafted in such a way as to make the amendments meaningless. The right hon. Gentleman says that if amendment No. 27 were made it would have no meaning. Why? Because the Bill and the long title were drafted in that way. Is it not a fact that the whole problem about Maastricht is that all laws made under Maastricht thereafter will be made by the royal prerogative? If the House passes that Bill and the treaty is ratified, the legislative competence of the Council of Ministers in Brussels will get wider and wider, and that affects the domestic rights of the electorate and of the House. That is why the British people should have a say and why Parliament should have the right to amend the Bill in a meaningful way before it is put to the House. He has made the issue much clearer in his answer today.

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Gentleman is making his usual case against the treaty of Rome and the European Communities Act 1972. Of course they affected the situation, but the constitutional position remains as I set it out to my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Mr. Howell). Ratification of the treaty is an executive matter, but the Executive does not and cannot act unless and until Parliament has approved the necessary changes in domestic law. There is nothing new about that principle, although the right hon. Gentleman may wish to change it. The treaty of Maastricht involves no new principles.

Sir Peter Hordern (Horsham)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that there was never any intention to bypass Parliament in order to ratify the treaty? Will he also show some sympathy to those opponents of the Bill who have been prepared to vote in favour of the social contract, which every one of my right hon. and hon. Friends opposes, and even deprive them of their preparedness to vote for the proposition that the moon is made of blue cheese?

Mr. Hurd

I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. The political truth is surely that there is a majority in the House —that is demonstrated over and over again—in favour of ratification of the treaty. I believe that there is a majority against the social chapter. But the voting on amendment No. 27 is not central to either issue.

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

Does the Foreign Secretary agree that, if what he said today is correct, what the Minister of State said on 20 and 27 January on advice from the Law Officers was wrong? Would it not be a good thing for Law Officers to attend the Committee?

In respect of the prerogative, while it is true that certain titles of the treaty are subject to debate in the House and are part of the Bill, does the Foreign Secretary agree that titles I, V, VI and VII are not? Would it not be possible —indeed, is it not his intention—to ratify those titles by the prerogative? If he were really concerned with parliamentary democracy, would not the way forward be to print the whole of the treaty as schedules to the Bill so that we could go through it as we go through our domestic legislation?

Mr. Hurd

On the second point—I have heard the hon. Gentleman on that theme before, in Committee—he knows that those titles deal with intergovernmental co-operation. That is one of the characteristics of the treaty of Maastricht, although its critics would not always accept that. There are no obligations here that need incorporation into domestic law, and that is why they are not included in the Bill.

There is a point in the hon. Gentleman's first question, although I should like to correct him on one factual matter. What my right hon. Friend the Minister of State said on 20 and 27 January was said on advice not from the Law Officers but from legal advisers within the Department. In introducing the amendment, the hon. Member for Copeland went astray, and that is why I linked the two in my statement.

There are lessons to be learnt from this. My conclusion, and the error for which I have expressed regret and for which I take responsibility, is that we should have put the matter to the Law Officers of the Crown earlier. If the House wishes further advice on the meaning and effect of the proposed legislation, Law Officers are willing to be present when the Committee stage of the Bill resumes.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

As we were misled on previous occasions, will the Foreign Secretary tell us which Department's legal advisers gave the legal advice? In view of his clear statement, will he agree that it is outrageous, and contrary to the standards of a Conservative Government, that Cabinet Ministers should go on television and say that those voting for the amendment would be voting to apply the social chapter to Britain? In view of the content of the protocol, can he tell us who pays for the social chapter? It seems that the protocol says that we pay only the administrative costs. Could we not clarify these matters before we proceed?

Mr. Hurd

I shall try to do so. The legal advice came from within my Department. Those who are members of the legal profession and others will accept, I believe, that what I am about to say is true. In this sort of situation there are legal considerations on either side of the argument. The question at the end of the day is not whether those views or considerations are valid but which set of considerations is the more important. My right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General, in weighing the different considerations, came to the conclusion that I have reported to the House. That answers my hon. Friend's second point.

What my hon. Friend says about costs is accurate. I am advised by the Law Officers that the United Kingdom is obliged under the social protocol to contribute to such administrative costs to the institutions. It is not clear when or whether such costs will arise. If and when they do, I am advised that the likelihood is that they will be a charge upon the Consolidated Fund, as authorised under the 1972 legislation.

