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European Community (Construction Products)

Volume 978: debated on Monday 4 February 1980

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10.13 pm

I beg to move,

That this House takes note of European Community Documents R/3289178 and 9056/79 containing a proposed EEC Directive and Resolution on the approximation of the laws of the member states relating to construction products; and endorses the Government's intention to ensure that satisfactory procedures are included for the adoption of implementing Directives under this framework directive.
The documents that we are considering represent a complicated piece of legislation by Community standards. The complications are compounded by the difficulty of translating often highly technical concepts from one language to another. It may therefore be convenient to hon. Members if I spend a few moments explaining what the proposal sets out to do.

The major part of the first document—R /3289/78—is a proposal for a directive on construction products under article 100 of the Treaty of Rome, which provides for the harmonisation of regulations and procedures in member States of the Community in the interests of trade.

It would be a framework directive—that is to say, in our terms, enabling legislation. It would be implemented by a series of specific directives, which would each relate to a particular type of building product. They would set technical standards for that product and lay down agreed methods for testing examples of the product against that standard. Attached at the back of document R/3289/78 is a draft resolution for adoption by the Council listing the products that are considered worthy of priority attention. We must watch that word "priority", though, because there is no doubt that if a list anything like as long as the present draft were adopted it would take many years to give effect to the whole of it.

The proposal is intended to facilitate intra-Community trade in products which meet the specific standards. The draft framework directive therefore contains a series of certification procedures which may be adopted for demonstrating to potential customers, to regulatory authorities and to any other interested party that the product is up to the agreed standard. There are three certification procedures, and each specific directive would indicate which of the three was to be applied. It would obviously apply to the product covered by that directive.

The three procedures will be familiar to those who have had previous dealings with article 100 directives, because they are all familiar features of such directives. In descending order of vigour we have, first, type approval. Under type approval, the Government of a member State certifies that a product submitted to it meets a certain standard. Then we have type examination, where the certificate is issued by a non-Government body approved by the Government for the purpose. Finally there is self-certification, under which a manufacturer is allowed to make his own declaration that his product meets the standard. In the present draft there is no indication of the criteria that will be adopted in deciding which procedure to use in which directive. I wish to return to that point in a moment.

The certification procedures occupy a very large proportion of the text because they are set out in great detail. Much of the remaining text is filled with the workaday provisions which accompany any legislation—definitions, extent of application, financial arrangements, safeguards if certification subsequently proves to have been misguided, and so on. These are well-known basic provisions that have been used many times before. They are all important, of course, but I do not think that they need occupy the House for long this evening. I wish to dwell just for a moment on two other technical provisions of the proposed directive, because I think that it is important that their implications should be understood.

Both of these provisions are contained in single articles of the draft. First, article 5 deals with the place of agrement under the proposed system—that is,
"Technical approvals issued by approved bodies".
The draft says that certification may be temporarily based on such assessments. In other words, the situation envisaged is much the same as we have domestically in the United Kingdom at present. Recourse will be had to agrement when a product is not yet the subject of an agreed standard. Some see that as implying a major role for agrement under the directive. I do not wish to pour cold water on that idea entirely, but I wish to temper it slightly.

Agrement will be able to be used only where a specific implementing directive specifies that it should be and lays down appropriate guidance. In other words, there will have to be agreement between member States—no doubt based on work done by the European Union of Agrement or possibly by some other international body—about the method of assessment and tests to be adopted. That having been said, it remains clear that this article provides scope for speeding up the application of the directive and also for enhancing the value of the agrement function. I hope that the Agrement Board will derive benefit from this aspect of the proposal and play a positive part in its implementation.

The other article to which I wish to draw the attention of hon. Members is article 30. This article states that, where a specific directive has not yet been adopted in relation to a particular product, an importing country must accept the results of tests carried out to satisfy the regulations of that country by a Government-approved body in the exporting country.

The potential importance of this provision should not be underrated. It could have an immense impact. It would apply to all construction products the moment the framework directive came into effect and continue to apply until specific directives were adopted; in many cases, where no specific directive was envisaged, it would apply indefinitely. In theory, it should prevent any member State erecting barriers to trade by requiring tests to be carried out on its own soil sometimes at great expense to the manufacturer.

I know that there are those who will say that if a country wants to be awkward about imports it will find a way, whatever the letter of Community law, and no doubt those who say that have some justification in experience. But it will at least be more difficult to erect such barriers and that will apply here as it will abroad.

There was considerable argument about this when I was a Member of the previous indirectly elected European Assembly. Does one understand that an importing country could, if it wanted to, raise all sorts of difficulties about rather esoteric points of research and make things extremely difficult if the Government wanted to use this as a kind of protective device?

No. I think that what I have said indicates exactly the opposite. In fact, I am certain that what I said was that until a specific directive was envisaged the position would be that an importing country would have to accept the results of tests carried out to satisfy the regulations of that country by a Government-approved body in the exporting country. The position is exactly the opposite of what the hon. Member said.

The facilities for testing can be extremely expensive. To have to set them up almost from scratch would create great difficulties, would it not?

No, because, again, the tests would have been carried out in the exporting country until such time as the specific directives had been implemented. The general position is that if a product satisfied a test here and there was no specific directive applying to it elsewhere, that product would have to be accepted with the certification given by whatever non-governmental body we had in this country. I think that it provides exactly the safeguard that the hon. Gentleman was trying to put.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. I may well be anticipating some of the things that he intends to say. I should be grateful if he would say whether the standards that he envisages coming through this legislation will be higher than existing standards within the United Kingdom. If so, would they necessarily be higher to advantage? Secondly, what would be the cost to industry? Thirdly, are we currently having problems in exporting these items to the European Community, and, if so, to what extent? Fourthly, I am sure that my hon. Friend has discussed this matter with the construction industry. If so, is the industry in favour of the legislation going through?

