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Orders of the Day — European Communities Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 13th July 1972.

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Photo of Mr Geoffrey Howe Mr Geoffrey Howe , Reigate 12:00 am, 13th July 1972

The right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the Opposition will see in a moment or two how totally untenable that position is. It is not just the cause underlying the Bill but the cause which the Bill seeks to serve and which successive Governments in this country have sought to serve which is being submerged in the subjunctive posture of hon. Members opposite. It is, to a significant extent, the faith of the British people in the consistency and credibility of our democratic system—in the consistency and credibility of those they elect to represent them.

But once the Bill is on the Statute Book, and once Britain has taken her place as a full partner in Europe, I am confident—and so, if the truth were told, are many hon. Members of the Opposition—that the mood of gloom and equivocation will pass away.

That is the setting against which we take stock today of our Committee proceedings on the Bill.

Two grounds for concern have tended to recur throughout our proceedings. One ground—the one to which the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) has referred—essentially procedural, has been about the time and scope for debate. The other ground, substantive—I do not regard either ground as less important than the other—has been about the implications for parliamentary sovereignty and control. As the House has appreciated throughout the proceedings, they are two sides of the same coin because both have arisen from concern for the position of Parliament.

I deal first with the form of the Bill and with the form and scope of our debates. At the end of the day, I invite the House to agree that the Bill has been seen to do all that was necessary and possible—in the only proper and possible way. I invite the House to agree that the suggestion that the form of the Bill was chosen so as to restrain or exclude debate has, in fact, been wholly unsubstantiated.

As I explained during the censure debate on 6th March, the scope and form of the Bill has been determined by its constitutional purpose. It is for the Crown to make and ratify treaties. It is for Parliament, if it pleases, between these two exercises of the Crown Prerogative, to make the necessary consequential changes in United Kingdom law to enable the Crown to proceed to ratification. It is not open to States which have negotiated a treaty to attach random reservations between signature and ratification.

If the Bill did not at the end of the day reflect the domestic legal consequences of the treaty as they have emerged from the negotiations, the Bill would be in effect without any effective legal purpose. The central provisions of the Bill would be legally meaningless if they did not enable us to enter the Communities on the terms negotiated.

It would, therefore, have been constitutionally inappropriate and, indeed, misleading to present a long and detailed Bill which incorporated in itself all the provisions of the treaties. This is what must surely have been envisaged by those who from time to time have fancifully discussed a Bill of "a thousand Clauses". To present a Bill in that form would have been to imply that the situation was not, indeed, as it was.

But, although the function of the Bill was not to ratify the Treaty of Accession, the treaty has been before the House throughout, together with the fundamental Community treaties. As I said in the debate on the Treaty of Accession on 20th January: The next stage of consideration that will be appropriate is the study of the legislative provisions needed to give effect to the treaties alongside those treaties themselves. The treaties in isolation are not as suitable for scrutiny by the House as the Treaties in conjunction with the legislation; they are to be taken and studied alongside each other."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 20th January, 1972; Vol. 829, c. 796.] The process of probing and explaining the Bill has naturally involved constant reference to the Treaty of Accession as well as to the basic Community treaties; also, constant reference to all the major areas of Community activity.

Often our debates have gone beyond the treaties to look as well at the possible impact of Community membership on sectors of this country's affairs which might be only remotely affected in the near future. Debates have ranged from the cost on the balance of payments to the colouring matter of kippers; from the CAP to customs administration; from food prices to films; from capital movements to court proceedings; from steel to sugar; from defence to drivers' hours; from New Zealand to Northern Ireland; and from regional policy to the National Health Service. By any standards we can conclude that our debates have been comprehensive.