HL Deb 12 June 1961 vol 232 cc1-6

2.36 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government to what extent questions of Britain's accession to the European Economic Community were discussed at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference, and what continuing machinery has been established for consultation with the Commonwealth members on these questions.]

THE EARL OF LISTOWEL had also given Notice of the following Question:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether discussions are now proceeding or are contemplated with other Commonwealth countries concerning their association with the Common Market as a basis for deciding whether the Government enter negotiations with a view to joining it.


My Lords, I would wish, by permission of the House, to answer this Question and that of the noble Earl, Lord Listowel, together. Noble Lords will have seen from the communiqué issued after the meeting that the questions referred to were not among the specific problems upon which the Commonwealth Prime Ministers concentrated their attention. The opportunity was nevertheless taken of the presence of the Prime Ministers in London to discuss these questions with those who wished to do so. As regards machinery, your Lordships will be aware that there is fully developed machinery for economic consultation in the Commonwealth. The recent meeting of senior economic officials in London is an example. This is being fully used, as well as the normal channels of communication. The particular suggestion of association with the Common Market might present difficulties for some Commonwealth countries. Nevertheless, this question could of course come up in the course of consultation. I hope your Lordships will not press me on this point as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister will be making a statement tomorrow in another place.


My Lords, of course I have no wish to press the noble Viscount in the circumstances, but perhaps he will not mind my asking some exploratory questions. In the first place, may I ask him whether he is aware that any such Conference with regard to the Common Market could not be confined to economic questions, for political questions of great importance are raised as well? What strikes me most of all is that you cannot avoid dealing at some time or other with whether it affects British sovereignty; and that affects every one of the Dominions and other countries in the Commonwealth. May I also ask him whether he has seen that the Premier of Canada has over the week-end specifically asked for a Conference of Commonwealth Prime Ministers before anything further is done about it? I should like to ask those two questions first.


My Lords, the channels which I referred to in my original Answer would, of course, be amply adequate to discuss political as well as economic questions, and I cannot conceive of any subject which raises questions as obviously political as this. I have, of course, seen in the Press the Canadian Prime Minister's reported utterance, but your Lordships will not expect me to comment upon it this afternoon.


My Lords, could I ask the noble Viscount, further, whether he is aware that there is a considerable feeling in large sections of the community that they have no real information yet upon which to go; that they are wondering what is taking place between individual Ministers visiting Commonwealth countries, or vice versa; and that the country is still in great dubiety about the whole thing? This is perhaps the most important and far-reaching general question of its kind that has been raised in this country in decades. May I therefore ask whether it is not first of all necessary to have a Conference of Premiers of the Commonwealth, at which they could, first, exchange views all the way round; and secondly, issue a notice to the public here, to include the economic figures and facts, and, at the same time, the expectations?


My Lords, perhaps the noble Viscount will see that this is exactly the sort of question which hoped might await my right honourable friend's statement to-morrow.


My Lords, might I ask the Leader of the House this question, without in any way wishing to press him, in view of the Prime Minister's forthcoming statement? Would he say whether this House will have an opportunity at an early date—for instance, on the Motion set down by the noble Lord, Lord Casey—to discuss in greater detail than can be done by question and answer the grave implications which must arise from any statement such as we can expect from the Prime Minister to-morrow?


My Lords, I do not know that I must start by assuming that any statement by my right honourable friend will have grave implications. Obviously, any debate which this House desires to arrange can be arranged in the ordinary way. If, after my right honourable friend's statement, my noble friend wishes to discuss, either on the Motion he has referred to or in some other way, the implications of this question, he certainly can do so.


Must not any statement on this big issue be grave?


A great number of statements have been made on this issue already, some of which are the reverse of grave.


Not from the Prime Minister.


My Lords, the noble and learned Viscount was good enough to answer my Question, too, and perhaps I may be allowed to put one or two supplementaries. In the first place, may I ask the noble and learned Viscount the rather obvious question: as he has been obliged to "stonewall" some of the questions put to him this afternoon, may we have the Prime Minister's statement in this House simultaneously with the making of that statement in another place to-morrow afternoon? That is my first question.

My next is: Does he not agree that an issue of this constitutional importance to the Commonwealth should involve machinery of consultation above and beyond what is usually employed? May I further ask the noble Viscount whether, if he does agree, he would not also agree that something should be done rather on the lines of what we did when India stayed in the Commonwealth as a Republic? That involved, as the noble Viscount will remember (and I should like to ask him if he will tell us at any rate later on, if he cannot say now, whether he thinks it would be appropriate in this case) senior Ministers' visiting the Commonwealth countries for an exchange of views on the matter. Subsequent to that, there should at least be a special Prime Ministers' Conference, as in the case of India becoming a Republic in the Commonwealth, so that, before this 'matter receives a final decision, all the views of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers can be formulated and made known at the Conference.


My Lords, as regards the first part of the noble Earl's supplementary question, it certainly would seem to me to be reasonable that the statement should be repeated here. I think the House will recognise that it has been my unvarying practice to arrange, wherever possible, for any statements to be made in both Houses. I will convey what the noble Earl says to my right honourable friend, though I anticipate no difficulty about that. With regard to the second part of his supplementary, I might say that these are all questions which must be taken into consideration, along with other suggestions which are being made for consultation.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount whether he is aware of the deep concern in public opinion, not only in this country but throughout the Commonwealth, and in view of the statement that the Prime Minister is going to make to-morrow, would he represent the great desire that there should be a definite and specific assurance by the Government that no definitive decision will be taken to enter the Common Market prior to the holding of a Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference?


My Lords, of course I will convey what the noble Lord says to my right honourable friend, but I think he is already very well aware of the various movements in public opinion.


My Lords, as the noble Viscount does not wish your Lordships to press this matter I will not press him; but may I ask him whether he is aware that this matter has been raised by means of questions from the Liberal Benches on many occasions for at least a year, and is now, rather flatteringly, taken up by Her Majesty's Opposition in exactly the same form? While he has not been able so far to give us a very definite reply, would he not agree that again this is one of those matters which "brooks no delay"?


My Lords, I do not know about matters which "brook no delay", but I am perfectly sure the House would not wish me to do other than to say we are sure that all Parties are equally interested in this important question.

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