Perhaps I might ask my hon. Friend to be patient. If at the end I find that I have not dealt with his points, I shall, with the leave of the House, endeavour to pick them up when I reply to this brief debate.

I shall return in a moment to the very far-reaching procedural innovation proposed in this directive. First, though, I ought to explain the second document referred to in the motion, 9056/79. This contains a set of amendments to the original proposal formally tabled by the Commission for consideration by the Council at the same time as the original proposal. The amendments take account of the opinions delivered by the European Parliament and by the economic and social committee, which was consulted on the proposal as required by the Treaty. At the same time, the Commission took the opportunity to amend the priority list in the accompanying resolution in some respects.

Our general reaction to the draft directive is one of welcome for its intention of removing barriers to trade. That is what the European Community is all about.

There are certainly advantages to be gained for our manufacturers in some product areas, which we must seek to maximise by ensuring that the priority list contains the right items. We must then look very hard at the case for each implementing directive when it is brought forward.

That is not to say, however, that we have no qualms about the details of the procedures proposed. There are many points that we wish to see changed or made more explicit. I have already mentioned that there is no indication of the criteria which will be used in selecting certification procedures in particular cases. The industry naturally has fears about the efficacy of self-certification in maintaining the agreed standards. That applies, above all, in relation to products coming into the Community from outside—a problem which is being considered separately by the Community. Those fears are particularly potent because self-certification is not described as fully in the text as the other procedures. On the other hand, self-certification is at least cheaper than the other procedures, both of which involve a great deal of costly Government administration.

Is my hon. Friend saying that a foreign country may deliberately set a standard lower than the British standard, so that its goods can be exported to Britain at a price below the going rate for British goods?

There are two spheres. First, there is the standard product within the Community. Secondly, there is the problem of products from non-Community countries. That matter is being examined separately by the Community, and it is not part of the directive that we are discussing tonight.

The exact terms of the safeguard clauses need to be examined carefully. The details of the priority list certainly need amendment if that title is to be meaningful. We need assurances about the degree of vigour with which directives will be implemented—the so-called "optional versus total harmonisation" issue. There is an important point of principle to be settled about the types of body that the Government may approve for type examination.

I do not want to say any more now about these largely technical issues. They do not appear to present insuperable difficulties. Hon. Members may wish to raise some of them again in the course of the debate. If necessary, I will, with the leave of the House, comment further at the end of the debate.

I now want to draw the attention of the House to the last part of the motion. This debate represents the final stage of the initial parliamentary scrutiny process in respect of this proposal. My Department is in close contact with representatives of the industry in Britain and is aware of the reactions of the industry to the technical aspects of the directive. It is fitting that we should look most closely tonight at the one aspect of the proposal which would affect parliamentary control.

I refer to articles 27 and 28 of the original text, together with article 28(a) in the Commission's amendments. Those articles lay down the procedure for the adoption of the subsequent implementing directives. If those articles were not in the text of the framework directive, the implementing directives would be adopted in the usual way in accordance with article 100 of the Treaty, the article which governs the adoption of harmonisation directives. That is to say, the Council of Ministers would see proposed implementing directives and adopt them by unanimous vote or not at all.

Articles 27 to 28(a) of the current proposal, however, invoke article 155 of the Treaty, which empowers the Council to delegate specific functions to the Commission. Those articles provide that implementing directives shall be considered first by a committee chaired by the Commission and referred to the Council only if the committee cannot reach agreement. Time limits will be imposed at each stage and weighted majority voting will be used, so that a measure will pass if 41 of the possible 58 votes are cast in favour. What is more, it will be adopted automatically if neither committee nor Council can agree in the time allowed.

The Commission states in its preamble to the proposal that its aim is to simplify and accelerate the adoption of implementing directives. There has been considerable pressure from various quarters within the Community over the past few years to speed up the harmonisation programme. The Government broadly support that aim wherever there is a potential gain from harmonisation. Nevertheless, we must look extremely closely at the procedure which is proposed for achieving that additional speed. It has aroused universal objections in Britain. The industry collectively has expressed its very considerable disquiet at meetings with my Department. Individual organisations have written to register their protest. The Select Committee on the European Communities in another place attached great emphasis to this aspect of its report, and the ensuing debate was much concerned with this issue. The Consumers' Association, in evidence to Select Committees of both Houses, offered a detailed critique of the proposed procedure and its implications.

One might ask why this issue has aroused such concern. After all, the procedure is not totally new. It is an extension of the recognised method of "adaptation to technical progress"—that is to say, directives which include technical standards sometimes have provision for technical amendments to that standard to be promulgated through a revised directive adopted by a committee. But, once the requisite technical amendment has been agreed—which is properly the work of a technical committee—there is no likelihood of dispute about putting it into directive form. When one is starting a directive and standard from scratch, that is a rather different matter.

Perhaps the aspect which troubles people most of all is that the implications go much wider than this directive. If the Commission's proposal is accepted in this case, it may be extended to other framework directives in other fields. The House will wish to bear this in mind in considering the objections to this procedure in the present case.

The hon. Gentleman said that the House will wish to bear this in mind, and he has made clear the objections to this procedure. Can he say that the Government will not agree to this going forward—at least, without further discussion in the House?

I think the right hon. Gentleman will find that I have anticipated much of what he said. I was about to give the House the reasons for the objections.

First, the proposal derogates essentially from the authority of Parliament and leaves decisions to officials. In the case of detailed technical adaptation, that might be acceptable. The dimensions of a building component and its resistance to fire or to moisture are seldom matters for political judgment. But in the present instance what is proposed is the delegation of power to decide the whole content of a directive—even whether there shall be a directive in a particular case. Such a decision could have ramifications for trade and could even cause a small ripple on the great ocean of the balance of payments. I believe that it is imperative that Parliament and Ministers retain control.

