HL Deb 19 December 1961 vol 236 cc682-9

3.37 p.m.

House again in Committee according to Order.

Clause 3 [Provision of funds and facilities for Eurocontrol]:

On Question, Whether Clause 3 shall stand part of the Bill?


The noble Lord, Lord Denham, who has been conducting this Bill, gave an assurance on one matter which, I may tell the Committee, he has scrupulously and completely fulfilled—namely, an assurance to write to me on the subject of the extent of Parliamentary control over expenditure by the Commission and the Agency. Quite apart from the proprieties of whether or not matters of this kind are best dealt with by letter where there is a general public issue, I should like to thank him for that letter. But, at the same time, I want to raise one or two points which I feel raise problems, and to ask whether he can elucidate them further.

Here again, we come back to this problem which the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, referred to in his final remarks. We are dealing here with a form of international legislation over which we have virtually no Parliamentary control beyond passing or rejecting. It is quite clear, especially with these inviolable records, that we should not be able to carry out the investigations into the conduct of this international body as we should be able to carry out investigations into a nationalised body in this country. As I understand from the noble Lord who has explained the position clearly to me, it will of course be possible to raise the matter on the individual Votes, and it is even possible that the ordinary processes of inspection and audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General will apply so far as the provision of funds and their expenditure remain within the control of the Government. But I would assume that, the moment the payments have been made, they will be wholly outside the control of the Government. Now this is not an unimportant matter, because we are likely to see again a growing extension of international bodies without a Parliamentary watchdog in the shape of the Public Accounts Committee.

The noble Lord mentioned to me that there will be a Report. When we look at the Statute of the Agency we see that inspections can be made by officers of the Administrations of the contracting parties. Might it not have been desirable to have provided in some way for some association by a Parliamentary body? At the moment, it is wholly within the control of civil servants. This is no reflection on civil servants, whether they be international or national; but we consider it necessary for the Public Accounts Committee to operate in regard to the conduct of nationally-owned bodies. There is also a provision in one of the Articles that there shall be a Report to the Commission by the Agency; it is in fact in Article 10 of the Statute of the Agency, as opposed to the Convention. But there is nothing said about the publication of this Report, and ought we not to know that this Report can be published? I understand that pressure will be brought to bear for such a Report to be made.

I think that by our previous standards once again we find a falling short. I very much hope that the noble Lord when he replies will be able to set my mind, and the minds of your Lordships, at rest. If he cannot do so, perhaps the noble and learned Viscount can tell us again how he thinks these negotiations should be conducted, because it seems to me that our negotiators ought to go rather further than they have done to have regard to the British Parliamentary way of dealing with this sort of matter.


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, for giving me the opportunity of presenting more details to your Lordships on the point about which he asked me at the Second Reading stage of this Bill. In considering this question, it is necessary to take into consideration several main features of the situation. First of all, Eurocontrol will be an international organisation, and there is, of course, nothing new in the United Kingdom's contributing, through the Vote of an appropriate Department of Her Majesty's Government, to wards the cost of an international organisation. The obligations under the Convention for the member States to contribute to the costs of Eurocontrol must also be taken into consideration, but these must be looked at together with the powers that the Convention gives to member States, acting through the Commission and the Committee of Management of the Agency, to prescribe how much Eurocontrol will spend and the programmes on which it spends.

Also we must consider that the making of the United Kingdom's contribution, being voted by Parliament for a particular Department to pay over, will come under the usual Parliamentary controls and invigilation, as the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has already mentioned. The Eurocontrol Convention itself carefully provides for control and scrutiny by the members of the Organisation's financial management, including requirements for international audit.

With regard to obligations under the Convention to contribute towards the cost of Eurocontrol, Article 32 of the Convention provides that the contracting parties—that is, the member States— undertake to make available to the Eurocontrol Agency, taking into account its revenues, the appropriate financial resources within the limits and conditions defined in the Statute of the Agency. These limits and conditions concern the methods by which the contributions of member States are assessed. They lay down, too, the procedure for control of the Organisation's budgets by the member States through the Committee of Management of the Agency and the Commission. As your Lordships will recall, the budgets of the Agency require to be approved by both a majority of weighted votes and a majority of members. Under the table of weighted voting as it stands, the United Kingdom would get more votes than any other members. Indeed, the United Kingdom, in combination with either France or the Federal German Republic, could block any budget to which they objected. In the future, new members and alterations in countries' gross national products may alter the distribution of weighted voting power, but they will also alter the proportions of the Organisation's expenditure that the members bear.

As to the extent to which Parliamentary Committees can investigate the accounts concerning Eurocontrol, the annual estimates of the United Kingdom's contributions to Eurocontrol will be shown in the normal way in the printed estimates of the responsible Department of Her Majesty's Government, and will therefore be open to all the Parliamentary processes of scrutiny and debate which apply. Similarly, the appropriation account of the responsible Department of Her Majesty's Government will contain details of the amounts paid to Eurocontrol, which will have been subject to all the normal processes of inspection and audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General; and the accounting officer of that Department may be called upon to appear before the Public Accounts Committee to answer questions about these payments.