Mr. Geoffrey Hoon (Ashfield)

Is not the central dilemma facing the Foreign Secretary that he states that the incorporation of the exemption is desirable but then states that the passing of amendment No. 27 would not have any effect? If I understand the matter correctly, the right hon. Gentleman has said that it is necessary for tidying-up purposes to incorporate the social protocol into United Kingdom law. Is not the reason for that to ensure that if a United Kingdom citizen took a case based on the social protocol before the European Court of Justice, he or she would be met by a defence in British law, namely, that we had already legislated by means of the exemption? Is not the right hon. Gentleman's version of the legal position now creating still further uncertainty for the future?

Mr. Hurd

The legal advice is clear, and I have already given it. As a normal course of events, we seek to make the description of these clauses comprehensive. That is desirable for the sake of tidiness and completeness. The question is whether that consideration—it is the one that the hon. Gentleman is talking about—implies or constitutes necessity. The advice of my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General is that it does not.

Sir Cranley Onslow (Woking)

Will my right Friend confirm for the benefit of any hon. Member who may have thought that by voting for amendment No. 27 he or she could effectively destroy the Maastricht treaty that that fox has now been shot?

Mr. Hurd

The effect of the amendment would not be negligible. On that score the hon. Member for Ashfield (Mr. Hoon) was wrong. It would be that the protocol would not be incorporated in domestic law. It would not have any wider reach than that.

Mr. Peter Shore (Bethnal Green and Stepney)

Is not this entire business a shambles and a farce that sheds great discredit upon Foreign Office Ministers and the Law Officers? The House is entitled to have proper and up-to-date legal advice. That is something for which we have asked and which we have been denied on several occasions during our consideration of the Bill.

What is the consequence of what the Foreign Secretary has discovered? A few days ago he gave the clear impression during an interview on the radio that there would be serious trouble if amendment No. 27 was agreed to. He gave the impression that he was prepared to use the prerogative power to prevent that. The storm that followed has led the right hon. Gentleman to have an emergency meeting with the Law Officers and others. The fifth cavalry has come to the rescue with a new version of the meaning that would follow from the passage of amendment No. 27. Are we not in the most ridiculous position of having, late in the day, one Law Officer's explanation when we could easily get other explanations at later stages of the Bill?

Mr. Hurd

The right hon. Gentleman is not being fair. I shall send him the transcript of what I said in the broadcast. Although I was tempted to do so, I deliberately and specifically did not enter into the legal thicket because I had not received my right hon. and learned Friend's advice. I spoke on matters of substance, which I have repeated today. I stated our objections to the social chapter and our intention to ratify the treaty as we signed it. It would not have been right to have given the particulars of my right hon. and learned Friend's advice to any of the media before informing the House today, which we have done. I asked my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General for his advice substantially before last week.

Mr. Hugh Dykes (Harrow, East)

I thank my right hon. Friend for again reiterating the primordial sovereignty of the House in making such decisions. In relation to the question of the my hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Cash), who suggested that the Maastricht treaty should be consigned to the dustbin of history, will my right hon. Friend remind the House that 10 countries have ratified the treaty and that Denmark is about to do so with a significant majority? Should not the House proceed with the Bill as quickly as possible?

Mr. Hurd

I agree that that is the position, and that it is for this House to decide such matters. We have made a mistake, which I have acknowledged. However, the Labour party has also made a mistake in tabling an amendment that it supposed would put us in the predicament that has been described. It does not.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

The Foreign Secretary said that the present legal opinion is that the protocol on the social chapter does not create rights or impose obligations on the United Kingdom and its domestic law, and that therefore it does not have to be incorporated into domestic law. Surely there must be other articles, protocols and declarations of the Maastricht treaty which are in exactly the same position. Will the right hon. Gentleman publish a list of those in Hansard so that we may know what they are? In particular, will he confirm that all articles and so on leading to stage 3 of economic and monetary union are in exactly that category?