The second consideration is closely related. The accelerated procedure could mean that there is less than adequate time for the sort of considered parliamentary scrutiny which we give to Community proposals. The value of the scrutiny process has been demonstrated in relation not just to specific proposals but to the wider issues which are sometimes thrown up for discussion. Where the proposal is a major one—and I would certainly include some of the directives likely to arise under this framework directive—the scrutiny process rightly takes time. The new procedure might well not give us enough time. Let us make haste by all means, but only when we are totally sure that the destination is the one to which we want to get and that the route is the one we want to go by.

As a member of the so-called Scrutiny Committee—the European Legislation & c. Committee—I can say that some of us are under no illusion at all that the only job of that Committee is to decide whether these directives should or should not be debated in the House. It is an illusion to imagine that the Committee upstairs, for all the hours that we spend there, does any proper scrutiny job. That should be put on the record, because we find a great deal of misunderstanding. Many of our colleagues think that, because directives go to the Scrutiny Committee upstairs, somehow their merits are scrutinised. Alas, that is not so.

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for, as he said, putting that fact on the record.

Thirdly, we need to be sure that proposed directives, when they are brought forward, are acceptable to the United Kingdom. There must be adequate scope for consultation. Our island situation means that the interests of our industry may be different from those of its Continental counterparts, and we must ensure that its voice is heard. The Commission has recognised this need and tried to meet it by prescribing in article 28(a) that there shall be prior consultation with the economic and social committee. But that is not enough. We shall need to consult our own industry, and for that we shall need time. The Commission's accelerated procedure may not give us that time.

Finally, the proposal would reduce the amount of control which each member State would have over the final form of a directive. We could finish up with a rushed directive which we did not find technically or otherwise acceptable, but we could fail to prevent its being carried. Such a directive would still be binding in this country. The Government of the day would have to implement and en- force it, even if they were opposed to the contents. That would be an intolerable position.

It would not be so bad if we had had a reasonable chance to achieve satisfactory amendments before the directive was adopted. But the combination of accelerated procedure and weighted majority voting is impossible to accept. There are, of course, proper occasions for majority voting, but its combination with the accelerated procedure is not acceptable in this case. The proper interests of the British construction industry must be protected.

I believe that for all the reasons I have given we must oppose the procedure for adoption of implementing directives which has been put forward by the Commission and press for acceptable alternative arrangements. My officials who are attending the sessions of the Council's economic questions working group in which this proposal is being discussed have clear instructions. They have made our views known in Brussels and have found a fair degree of concern among other member States.

As I say, we shall continue to oppose that aspect of the proposal. We shall also continue to seek clarification of other aspects—

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that major point, will he comment on another aspect which may be even more serious than those that he has brought to light—namely, that this appears to be a method whereby the Treaty itself is, in effect, being amended by directive? If that is so, not only is it a serious constitutional point but any directive might, otherwise than as he said, not in fact prove to be binding upon the member States but to be capable of being challenged and overthrown in the European Court.

The right hon. Member puts forward an interesting point, though I am not certain that it necessarily follows from what I said. It would be wrong to ignore the point, and, if I may, I will look at it and perhaps come back to it during the debate.

The Minister said that but for this directive the procedure laid down by the Treaty in article 100 would have applied. It is upon that proposition that my submission turns.

I would query whether it actually amended the Treaty in what I would call the legal sense, but I will certainly have a look at the point.

My hon. Friend has spoken eloquently about the procedure which he says the Government do not wish to accept. In the fullness of time, things happen and the Government may be persuaded that they want to accept that procedure. If we support the motion tonight, can my hon. Friend say that before any such procedure could be introduced the House would have the opportunity to vote on it?

I think that if my hon. Friend looks at the motion he will see that our intention is to ensure that satisfactory procedures are included in the adoption of implementing directives under this framework directive. I would have thought that that was the sort of thing that he wants, coupled with the very strong terms in which I have said that we find parts of this and parts of the procedure quite unacceptable.

The hon. Gentleman used the word "intention". Does he agree that if the House accepts the motion the Government will not be at liberty to agree to these directives without, at any rate, further consultations with the House?

Yes, I would. I thought that I had perhaps said that, but I am glad to make it totally clear.

Subject, therefore, to satisfactory progress in the negotiations—and that is a serious and important proviso—I hope that the House will agree that we should give the proposal a cautious welcome. I commend the motion to the House.

10.40 pm

We are grateful for the tone of the Under-Secretary's remarks, but it would be undesirable for the House to give these documents any kind of welcome, cautious or otherwise, for reasons which I shall explain, one of them being the extremely important point raised by the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) in his intervention.

It must not be forgotten that when the Ministerial Council of the Communities agrees to acts which are not within the vires of the Treaties it automatically amends the Treaties de facto, and, that being so, it is a most serious course for our Government to permit. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues will ensure that no such action is followed, for the reasons which I shall now try to explain.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that that course of action—that is, amendment of the Treaty in the way he suggests—has happened on a number of occasions already?

My hon. Friend is right. This is the sort of thing that is attempted, but whenever it is attempted it should be resisted. It was attempted, for example, on regional steel aid, and the Labour Government resisted that. Unfortunately, the present Government have not been so strong on the matter. For better or for worse, the House assented to the Treaties in 1972. It is the assent of the House to an Act which is the governing matter, and de facto amendment of the Treaties by assent to dubious practices in the Ministerial Council is not something that the House should countenance.

I am sorry to press my right hon. Friend, but the whole concept of veto, surely, is an amendment of the Treaty; in other words, the fact that the veto now exists was not intended in the original Treaty.

There certainly has been case law of that kind, too—I do not disagree with my hon. Friend—but we must not ignore something else. We have discovered—I certainly discovered it when I was a member of the Government—that one of the few defences we have against empire-building by the Commission is the fact that the veto has now been accepted as a practice of the Communities.