Thus the United Kingdom's financial participation in Eurocontrol will be subject to Parliamentary watch, including the operations of the Public Accounts Committee, as fully as the United Kingdom's financial participation in any other international agencies; and, so far as the United Kingdom's financial conduct yin the matter goes, as fully as for activity at home. Parliamentary Committees will not be able to go beyond this, however, and investigate the management and spending of the Organisation itself, because these Committees will be concerned only with Her Majesty's Government's expenditure, and Eurocontrol will be an international organisation, of which the United Kingdom will be only one member among others. This is, of course, exactly the same as is already the case with other international organisations to which the United Kingdom belongs. Members of Parliament will also be able to put down to the responsible Minister Motions and Questions for answer on the actions of his representatives on the constituent bodies of Eurocontrol, in the same way us is already the case for other international organisations.

As has already been stated during the Second Reading, Her Majesty's Government in the United Kingdom is promoting the idea of an annual Report being published by Eurocontrol. The responsible Department will arrange for these Reports when published to be placed in the Library for the information of both Houses of Parliament, as is done with Reports of other international organisations.

The Convention and Statute also lay down important safeguards for the scrutiny and the approval of the Organisation's accounts. Under Article 28 of the Statute of the Agency it is for the permanent Commission to approve accounts. Since this approval is subject to weighted voting, the United Kingdom's influence will be considerable. Article 29 of the Statute also provides that the accounts of the Organisation shall be audited by a Board of two expert officials of different nationalities belonging to the Administrations of the contracting parties. It is interesting to note that for the interim Eurocontrol Association now in existence and carrying on planning and preparatory work, one of the two auditors appointed is an expert from the United Kingdom.

Another example of the care taken to give weight to the safeguarding of the interests of the members of the Organisation is that financial regulations prescribing the financial conduct of the Agency are required to be drawn up, and that these will, under Article 30 of the Statute of the Agency, require unanimous approval by the members. I hope that answers the noble Lord's question.


My Lords, I feel that the noble Lord, Lord Shackleton, has raised a very important point here, which really has not been answered by the Minister. I make no complaint about that, because I do not think the Minister could answer it in the present situation. The fact is that Parliament now has really very little control over a Bill of this kind because it is the subject of previous negotiation and settlement, so I think it is true to say that Parliament will have virtually no control over the expenditure. Even the Select Committee which the noble Lord has been dealing with can interrogate, presumably, only the officials in this country, who may, of course, have very little knowledge of or very little power over what happens in an international body. I myself think that a problem which we have to face very much in this country, and in the other countries in Western Europe, is this: to what extent can we evolve a Parliamentary system and a Parliamentary check, perhaps not so complete as that which we have in this country but, at all events, to a considerable extent? Because at the moment there is practically none. Vast sums are being expended and various things are happening in these various international bodies of which we in Parliament know virtually nothing. It is not only a matter of expenditure, of course; it is a matter also of policy, in which, again, Parliament has very little say in this sort of international body.

So far as N.A.T.O. is concerned, largely through the efforts of the late Colonel Walter Elliot, Mr. Clement Davies and Senator Robinson, a Parliamentarians' Conference was set up seven years ago. This is evolving, in a rough-and-ready way, by trial and error, as a N.A.T.O. Parliament. It is only in its embryo stage at the moment. Other organisations have Parliamentary committees or consultative committees, too; but I feel that if Parliament and Parliamentary control is to be a reality in the world we are facing, we shall have to give very much more attention to the problem—not only the Government, but we as Members of Parliament—than has been the case in the past. As I see it, in time to come national Parliaments will play a comparatively small part in the affairs of nations. It will be these international organisations that will play the really important part, and more and more will national Parliaments be reserved for the comparatively small matters of domestic concern.


I do not want to press this, but I do not really think that the noble Lord quite took my point, which is this question of Parliamentary control that the noble Lord, Lord Ogmore, has emphasised. I should have thought that it would not have been beyond the bounds of possibility, or of the negotiating capacity of the Government, to provide something. I do not know whether the Council of Europe have any particular responsibilities for any of the European agencies, but could not this in fact now be brought into consideration? What the noble Lord emphasised was the extent of British influence; the extent of perfectly admirable general administrative control. But this country has never allowed its Executive complete freedom in these matters. We are inevitably forced to concede certain national rights in any international agreement, but I do not see why Parliamentary control, even if it is of an international kind, should not be provided for. I am surprised that this very substantial point does not really arouse the interests of Parliamentarians more, because we are in danger of seeing a quite serious erosion of the system which we have regarded in the past as essential for safeguarding the interests of the citizen.


I have listened very carefully to the debate. I do not at the moment share the noble Lord's apprehension about the ordinary methods of Parliamentary control over finance being not available, as I thought that my noble friend Lord Denham gave a very complete account. But I share the interest, not confined to this Bill or to this stage of the Bill, of both the noble Lords in the problem. I shall personally convey the thoughts in their minds to my right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer (the noble Lord, Lord Silkin, is here) and will take note and give it consideration myself, because it is an aspect, really, of the future government of the world, which I find intensely interesting. I hope the noble Lords will accept that assurance and will not think that the point that they have raised will be neglected.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to. House resumed.

Bill reported without amendment.