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Mr. Redwood: The two Ministers, both by their silence throughout my hon. Friend's remarks and by what they said in Committee, have to accept that the treaty is about interstate trade. That is why we are debating a law for Britain to deal with intrastate trade. The treaty does not directly act on intrastate trade--if it did, we would not need all this rigmarole tonight and we could just let Brussels get on with it.

Mr. Letwin: One of the annoyances of dealing with a Bill on which my right hon. Friend leads is that he is inevitably one and a half steps ahead of me. He precisely anticipates the next leg of my argument. It is not simply that we would have been surprised if the Under-Secretary or the Minister had told us that article 85 applied more widely than to interstate trade--had they done so, we would have told them that the Bill was not required as it would not be necessary to have the prohibition if it already existed and applied to intrastate trade. Therefore, it must be the case that Ministers accept that article 85 does not provide a treaty base for intervention by the Commission in matters such as resale price maintenance, unless the Commission can satisfy itself that the practice concerned

This is where I have to make a grave accusation. If the Commission were to satisfy itself that resale price maintenance in pharmacies--and I think in particular of rural pharmacies--in this country might affect "trade between Member States", the Commission would have to be on some sort of elaborate hallucinogenic drug. I cannot think of a single reason why RPM, desirable or undesirable as hon. Members may think it to be, between the suppliers and a pharmacy in, for example, Beaminster in my constituency,

    "may affect trade between Member States."

I cannot imagine that the pharmacist in Beaminster spends much time shopping around for arbitrage possibilities in buying his supplies from a wide range of European suppliers. I cannot suppose that he much affects the balance of trade between member states. It would require the most extraordinarily tenuous logic for the Commission to have argued to itself convincingly--or to be able to argue to anyone else convincingly--that RMP, in this particular case,

    "may affect trade between Member States."

The Under-Secretary has already had, and will again have in his reply, the opportunity to challenge each leg of my argument. I hope that he will tell me that I am wrong about article 85 being the supposed treaty base. I hope that if he cannot tell us that, he will tell me that I am wrong to suppose that there is no good argument for supposing that such resale price maintenance

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    "may affect trade between Member States".

However, if he cannot say either of those things, we have to ask why the Commission wrote that letter.

I genuinely believe--again I make it abundantly clear that, if I am wrong, I should be happy to be disproved by evidence to the contrary--that the Commission wrote the letter because someone in the United Kingdom Government, acting via the agencies of the UK Government in Brussels--presumably the UK permanent representative in Brussels--made it known by formal or informal means to the Commission that it would be helpful to the UK Government if the Commission wrote that letter and told, or suggested or half-hinted to, the Commission that it did not too much matter whether there was a treaty base for the letter and that, in the meanwhile, a letter might solve a parliamentary problem. Moreover, it may have been suggested that if the letter did solve that problem, there would, regardless, be UK legislation preventing such resale price maintenance. Therefore, the Commission, having written the letter, would never be subject to legal challenge, as the letter would never become an effective one. I repeat that I should be happy to have those assertions disproved. However, if proved, they are very grave.

6.30 pm

Mr. Redwood: I fear that my hon. Friend may be on to something, that there is a pattern and that the Government may be hoping to avoid embarrassment--and not only in this case. Has he thought about the recent allegations on the "Panorama" programme--that Mercedes and Volkswagen are arranging their prices in the United Kingdom in an anti-competitive manner? Is he aware that the Government have said that they want nothing to do with that, but would rather that Brussels investigated the whole matter on their behalf? Is it not another case in which Ministers seem to wish not to take responsibility for anything in United Kingdom competition competence?

Mr. Letwin: I agree with my right hon. Friend that it may be part of a pattern. It is a bad pattern if it is an overt one. It is bad because the United Kingdom Government should not rely on the Commission to take action on matters in which--for UK policy reasons, especially when the Government agree with the action--the Government not only have the capacity to act, but should be acting. My right hon. Friend's example of the automobile industry is pertinent.

I regret to say that, in this debate, we may be dealing with something that is far worse and far more insidious--a covert attempt to have the Commission do the Government's work. Moreover, it would be a covert attempt by the Government to have the Commission do a piece of political work for them. If that is what has happened, it would be an attempt by the Government to have the Commission spare the Government a political embarrassment because of a division within the Labour party's own ranks. That is not a way in which it would be reasonable or decent for the Government to use the Commission.