The Under-Secretary quoted, quite rightly and with some validity, from opposition and objections made by the Consumers Association on this matter. They are valid and important objections, but they are not the most serious kind of objections since the objection to these documents is not simply to their content but to their method. This is a matter not for interest groups, though they obviously have a right to comment. This is a serious matter for Parliament.

There is here a major matter of principle for Parliament. These documents are another example of the tendency of the Commission, unless restrained, to build itself an empire. I wish to make clear that the documents are unacceptable to Her Majesty's Opposition, both because of what they are designed to do and because of the way in which they are designed to do it. I shall be grateful if the Under-Secretary can let us know what kind of timetable is envisaged to deal with these documents. It will be helpful to know that, because the House will, I think, want to decide its attitude in the light of that timetable.

First, we regard the very proposal for harmonisation of these materials as undesirable. There is simply no need to have harmonisation of these materials within the Community. It is an example of what my noble Friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth in the debate in the other place last October called the tendency of the Commission to say "If it moves, harmonise it". There is no need to harmonise these materials. What is more, not only is there no need for it to be done but it is really not possible for it properly to be done.

The Under-Secretary has rightly pointed out the opposition from the industry to these proposals. The industry will have seen by now what Lord Hinton of Bankside said in another place last October. Besides being a very eminent person in his own right, Lord Hinton has been responsible for more acts of harmonisation in practice than almost anyone else in the country. He pointed out that the British Standards Institution has a staff of 23 working on standardisation of construction materials, and in addition to that technical staff of 23 there is a supporting staff of about 40, but he pointed out that that staff merely supports and services the committees which do the standardisation and that the number of members of the committees which are considering standardisation within the construction industry is between 2,000 and 3,000 people. That is in this country, for our industry.

As Lord Hinton pointed out, if a working force of 2,000 to 3,000 people fails to do full standardisation of building construction materials for our coun- try, one must seek to imagine the kind of organisation which would be needed to bring about standardisation for all the nine countries of the EEC. I could well understand that the Commission would be perfectly happy to acquire that kind of additional staff to carry out additional funds, but it would be an intolerable incubus.

I do not believe, therefore, that we should accept the proposition. The Minister was already going somewhat down that road when he said that what the Government were seeking to obtain was acceptable alternative arrangements. But seeking to obtain such arrangements is an acceptance of the proposition that there should be any arrangements at all, and, therefore, we are immediately arguing on the ground that the Commission has chosen. What we ought to tell the Commission is that we do not want any arrangements, that this is not an area in which it should seek to intervene and that this is a matter for national Governments and industries to arrange themselves.

My right hon. and noble Friend Lord Thomson of Monifieth gave the strongest warnings about this matter when these documents were debated in another place last October. The House will not need me to remind it that Lord Thomson was himself a Commissioner and that he is a person whose dedication to the ideals of the Community is second to none. But what he said in another place was that, looking at this directive, he was worried that it showed a tendency on the part of the European Commission towards an excessive degree of zeal for an excessive degree of harmonisation in terms of daily life within the European Community. He took the view that this was out of place in this instance.

My right hon. and noble Friend quoted the very relevant evidence of the Consumers Association to the Select Committee of another place:
"We think the European Community is on a most dangerous road. We understand the desire to remove barriers to trade, but this must not be done by giving the bureaucracy the right to impose statutory requirements."
As for the procedures proposed by the Commission on this matter, my right hon. and noble Friend said that the proposals in this particular directive for decisions being taken by a qualified majority within the Commission, with the Commission in the chair and without any previous publication of the papers, was a thoroughly dangerous proposal. That was said by an ardent advocate of the ideals of the Community, and I hope that the House and the Government will take full account of those most serious warnings.

In another place, Lord Bellwin made statements very much along the lines of those which the Under-Secretary has made this evening and which we welcome. But I should like to make this clear. The Prime Minister has been saying lately that if we do not get an agreement on the contribution that is acceptable to the House, the Government will prove difficult in their relations with the Community. I am sure that the House supports the Prime Minister in that approach. I hope that the Under-Secretary will pass on to his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister that, if the Government decide that it is appropriate for them to adopt a tough stance, the directive is an ideal opportunity for that. The Opposition are worried not about the details of the procedures but about the principles, about which the hon. Gentleman spoke at greater length.

Is it not important to make a distinction between objecting to things because they are inherently wrong and using objections as a means of achieving another end? Many of us feel that things are wrong, but we would not want to use them as a general stick with which to beat the Commission.

Of course, one must be selective in what one does. There have been occasions when I have welcomed certain acts of the Commission—for example, the measures that it took to defend the steel industry against outside competition. That was a proper use of the machinery of the Community, although that was done only when the Council of Ministers responsible to its constituent Parliaments approved the matter. I am saying that this is a basic facet of the activities of the Community.

Some of us believe that the basis of any democratic participation of the House in the activities of the Community is by the control of the House—in so far as it is able to have any control—over the Ministers whom it sends to the Council. If our Ministers assent to the abandonment of powers to a non-elected, non-responsible Commission, our Ministers are handing away to that Commission powers which are properly those of this Parliament.

Although this is a small directive on construction products, we regard it as an important constitutional matter and not just a matter of modalities. Indeed, the Government have shown that they are aware of the matter. Therefore, the directive is unacceptable to the Opposition. We believe it inappropriate that harmonisation should be pursued in this sphere and we regard it as utterly intolerable that the procedures proposed by the Commission should be acceptable. Indeed, the Government have pointed out that they are not. I do not criticise the Minister for the motion that we are debating. I regard it as a weak motion, but it does not commit us to much and, therefore, we shall not divide against it.

