HL Deb 10 May 1990 vol 518 cc1468-70

3.17 p.m.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington asked Her Majesty's Government:

What particular proposals they have to strengthen the European Court of Auditors.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, there are no proposals at the moment. The court's role is clearly defined in the treaty and any significant strengthening would require a change to the treaty. At the Dublin summit on 28th April it was agreed that Foreign Ministers would consider the question of institutional change. They will report back at the summit planned for 25th-26th June, and decisions will then be taken on whether to call a second inter-governmental conference to consider institutional issues. In the context of such an IGC, the UK would need to consider whether to pursue its long standing desire of improving financial control and accountability. The role of the court would clearly be relevant to any such consideration.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply. I am delighted that it has changed somewhat from the Answer he gave me on 30th April and that it is more in line with the Prime Minister's reply in another place. However, is he aware that the Commission's anti-fraud programme includes additional annual expenditure of 70 million ecus on anti-fraud measures? That is exactly double the annual cost of the budget to the Court of Auditors. It is rather like closing the stable door when the horse has bolted. Would not the right way forward be to make it mandatory for the Council of Ministers to take note of and act upon the Court of Auditor's reports and to give the court greater finance?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, the noble Baroness's Question on 30th April concerned fraud. I stand by the Answer I gave on that occasion. We do not think that the Court of Auditors is the appropriate body to produce an annual report on progress in the fight against fraud.

Baroness Robson of Kiddington

My Lords, with due respect to the noble Earl, I did not ask that the Court of Auditors should produce a report; I asked for the court to be given greater powers.

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I was clarifying the context in which the noble Baroness phrased her question. She indicated that I had changed my ground from that of 30th April. I have not. The subject of the powers of the Court of Auditors is one on which your Lordships commented some years ago and which might be a matter into which we could look if there is a second IGC.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that there are a number of ways in which the Court of Auditors can be strengthened without amendment of the treaty? Is he further aware that it lies within the power of Her Majesty's Government to propose at council level agreement to the increased staffing of the Court of Auditors? At the moment it is significantly understaffed by any professional standards.

Is he also aware that the other way in which the Court of Auditors may be strengthened is to amend the financial regulations so that the report of the court is published immediately after it has been concluded, on the year-end accounts? That would be better than having to wait for months and months to incorporate the Commission's replies to that report. Is the Minister aware that it would be far better and would draw more public attention to the report of the court if it were published promptly, without this interminable time for the Commission to consider replies which the report might incorporate?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, I take note of the points that the noble Lord has put to me. He will be aware that soon after your Lordships reported, if my memory serves me right, a new A1 post was added to enhance the administration of the court. That is a point which your Lordships picked up. Noble Lords will be pleased that two changes have been made, largely at the instigation of the United Kingdom, to improve the process for consideration of the court's report. First, since 1985 annual reports have been discussed in the Economic and Finance Council as part of budget discharge procedure. Secondly, the Economic and Finance Council makes specific provisions for handling the court's special reports.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister has been at the forefront of the fight for at least 18 months, to seek to come to grips with fraud in the Community? The suggestions made by the noble Lord, Lord Bruce, are entirely well founded. Although all efforts have been made by this country, does my noble friend agree that we have been frustrated at Community level? In the course of future negotiations will the noble Earl take on board the suggestions that we have made?

The Earl of Caithness

My Lords, fraud is a separate question from the one on the Order Paper. We dealt with it in the Question asked by the noble Baroness on 30th April.

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