HC Deb 14 July 1976 vol 915 cc651-61
The Prime Minister (Mr. James Callaghan)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I shall make a statement on the meeting of the European Council which I attended in Brussels with my right hon. Friend the Foreign and Commonwealth Secretary on 12th to 13th July. The meeting was a constructive one and progress was made on a number of issues of importance to the United Kingdom and to the Community.

The Council reached agreement on the total number of seats in a directly elected European Assembly and their distribution between member States. The solution to which I formally assented yesterday gives the United Kingdom 81 seats in an Assembly of 410. No solution is ideal, but this outcome provides a reasonable balance between the need to have sufficient numbers to retain a manageable constituency relationship and the need not to inflate the Assembly to excessive proportions. The overall size is within the range proposed by the Select Committee and the distribution of seats among countries takes due account of the principles they put forward.

I also explained that Her Majesty's Government would, for the time being, keep open the possibility that the United Kingdom might continue to nominate representatives in 1978, should it prove impossible to hold elections here by that time. The Danish Prime Minister similarly reiterated his Government's position on holding elections in Denmark. The European Council entrusted to Foreign Ministers the task of settling a number of outstanding issues before the end of July.

At my proposal, there was also a discussion of the fisheries problem. I drew the attention of the Heads of Government to the trend towards increasing fishing limits to 200 miles and the need for the Community urgently to tackle the problem of protecting the legitimate interests of Community fishermen, in view of the prospect that an increased number of outside fishermen might wish to fish in the potential waters of member States. It was agreed that the Foreign Affairs Council should consider the problem urgently at its next meeting on 19th–20th July with a view to making a declaration of intent on the extension of Community fishing limits to 200 miles. My right hon. Friend and I emphasised to our colleagues the great importance which Her Majesty's Government attaches to the revision of the common fisheries policy to meet adequately and permanently the needs of our fishermen.

We had a valuable discussion on the problem of international terrorism and issued a declaration condemning it in the strongest terms and stating the intention of all Community Governments to take resolute steps against hijacking, the taking of hostages and other acts of terrorism. The member States agreed to prosecute or extradite to other member States those who engaged in the taking of hostages. Further discussion of this question will be pursued by the appropriate Ministers from each country.

The Heads of Government welcomed Her Majesty's Government's intention to nominate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary to be a member of the European Commission from 1st January next year. They made clear their intention in due course to support his appointment as President of the Commission under the procedure laid down in the Treaty.

We exchanged views on various aspects of the international economic situation. Several Heads of Government expressed the view that Budget deficits are too high and that there is a danger of growing inflation. I also argued that in certain States the high level of unemployment must be taken into account in formulating economic policy, especially in regard to young people. There was a general acceptance of this approach.

The President of the Council reported on the work which Foreign Ministers are doing on the Tindemans Report. We agreed that this work should continue, and that a further report should be made to the next meeting of the European Council later in the year.

I am placing in the Library of the House copies of the statements agreed by the European Council on direct elections, fisheries, the Tindemans Report and international terrorism.

Mrs. Thatcher

Is the Prime Minister aware that we welcome his statement, particularly that part of it which deals with the determination of Community Governments to deal with international terrorism?

May I put to the Prime Minister four specific points on the rest of the statement? The first concerns the 81 seats allocated to the United Kingdom in the Assembly. Will he assure the House that there has been no undertaking about the distribution of those seats among the four component parts of the United Kingdom, that that is solely a matter for the United Kingdom Parliament, and that we shall be entirely unfettered in our decision?

Secondly, will he give an undertaking to introduce legislation as soon as possible so that the boundaries of those seats become a matter for the Boundary Commission to decide and so that they can decide the matter in the usual way after full representations have been made by local people? These are important elections and we must get the boundaries question absolutely right.

Thirdly, on the subject of fishing, when may we expect to hear about the new arrangements that will apply to Member States within the 200-mile limit? The Prime Minister will be aware that this is causing considerable concern, and some of us feel that the Government have not prosecuted this question as energetically as they might in the interests of our fishermen.

Finally, may I, if it is not premature, congratulate the Home Secretary, wish him well in his post, and ask the Prime Minister whether he intends to continue the custom of appointing one Commissioner from the Government side and one from the Opposition side?

