HC Deb 08 May 1996 vol 277 cc232-4
15. Mr. Barnes

To ask the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs if he will make a statement on the measures he is taking to improve openness and transparency within the European Union. [27207]

Mr. David Davis

We have supported a number of measures that have increased transparency in the EU— for example, improved access to Council documents, more open Council debates and publication of Council votes. We shall consider any further ideas that may come forward at the intergovernmental conference.

Mr. Barnes

The Council of Ministers is the only secret legislature in Europe. Would it not be an advantage when, for example, the Foreign Secretary goes to his Council of Ministers meetings, for us to be able to hear his arguments—as when he bluffed it for Britain and tried to argue that corner? It would be of interest not only to hon. Members and the electorate—it might be of considerable interest to the Deputy Prime Minister to know whether the Foreign Secretary was keeping in line with his wishes.

Mr. Davis

There are a couple of things that the hon. Gentleman has wrong. First, the Council of Ministers is not, strictly, a legislature. Secondly, it is not as secretive as he makes it out to be. Since a number of reforms, which we supported, in the past decade, there has been reporting of our decisions, our positions and the votes in Council—and several Council meetings have been televised. I think that the hon. Gentleman hardly has the case right.

Mr. Anthony Coombs

In the interests of transparency and accountability of the European Union, and given its less than helpful attitude towards British farmers in the BSE crisis and the worldwide ban on the export of British beef, does my hon. Friend share the sense of outrage felt by many of my farmers that none other than Herr Fischler, the Agriculture Commissioner, should be opening the royal agriculture show at Stoneleigh this year? Will my hon. Friend make representations to his counterpart at the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to ensure that the invitation is cordially and regretfully, but firmly, withdrawn?

Mr. Davis

I commend my hon. Friend on his ingenuity in getting that matter into this question. I hardly think that I have responsibility for royal shows. Information arrived just before Question Time began—so I have not had a chance to check it—that the Commission is proposing to lift the ban on gelatine and tallow at the next agriculture meeting, early next week. I have not seen the details of the proposal, but at least it is one good sign.

Ms Quin

Will the Minister, in the interests of openness, tell us about the letter, which was reported in the press last week, which the Foreign Secretary apparently sent to his Cabinet colleagues, telling them to look at ways in which their Departments could disrupt the European Union? Will such retaliatory action be limited to the European Union, or will it perhaps be extended to countries, such as the United States, that have banned British beef for much longer, but which the Tory Euro-sceptics are strangely silent about? How does such retaliatory action risk affecting British businesses and British economic interests?

Mr. Davis

As a former Minister for open government, I would love to help the hon. Lady. I have seen no such letter, but I can tell her that the Government have to take every measure possible to protect the British beef industry, and we will do so.

Mr. James Hill

Is my hon. Friend aware that there is far too much fraud in the European Union? We have a golden opportunity, next Wednesday, when we discuss in Committee directives on European fraud, for those who wish to record their opinions to do so. The House must tackle this problem because, after all, there is waste in local government and waste in national government, but it is far worse in the Commission.

Mr. Davis

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is too much fraud in the policies of the Union. The Government have taken a major part in dealing with it and in putting in place institutions, such as a Court of Auditors, that are designed to do just that. The problem is that those instruments are not used properly. Most obviously, the European Parliament has only just put in place the first temporary committee of inquiry and the ombudsman. We will have to focus on that sphere very much more in the future.