However, the timetable of the directive is important and we shall watch carefully what the Government do. We are grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the commitment that before decisive action is taken the Government will come back to the House. We will support the Government if they hold firm, but if there is any weakening we shall have to come back to the matter and do our best to ensure that the Government take a tough stand.

10.53 pm

I have three short questions to ask my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. First, how does the wodge of documents differ from the one we discussed a few days ago, Cmnd 7657, the GATT agreement on standard codes, which appears to cover all the points on the harmonisation, publication and agreement of standards between countries, apart from various specific directions for the labelling and stamping of good that are mentioned in these documents? If, for example, people in the building trade stand by the recently accepted GATT code of standards, they will be able to trade under the procurement agreement. If they gain local approval, there can be no further need for this complicated legislation.

Finally, is there any hope that British standards—we have heard of the thoroughness with which those standards are scrutinised and implemented—will suddenly be accepted throughout Europe? Many manufacturers in my constituency and elsewhere fear that, having seen British standards, manufacturers in other countries will get approval for lower and cheaper standards. They fear that those manufacturers will then dump or export their goods to other countries, having used our standards as a yardstick to aim beneath. Those are real fears and I shall be grateful if my hon. Friend will reply.

10.56 pm

I listened carefully to the Minister and my right hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman). However, I think that my right hon. Friend has overstated his case; he weakened his position a little.

The directive has been considered by a Select Committee and by a Committee in the other place. A great deal of evidence has been given by interested parties, such as the Consumers Association, the building industry and so on. Having read much of the evidence, and having heard what has been said tonight, I think it would appear that objections to the proposals fall into four main categories.

First, there is the objection that no one wants the directive anyway. The Consumers' Association cannot see any purpose for it. The building industry does not want it. However, there has been a demand for it from other quarters. During the course of several years the Commission has been prodded strongly on several occasions by the former delegated Parliament. The European Parliament spent a great deal of time considering it, and it was not irresponsible. It was seriously concerned about the issue. The construction industry represents 15 per cent. of the GNP of the Community. That constitutes a substantial chunk of the Community's economy and of our own. The raison ďêtre of the Community—or perhaps one raison ďêtre—is the need to improve trade.

One assumes that we are not frightened of entering the sphere of competitive trade. Whatever bungle may have been made in producing the document, it was produced for a serious and genuine reason—namely, the need to improve trade in that substantial area of our economy. Therefore, I cannot accept without serious question the first objection.

The second objection seems to be that the procedures are not suitable and that they might interfere with sovereignty. Under normal conventional procedures, discussions have gone on for five or six years without result. The whole point of politics and administration is to get things done. I do not mean that things should be done faster than is appropriate. However, when it is obvious that things are not being done, it is inevitable that there should be suggestions about modification of procedure. Perhaps this particular suggestion to modify procedure will not find favour with everybody. However, at least one can understand its origin.

The third objection is that there has been no consultation and that the proposal should have been outlined in a Green Paper. In the Community, a directive is a Green Paper. In this House, the Government first publish a Bill. Having done that, they have taken up an entrenched position and are reluctant to change anything. That is not the procedure in the Community. First, a directive goes to the interested parties, and usually to the committee concerned,, on a semi-confidential basis. There is no entrenched position. The Commission frequently substantially changes the content of directives. I do not believe that the third objection is valid.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Ardwick drew specific attention to the possible bypassing of democratic procedures, which is a fundamental issue and one that we shall have to face. If each national Parliament had to ratify each piece of legislation, this would involve nine Parliaments. However much time we may take, we have to multiply that by nine. It is not a practical proposition. Members of all the Parliaments should consider how democratic controls can be best applied to the Community. I do not believe we can do it by insisting that measures should pass through each Parliament.

I recall the furore about the proposed legislation to limit noise from lawnmowers. It was considered to be a terrible thing. Not only was the noise to be limited, but lawnmowers could not be used on Sunday afternoons. In this country 20,000 people are employed in that industry, so it is not irrelevant. Secondly, the noise level of British lawnmowers was the lowest in the Community. That legislation would therefore have suited us.

My hon. Friend's experience and knowledge of the Community is far greater than that of myself and many other hon. Members, and he will know that the demand for harmonisation of lawnmowers arose because a Commissioner had a noisy neighbour. That is not a satisfactory way to achieve harmonisation of industry in the Community.

I am merely trying to demonstrate the need for a new system of democratic scrutiny.

I was coming to the point raised by my right hon. Friend. I like a quiet Sunday afternoon. If I wanted to see lawnmowers banned in my village, I should turn to my parish council. It is not a matter for this Parliament or the Community. Each parish should decide it in its own little way. I am talking not of a specific issue but of the framework wherein democratic decisions are made.

We still appear to insist that there is only one ultimate fount of responsibility, authority and knowledge—this place. That is manifestly absurd in a modern society. Change is rapid. For example, construction materials will change in five years.

The figure of 20,000 raises another paradox. In this country we are employing 20,000 people, but it is suggested that it cannot be done in the Community. However, that is another argument.

We should consider the larger issue and do so much more positively than in the past. By all means, let us object to the immediate practical document. I agree with my right hon. Friend that it is not right to give bureaucrats carte blanche to go full steam ahead. Having said that, we must not allow our prejudices to blind us to the need for radical alteration and—I go further—to some practical undermining of the so-called sovereignty of this House. One of the most serious dangers facing this country is the concept that sovereignty is some monolithic entity. It bears no relationship to the demands of a modern technological society.

I agree that we should not agree to this measure because of the faults that have been demonstrated by my right hon. Friend. I hope that we can begin to approach the whole question on a more positive and more constructive basis.

11.5 pm

I shall be brief, partly because I hope to catch the eye of the Chair tomorrow afternoon in another debate but also because there appears to be general agreement among speakers from either side of the Chamber about the Government's motion. As a strong and unrepentant pro-European, I should nevertheless like to put one or two matters on the record.