Mr. Hurd

The Committee will come to those matters point by point. I said—and the right hon. Gentleman was listening—that there are two sorts of amendment to the Bill. The Government have, of necessity, to defeat one sort if we are to ratify the treaty, because they affect the treaty. The other sort does not affect the treaty, but we may still wish to resist such amendments on grounds that are discussed and debated in the House. I gave as an example the composition of the Committee of the Regions. On the question of stage 3, the right hon. Gentleman knows that the protocol involved is quite different and, unless it is accepted and incorporated, the opt-out negotiated by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister would not have effect and the obligations of stage 3 would be imposed upon us. That protocol is in a different position from that pertaining to amendment No. 27.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, while the Opposition are playing ducks and drakes with the Bill, large and small businesses throughout the country are having to make commercial judgments that will affect both employment opportunities and the prosperity of the United Kingdom? Businesses wishing to come to this country to invest are also affected. My right hon. Friend's announcement today will be most welcome to the business sector.

Mr. Hurd

There is a strong feeling that we need to get on with the Bill. The House has quite rightly been given —indeed, it has taken—substantial time to consider the Bill. At the end of a very detailed and long consideration the House will make a decision on Third Reading whether to pass the Bill and thus enable the Government to ratify the treaty. It is very much in the national interest that that should happen.

Mrs. Margaret Ewing (Moray)

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that many of the opponents of closer European union argue very much about the democratic deficit between the institutions of Europe and this place? Does he not accept that his Government have today exposed a democratic deficit between the Executive and the legislature? Even if we voted in favour of the principle of the social chapter, the Government would still say no. Does not that mean that the concept of parliamentary sovereignty has been undermined once and for all? Would it not be better, therefore, to accept the Scottish constitutional legal position and to put the whole issue to the people in a referendum, with the option of including the social chapter?

Mr. Hurd

The Committee may have an opportunity to consider the hon. Lady's suggestion before long. That is another example of a matter that must be debated in its own terms. The hon. Lady's premise is wrong, however: if carried, amendment No. 27 would not impose the social chapter on the country, and she does the cause of democracy and orderly debate no good by claiming that it would.

Mr. Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills)

In view of the various strands that the Foreign Secretary seems to have identified in terms of legal advice, how can we be certain of any of the legal advice given to the Government in respect of any of the clauses and other provisions that we have discussed?

Mr. Hurd

That question has already been asked, and I have already answered it. I have mentioned the willingness of Law Officers to be present in Committee to answer points of legal importance that are addressed to them.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Why does not the Foreign Secretary admit that, in the course of the past few days, the Government have been scared in losing a very important vote inside Parliament, which has debated the Bill line by line and clause by clause? Over the years, most of us have been told that, when a Government debating an issue are defeated on an amendment, they must accept it in principle. If the amendment has not been worded correctly, it is the Government's job to ensure that it is.

The Foreign Secretary is now saying, "We do not like the idea of losing in Parliament, so we are going to move the goalposts and rig the system. We are going to tell the British people that Parliament does not matter as far as we are concerned, and that we are going to go to higher authorities"—a gang of lawyers who can give the Government advice, provided that they have enough money to hand out. The whole thing stinks to high heaven.

Mr. Hurd

The hon. Gentleman knows better than that. His is artificial indignation, as the whole House can tell. He knows what the amendment says and what it does not say. He knows that, if the amendment is carried, it will not impose the social chapter on this country; and he knows that, at the end of the day—although he will be in the minority—it will be for the House to decide whether to approve the Bill and ratify the treaty. That is the essence of parliamentary sovereignty.

In this country, we have a more detailed system of examination. By the time that we reach Third Reading, the House—or, at any rate, those who, like the hon. Gentleman, are particularly interested—will have spent day after day weighing up the matter. Ultimately, however, Parliament will decide—not the royal prerogative, the Executive or the lawyers.

Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the country's European and social policy should be determined on sound principles such as those employed by Baroness Thatcher when she introduced the Single European Act—the Government have followed them ever since—rather than on technical manoeuvring of the kind employed by the Opposition and a few little Englanders on the Conservative Benches?

Mr. Hurd

I agree. We accept that there is a social dimension to the life of the Community, and we have a better record than most in going along with what has already been agreed. We believe, however, that the extension of that dimension that is implied in the social chapter is harmful—or, rather, would be harmful—to growth and jobs in this country. That is why we shall continue with our policy of resisting it.

