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Eec (Minister's Speech)

Volume 885: debated on Thursday 6 February 1975

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asked the Prime Minister if the public speech by the Secretary of State for Trade, about the EEC, to the Southern Regional Council of the Labour Party at Brighton on 19th January, represents the policy of Her Majesty's Government.

I refer the hon. Member to the reply which I gave to the hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Mr. Stanley) on 4th February.—[Vol. 885, c. 1138–9.]

Although I have been careful not to confuse a leak with a speech, I was greatly interested in the Prime Minster's reported remarks yesterday about the need to ensure that the forthcoming referendum provided a sufficiently large poll to encourage him and his Government to consider the result worth while. Is he aware that in the two votes in 1967 and 1971, 87 per cent. and 95 per cent. of Members of this House, respectively, voted on this issue and that in the first instance an overwhelming and in the second instance a large, clear and full-hearted majority was in favour of staying in? Will the Prime Minister give us his view of the necessary percentage that a referendum has to achieve if it is to be meaningful?

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on asking a question about a speech that I did make. I sympathise with him that the main theme of his question was based on his inability to distinguish between what he called an accurate leak and an inaccurate one. I did not say yesterday—and there are 60 of my hon. Friends who will confirm it—that the Government were considering what size of percentage of vote, or what margin, was necessary. I was referring to the remarks made by my hon. Friends in a very serious discussion, and I noted that that point had been made. I did not in any way associate myself with the point. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman has been misled, through no fault of his, by some rather inaccurate comments in the Press, whose representatives are a little overworked at present.

Does not my right hon. Friend agree that the Secretary of State for Trade believes in giving the true facts to the people of Britain and not in engaging in pulling the wool over the eyes of people, as has been done by so many of our big businesses and pro-Market organisations? Does not my right hon. Friend agree, further, that the Secretary of State for Trade does not believe that Britain's economic eggs should all be placed in one basket, and is not that belief witnessed by the recent excellent deal that he has concluded with Iran?

I join my hon. Friend in congratulating my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade on the success of his talks in Iran. I shall be following up this matter with industry tomorrow.

Dealing with my hon. Friend's general question, he will be aware that on two days, last week and this, I have answered a series of questions about the speech by my right hon. Friend, and I agree with my hon. Friend that in the past some remarks on this matter have been very one-sided.

Accepting that the Prime Minister and his Government have given no thought at all to what represents a credible turnout to make the forthcoming referendum meaningful, surely the right hon. Gentleman—who, after all, has the persistence of a convert to this issue, and must have a burning enthusiasm about it—has worked out what, in his view, would represent sufficient full-hearted dissent to enable us to come out of Europe.

What I said yesterday—I thought that it was important—was that to some extent it lay in the hands of us all to ensure the biggest possible vote on this matter, in order to give additional authority to the decision made by the British people. As for what the right hon. Gentleman himself said this week, I remember him saying during the election campaign that if Labour won the election he would support a referendum—

The right hon. Gentleman was so reported. I apologise if he was misreported. It was not in a newspaper or on a broadcasting medium which supports our party. If the right hon. Gentleman denies that he said it, I accept it, of course. I shall check my records on the matter.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to me as a convert. I have taken the view all along that if the terms are good for Britain, entry is good for Britain, but that if the terms are crippling, it is not. The purpose of the negotiations is to see whether they will be good for Britain and Europe, or crippling to both.

This is a very important matter. Will the Prime Minister undertake to see, therefore, that the forthcoming White Paper specifically discusses the question of percentage polls in the referendum, and margins of majority one way or the other, and their effect on the decision?

I give that assurance. All matters raised with us will be considered, and the White Paper—which, although a White Paper, to a considerable extent will be a consultation document, because the House will want to debate it and express views on it—will make all possible suggestions. But the House will debate it, and nothing in the White Paper will be binding on the Government until we hear the views of the House. Then we shall put forward our proposals for legislation.

Does the hon. Member for Tiverton (Mr. Maxwell-Hyslop) wish to pursue his point of order?

If the Prime Minister invites us to believe that the statement he has made was intended to be a reply to a question from his hon. Friends, we shall take that as indicative of his usual behaviour to the House.