The Prime Minister

On the subject of the 81 seats, I gave no undertaking about distribution at all. The matter was raised by the Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland, who, in suggesting that he would agree to a higher number, intimated that he would like to see a third seat in Northern Ireland as opposed to the two seats which they might expect as an electoral quotient. But I made it clear that this was a matter for the United Kingdom and for nobody else. I thought I should make it clear that the matter was raised in that sense but that no undertaking was given.

Clearly, this is a matter for the House, and Her Majesty's Government will put forward proposals in due course. We are totally unfettered about distribution, although I assume that we shall want to discuss the matter and to lay down quotients for individual parts of the United Kingdom, if that is what we wish to do, and to allow boundaries to be fixed by the Boundary Commission in due course. I take note of what the right hon. Lady said. The Government have not yet considered the point about the place of the Boundary Commission, but we shall come forward with proposals in due course, and legislation will have to follow at a later date.

On the subject of fishing limits, I would have welcomed a statement yesterday from the Heads of Government. But the view was expressed that the Foreign Ministers will be considering this matter at their meeting from 19th to 20th July. I wish to make it clear that I can see no reason why the Foreign Ministers at their meeting should not issue a simple, straightforward statement in exactly the way in which we put it forward, amended if they wish to do so in some form but not amending the substance. We intend to follow up the matter.

As for the nomination of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I believe that his adherence to the idea of Europe has been with him in good times and in bad and that he has stuck steadfastly to it. I am sure that he will serve the cause of Europe in a way that will be of value to the people of Europe.

As for the custom mentioned by the right hon. Lady the Leader of the Opposition, I am not sure what precedents exist for her suggestion, but I shall be happy to talk to her about the matter.

Mr. Thorpe

Although the Home Secretary will be widely missed in many quarters, we should like to congratulate him on his appointment. We wish to see him soon confirmed in his position as President of the Commission.

What are the insuperable difficulties that make it necessary for us to continue nominations in 1978? Since the Prime Minister showed a proper regard at the Council of Ministers for the number of seats allocated to this country—namely that they should bear some proportion to our population within the Nine—will he confirm that his colleagues placed equal emphasis on the fact that the seats which we return should likewise fairly reflect all shades of opinion in this country? Could it be that what is for him an unusual problem has been one reason for the delay?

The Prime Minister

There are no insuperable difficulties, as far as know, about 1978. The only difficulty is likely to be the House of Commons. I never presume with the House of Commons. We shall put forward legislation in due course which we hope will receive the assent of the House. Everyone in the House is an authority on constitutional questions and wants his say. I have been cautious from the beginning on this question of the date. As for the way in which members are elected to the Assembly, that will be a matter for each individual country. No opinion was expressed. In some countries elections will be by constituencies, on the basis of first past the post. In others, they will be elected on a list basis, in accordance with the usual procedure. Some countries may combine the two methods. It will be for the House to make up its mind. I have an odd feeling that we shall stick to the first past the post system.

Mr. William Hamilton

Does my right hon. Friend agree that if we are to meet the target date of direct elections by the early summer of 1978, we shall need to introduce legislation next Session? Does that not mean that we would have two major constitutional Bills, one dealing with the devolution proposals for the United Kingdom and one with direct elections to Europe? Which measure does the Prime Minister think is the more important? Does he think that we shall get them both in one Session? There are some of us who doubt that. Will my right hon. Friend make it clear that he is against the principle not only of the dual mandate but possibly the triple mandate—from Edinburgh, London and Brussels?

The Prime Minister

I ask my hon. Friend to await the Gracious Speech which will be unfolded in due course—[HON. MEMBERS: "When?"]—when all these mysteries will be revealed. What my hon. Friend says is yet another reason why I have been right to be cautious about the date of 1978. My hon. Friend has confirmed me in my wisdom. Frankly, I see no reason why both Bills should not go through in the next Sestion, if Parliament wishes them to do so.

