European Community (Coking Coal)

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 21st March 1977.

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Question again proposed.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East

My view is that the Community could and should discuss problems which are common to every member State. There is great anxiety about how to handle the nuclear question. I read the papers, as do all hon. Members, and I note the events in other countries. We have tried to do things differently with regard to nuclear policy. We have not in any way lost by having discussions which, by their openness, have defused anxiety.

Dr. M. S. Miller:

Does my right hon. Friend agree that, despite those anxieties, before the other exotic methods described by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) come into play there will be a period in which it will be essential for nuclear energy to be used?

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East

I have never denied the rôle of nuclear energy. Over many years I have been responsible for nuclear policy —I think from 1966—and have played some part in it. I think that nuclear power, the new realisation of its possible impact on civil liberties and the question of the fast breeder, which is separate from the thermal system, are proper matters for discussion. They should not be reduced to a conflict in the streets without proper examination by those concerned. I make no apology for doing that. On the whole, our handling of this difficult question will be the better for it.

Mention has been made of non-conventional methods of energy and benign sources. Solar energy and geothermal methods are being considered. Indeed, the Severn barrage is due for proper examination in view of the possibilities there.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rother Valley concluded his speech with some kind references to me. My hon Friend's twin interests in steel and coal are interests which any British Minister is bound to have in mind when he goes to the Energy Council.

I have made it absolutely clear tonight —I want no one to be in any doubt—that the extension of the coking coal scheme, together with these other proposals which are being aired, the way in which they will be financed and the transfer of money across the exchanges, poses real difficulties for the British Government. I hope that the House will allow me to go forward with at any rate a broad scope of British interests in mind to see what may best be achieved at the council meeting.

10.3 p.m.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King , Bridgwater

Briefly, I think that what this debate has brought out is the tribute paid by the Secretary of State to the Scrutiny Committee for its work. The right hon. Gentleman criticised the work of the European Parliament as being less effective in this respect.

The point made by the hon. Member for Brigg and Scunthorpe (Mr. Ellis)—that without the requisite information he had difficulty in being fully informed on the attitude of the British Steel Corporation—is a weakness and problem for the European Parliament. The Secretary of State said that he was overwhelmed with paper and found it difficult to get all the right documents. I should have thought that it was possible for him to respond to his hon. Friend's proposal that the correspondence from the BSC should have been attached to the document. That would have been most helpful. That was not a very demanding request. Such information would have added to the quality of the debate.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East

I think that that is a matter for the Scrutiny Committee. I did not want to appear to be arguing about what it should do. If there is thought to be inadequate information available when a matter comes up for discussion, I should certainly wish to fill that gap. Incidentally, the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Osborn) said that it was difficult for the European Assembly to get access to the documents. I was using that as an argument for greater openness within the Community. I think that we in this House are getting more information.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King , Bridgwater

We may be arguing about no real disagreement in this respect. As has been stated, the effectiveness of our representatives in the European Parliament was undoubtedly reduced by the fact that they were not aware of the BSC's attitude, which was obviously very significant.

The least attractive aspect of the debate is the "What is in it for us?" attitude which can easily occur on European matters. We are dealing with a possible subsidy and payment across the exchanges of perhaps £2 million a year. My hon. Friend the Member for Arundel (Mr. Marshall) pointed out that a very substantial sum is coming from Europe to underpin the BSC's capital investment programme by £246 million. That is a very substantial figure.

I welcome the new approach of the Secretary of State in not jumping on each individual issue but recognising that if he is to discharge his responsibilities, not merely as Chairman of the Council of Ministers but as the United Kingdom representative, there is an obligation in this instance to recognise the need for an element of give and take in these issues.

I find the scheme somewhat weird. The original scheme was particularly weird in the sense that it was a straight transfer out and transfer back again. There must be ground for wondering whether the steel industry should be involved at all and whether this is not a straight subsidy to coking coal production that should be treated as such.

I was also interested to hear the Secretary of State say that, because of the remarks made by one of his hon. Friends, he would ensure that copies of Hansard containing tonight's debate would be circulated to the Council of Ministers. As soon as the Secretary of State began his speech, I had already earmarked it for circulation in the Council of Ministers. I thought that the right hon. Gentleman was marking out his negotiating position. Even if his hon. Friend had never opened his mouth, I think that the Secretary of State would have ensured that copies of Hansard were on their way to Europe as soon as they came from the printers.

We also welcome the new communautaire spirit of the Secretary of State, on which I have remarked before. Presumably this is an attempt to turn himself into a great European Chairman of the Council of Ministers. We shall be very interested to see what will happen in the very limited time available to him. We realise the state of desperation that the Government are in when we see that the Secretary of State had to go all the way to Somerset to appeal for unity in the Labour Party. We realise the extent of the distress which his party is in.

Photo of Mr Tony Benn Mr Tony Benn , Bristol South East

I remind the hon. Gentleman that the South-West of England is the only region where 50 per cent. of the Labour Members of Parliament are in the Government. That is the highest percentage in the whole country.

Photo of Mr Tom King Mr Tom King , Bridgwater

I recognise that, but if the right hon. Gentleman did his homework he would know that the South-West is also surprisingly well represented on the Opposition Front Bench.

While on the subject of the Secretary of State's communautaire approach, may I say that his last speech but one was made in my constituency, in Bridgwater, when he presented a medal to the Labour agent. He said in his speech that he was delighted to be there because it meant that he would not be attending a meeting of Community Energy Ministers, and that if that meant that he was holding up the Community's energy policy he thought that he and the recipient of the medal would be equally pleased. We can contrast that with his present enthusiasm for pushing forward Community energy policy.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,That this House takes note of Commission Document No. R/2639/76 and of the comments in the Fourth Report of the Select Committee on European Legislation, &c. but is mindful that the proposal is only one of several aimed at providing long term security of Community energy supplies which as a whole are likely to be beneficial.