Skip to main content

Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference

Volume 892: debated on Tuesday 13 May 1975

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.


asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the results of the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference.


asked the Prime Minister what discussions he had with the Heads of Commonwealth Governments concerning Great Britain's continued membership of the European Economic Community.


asked the Prime Minister if he will make a statement on the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference.

Much of our time was spent on economic matters and on the problems of Southern Africa, and on both a substantial measure of agreement was reached. I have already presented to the House a White Paper setting out in detail the proposals on primary commodities which I put to my Commonwealth colleagues. The outcome of the discussions on these and other subjects is described in the communiqué issued at the end of the meeting and published as a White Paper today.

I did not raise the question of Britain's membership of the EEC and there was therefore no mention of it in the communiqué but after the matter had been raised by a number of Prime Ministers it was agreed unanimously that the Prime Minister of Jamaica, as chairman of the meeting, should issue a separate statement recording that all the other Commonwealth Heads of Government had placed on record their firm opinion that Commonwealth interests are in no way prejudiced by our membership. His statement added that many Heads of Government had emphasised that it was of positive advantage to their countries that Britain should remain a member of the EEC: and that the strong view had also been expressed that British membership was of value in encouraging the Community to be outward-looking towards the rest of the world.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on a striking achievement in Jamaica, but is he aware that there is still deep concern about the exclusion from the Lomé Convention of many developing countries, such as India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka? Will he convey that deep concern to our partners in the EEC and urge them to include those Commonwealth members in their assistance programme?

I thank my hon. Friend. In my speech to the conference, which has been published as a White Paper, I said that we hoped to build on the Lomé Convention so as to cover the countries of Asia to which my hon. Friend has referred. He will see from the communiqué that the Commonwealth Heads of Government supported the extension of the Lomé Convention—which they warmly welcomed—to cover the relevant countries of Asia.

Would the Prime Minister care to expand on his statement and tell us what was the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' attitude towards our membership of the EEC? In particular, will he comment on Mr. Gough Whitlam's view that if Britain were to withdraw she would be in danger of lapsing into the position of Spain in the seventeenth century?

I have said, and I repeat, that my right hon. Friend and I did not seek any statement, and we said that we did not consider that one was necessary. Nevertheless, the Commonwealth Prime Ministers pushed on with it. Various Prime Ministers at outside Press conferences as well as in the conference meeting expressed the views I have recorded. Mr. Gough Whitlam expressed them particularly strongly. I do not go along with the remarks made by Mr. Gough Whitlam which have just been quoted, but I go along with the rest of what he said. I emphasised there, as I have emphasised in this country, that, inside or outside the EEC, Britain's future depends upon our own efforts and our own restraint, and the other matters are important to us but not decisive.

I welcome the statement of my right hon. Friend as regards the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' acceptance of our position in the EEC and their reluctance to see us become the Albania of the West. Will he, however, tell the House what steps he intends to take within the EEC in particular to see that the Commonwealth countries of Asia are included within the Lomé Convention?

I do not remember Albania being mentioned at any point during the conference, although I think the Prime Minister of Malta mentioned Libya once or twice. As regards the extension of the Lomé Convention, I tried to answer that question in response to the supplementary question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Stoke-on-Trent, South (Mr. Ashley). The position is that we and the Commonwealth support the extension of the benefits of the Lomé Convention as regards access to the EEC of the Asian countries. It is also recognised, as I told the conference, that negotiations in Lomé and outside Lomé have begun. An extension, for example, of the general system of preferences would benefit all the Asian countries.

Is the Prime Minister aware that many of us welcome the restoration of identity of views with the African Heads of State as regards policy in Southern Africa? Has any member of the Commonwealth indicated a view against British membership of the Community? There was a suggestion that the Ugandan Government had reservations.

As regards Southern Africa I welcome what the hon. Gentleman says. It is very important. This was by far the best Commonwealth Conference that any of us can remember. I think that was so mainly because the situation in Southern Africa and the prospects there have changed. As regards the question of whether any Commonwealth countries have reservations about our membership of the Community, the answer is "Certainly not". Quite apart from discussion round the table during the communiqué session to which I have referred, I and my right hon. Friend made it our business to talk to the heads of every Commonwealth delegation as to their attitude on the matter. As we know, the President of Uganda did not see fit to be present in the circumstances of this meeting. Therefore. I was not able to seek his views. I was, however, able to seek the views of the head of the Ugandan delegation. I think the hon. Gentleman can be sure that the head of the Ugandan delegation was speaking only within the general context of the President's policy and not outside it.

In his main answer my right hon. Friend said that the question of the Common Market was not included in the final communiqué because he did not raise it. Why did he not raise it? Why was it not part of the communiqué? Why was it not discussed officially?

I am sorry if I have disappointed my hon. Friend. The Common Market was discussed officially at the conference on the initiative of other Minister and Heads of Government. I think that was right. I was certainly not going to ask them for a statement on this matter.

I understand the interruption of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner). It was always possible that some would say that they did not want to interfere in a matter on which the British electorate are taking a decision. Indeed, the Prime Minister of Guyana, who took the initiative in raising this matter, was very much supported. His message, strengthened by the President of Tanzania, the Prime Minister of Canada and others, said that they were not in any way trying to interfere with the voice of the British people expressed through the ballot box, but they felt it right to state what the position of the Commonwealth was as it affected their own countries and the Commonwealth as a whole.

Is the Prime Minister aware that most of us welcome very warmly the spontaneous initiative of the Prime Ministers in their statement on the EEC? Secondly, is he aware that we welcome his initiative on commodities at the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference? Thirdly, as economic discussions played quite a large part in the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference and as we have certain problems in that direction at home, is it the right hon. Gentleman's intention, before the House rises, to make a statement about the general economic position of this country or to ask his right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer to make such a statement?

I am most grateful to the right hon. Lady both for her comments on the voluntary and unsought decision of the Commonwealth on the EEC and particularly for what she said about the initiative on commodities. It was at first thought that that initiative might face heavy weather because of the very strong views of some of the Third World countries, which rather suggested that they wanted to pull down the whole of the world's economic machinery, including the IMF and the Bank. It would take a lot of time before anything was found to replace it. There was, however, very warm support and the matter received a warm wind in the communiqué as I may say it did in Washington when we discussed the matter there. The right hon. Lady is right: a very important part of the conference was on economic discussion and on Southern Africa. As regards the economic situation in this country. I understand that the usual channels have had a discussion this morning I suggested that they might do so—and that we shall be debating the matter in the House next week if the right hon. Lady agrees.