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European Community

Volume 889: debated on Tuesday 8 April 1975

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asked the Prime Minister whether he will make a ministerial broadcast on Europe.


asked the Prime Minister if he will make a ministerial broadcast on Europe.


asked the Prime Minister whether he will make a ministerial broadcast on British membership of the European Community.


asked the Prime Minister if he will make a ministerial broadcast on British membership of the European Economic Community.

I refer the hon. Members to the reply which I gave to the hon. Member for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) on 20th March — [Vol. 888, c. 469.]

Will not the Prime Minister accept that, since the future credibility of our country in international negotiations now depends upon our remaining a member of the European Community, it is important that he should show greater determination in these matters by means of a ministerial broadcast, not least by virtue of the right of reply which, given to my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, would be a helpful way of advancing matters a stage further?

The hon. Member will have noted from the Order Paper that we are currently engaged in a three-day debate on the European situation, during which I managed to catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, yesterday afternoon. The hon. Member can make his point in the debate.

With regard to ministerial broadcasts, I think that we must to some extent have regard to the problems of the broadcasting authorities in this campaign. [Interruption] I regard the hon. Gentleman's question as serious, even if his neighbours do not.

The broadcasting authorities are enjoined, and have agreed, to maintain a balance. Ministerial broadcasts made by the three party leaders might appear to be rather on one side of the debate. However, to set the hon. Gentleman's mind at rest, since my statement in the House on 18th March I have made four national television broadcasts—not ministerial broadcasts—in addition to that which I made at the end of the Dublin conference before my statement to the House.

In view of what the Prime Minister said about freedom of debate, is he aware that on 4th May 1932 Sir Herbert Samuel spoke as Home Secretary, from the Treasury Bench, expressing the views of those in the Cabinet who disagreed with the Government's policy?

Yes, Sir. I assure my right hon. Friend that I consulted those precedents and that speech, possibly before my right hon. Friend, and, indeed, before the end of last year. In that situation the only possibility of agreement to differ in a Conservative, Liberal and minuscule Labour coalition was through debate in the House. In the present situation there is a referendum campaign, which is of a totally different order, because all Ministers who have availed themselves of the unprecedented offer of agreement to differ are free to campaign in this referendum. I therefore believe that the 1932 precedent is totally inapplicable in this situation.

Since the Prime Minister will not make a ministerial broadcast on the question of Europe, will he clarify yesterday's Written Answer about the conduct of dissenting Ministers? In saying that dissenting Ministers will be stating the Government's position and not their own, is the Prime Minister asking them to be hypocritical mouthpieces for views which are abhorrent to them? If questions are to be transferred when necessary who is to decide when it is necssary for them to be transferred—the Minister concerned, the Foreign Secretary, or the Prime Minister? Does not that illustrate the dangerous consequences of abandoning the traditional concept of collective ministerial responsibility?

No, Sir. I cannot accept what the hon. Gentleman says. He certainly cannot have it both ways, which he is trying to have in that question, as, indeed, is the Conservative Party—none better than the right hon. Member for Finchley (Mrs. Thatcher), who has dissociated herself from everything done by her predecessor. We know that the Conservative Party cannot press, as it has tried to press, that answers from the Front Bench should reflect entirely the Government's decision about this recommendation. At the same time, the hon. Gentleman asked that Ministers who have dissociated themselves from the decision should be free to speak in a different sense. With regard to the present situation, I said that all Ministers—not only dissenting Ministers—will speak in accordance with Government policy.

Does the Prime Minister not agree that the prime need now in the debate on the Common Market is not for ministerial broadcasts but for broadcasts by spokesmen for and against our remaining in the Common Market? Those broadcasts will incorporate safeguards which do not otherwise obtain, in view of editorial bias or the more scurrilous advertisements in the Press which recently compared those who believe in remaining in the Common Market with Vidkun Quislings.

