HC Deb 02 February 1994 vol 236 cc876-7
5. Mr. Ieuan Wyn Jones

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if a date has yet been set for the inaugural meeting of the European Committee of the Regions.

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory)

No firm date has been agreed for the inaugural meeting of the European Committee of the Regions.

Mr. Jones

I am sure that the Minister is aware how important it is that the representations chosen to serve on that Committee know at an early date when it is likely to meet. That is important in the context of the whole Maastricht treaty. Does the Minister acknowledge that many representations from other European Union member states will be regarded as regional representatives, while those representing the constituent nations of the United Kingdom will be regarded as local representatives? There is always the danger that local authority representatives will not have the same powers, status or authority as those representing regions and regional bodies in Europe. Can the Minister give an assurance that when the Committee is established, United Kingdom representatives will not be regarded as second-class members?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I believe that a provisional date in early March has been set for the first meeting of the Committee. I assure the hon. Gentleman that United Kingdom representatives will have exactly the same powers, responsibilities and duties as any other members of the Committee, as prescribed in the Maastricht treaty.

Mr. Wilkinson

Can my hon. Friend estimate the cost of the Committee's first year of operation, if it ever does start work? Have estimates been made of the potential cost of translating such regional languages as Welsh, Breton and Basque?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

To make the Committee of the Regions as cost effective as possible, we are encouraging it to share various facilities, including translation facilities, with the Economic and Social Committee. The figure that has already been budgeted for the Committee of the Regions in 1994 is 12 million ecu.

Sir Russell Johnston

As the Government operate the United Kingdom in a pretty centralised way and are entirely opposed to any domestic devolution, how will they respond if the Committee of the Regions advocates greater powers for regions within Europe?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

The powers within the United Kingdom and their distribution is a matter for the House. It would be a denial of the subsidiarity principle, which we discussed in answer to an earlier question, if the European institutions were to try to interfere in the domestic arrangements of member states in that regard.

Ms Quin

I hope that, on reflection, the Government will congratulate the Opposition on our victory in the House during the Maastricht debate, when we ensured that the representatives on the Committee would be elected local councillors. However, is not it regrettable that the Government have failed to follow the advice of the local authority associations on the political balance of representation to the Committee of the Regions from this country, and that the balance does not reflect the strength of the opposition at local level in Scotland, Wales or England? Will the Government now renounce their shabby deals with the nationalist parties and allow the Committee of the Regions to reflect accurately the political balance at local level?

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory

I am sorry that the hon. Lady is still squabbling with other members of the Opposition about the composition of the Committee. I can assure the House that the party balance on the Committee is entirely fair and represents the party balance at local authority level. After the next local government elections, no doubt the balance will change back in our favour. I look forward to the next Committee of the Regions having more Conservatives on it.