HL Deb 14 March 1979 vol 399 cc655-64

3.43 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat a Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. The Statement is as follows:

"Mr. Speaker, I will with permission report to the House on the meeting of the European Council in Paris which I attended with my right honourable friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary on 12th and 13th March.

"The Council's decisions were focused mainly on European aspects of such issues as economic development, the problem of unemployment, energy, the future of the Common Agriculture Policy and the proper use of the Community's resources.

"As regards unemployment and social policy it is the Council's view that quite apart from the beneficial effects which would result from faster economic growth, specific measures are also needed to reduce unemployment. Ministers of Labour and Social Affairs were asked to work closely with trade unions and employers in further co-ordinated action in such matters as youth employment and training schemes, limitation of overtime, vocational training for women, social measures to assist workers in industries in difficulty, such as iron and steel, earlier retirement and work-sharing. They were asked to report on these matters to the next Council meeting.

"On energy supplies and use, the Council adopted the objective of a reduction in 1979 Community oil consumption of about 25 million tonnes; that is about 5 per cent. below present forecasts, by such methods as encouraging conservation, making the best use of hydro-carbon and coal reserves and strengthening production of electricity from nuclear sources whenever conditions permit.

"Arising from a report by the Commission I asked that Finance Ministers should examine the proposition that economic convergence between member States would be strengthened if their net contributions to the budget were more closely related to some objective criteria. In this connection Heads of Government asked Ministers of Finance to examine in depth how all the policies of the Community, taken as a whole, could be developed so as to make a greater contribution to achieving economic convergence; and to make a report to the next Council.

"These discussions on energy, employment and the social situation in the Community led me to put forward the view that the Community needed to make a reassessment of its own social and economic priorities, and that there was room for considerable improvement in the way the Community allocates its expenditure, especially as this expenditure will, within the next few years, reach the limit of the resources available to the Community. This called for speedy action to reduce wasteful and unnecessary expenditure on accumulating food surpluses through agricultural aid which can then only be disposed of at considerable loss and which disturb our trade relations with other countries.

"I urged the Community in the interest of a healthy development to correct its priorities and, while ensuring a healthy agriculture, to devote more attention and resources to the acute problems which have shown themselves in parts of Europen industry and in the social decline of the centres of some European cities.

"The subsequent discussion on the Common Agricultural Policy was the most realistic that I have taken part in. Heads of Government showed a welcome recognition that the existence of surpluses and the costs involved could not be justified. It was agreed that the existence of these market imbalances in agriculture required, in the wording used at such meetings, a prices policy appropriate to this situation'. I made it clear that for the United Kingdom this wording meant that we should not agree to increases in common prices for products in surplus at forthcoming meetings of Agricultural Ministers.

"In summary, I can report to the House that the validity of the arguments advanced by British Ministers on some of these issues, over a long period, is being increasingly recognised. The next stop will be for all member States to take the necessary action."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for repeating the Statement of the Prime Minister in another place. Certainly we can all agree that the objective is faster economic growth and a reduction in unemployment. However, that said, I hope that the Government are not trying to pretend in the Statement that there has been very much concrete achievement in the past five years. When looking at the list of proposed considerations, has the noble Lord noticed that there seem to be two rather glaring omissions from all the talk about coordinated action in such matters as youth employment, training schemes, limitation of overtime, vocational training for women, et cetera? There is no mention of the unfettering of employers and enhancing the effective working of the profit motive. Should not they have been in the list?

As regards the energy statements, we had a lengthy debate in this House not very long ago. Again, it is fine to find these exhortations, but the problem with all these energy objectives is exactly what one does in a concrete way to achieve a 5 per cent. reduction. I heard a number of noble Lords applauding the reference to "objective criteria", but I wonder whether the noble Lord could tell us a little more about exactly what is meant by "objective criteria" in the budgetary connection? Certainly we can agree with the stated aspiration of improving the way in which the Community allocates its expenditure.

I am delighted that the Prime Minister says that the discussions of the Common Agricultural Policy were realistic. I should jolly well hope they were realistic! There is not much point in having them unless they are. However, it was five years ago that the Prime Minister reported that: Long and arduous negotiations followed by a meeting of the Heads of all the Governments produced a satisfactory result: Britain will pay less". So far as I can see, the main satisfactory result appears to have been more well-intentioned verbiage, because the Prime Minister now concludes by saying: I can report to the House that the validity of the arguments advanced by British Ministers on some of these issues, over a long period, is being increasingly recognised". Is that all he has achieved so far?