I agree with my hon. Friend—and I include advertisements dealing with the other side of the question, of which there was a wholly improper example last week. However, my hon. Friend is right. The broadcasting authorities are trying genuinely to maintain a balance between the pro-and anti-Market sides. It is for them to decide. I have no doubt that the Standing Committee of all parties and the broadcasting authorities themselves are considering how they will conduct themselves during this campaign.

The issue is not between parties, and therefore is not between ministerial and Leader-of-the-Opposition broadcasts—rather, it is between the two sides in the national debate.

Since the Prime Minister is not to make a broadcast, will he say—to fill a strange gap in his speech yesterday—how he sees his personal position if his European policy is repudiated in the referendum?

I do not think that that matter arose out of yesterday's speech. It has arisen on many occasions. The Government will accept the verdict of the British people.

I thought I read a report that the Leader of the Opposition said—this may have been an unfair report, since the Press is occasionally inaccurate, and the right hon. Lady may wish to repudiate it—that if there were an adequate turnout and a clear majority, all parties would accept it.

The Leader of the Opposition says that she did not say that. In that case, I wish that she would repudiate that. [Interruption] I am delighted to hear that she has made her position clear. A Member of Parliament would need to be arrogant to say that whatever the country decided in this ballot could be disregarded by the House.

Will the Prime Minister refrain from taking umbrage if I suggest that he asks the Secretary of State for Scotland to make any ministerial broadcast in Scotland, since the Secretary of State's anti-EEC views will be more in tune with those of the Scottish audience?

Of course I never take umbrage at any proposals made to me by the hon. Lady. The broadcasting authorities in Scotland, which to some extent are separate, will try to preserve a balance between the pro-Market and anti-Market adherents and will give a fair coverage to both.

Since the Prime Minister is not to make a ministerial broadcast, will he take the opportunity now of justifying the exclusion of British subjects living abroad from voting in the referendum when Irish citizens living in this country, who may have already voted, will be given an opportunity of voting yet again?

The question has been put to me before. I did not say that I would not make a ministerial broadcast. I said that I had no present plans to do so. That was my answer. Should there be, within the discretion of the broadcasting authorities and as part of the balance they maintain, the possibility of ministerial broadcasts—suitably balanced, of course—I would consider that.

As regards voting, the House will debate the Referendum Bill on Thursday. That Bill will be taken in Committee on the Floor of the House. These are matters for discussion at that time. We have declared the views of the Government on this matter.

Does my right hon. Friend realise that he has many right hon. and hon. Members behind him who would prefer the Cabinet to take another look at this matter and to allow all Ministers to make statements based upon their own opinions and not those of the Prime Minister?

I should always prefer to have my hon. Friend behind me than some right hon. and hon. Members at whom I have to look from this Dispatch Box. My hon. Friend is my parliamentary neighbour, and I spoke for him when he was a candidate in less hopeful seats.

As for my hon. Friend's question, this unprecedented agreement to differ in an unprecedented situation, namely, the referendum, is unlimited in its effect on all Ministers and others in the campaign in the country. It was never envisaged by any of us that that would be the position in the debate this week.

Will the Prime Minister accept that on this issue he has some friends in front of him, if not behind him? As his dissenting Ministers seem to be having it both ways, would not it be better for the Prime Minister and for everyone else if they resigned, pending the result?

The right hon. Lady's last few words remove from me the obligation to refer to her as "my right hon. Friend" in view of her support. I do not accept what she says. This is a unique situation. It is a situation in which the right hon. Lady's party is divided, as ours is and as the country is. I am proud that my Cabinet is more representative of the two views than the rather crony-dominated Cabinet which preceded ours. That is why the country was taken into the Market without the promised full-hearted consent—and I have never heard whether the right hon. Lady will dissociate herself from that, either.

If the country votes in accordance with the Government's recommendation, there will be no doubt about the position. There has been every doubt since 1971, when the Government of which the right hon. Lady was a member took the establishment, but not the British people, into the Common Market.