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis) has rightly pointed out that concern still exists among manufacturers. This has been recognized by the Government in the wording of the motion. I am sure the hon. Gentleman accepts, notwithstanding the size of the industry, that it is right for manufacturers, concerned about their interests and those of their employees, to make representations. If, ultimately, it proves impossible to find a solution to which we can readily accede, it must be right for them even to contemplate being outside such an agreement and to deal with trade abuses under other articles covered by the legislation.

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State has referred to qualified voting. I was delighted to hear his reservations. There are fears in the industry about possible low standards and the high costs that a major change would involve. The industry is in the best position to inform us about its attitude.

I should like my hon. Friend to indicate whether the approved bodies mentioned in the draft directive will include the United Kingdom research associations. I am advised that much of the expertise within the building industry is to be found in the research associations. We would sorely miss that advice if the associations were not included.

I gather that some attempts are being made, in conjunction with the Department and the manufacturers, to reduce the long list of what are termed priority products. Given that an attempt has been made to create priorities, the list is long. I am advised that some agreement has been reached between the Government and manufacturers. I welcome that. If it is true, I hope that we may be able to influence our colleagues in Europe to concentrate on the essentials and not necessarily every product that occurs to them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Thompson) mentioned standards. I emphasise that the standards we want should be those that are recognised—the CEN standards or the ISO standards in which we have expertise. It is probable that these are the standards that will be fixed. But the wording, I am advised, is open, and I hope that it may be tightened.

11.9 pm

Like the hon. Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire), I speak as an unreconstructed pro-Marketeer. But many hon. Members have the gravest doubts about these innocent-looking documents. When one lifts a stone or two, one finds underneath all sorts of problems that were possibly not suspected.

As this debate lasts only one and a half hours, I shall confine myself to certain factual questions. Lord Thomson, in his speech in the other place, asserted that decisions in the directive were taken by a qualified majority within the Commission. Is that true? Is it also true that, as the Consumers Association has said, there was no previous publication? That would be a thoroughly dangerous development. Those of us who spent four years watching the Commission would be extremely concerned if there had been no previous publication. My experience of Lord Thomson is that he does not make statements without factual backing, and I therefore tend to assume that what he said is true.

On the issue of optional versus total harmonisation, why is there any question of total harmonisation in this case? Surely optional harmonisation, if we must have harmonisation at all, is desirable. I listened carefully to the Minister, but I did not quite understand what was the reason given for the accelerated procedure in this instance. What is all the hurry about?

Some of us endlessly and ad nauseam in the former indirectly elected European Parliament politely and seriously pleaded with a series of Commission officials not to introduce harmonisation, given that it was fundamentally and, by definition, inappropriate.

Let me explain what I mean. The documents deal with sanitary equipment, for example. The sanitary equipment that may be needed in Sicily is a bit different from the equipment needed in Shetland. The documents also cover ceramic tiles, and the tiles needed in hot areas such as Bordeaux with little snow are different from those needed in, for instance, Northern Germany—in Bremen—or in various parts of Britain. Another product included in the documents is heat installation material. I left home this afternoon in a blizzard of major proportions, and the heat installation material needed in Edinburgh is different from what would be needed in Athens.

Why do we talk about harmonisation? I do not want to be too glib, but the Commission is in danger of being killed by ribaldry and those of us who are pro-Europeans find life increasingly difficult, because the ribaldry that can be thrown at us has some basis of fact. That is why some of us greatly resent this sort of document unless it is demonstrated that it is absolutely necessary.

For time reasons, I should like to ask just two more factual questions. Document R/3289/78 says that the directive
"offers potential benefits to those sections of the industry who at present face barriers to trade. The measure could however also impose considerable costs on the industry, since Article 36 provides for all test and checking costs to be borne by the applicant, and a serious administrative burden on both the industry and central government."
All of us can think of higher priorities than this for public expenditure.

As a former member of the budget committee of the European Parliament, I know that time and again Commission officials, when they were tied down to the costs of a programme, either politely shook their heads and said that it was impossible to quantify the cost and that we should know that or came up with figures that were often much more than any elected politician thought that they would be. Let us have some figures tonight. If the Minister shakes his head and says that he cannot give the figures, that is an added reason why some of us become very vexed indeed. My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis) had a similar experience on the energy committee. Unless we have a rough estimate of what we are letting ourselves in for, it is not right that these things should be passed.

On page 6, document R/3289/78 states:
"This procedure, which is similar to that used for the adaptation to technical progress of directives, is implemented by a Committee on Rules, chaired by a representative from the Commission, which takes its decisions by a qualified majority vote weighted as set out in Article 148(2) of the Treaty.
Since the power to adopt implementing directives has been confered on the Commission by the Council, there is no longer any need to distinguish between this procedure and that applied for adoption to technical progress, the latter procedure being entirely subsumed in the former."
That is not immediately obvious. It is a non sequitur. If I am wrong, doubtless the Minister and his advisers will put me right.

The next paragraph continues:
"It must be stressed that this proposal, relating to recourse to the fourth indent of Article 155, is in line with the suggestions made by the Commission, at the request of the Ministers for Foreign Affairs at their meeting at Villers-le-Temple, in its note to the European Council of 5–6 December 1977."
I have been longing to ask of this Parliament, as I have asked on a previous occasion at either Strasbourg or Luxembourg—and received no answer—precisely what was agreed at that meeting at Villers-le-Temple. Whenever one is in an archaic argument on these matters, "Ah", it is said, "Go to Villers-le-Temple". I am asking what on earth took place at Villers-le-Temple. When and where and what was agreed? I suspect that I am not alone in not knowing what transpired at Villers-le-Temple.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham, who knows everything in these matters, may be able to put us right, but I bet that the Minister does not know.

