HL Deb 16 October 1986 vol 480 cc910-3

3.15 p.m.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, in his absence and at his request I beg leave to ask the Question standing in the name of the noble Lord, Lord Bruce of Donington, on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether they will now publish the written submissions (including those submitted by them on 2nd October last) to the European Court of Justice relating to the infraction proceedings brought by the European Commission against the United Kingdom in connection with the current application of the 6th VAT Directive to the United Kingdom.

The Secretary of State for Employment (Lord Young of Graffham)

No, my Lords. As I stated in my replies to Questions by the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, on 6th October, infraction proceedings are a legal issue and the pleadings are strictly confidential to the parties in dispute.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I really must ask the Minister why they will not publish? Will he confirm that these infraction proceedings concern the possible imposition of value added tax on new building, civil engineering, fuel and power, drainage and water, and indeed even newspapers? Is he aware that in the United Kingdom justice must not only be done but it must be seem to be done?

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone)

My Lords, it must be seen to be done.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for the correction. Is the Minister further aware that in British courts pleadings and supporting evidence are fully public so that everyone may be aware of the case for and against and are thus fully informed not only of the issues and the facts but also of the arguments? Finally, will he agree that the issues coming before the European Court of Justice, although made by written submission, should be made fully public and will he say if there is any EC rule prohibiting this?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, for his minilecture on the English legal system, of which I am aware since, as a solicitor, I think I am a member of the Supreme Court. However, I should like to inform the noble Lord that the European Court of Justice in fact is in Europe and not in the United Kingdom and different rules prevail. The pleadings and proceedings are confidential until there is a final ruling, at which time a summary of the pleadings will actually appear in the judgment. I am afraid that I can say no more than that to the noble Lord.

Lord Mishcon

My Lords, will the noble Lord the Minister forgive me when I say that in spite of the fact that he carries a very great deal of distinction in this House, I am afraid that he is not a member of the Supreme Court but is merely an officer of it?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am very happy to stand corrected on that point.

Lord Denning

My Lords, may I ask whether or not the Minister is aware of the importance of these proceedings, because they affect the statutes of this Parliament, which go back to 1972 and are reaffirmed in 1983 in the value added tax legislation, providing that newly constructed buildings are zero rated and are not liable to value added tax? Therefore, as this Parliament has passed those statutes, will he not agree that it is vitally concerned in this matter? May I ask also whether the law of the Community ought not to be made similar to that of this country whereby pleadings and communications are available to all those interested or taking part in the proceedings? Is not this House more than any other body interested in proceedings which are liable to affirm that our statutes are indeed overruled? If the noble Lord looks into the law of the European Community and the Court of Justice—and I have looked as far back as I can—will he not see that there is nothing whatever in those laws to say that they must be secret or should not openly be made available? I have found nothing at all events. Will the Minister press upon the European Court and indeed the Commission the views of this Parliament that these documents ought to be made public or made available at least to the House?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am indeed grateful to the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, for his view of the way in which the European Court of Justice should seek to conduct its affairs, but I believe that this is a matter for the European Court of Justice. I also wish to assure the noble and learned Lord that it is the Commission which has challenged the United Kingdom in this particular matter. We are defending the case vigorously and we should await the outcome before we take the matter further.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, surely it is not merely a matter for the European Court of Justice; it is a matter for its victims. We find that we have not only surrendered the sovereignty of our courts to an alien court; we have now learned that it is a secret tribunal. Surely to heavens we must do something about that!

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, we are proud members of the European Community. In my view, that does not constitute an alien court.

Lord Molloy

My Lords, does the Minister agree that in this incredibly difficult situation where this country finds itself unwittingly involved in a secret operation, the quicker we get ourselves out of the Common Market the better? That is a real proposition. There is nothing secret about that. Is he prepared to make strong representations via MEPs, with the aid of our Ministers, to the European Community, and say that the type of procedure about which we have heard today would never occur if the normal rules of our country were used and that they should be changed? The EC should run its affairs in the way that we run our affairs.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I fear that we are straying a long way from the 6th VAT Directive to the United Kingdom. If the noble Lord wishes to put down a Question on that matter, he should do so.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, is the Minister aware that all these issues were argued out in 1975, and that by an overwhelming majority the people of this country decided to stay within the European Community?

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I do not know that they were argued out in 1975. I feel sure that the noble Lord is aware that there is extreme concern about this matter. It is no use him coming to the House and saying that the court will publish its decision, because that will be after the event. It is a fait accompli. Is it not right that in the public interest the public should know not only the arguments of the Commission but the counter arguments of our Government who are arguing against the infraction proceedings? Does he support the House and the views that have been expressed by noble and learned Lords and other noble Lords that justice must indeed be seen to be done?

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I think that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, goes a little far if he arrogates to his side of the House concern on this matter. The Government are vitally concerned and are fighting the matter. The noble and learned Lord opposite mentioned that a matter was sub judice in the English courts. I suspect that this matter is sub judice in the European Court. We are bound by those procedures. I think that the noble Lord would be as well to exercise some patience until we see the result.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, the noble Lord cannot get away with that. The proceedings which were referred to recently were before the High Court. As I understand it, its proceedings are in public, not in private. That is the issue which is before us and to which I hope that the noble Lord will seriously address himself.

Lord Young of Graffham

My Lords, I am not sure how much further we should take this matter. The hearing before the European Court of Justice is an open one. Under the rules of the court the pleadings remain confidential to the parties. I fear that I can assist your Lordships' House no further on this matter.

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