3.51 p.m.


My Lords, we, on these Benches, naturally welcome what was apparently a constructive exchange of views on unemployment, social policy, energy and convergence. We can only trust—I fear, without too much confidence —that there will shortly be concrete results. I hope that I am also right in believing that the Prime Minister's insistence on some change in the Common Agricultural Policy, whereby immensely and unnecessarily large sums are paid to farmers, resulting in unsaleable surpluses of agricultural goods, will be welcomed by everyone in this country, regardless of party. Surely it also reflects a sentiment which, I believe I am correctly informed, is increasingly shared by consumers in all the Community countries. On the other hand, will not the Government agree that it would be easier, to say the least, to obtain the necessary consent of our partners to some reform of the CAP if the Government were to adopt a rather less intensively nationalistic approach to such problems as fisheries, or even if they were prepared to go into the European Monetary System and not insist—as they do in so many other cases—on being the odd man out?

Finally, referring to what I think the Prime Minister called the "unbearable burden" that has been placed by the CAP on the taxpayer, presumably we must recall that, if the British taxpayer was relieved of that burden, he would still have to fork out at least —1,000 million a year in the form of subsidies to our own farmers. Therefore, we can perhaps exaggerate that factor.

3.53 p.m.


My Lords, I think that I shall deal with the questions asked by the Liberal spokesman first. As always, from the Liberal Benches there is a much more constructive approach than from the Opposition Front Bench, and I shall deal with it very quickly. I welcome the positive line that has been taken by a very distinguished Liberal who knows Europe so well because of his former professional occupation. I agree with the noble Lord about many of the points he raised.

I should now like to deal with the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal. I am amazed that he would argue about concrete achievements over a period of five years. For a long period I was an agriculture Minister in Europe and I believe that I achieved much for this country: for instance, the beef premium; access for New Zealand; when the present Prime Minister was Foreign Secretary he negotiated in principle access for 1.4 million tonnes of sugar from the Commonwealth. I and my colleagues achieved access and liberalisation of trade; the Lomé Convention, which is an outstanding achievement, was partly set up through Commissioner Cheysson and the present Minister of Overseas Development, Judith Hart. I am amazed at the negative approach of the noble Lord.

I am not ashamed of what we have achieved in this period. Of course, there are problems with the CAP. When I attended my first Council meeting in Brussels I argued that our price mechanisms must recognise that there are structural surpluses and that we must overcome them. When the noble Lord chides Ministers on matters like that, I am prepared to put my record down, to show that what the Tories are now saying is absolutely out of touch. After all, they were in Office for a period before we came to power, and they did not achieve very much. Therefore, I hope that noble Lords will look carefully at this Statement and will appreciate what I say.


My Lords, is the Minister aware that we appreciate what has been said to the Council of Ministers this week? We hope that, having gone to the barricades on the CAP, the Prime Minister will now use the power of veto to see where that will take us. If the Prime Minister decides at the forthcoming Election to fight to bring us out of the Common Market and to take us away from the economic madness of this Community, is he aware that he will have the blessing of all the working people of the British Isles?


My Lords, I have noted the advice given by my noble friend. I cannot really accept it. I believe that whether or not we like it, we are in the Community. Therefore, we must make it work. I shall say no more than that. I greatly respect my noble friend's views —I used to share them once—but the reality which I saw in Europe was that we are there.


My Lords, I should like to ask my noble friend the Leader of the House this question: Does he gather from the statement made by the Opposition spokesman that we should now come out of Europe?—because judging by what the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal said, we should.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Strathcona and Mount Royal, will answer for himself and his Party. I do not think that he made even a constructive approach to European matters. In other words, I believe that they are bad Europeans.


My Lords, is my noble friend aware that all these problems existed before we joined these economic cowboys in Europe? The omniscience and philosophical ability on the Benches opposite showed no aptitude when we were rushed into joining the Common Market without there being one alteration to the Bill—without the changing of a comma or a dot as regards Europe's economic and monetary system.