11.18 pm

I shall not detain the House for long. There have been a number of comments during the debate which leads one seriously to question the purpose of this sort of debate. When a matter of this sort is presented to the House it is vital that we seek to discuss the issue and not so to blow it up that we fail to see the problems.

I, like many other hon. Members on both sides of the House, have considerable reservations about these proposals. It does not help sensible discussion if we start suggesting that this would be a suitable occasion on which to show our mettle to the Commission on some different issue. It does not help if we make too much of a major constitutional issue.

If we are to make changes that will lead to greater trade between the countries of the Community, there are many issues that could easily be debated in this House or in any one of the nine Houses of the European countries. We know that that applies to matters at home. The right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) made a point of the work carried out by the British Standards Institution. We do not spend much of our time discussing the impact of each and every standard that it raises. Nor would it be sensible to suggest that we could seriously discuss—and the way that the right hon. Gentleman suggested was almost a part of the Treaty—the way in which standards might be implemented throughout Europe.

It would help if in these important debates we tried not so to blow up the issue that we fail to make serious points about the matter before us.

I believe that the hon. Gentleman is falling into a serious trap. He says that we ought to discuss the ways in which these standards will be implemented throughout the Community. What he is saying, therefore, is that we ought to look at alternative solutions to the problem that is being discussed. What I say—and it is, I contend, an important matter—is that it is incumbent upon this House sometimes to reject not only the solutions but the problem. That is what I was seeking to do.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will follow me when I come to my second point on that issue. I was suggesting, first, that we are more likely to come to a sensible answer to that question if we start within a framework of addressing ourselves to the issues and not constantly blowing them up on to a world or European-wide stage of great statesmanship. We are concerned here with the construction industry and with how best to serve that industry within the Community.

Having said that, the question that can reasonably be asked is whether we should have standards at all Europe-wise. Certainly we should not bilk that issue, but we should not act as though it were a matter of assaulting the integrity of the treaties. We should not get ourselves into that mix. We should not, either, get too het up about it in the sense of its being part of the Prime Minister's strategy for dealing with the British budgetary contribution. Those matters seem to me to be far too large to raise on the Floor of the House on this issue.

The issue is whether we should have standards Europe-wise. I do not think that we can throw this out with the abandon that the right hon. Member for Ardwick suggested. The fact is that we have standards at home, we know those standards to be valuable, and in certain specific areas of the construction industry European-wide standards might well improve the opportunity for British industry to compete with our fellows in the rest of Europe, and the opportunity for mainland European industries to compete with ours in this country. That is perfectly reasonable. Our objections, therefore, are not to the principle of the matter but to the way in which the document sets out the means of implementation.

My third point relates to the means of implementation. Clearly, many of us are worried that it might be possible, under these terms, to carry the harmonisation policy way beyond the necessary harmonisation which I believe we have and which most people in the industry would think we have. It might be easy, because of bureaucratic desire, and because of the natural desire to continue one's power throughout every part of Europe—a desire and a tendency that we have noted in Governments in this country as well as in the European Commission—to think that this technique could be used to carry out all kinds of harmonisation that we do not want and do not need. The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) made a good point in referring to the ribaldry to which we are all subject when we support the idea of the European Community but are faced with one or two of these issues which make it look silly because so many minutiae are introduced.

But that should not lead us to think that no standardisation is necessary. We have to get a reasonable and sensible balance here. I suggest that we should support the Government in seeking to make sure that in our negotiations and discussions over this matter we emphasise the British interest, which is to have a sensibly run Community, harmonising where harmonisation is necessary, and not where it is not. That is not an unreasonable position, but also it is not a terribly vast and weighty matter.

Fourthly, I support what was said by the hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis). Every time we discuss this kind of issue we deceive ourselves if we do not realise that the present structure in Europe must be changed and altered as the various issues arise and the pressures upon old structures become great.

This House and our system of running things are not the be all and end all of government. Having been out of the House for four years, and having been able to look at it from the outside with the experience of having been inside, I can say that some of those faults become more and more clear. We have a great deal to learn from the open government of the European Community, as also we have a great deal to teach that Community. To suggest that we cannot deal with any of these issues without a perpetual and continuous emphasis on our way of doing things is to stop the Community from attending to matters to which it should attend.

I therefore beg the right hon. Member for Ardwick to look at these matters perhaps a little more philosophically and a little less with the desire to say that the British method is the only way, and to seek a solution to the real problem. If the members of the Community wish to work together, they must grow together. In so doing, all our institutions will be affected and changed. If we want to make the Community work, we must not constantly demand precise and detailed acceptance of the way in which we work in Britain. If we can be a little more open and learn from others instead of constantly pressing our experience upon them, they may learn a little more from us.

Our proposition is not that the way in which we do things is necessarily best. Of course it is not. If it were, Britain would be more successful than it is in many ways. What is incontrovertible and important is that the fount of authority in Britain is this Parliament. That is the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis) was seeking to make. He referred to parish councils. Parish councils exist because this Parliament decided that they should exist. We are members of the European Economic Community because this Parliament decided that we should be members. There is no fount of democratic authority in Britain other than this Parliament. That is why it is essential that this Parliament's authority should be protected.

I do not think that any hon. Member would disagree with the hon. Gentleman's general statement, but if he then says that on all issues and in all matters we must so constantly refer to that fount that we are unable to make any decisions, however minute, without the stamp of his vote and the vote of other hon. Members, it is a prescription for no movement in the Community. He cannot have it both ways. On the one hand he says that the Community is not doing things that it should be doing in the interest of Britain and other countries, and on the other he says that we must so support it that we can do nothing. We must find a way through the problem, without constantly demanding that this House discusses everything so much ad nauseam that we are unable to make any decisions.

11.27 pm

I shall endeavour to reply to as many of the points that have been raised as possible in the time available.

