HC Deb 02 February 1994 vol 236 cc875-6
4. Mr. Thomason

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs when the Council of Ministers last discussed subsidiarity; and if he will make a statement.

Mr. Hurd

The Council last discussed subsidiarity on 6 December last year, in preparation for the Brussels summit. The Commission presented a subsidiarity report to the Council which would affect some 25 per cent. of EC legislation. Some laws will be repealed completely, others replaced by simpler measures. The Commission's report also agreed with 17 of the 24 items on the Anglo-French subsidiarity list, including the bathing and drinking, water directives and directives regulating professional qualifications. The European Council called for the Commission to bring forward early proposals for the implementation of the report and for swift action. We welcome that.

Mr. Thomason

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the policy of subsidiarity must be pursued with utmost vigour, to ensure that all European Governments are committed to devolving decision making to national level wherever appropriate? Is that not in contrast to the policy of the Opposition, who appear to be committed to ensuring that decision making is passed to European institutions?

Mr. Hurd

I agree. We shall hear more on that theme in the coming months from all my right hon. and hon. Friends. There is plenty of work still to be done, but it is interesting that the number of Commission proposals for new legislation has dropped rapidly, from more than 140 in 1991 to about 70 last year—that is, it halved.

Mr. Shore

Does the right hon. Gentleman recall the statements made by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor after that Brussels summit, to the effect that subsidiarity was to be applied to the expensive directives on bathing water and water quality? Is he aware that since then, a Member of the European Parliament—Mr. Collins—has corresponded with the Chairman of the Commission, and that Mr. Delors stated emphatically that there is no such agreement about the bathing water and water quality directives. Who is right?

Mr. Hurd

It may be that the right hon. Gentleman and others are confused. After the report, the Commission undertook to bring forward proposals to revise existing directives on drinking water, bathing water, surface water quality, fresh water management and ground water. It did not refer to the urban waste water directive, and I do not believe that anyone has claimed that there are plans to replace that. There may be understandable confusion between those different measures in the correspondence to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

Mr. Ian Taylor

Does my right hon. Friend accept that, much as we may wish a continuing decrease in the intrusiveness of the Commission's decisions in terms of regulations, on occasions—for example, when it opposes protectionism and favours competition—it acts in this country's interests? Is the key not to attack the Commission but to ensure that its competencies are clearly defined, and to keep it out of the hands, and free of the influence, of socialists in the European Parliament?

Mr. Hurd

Exactly—my hon. Friend puts it well. Much Community legislation is the result of pressure from British firms in respect of the single market and from British groups concerned with the environment. That is why subsidiarity is not entirely a straightforward concept. We must continue to winnow it out and to encourage the Commission to dispense with the unnecessary, but with a will to go further down the road that has been started. That will be an issue in the next few months and in the elections.