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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 Norman Lamont Mr Norman Lamont , Kingston upon Thames 12:00 am, 13th July 1972

I am grateful for this opportunity to address the House and to have the pleasure of making what Markworth Praed called a maiden speech which all men praise but none remembers.

There is a convention that one should begin a maiden speech by referring to one's predecessor and in my case this is not an empty convention since I know that Mr. John Boyd-Carpenter—as he then was—was a Member of this House much respected not just for the power of his eloquence but also for his deep knowledge of the ways of this House and that undoubtedly would have enabled him to have made an outstanding contribution to this debate.

Another convention governing a speech such as mine is that one should be as non-controversial as possible. I have to admit that for some years I have been strongly pro-European. I think it stems from being converted by a speech I heard in 1961 at Cambridge made by the right hon. Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell). So persuasive was it that I have continued to believe in the idea ever since. As the policy of entry into the Common Market is officially the policy of both political parties I hope that everyone will agree that by making an uncompromisingly European speech I am being as non-controversial as it is possible to be.

Another reason why I am particularly pleased to be able to speak in this debate on this issue is that it was an issue which featured in my own by-election. I was opposed not just by a Labour candidate against the Common Market but also by a Conservative against the Common Market who made it into the main issue of the election so far as he was concerned. Since that was a by-election and since the result did not determine the future or the fate of the Government, I cannot help feeling that if the opposition to the idea of the Common Market were as widespread or as deep as the right hon. Member for Stepney (Mr. Shore) has suggested, the result of that by-election would have been very different.

The right hon. Member concentrated, as has happened in most of the debates on the Bill, on its effect on this House. It has always been envisaged that there would be a transfer of a degree of sovereignty from this country to the Common Market in the commercial and agricultural spheres. Under Clause 2 provision is made for some future instruments and some 1,200 existing instruments to have the directly applicable force of law in this country. Of those 1,200 instruments, about 1,000 refer to the detailed working of the agricultural system and the intervention system. Many of them are no doubt important but the question of how to treat subordinate legislation is not a new one arising before this House for the first time as a result of the Bill. The hundreds of orders and regulations that pass unexamined through this House every year show that this is the sort of problem that any Parliament in a modern age has to face, and it is a problem that has to be dealt with in or out of the Common Market, with or without the special ad hoccommittee, which my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has set up specifically to examine this point.

When we come to the implementing of the Community directives, where the means of implementation is left to individual national assemblies, it can be clearly seen that there is still plenty of scope for the House of Commons to fulfil its traditional functions of scrutinising and amending legislation.

We have already seen in the debates on VAT in the Finance Bill how this process can take place. I know that the Government maintain that the introduction of VAT has nothing to do with Article 99 of the Treaty of Rome and nothing to do with the consequent directives. Perhaps this is one of those rare occasions in life where one has to do what one wants to do, because there is no doubt that we would have to introduce such a tax once we were in the Community. If the point were not already made by the variety of value added taxes within the Community, in rates and incidence, then the debates we had on that subject, the concessions made by the Chancellor and the other concessions that have been considered, show that there is, in response to Community directives, ample room for this House to fulfil its traditional function of amending and scrutinising legislation.

It would no doubt be considered inappropriate of me to pronounce on the powers of Parliament if I had been a Member of this House for three years, let alone for less than three months. However, the power of Parliament to control the executive is a matter of general political interest to all members of the public. My election to this House interrupted my pleasurable reading of the book by the right hon. Member for Coventry, East (Mr. Crossman) "Inside view" in which he described the House of Commons as being no longer a place of power but a place where things happen. In his book he describes how the control, not just of finance but of the legislative timetable, had passed to the Cabinet.

He confirmed what many people outside feel about this House, I suspect, and about its ability to control the executive. Even as a member of the public I had always heard how difficult it was for individual back-benchers to discuss agricultural policy in the period leading up to the Price Review, how difficult it was to discuss economic policy with the Treasury Ministers in their period of purdah before the Budget. There is the example of the introduction of SET, which burst upon an unwitting, indeed, an astonished House of Commons with no consultation, no Green Paper. At least in the Community there is nothing secret about the way in which the Commission's thinking is developing. There will be much greater opportunity within the Common Market for Members of this House to know the way in which the minds of Ministers are developing and to have a vital influence in the pre-legislation period.