The right hon. Member for Manchester, Ardwick (Mr. Kaufman) pointed out the danger to parliamentary supremacy and asked about a timetable. There is to be a further meeting in March, and there will be progress in the following months. However, it will almost certainly be a year or two before we reach a final stage. The building material production industry is divided on that. Some sections feel that they can welcome the proposal because they can identify barriers which could be removed. We are examining all the issues that they have raised.

Both the right hon. Member for Ardwick and the right hon. Member for Down, South (Mr. Powell) raised the question of the Treaty. The right hon. Member for Down, South suggested that the proposal involved amending the Treaty of Rome by directive. I agree that it involves a major change to the procedure that is normally used under artcle 100. That is the intention of the Commission's proposal. It would operate through existing provisions of the Treaty—through article 155, which requires the Commission to exercise the powers conferred upon it by the Council for the implementation of the rules laid down by the latter. Article 148 allows for majority voting. There is thus no question of amending the Treaty. However, I note the right hon. Gentleman's point. I made it clear that we do not like this method.

Is it not the argument that article 155 is being used for purposes for which it was not intended, or for purposes for which it is not appropriate?

As I tried to say earlier, we do not believe that it is appropriate within the framework that has been put forward.

I was puzzled by one thing said by the right hon. Member for Ardwick. He attacked the vires of the directive and suggested that it was basically unacceptable to the Opposition. There was no hint of that in the explanatory memorandum presented by his right hon. Friend the Member for Brent, East (Mr. Freeson) to the Scrutiny Committee. I do not think that the right hon. Gentleman meant to go quite as far as he did, because basically I do not think that there is any difference between what he is saying and what the Government are saying in the motion.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sowerby (Mr. Thompson) asked about the GATT code. This is a general agreement to be signed by all the signatories to the general agreement. The proposals before us make formal provisions for standards, codification, and so on, for application within the Community in the one specific field, namely, construction products. They are much more specific, and indeed limited, in their effect than the GATT code, but they are compatible with it. Secondly, they are not only about standards. They are also about the use of the standards in regulations.

I think that one can hardly expect other European countries necessarily to adopt our standards. Each country has its own standards, and each will want to apply its own standards. I am fairly certain that my hon. Friend's opposite number in another member State will be asking the same sort of question about his country's standards and their use in the rest of the Community. Where my hon. Friend is right is in saying that without some sort of Community catalyst it could take a long time to reach agreed standards from that starting point. We believe that it would be in the interests of British industry if we could reach that sort of situation.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to continue, otherwise I may not get to all his points. I have a fascinating answer to his question six.

My hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, North (Mr. Marlow) asked whether the United Kingdom construction industry was happy, and I indicated that there was a degree of dissatisfaction on some of the questions that were under consideration. We are closely in touch, and we are keeping it in touch, with developments in Brussels. It is fair to say that it doubts the need for the directive, and I have some sympathy with that view.

I do not think that it is realistic to resist the directive as such, and that is not what we are asking the House to do. We are aware that our industry meets barriers to trade in only a small number of products. We shall want to look very closely indeed at the proposals for implementing the directive. We shall need to look closely also at the costs, to which my hon. Friend and the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) referred. The difficulty is that they are likely to vary widely from case to case, and it will be extremely difficult to generalise. I take on board the point made by the hon. Gentleman, and I shall come back to it.

The hon. Member for Wrexham (Mr. Ellis) pointed out the realities of the situation and gave what I would call a cautious welcome to the philosophy that lay behind the motion and the way in which I introduced it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hornchurch (Mr. Squire) asked about research associations. We have made it clear in Brussels that we shall wish to be able to appoint research associations as approval bodies. I am not sure that the amendment as it has been drafted is clear on this issue, but we have given notice that we wish to propose a further amendment to clarify the situation. I think that there is not much now between the Commission and ourselves on this matter.

On priority products—a matter that was raised by my hon. Friend—I said that we were trying to get the list down to a sensible size. If we were to put a mass of products on the list and call them all priority we would get nowhere. The hon. Member for West Lothian fairly spoke about the qualities of tiles in hot and cold climates. He is right. We have to try to assess what is a priority product and what really needs harmonisation and could be in common use, whether in Athens, Aberdeen or Bordeaux.

The hon. Member for West Lothian, who brought a heavy dose of common sense to the debate, asked me a series of questions. I can give him some answers, but I confess that I cannot answer all his points, mainly because I am not sure that I understand the first point that he made about the qualified majority. I shall, if I may, look at what he said and, in the light of how I understand it, write to him on the issue.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about total harmonisation. The Commission has said that implementing directives would normally be optional. It seems to envisage that total harmonisation might be necessary for products where there is a strong safety argument. The Government have reservations on this matter and will want to look carefully and closely at any such proposals.

The hon. Gentleman then asked whether I could give any reason for the accelerated procedure suggestion. The proposal and the pressure to hurry come from the European Parliament and apply to a much wider range of products than construction. But that does not remove the fact that I said that we did not believe that it was in the interests of the construction industry and of the House that we should be bounced, as it were, into the kind of pressure that is being asked for in the proposal.

The hon. Gentleman asked about cost. I said that it would not be possible to give him figures of cost, because the fact that we are dealing with a variety of products, suggestions and directives means that it is almost impossible to generalise. We shall go on trying to to get some figures, but until we know how many implementing directives there will be and what products and procedures will be used, it is not possible to give the information that the hon. Gentleman wants. I accept that we must try to get the Commission to realise that if there are cost implications, which there are, we want to know its estimate of the situation.

The last question was about what was agreed at that delightfully sounding French resort. I do not know, but I shall find out if I can.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That this House takes note of European Community Documents R/3289/78 and 9056/79 containing a proposed EEC Directive and Resolution on the approximation of the laws of the member states relating to construction products; and endorses the Government's intention to ensure that satisfactory procedures are included for the adoption of implementing Directives under this framework directive.