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Is the Secretary of State aware that a very worrying air of incompetence is emanating from the Treasury Bench over this whole affair? Does he agree that that incompetence is causing a very worrying threat to the passage of the Bill and the ratification of the treaty, something about which some of us, who have spent many hours on the Bill, feel very concerned? In addition, some of us, who have spent a lot of time on the clauses, and in particular on amendment No. 27, feel very annoyed that we seem to have been wasting our time because of the Government's inability to get their act together. Why were not the Law Officers called in to make a statement to the House before now?

Mr. Hurd

This debate arises not from a Government amendment but from one tabled by the official Opposition, on a basis clearly set out by the hon. Member for Copeland (Dr. Cunningham) at the beginning but which has proved to be, to use the hon. Gentleman's phrase, incompetent. I am not resiling from the regret that I have already expressed; I am willing to repeat it. I am also willing to repeat my wish that the Law Officers had been invoked earlier. But that is the position, and the position is now clear.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher)

Will my right hon. Friend note that those who asked for legal advice, having got it, do not like it? That is because they were hoping to enforce the social chapter on this country through this initiative—if you like, through the back Delors. Can my right hon. Friend say whether the Opposition will now withdraw it? Many of those who put their names to this effort, particularly those in the Labour party and the Liberal party, claim to be positive Europeans, whereas those on this side of the House who argued for the amendment are anti-Community through and through.

Mr. Hurd

My hon. Friend makes a fair summary of the political points.

Dr. Cunningham

We tabled amendment No. 27 10 months ago. For 10 months, the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State for the Environment, the Secretary of State for Employment, the Minister of State—the right hon. Member for Watford (Mr. Garel-Jones)—and the Home Secretary—indeed, almost every member of the Cabinet—accepted our interpretation of the amendment, yet suddenly, when the Government apparently face defeat after so many Ministers so frequently have been so wrong, a new legal opinion appears. Is not that very convenient for the right hon. Gentleman? Outside this House, however, people will conclude yet again that, when this Government govern, expediency is the rule of the day and priniple is nowhere to be seen.

Mr. Hurd

The hon Gentleman is understandably nettled because the amendment that he tabled is—and I use the phrase in its legal sense—incompetent. I have explained the background and the sequence of events. I have also explained that, some time ago, but after 27 January, it seemed to me to be necessary to ask for the advice of the Law Officers. That has recently arrived and I have immediately communicated it to the House. The result of that advice is perfectly clear: that the amendment, if carried, would prevent the incorporation of the protocol in the domestic legislation of the House, and that would be its full scope.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. At the beginning of the statement you drew a distinction between the proceedings in a Committee of the whole House and the proceedings of the House. Obviously the House appreciated your advice. While it is perfectly true that the matter that we have been discussing in the House is being considered in a Committee of the whole House, would you care to reflect upon the fact that the House, in another shape, has been given conflicting advice? In those circumstances, I suggest that there is a need for the Attorney-General, as the senior Law Officer, to come before the House, not the Committee, and make a statement.

I would simply say in passing, and in conclusion, that this is a matter of significant importance to Parliament, to our rights and to our sovereignty. I do not believe that it is sufficient simply to say, as may well be said, that there will be a statement in Committee. This is a matter for the whole House sitting as a House, and not as a Committee. I invite you, Madam Speaker, to reflect on that with the advice of the Clerks. We should, at the first opportunity, have a statement from the Attorney-General.

Madam Speaker

As the House knows, and as the hon. Gentleman appreciates, that is not a point of order for the Chair. I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern. All I can say to the House is that the Treasury Bench has heard the hon. Gentleman's request. We must leave it at that for the time being.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Order. There can be no further points of order on that matter because I have just dealt with it. If there are different points of order, of course I must take them.

Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

On a different point of order, although on a similar argument, there is a Scottish situation—

Madam Speaker

Order. Will the hon. Gentleman resume his seat? What he is saying is that his point of order is not a point of order for the Chair.

Mr. Salmond

It is a point of order for the Chair.

Madam Speaker

If it is a point of order for the Chair, I will hear the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Salmond

I know that you, Madam Speaker, are anxious to protect the rights of Scottish Members and will be aware of the Scottish aspect, which the Government should also hear.

Madam Speaker

I am sorry?

Mr. Salmond

There are different Law Officers for Scotland.

Madam Speaker

Of course. I recognise that and that is why I was so concerned to ensure that a member of the Scottish National party was called during today's statement.

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