Mr. Beard: Does the hon. Gentleman have a shred of evidence for that conspiracy theory?

Mr. Letwin: I have been at pains--I do not want to be irresponsible--to point out that every leg of my argument

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is something that I believe may be the case, but is open to rebuttal. I have suggested to the Minister that, by intervention or in reply, he can rebut any part of the argument. If he does so, I shall fulsomely withdraw. I am making an allegation for which I realise I currently have no proof. However, the Minister has so far been notably silent. I hope that, in his reply, he will challenge one or another part of the argument. I make the accusation not recklessly, but because I cannot myself find another explanation for a letter that seems to be based on so thin a treaty basis.

Mr. Beard: Is not the nature of reckless allegation such that it has absolutely no evidence behind it?

Mr. Letwin: No, it is not. It is the purpose of Parliament to expose arguments and to have answers. I think that it is a reasonable proceeding for an hon. Member conscientiously to make an argument that would have a devastating effect if it were true, to pose it for the Minister and to allow the Minister there and then to refute it. It would, of course, not be reasonable for me to repeat the allegation if the Minister had disproved it. However, the allegation has to be answered.

Mr. Redwood: My hon. Friend is generous in giving way again. If he was wrong, should not Ministers have leapt to their feet and produced evidence that they have been trying to lobby Brussels in the right direction rather than the wrong one?

Mr. Letwin: Again, my right hon. Friend takes me to the next leg of my argument. It will not be enough for the Government to establish that they did not engage in the piece of shady dealing that I am alleging that they might have engaged in and that I am asking the Minister to disprove. They will have to show that they tried to avoid production of the letter, because it is ill-based on treaty--unless they can show that the Commission is not basing it on article 85. If the letter is ill-based, and if many hon. Members agree that it would have a bad effect on an important part of our social fabric, which they do, it behoves the United Kingdom Government to argue the case against the letter, and then to take their own domestic action.

Mr. Lansley: I am following my hon. Friend's comments with interest, and realise that he is arguing from circumstantial evidence. Will he add to that circumstantial evidence the fact that the Minister parades a letter--which he says is dated 8 May--that was, presumably fortuitously or coincidentally, received by Ministers before Second Reading, on 11 May? Therefore, the proposition that the letter was related to the Government's pursuit of the legislation's passage is not an idle point, but is backed by circumstantial evidence.

Mr. Letwin: I agree entirely with my hon. Friend that the circumstantial evidence is, if not compelling, quite considerable. His point about the timing makes it all the greater.

The problem goes one stage deeper. We are dealing not merely with the possibility--I admit it to be a possibility rather than a certainty--that the Government covertly prayed in aid the Commission to issue a letter on a frail treaty basis that, if it were true, would have undermined

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the whole of the Government's logic in their Bill. The Government have also brought pressure to bear through a lobbyist, who is intimately--as we now fortuitously discover--connected with the Government, upon a group of people who should, at least in my view, be representing those whom they purport to represent and who should be making that argument.

We have reached the point at which there is a connection between the first and second legs of my remarks. If the case for maintenance of RPM were not so very strong substantively, one could well understand that representatives of rural pharmacies might have been in two minds on the subject and might have been wavering between results. One could also understand those representatives taking their own view on the matter. One might also understand that they might have been influenced by a letter, however frail, from the Commission.

However, when a substantive case for retention of RPM for rural pharmacies is not only in itself so strong but--as so many hon. Members on both sides of the House know--is also felt to be so strong by very many or, I speculate, almost all, of those whom that body is meant to be representing; when the letter in question is based on a treaty basis that is so frail; and when the Government must have known how frail the basis was--or they would not have introduced the Bill in its current form, as they would have had to take the view that article 85 had a scope wider than merely interstate trade--one is driven to the conclusion that it must have been by heavy-armed tactics that the Government used the offices of that lobbyist to persuade that group of representatives to change their minds in the light of the letter.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, at the beginning of my rather--I regret to say--over-lengthy speech, I said to your predecessor in the Chair that I had a grave accusation to make. I have made it in good faith--[Interruption.] I have made it in utterly good faith. I believe that it probably is true. It may not be true--I have admitted that, and I admit it now. It now falls to the Minister, in replying to this debate, to go through the logic--as I did not see him do in most of the Committee stage--of the allegation, to take it seriously, and to show that I have got wrong one of my propositions. Have I got it wrong that the treaty basis of the letter from the Commission is article 85?

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