But what I suppose has most concerned hon. Members is not just the implementation of existing regulations or responses to past directives but the future development of the Community and the power of the House of Commons to influence that future development, particularly the control that it will have over post-1972 Community treaties of the type defined in Clause 1. Again, development of the Community will not happen in secret, in isolation; it will not suddenly be revealed to an unsuspecting House of Commons, and again there is the safeguard contained in Clause 1(3). I know that hon. Members have speculated whether the discussion that might be allowed on an Order in Council under that Clause would not be on the merits of a particular Community treaty but simply on the narrow question whether a treaty was or was not a Community treaty.

Even if we assume a situation in which a new development of the Community is secretly revealed to a hostile and unsuspecting House of Commons; even if we assume that the Government of the day do not allow any time for debate on the way in which the Community's thinking has developed; even if we assume that the ad hoccommittee of the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has come to nothing; even if we assume that only the narrowest discussion is permitted by the Chair; it will still be open to the House—not, I imagine, for the first time—to use a narrow and technical procedure to reject an attack on its position. If the House of Commons is not capable of doing that in those disgraceful circumstances, then it is even less powerful than the right hon. Member for Coventry, East has maintained.

One must come back to the nature of the control of Parliament over the executive. When my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West appeared before the Select Committee on Procedure in 1965 he said: My feeling is that there is much misconception on this subject and that the effective control of the House of Commons over the Executive does not much depend on the detailed examination or detailed knowledge of the Administration… He went on I think it is a mistake to suppose that detailed knowledge or examination of expenditure would necessarily strengthen the true control, which is of a political nature, that the House of Commons exerts over the Executive. Surely it is this true control which is of a political nature" which Parliament will bring to bear upon our representatives in the Community's institutions, and it is this sort of influence that will guide our participation in the Community. Similarly, it is a true political influence that this country will be able to employ within the Community institutions. Here I refer not just to the understanding reached between the Prime Minister and President Pompidou, but also to the fact that in the past it has been shown that the Community cannot develop against the will and without the consent of one of its major members, as for example, during the period when France pursued the "empty chair" policy.

I do not believe that the whole future development of the Community is preempted by the Bill and that a Hamiltonian Federation will follow as inevitably as the Articles of Federation led to the Federal Constitution. All one can say is that the institutions of the Community will develop, and should develop, only as fast as the community of interest between the member States but that, at the same time, it would be wrong for the House of Commons to preempt any decisions that future generations may want to make about the type of Europe they want.

There could have been no greater privilege for me as a new Member of Parliament than to listen to the speeches that have been made by the hon. Member for Ebbw Vale (Mr. Michael Foot), with his passionate attachment to the House. But when one hears him say in one and the same breath that he is opposed to the institutions of the Community because they are undemocratic, and that he would still be opposed to them if they became democratic because they would take influence away from the House, one is bound to ask whether the interests of the House as an institution and the interests of the British people are necessarily the same. The legitimacy of political institutions is based upon consent, but it is also based upon effectiveness, and increasingly, as the right hon. Member for Stepney said, people question the effectiveness of our institutions. Some also wonder whether it is necessary for problems to be tackled upon an international scale—industrial environmental and monetary issues. One wonders how much of last year's currency upheaval could have been avoided had there been a joint European strategy to invoke the scarce currency clauses of the Bretton Woods Agreement.

In developing new institutions to deal with these problems, naturally the ultimate sovereignty of Parliament and therefore the ultimate sovereignty of the British people must be maintained. But it is no service to the British people to block the development of new institutions geared to the problems of our time, or to see as an affront to the House what should be an exercise in the principles of representative democracy.

What the Bill does is to solemnise what in their time both parties have seen as a marriage of convenience of the type with which Lord Rosebery once compared the union of Scotland and England: It is mortifying to pride at first, irksome perhaps occasionally, in the long run harmonious because it is founded on interest. One might add—who knows into what affection it may develop? I believe that the Bill represents a great opportunity. We can go on muttering incantations to ourselves, but the world is moving forward and we must move forward, too.