Mr. Powell

Has any formal decision been taken by the Council of Ministers on the subject of direct elections and is it yet known what form any such decision will take?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. No formal decision has been taken by the Council of Ministers. It was referred to the European Council, which is made up of the Heads of State and Heads of Government. The matter will have to go back to the Council of Ministers for it to create the appropriate instrument. I am not certain what form that instrument will take, whether it will be a convention or otherwise. The right hon. Member will recall that in the debate at the end of March, when I discussed this, I gave certain assurances about the rights of the House of Commons in debating such a convention. I cannot recall the exact nature of the assurances I gave but I stand by them now.

Mr. Gould

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the agreement on direct elections which he has reached on behalf of the Government cannot prejudge the decision on the principle of direct elections which has yet to be taken by the House?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. I cannot confirm that. This is an old argument that is constantly resurrected. The principle is laid down in the treaty—

Mr. Spearing


The Prime Minister

—and it was on the treaty that the British people made an overwhelming decision.

Sir David Renton

is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the statutory procedures of the Parliamentary Boundary Commission are so slow and cumbersome that it will not be making a general report until 1979 and that it will not be making special reports in time for the next General Election, even if that should come as late as the autumn of 1978? Does he agree therefore, that something special will have to be done—possibly legislation will be needed—to enable the Boundary Commission to consider the boundaries of our European constituencies in time for 1978?

The Prime Minister

The right hon. and learned Member states the position correctly. This has been another reason for my caution. As a former Home Secretary I remember very well—

Mr. Clegg

We remember, too.

The Prime Minister

I remember that when I endeavoured to get a more equal distribution of seats the House of Commons would not have it. I therefore proceed with caution on this occasion. All of these factors are reasons for being cautious about the date of 1978. They should not lessen our determination to try to do it, if we can get the legislation on the statute book.

Mr. Roper

Will my right hon. Friend accept that while many hon. Members in all parts of the House are pleased with his success in increasing the number of seats for the United Kingdom from 67 in the original proposals to 81, there will be concern at suggestions that we have seen that about 22.2 per cent. of those seats will go to only 16.7 per cent. of the population of the United Kingdom?

The Prime Minister

The issue of distribution has not yet been considered by the Cabinet, even less by the House of Commons. I take note of what my hon. Friend says. There have been these disparities in the past and I have no doubt that various hon. Members will have their own views about what disparity should exist.

Mr. Reid

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that as long as Scotland is a province of the United Kingdom she will not obtain parity of representation with comparable EEC countries? Will the right hon. Gentleman concede that the only way Scotland can get such parity, and, more important, a place in the Council of Ministers, is through independence? Does he agree that there is nothing sinister or dishonourable in an independent Scotland seeking membership of the Community in partnership with an independent England?

The Prime Minister

There is certainly nothing sinister or dishonourable about that but it would be a bad deal for the people of Scotland. I confirm that it is only through independence that Scotland will be able to get the same representation as Denmark. If she did, she would then, no doubt, make the same complaint as Denmark is making about the number of seats secured by the larger members which is preventing a proper representation of Danish interests. One day I hope to persuade the hon. Gentleman—I think it will probably be easier to persuade the Scottish people—that Scottish interests—and I make this not as a party point but in the interests of Scotland; and the same thing applies to Wales—will be much better served if Scotland is a member of a large delegation of 81 with all the weight that that carries rather than a small delegation of about 10, 12 or 14. Anyone who has seen this situation knows that it is true.

Mr. John Davies

Can the Prime Minister tell us what was discussed on the subject of the dual mandate? Can he say whether this matter is being left to individual member countries to make their own decisions for the first elections? Secondly, can he tell us, within the framework of a general extension of the fisheries limit to 200 miles, what arrangements are planned for individual member States to protect their own interests within such limits?

The Prime Minister

There was no discussion about the dual mandate. Frankly, it took us all of our time to reach agreement about the number of seats. The existing understanding continues to apply to the dual mandate. The situation has not changed, although it will be for the Foreign Ministers, when they write the convention or whatever instrument they decide, to indicate the position on the dual mandate.

I cannot give an answer to the right hon. Gentleman's question about fisheries policy. We did not get into such detailed discussion. It is fair to say that every Head of Government and Head of State recognised that it was necessary to make a statement on this matter at an early date—a declaration of intention—and then to work out the necessary changes in individual countries.