My Lords, I endorse everything which my noble friend has said because, as he knows, I took part in all those discussions.


My Lords, I have been slightly provoked. This Statement is about a great many other things than the Common Agricultural Policy, which we all agree must be renegotiated. I am at one with the noble Lord about that. The noble Lord says that the Government have made considerable progress. He knows more about this than I do; that I freely accept. The point is that the Government appear to be claiming exactly what they claimed five years ago. They still say that they are making progress; Mr. Callaghan frankly thumped the table the other day and said that he was very dissatisfied. Yet five years ago he said that he had had a successful renegotiation. To begin with, that seems to me to be an inconsistent position. My suspicion is that two of his right honourable friends, both Ministers in the other place—Mr. Benn and Mr. Silkin—have expended a great deal of the goodwill and capital that existed towards this country in Europe, and that we are now paying the price of having made our partners in Europe intransigent as a result of the unco-operative attitudes that we have taken. I believe that this side is much more well disposed towards Europe than is the other side, and I am not even including the noble Lord on the other side in saying so.


My Lords, may I say that I hope the noble Lord will look at what is in the Statement. It is a much bigger Statement. It deals also with world trade, Japan and its impact. This is something much wider. I do not think he does himself any service to single out Ministers the way he does. Our Ministers go to Europe and work very hard. This is a report of what has happened over a long period. It is a positive document which reflects the Community and not just Britain. When he is criticising he is really partly criticising the Community as well, the other countries. I hope we shall have none of that. Could we now proceed?


My Lords, may I say one word in answer to the noble Lord on the Opposition Front Bench? Would not the noble Lord agree that by smashing the original Council of Europe, which was done by a Conservative Government, and then refusing to take any part in the negotiations which led to the EEC, we ourselves are primarily responsible for the mess we are in?


My Lords, I am glad that my noble friend Lord Boothby reminds—I hope still—his noble friends—

A Noble Lord

He is not your noble friend.


Of course he is. He was a very distinguished European on the Council of Europe. I was there and I heard his speeches. He was a great defender of the fishing industry and of Europe. I agree with him that the Council of Europe could have paved the way for the events that should have happened, but his own party let him down.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord one question that I am sure must worry quite a number of us in this House. Is he aware that the House enormously appreciates the reports that are made as a result of these Council meetings but, at the same time, we are very often left with the impression that it is what one might call an ex parte report? I do not say that in any derogatory sense. It is almost inevitable. Would it not be possible to have if not a neutral report at any rate a consensus report issued by the Council itself alongside the reports which Ministers make, the Prime Minister makes, of the Council proceedings themselves?


My Lords, the noble Lord is an old politician. He knows that a Government must make statements about their attitude in Europe. We have a very fine scrutiny committee, the European Committee of the House, which examines European policy. But a Government must make their position plain and I, as a member of that Government, must defend it. After all, the Tories do it in opposition. I hope they will be in opposition for a long time and get more experience of it, but that is another matter. All I say is that I believe it is right that I should be partisan. I do not apologise for that. I defend my Government.


My Lords, the noble Lord has entirely missed the point.

Several noble Lords



My Lords, if the noble Lord misrepresents what I said, surely I am entitled to make a point here. I acknowledge fully the value of the reports that are made. What I was asking was that in addition there should be a general statement made by the Council of Ministers after each meeting.


My Lords, that is another matter. I could agree with that. On the other hand, inevitably if you make a statement on Government policy, as indeed the previous Administration did and I do not complain about that, there is bound to be some partisan byplay. That is why we are here in a democratic community. I do not complain of the noble Lord revealing the soul of the Tory party in its failure to do certain things. I enjoy it.

Baroness ELLES

My Lords, would the noble Lord allow me just one point?


My Lords, I think we should go on.

Baroness ELLES

My Lords, it was only to clarify the question put by my noble friend, because he is making an important point. He understands that the Government will make their points, and this is clear from their attitude, but what he is asking, and rightly, is that the Council as such, when they have had a meeting, should issue a communiqué of the conclusions of that meeting.


My Lords, the Community does precisely that.


My Lords, can the noble Lord—


No, my Lords. I hope that noble Lords will appreciate that we are having a major debate. I regret having to intervene in that debate because education is so important. I hope we can proceed