Mr. Dalyell

Is a directly elected Parliament still to wander, nomad-like, between Strasbourg. Luxembourg and Brussels, or was anything said about the siting of the Parliament?

The Prime Minister

No, Sir. Thank goodness, that is nothing to do with us.

Mr. Wigley

Would the Prime Minister accept that if Scotland had 17 or 18 seats, like Denmark, and Wales had 14 or 15, like Ireland, the voice of the United Kingdom would be that much stronger on those matters on which we agreed, and on matters where we disagreed Scotland and Wales would have the right to voice disagreement in strong terms?

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir, but it would not then be a United Kingdom.

Mr. William Clark

Will the Prime Minister agree that it would be lamentable if the Boundary Commission rushed its work so that there was insufficient time for representations to be made to it? Will the Prime Minister further agree that there is no reason why the Boundary Commission should not immediately start working on the European constituencies so that we can ensure that representations can be made?

The Prime Minister

I will look at that last point, but I wonder whether in fact it has the legal right to do that. I should have thought not. All I can do at the moment is to take note of what the hon. Gentleman says. He is anticipating a number of domestic discussions that we shall have to have in the House.

As to giving the Commission the power, I know that people think that I exercise a great deal of power but I do not have that autocratic right yet.

Mr. James Johnson

Is the Prime Minister aware that his firm and definite statement about fisheries fears will be greatly welcomed by all Members representing fishing ports?

I have two factual matters to put to the Prime Minister. A fortnight ago, in The Scotsman, there was a map indicating 50-mile limits, 35-mile limits and 12-mile limits for the various sections of our coastline. Will the Prime Minister confirm that we are discussing and will discuss limits on those lines, as opposed to the niggardly and mean 12-mile limits on which we were taken into Europe by the Conservative Government in 1973?

The Prime Minister

I believe that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has spelt this out. We did not discuss this in detail yesterday because we were concerned with the question of a declaration of intent. But certainly it is our very strong view that we could not be satisfied with anything like the terms which exist at the present time.

What my hon. Friend has said is correct. We believe that we are taking such an important resource into the Community—we shall be supplying about 55 per cent. to 60 per cent. of the total fisheries resources of the Community—that special arrangements must be made for the United Kingdom.

Mr. Blaker

Is the Prime Minister aware that there is some disappointment that, owing to the pressure of other subjects, the European Council has not recently been able to devote more attention to the co-ordination of foreign policy within the Community? Will the Prime Minister give an assurance, now we have made progress on direct elections, that he will himself put some considerable effort into this aspect in the coming months, and encourage his colleagues to do the same?

The Prime Minister

The joint attitude on terrorism, I think, had some hopeful aspects on this matter. But it is fair to say that some members of the Community are not as ready to co-ordinate foreign policy as we are. As I have often explained, we need unanimity in these matters before we can make progress.

We ourselves believe that Britain's voice is stronger when there is a unanimous Community voice to back it and that the Community also acquires its own personality. We shall continue to put that view forward. On the other hand, I understand the view of those who say that if getting a unanimous agreement means that we have to accept the lowest common denominator, it may mean that on some occasions there is almost a nullity. We have to balance these matters.

Mr. Spearing

Does the Prime Minister recall that paragraph 132 of the negotiation White Paper said that the Government did not accept any sort of federal structure for Europe? If we are to have European Members of the Assembly directly accountable to the electorate, thus bypassing the Floor of this House, how can the Prime Minister explain that these direct elections will not be part of the federal structure to which his Government are not committed?

The Prime Minister

Because the European Assembly will be elected on the powers which it has already. It will be for decision by this House and the eight other Parliaments, acting unanimously, whether to pass over further powers to the European Assembly in due course. But unless and until that happens, by no stretch of the imagination could the existing system and existing powers be construed as federal.

Mr. Dykes

Will the Prime Minister, despite what he said earlier, confirm that the Bill to legislate direct elections could commence its passage in this House next Session, before the Boundary Commission has terminated its work, and that that would be perfectly proper?

The Prime Minister

I have not gone into this question, but if I am right in assuming that we need legislation to empower the Boundary Commission to commence work, we might have to put it all in the same Bill. I think that the hon. Gentleman is anticipating a little. The Cabinet has not considered this matter yet.